Paula Apynys

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Should Moderators Fact-Check Candidates?

Posted in Politics & Media

One of the underlying themes in Wynne Frost and the Soul of Remorse is the destructive fruits of intentional dishonesty, both in the political realm, and within people themselves. As I started writing the book a few years ago I was worried about the potential ramifications of what I see as a long-running, deliberate policy of dishonesty emanating from political institutions on the right, but I would never have thought it could produce as bad a potential candidate for POTUS as Donald Trump. But here he is.

Much is being made of—finally—the collective media's refusal? inability? disinclination? to hold Donald Trump truly accountable for the untruths he continually presents, and it's about time. There's actually been a lot of discussion going on for some time in some circles about the media's tendency to give equal weight to opposing viewpoints regardless of their factual merit, but it took Donald Trump to really bring this problem into sharp relief. He is forcing a discussion about the media's role in politics, individually and collectively. There are many layers to this topic, but I'd like to focus here on one: should moderators fact-check candidates during debates and Town Halls?

My view is that fact-checking should take place in real time during debates and Town Halls, but I don't think the entire burden should fall on the moderator. Instead I think there should be a bank of researchers and/or subject experts, with computers, in the room, or on the stage, who fact-check throughout the event and flag discrepancies. They could push back on the spot, or inform the moderator(s), or present their findings at some mid-point or even at the end of the event. (I think the mid-point would be better so the candidate could be confronted and have a chance to respond.)

This is an idea my husband and I have kicked around for years, and, to my delight, Michael Tomasky suggested a version of this idea today.

It sounds straightforward but it would probably be very tricky to implement because it would require a lot of judgement. And people would inevitably squabble over some of the choices made (both the candidates and observers)—although, even that could be revealing. If a candidate was confronted with an alleged discrepancy, the candidate's response could illustrate confidence, lack of confidence, depth of knowledge or lack thereof, etc.

Some discrepancies could easily be errors/honest mistakes: "Oops, I said 60,000 but you're right, it's 70,000. Thank you for the correction."

Others: "I was against the war from the beginning," fall more into the realm of deception, and, once again, could force revealing responses from a candidate who was confronted with contrary evidence on the spot.

Fact-checking would slow down Town Halls and debates, and that could be seen as a problem. But I think it's a problem worth grappling with. I would rather see candidates address one topic, in depth, with their information scrutinized and graded, over the kinds of events we have now, where candidates are given very limited time to both address complicated topics and defend themselves from attacks by opponents. (I would prefer more events, each dedicated to fewer topics, rather than a few events during which only a handful of questions can be asked.)  And I think the prominent presence of fact-checkers would short-circuit many a politician's opportunity to dodge, misinform or outright lie, without putting the burden solely on the moderator. 

Ultimately I would like to see accuracy and honesty elevated above slickness and glibness on the scales of how candidates are evaluated.

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