Just last month, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley was considered a top contender for the Republican vice presidential spot. That prospect abruptly faded two weeks ago when an overeager 25-year-old blogger named Logan Smith published an unsubstantiated rumor that Governor Haley was facing indictment on tax fraud charges. Within an hour, the claim -- which turns out to be false -- was getting traction online with the likes of the Washington Post, USA Today, The Hill and The Daily Beast, and Mitt Romney's campaign was being asked to comment by ABC News. Mark Twain famously observed that a lie could travel halfway around the world before the truth had a chance to put its boots on. Yet Twain's head would be spinning if he could have seen this maxim play out in the speed-addled context of modern political news media.
Political commentators are still speculating as to whether any permanent reputational damage has been done to Haley. But, as a staff member on John Kerry's presidential campaign, I've witnessed firsthand the kinds of consequences that occur when the media's fixation on speed eclipses its responsibility to the truth. Political analysts agree that the outcome of the 2004 election would likely have been very different if the incessancy and inaccuracy of the swift boat ads had been more carefully kept in check by the media. Fortunately, Barack Obama's campaign was able to withstand the fictitious "birther" claims that would, four years later, saturate the airways and headlines. The case of Governor Haley is just the most recent example of how, if the media spend more time dealing out rumors than exposing them, we risk deceiving ourselves once more on a mass scale.
What is it about the new media environment that allows rumors like this to spread far and wide? With the rise of the 24-hour news cycle and the proliferation of online media, most journalists are simply inundated. There are still some outlets that have the resources to diligently check facts fear but they fear accusations that, by critiquing the accuracy of a candidate's claims, they're biasing themselves. By reporting squarely from the sidelines and straining to accommodate every side of a debate, traditional news outlets end up with the kind of mere 'he said, she said' form of objectivity -- an approach perfectly suited for unwittingly perpetuating rumors.
At the same time, newer types of media like prime-time cable news programs and hyper-partisan blogs are more interested in affecting than reflecting the prevailing political sentiment. In chronicling a short history of the media's posturing toward political candidates, Georgetown sociolinguist Deborah Tannen characterized three phases: The media were once lapdogs (cheering on Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy), became watchdogs (during the Watergate era) and are now attack dogs (offering aggressive criticism of our most recent elected leaders).
It's difficult to discern who's telling the truth in this opinionated media environment. In the words of the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts." It is in this spirit that fact-checking organizations have recently emerged. The Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org and, more recently, St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact.com are among the most recognized umpires for journalists looking into the veracity (or mendacity) of candidates' claims.
But the process of fact-checking was once a crucial aspect of the business of news gathering itself. Today, media organizations are increasingly outsourcing this process to these fact-checking sites that have, in turn, become more influential. With heightened visibility, these sites are expanding their coverage. Politifact.com will begin to subject pundits, not just politicians, to its "Truth-o-meter." And FactCheck.org has launched a sister site, FlackCheck.org, containing videos that criticize the most deceptive political ads using a blend of humor and education.
Sites like these play a crucial role in an otherwise hyperbolic news environment. Politifact.com even won a Pulitzer Prize recently. Imagine a world-class distinction, that's usually reserved for things like groundbreaking investigations or courageous reporting in harm's way, has now been awarded to a website that simply points out when politicians are lying to us. With the reputations of Governor Haley and our other elected leaders -- and our confidence in these leaders -- at stake, the media ought to get back into the business of separating fact from fiction. They might not be the quickest to re-tweet a riveting revelation. But they'll distinguish themselves more by being "in the know" than being "in the loop."
When Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to lampoon our political culture, many of my journalist friends were heartily amused. But if our news media doesn't realize that the joke is on them, it will soon be on all of us. There is, after all, truth in jest. Now we just need to be able to find it elsewhere.