Did fact checking fail in 2012?
The New York Times‘ David Carr suggests it did:
(A)s the campaign draws to a close, it’s clear that it was the truth that ended up as a smoldering wreck. Without getting into a long tick-tock of untruthfulness, a pattern emerged over the summer and fall: both candidates’ campaigns laid out a number of whoppers, got clobbered for doing so, and then kept right on saying them.
PolitiFact editor Bill Adair says fact checking succeeded at its goal:
Our mission is to inform readers, not change the behavior of politicians. And it’s ridiculous to think that our new form of accountability journalism would suddenly rewrite the traditions of American politics and end decades of lying by candidates and elected officials.
Besides, politicians aren’t our audience. Voters are. A better measurement of our work is to ask if they were better armed with the truth so they could make smarter judgments about the candidates.
Adair’s editorial was intended as a direct reply to Carr. But Adair seems to have mostly missed Carr’s point. Carr wasn’t merely saying that the candidates did not change their behavior. He went on to argue that fact checking had little effect because consumers don’t trust the sources doing the checking and end up picking and choosing the constellations in their media universes. Gallup reported in September that public distrust in the news media had reached a new high at 60 percent. That puts a limit on the number of constellations a news consumer will consider.
Adair operates on faith if he thinks that getting as much as 40 percent of the electorate to feel better about its knowledge of the issues significantly affected the 2012 election. The reality is that fact checkers probably reached a sliver of that percentage and most of those probably looked at a small set of fact checks.
Political science researchers Christopher S. Elmendorf and David Schleicher sum up the scholarly consensus about the American voter:
(F)ew researchers believe that voters are anything other than poorly informed about politics and policy.
Even if fact checkers did their job well, reaching a portion of 40 percent of the electorate isn’t likely to make much of a difference.
Carr, then, has a point. The election was almost certainly decided by low-information voters with little if any influence from PolitiFact and other fact checkers. Ads from the presidential candidates surely reached many more people than all the fact check stories combined.
Adair seizes on one aspect of Carr’s column. While it’s true that blame for the supposed lack of truthfulness from the campaigns is not reasonably tied to the performance of fact checkers, it is also true that if the threat of fact checking coerced the campaigns into using more truthful ads then fact checkers could take some credit for raising the level of discourse. Were that true, fact checking would have helped make accurate information a more central factor in the presidential election.
Do we have evidence that the electorate was better informed in 2012 than in years past? To echo Carr, that would involve fact checking. The prospect is doubtful because fact checking remains of interest primarily to better informed voters, because information consumers tend to tune out information inconsistent with their own beliefs and because the fact checkers established a disappointing record for accuracy.
In the end, fact checking in its current state ends up as just another voice in the cacophony of elite opinions that have always driven voter behavior.