When Not Saying Who’s to Blame Is to Blame

Time magazine’s James Poniewozik (9/24/12–subscription required) says it’s been “a banner year for the factcheckers,” and yet the facts keep on getting mangled:

Yet the traffic violations keep coming. Scads of fibs, exaggerations and misleading statements have been swept up in the dragnet: a super-PAC ad implying that Mitt Romney was responsible for the cancer death of a laid-off worker’s wife, a Republican claim that Barack Obama was ditching welfare work requirements, a charge by Senator Harry Reid that someone told him Romney hadn’t paid taxes for years, a boatload of statements from Paul Ryan’s vice-presidential acceptance speech.

Poniewozik has some insights into why this is so–notably the segregation of factchecking into its own genre of journalism, rather than routinely incorporating it into everyday news reporting–but he fails to point out one of the biggest problems with factchecking, one that’s illustrated by his own piece.

Romney/Obama graphic from Time (by Lincoln Andrew)

Time’s carefully bipartisan illustration of campaign dishonesty.

Look at the list of examples he gives of crimes against factuality: Predictably, there’s two examples from Democrats, two examples from Republicans. Are these examples really equal and opposite? Is a deceptive theme in one campaign’s advertising really the same as a manipulative but not really untrue claim in an ad from a super-PAC allied with the other side? Is a running mate’s convention speech full of whoppers really balanced by a uncheckable allegation made by a congressional leader?

Now, maybe Poniewozik does think these items carry equal weight. Or maybe he could have picked better examples. But what he couldn’t do–without violating the unwritten rules of corporate media–is come out and say, “Yes, every political party makes statements that deserve skepticism, but this year one campaign has been far more reckless with the truth than the other.”

No, the rules require that you find both sides to be just about equally guilty. And as long as that’s true, there’s really no disincentive to lying as much as you can: The worst thing that can happen is that the press will express disgust for you and your opponent both.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.