Campaigns wage war on fact-checkers

This editorial is reprinted from USA Today, where it was first published.

Guest Editorial
Presidential campaigns have never been exemplars of honesty, but the current contest seems to be heading for new standards of mendacity, as well as shamelessness when false statements are exposed.

President Barack Obama and his backers repeatedly distort Mitt Romney’s record at Bain Capital, even to the point of linking him to a woman’s cancer death in an online ad by Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama super political action committee.

Romney and his supporters, meanwhile, start with kernels of truth — about subjects such as Obama’s “apology” tour, his support for wealth redistribution and his administration’s rules on waivers of welfare’s work requirement — then twist them beyond all recognition.

Distorting the truth is bad enough. Equally revealing is how the campaigns react when their whoppers are called out by nonpartisan fact-checking organizations, such as and, which help voters unravel all the claims and counterclaims. Do the campaigns back down? No, too often they double down and attack the fact-checkers.

For example, even after fact-checking showed Romney’s attack ad on Obama’s welfare waivers to be inaccurate, the campaign didn’t pull the spot. It released a second one. A Romney advertising official told reporters that the welfare ad is the campaign’s “most effective.” No surprise there. Playing to stereotypes that reinforce people’s biases works. Facts — no waivers have been issued, and there is no “Obama plan” to issue welfare checks to people who don’t work — just get in the way.

Though candidates have long put effectiveness ahead of veracity, what seems new this time around is the willingness to say out loud what campaign operatives used to think but mostly kept to themselves. “I don’t care what FactCheck says,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) when he was confronted on CNN with an analysis that undermined the premise of a Romney ad. Further clarifying the issue, Republican pollster Neil Newhouse told journalists during the GOP convention: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

The Obama campaign hasn’t been quite as publicly clumsy, but the implied message is the same: Don’t worry about accuracy; this stuff is working.

Most of the fact-checking is being overseen by veteran journalists, and there has been a growing attempt to undermine fact-checkers by accusing them of bias.

Two things are worth saying about this: One is that fact-checking relies on the same sort of thorough research journalists conduct when they do their jobs right; the difference is the willingness to go a step further and, based on evidence, assign a rating.

The second is that candidates who cry bias when they’re in the cross hairs happily approve when the verdicts go the other way. Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler notes that most of the items in the Romney campaign’s compilation of “The Obama Campaign’s Top 10 Lies and Exaggerations” are attributed to fact-checkers.

Fact-checkers’ real audience isn’t the politicians. It’s the voters, who benefit from independent analysis of the blizzard of attack ads. Fact-checkers aren’t perfect, but their analyses are often much closer to the truth than anything you’ll hear from the candidates themselves.