09/04/2012 06:01 pm ET Updated Nov 04, 2012

The FactCheck Election

This may go down in history as the FactCheck Election, the presidential election in which political speeches, statements, utterances and television commercials all had to be reviewed by independent fact checkers to make sure they were true.

How did we get to a point that we need neutral referees to try to discourage politicians from lying to the public?

Earlier this year, nearly every Republican presidential primary candidate accused nearly every other candidate of telling lies, and the really discomforting part was, they were pretty much all right. And we've seen several hundred million dollars in television spots from Super PACs and candidates that were a little short on telling the truth. And then in the recent Republican National Convention, a speech by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan contained at least three outright misstatements of fact, and Gov. Mitt Romney's acceptance speech also strayed from the truth.

So how did politicians completely lose their fear of getting caught? When did they lose their shame? When did it become acceptable political behavior to twist reality or just make things up?

Political lying may perhaps be more concentrated and visible now because we're in an election with huge consequence. But it didn't just begin with this campaign. Remember back in April when Senator Jon Kyl stood on the floor of the U.S. Senate and stated for the record that abortion services "were more than 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does?" And when PolitiFact found that he was off by about 87 percent, his office released a statement that the senator's remark "was not intended to be a factual statement."


Part of the willingness to lie may stem from a belief that gaining or holding power is so important that winning by any means necessary is justified. Or, to borrow Richard Nixon's Watergate logic, when your party and your position are so worthy and virtuous, anything you do to advance them must be OK. Vast departures from the truth are occasionally necessary to promote the greater good; to return or keep the nation on the right path.

It may also be that, with the slow and painful death of professional journalism, there are fewer experienced reporters, certainly fewer with the chops to point out when a politician is lying. The news media may have become so spooked by constant claims of political bias that reporters are afraid to holler BS even when they have the facts. They began to look for "balance" by seeking opposition reaction to a statement -- even when they knew the statement was factually accurate -- and then treated even a dishonest reaction with the same credibility as the original statement.

Or perhaps the news media has gotten too focused on what the polls show and who's raising how much money to spend time critically analyzing what candidates and public officials are actually saying.

Well, thank God that letting the public know when public figures are lying has not been completely abandoned -- just outsourced. We have a rapidly growing fact check industry in the nation. and started it and other independent fact checkers have sprung up at newspapers around the country. They're not perfect. On occasion, PolitiFact has wandered far off into the weeds trying to consider every side and weigh every argument ever made, sort of like a crazed philosopher, and its conclusions have become diluted or weakened. And FactCheck may not always sufficiently differentiate between good old political spin and outright lying. But these operations and others are stepping up, and with a presidential election campaign in full swing, they're both working overtime to try to keep the fight clean.

They must be doing it right because they've been criticized by both sides. Democrats have gotten a little pissy, claiming that fact checkers have just flat gotten a few things wrong. The Republicans, on the other hand, accuse fact checkers of political bias and shilling for the Obama campaign. In one instance, they pointed out that fact checkers must be biased because Republicans were found to be lying significantly more often than Democrats, overlooking the very real possibility that Republicans actually do lie more.

It's been reassuring to see recent stories from the Associated Press, Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, The Huffington Post and others covering the vice presidential nominee's convention speech lead with, and even headline, Ryan's flights from the truth. And, it was a hopeful sign that Ryan's dishonest statements have become a topic of media coverage and commentary. It's about time!

The pushback from the Romney campaign, the Republican talking heads and their media outlets illustrates their textbook response to unfavorable news from a reporter or media fact checker. Attack their competence. Attack their independence. Attack their integrity.

The GOP's ultimate response was in an quote from Romney campaign pollster Neil Newhouse: "We're not going [to] let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers."

We'll see if the Obama campaign takes extra care from now to do their own fact checking before every speech and statement by the president or anyone else. If they get legitimately nailed for an untrue statement at this point, they are dumber than a box of rocks.

But the good news for the rest of us is there's beginning to be a consequence for lying. And, that could eventually lead to more political honesty. It isn't going to happen overnight, but it could be a beginning of a whole new era.