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Fact-checking Web sites are good news in a muddy presidential race

Saturday, September 13, 2008 | 12:00 p.m. CDT; updated 1:45 p.m. CDT, Thursday, September 18, 2008

It's hard to tell which has been more depressing - the level of this year's presidential campaign or the quality of coverage. With six weeks to go, there's finally a hopeful smattering of evidence that the latter, at least, is beginning to improve.

Remember when both Barack Obama and John McCain vowed that this year we'd have a civil dialogue about the important issues? Seems like a quaint artifact of history, but it was only earlier in 2008. Oh, an issue gets mentioned now and again, but usually, it seems, only so the opponent's position can be caricatured.

That's just politics, you say? Sadly, you may be right. But we were promised something different and better in what just may be the most consequential contest of our time. Instead, we've gotten a steady barrage of TV commercials that insult both the candidates and the intelligence of us, voters.

I'm a confessed Obama supporter, so you should apply the appropriate degree of skepticism, but it seems to me that the McCain campaign and Honest John himself have been, by far, the most egregious offenders. We've heard misleading claims about Mr. McCain's record and outright lies about Mr. Obama's record. Sarah Palin appears to have no notion of what's true and no expectation that anybody will check up on what she says.

And the national press corps, it pains me to say, has been complicit. Even in the best of our lot, the New York Times and the Washington Post, campaign coverage has focused mainly on personality and tactics rather than substance. If we have to expect politics as usual, surely we can expect and demand more from our best journalists.

I did say there's a glimmer of hope, and it's coming mainly from the independent fact-checking operations run by two news organizations and a university.

The Fact Checker at WashingtonPost.com is the most entertaining of the three. The staff there awards "Pinocchios" to ads and assertions that depart from the truth. Take a look and you'll find, for example, that Gov. Palin's claims about how much of the nation's energy supply Alaska provides rates the most damning four Pinocchios. She "peddles bogus statistics," the fact checkers conclude.

Politifact.com does the same work, sponsored and staffed by the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly. There you'll find a "Truth-o-Meter." Mr. Obama's criticism of Mr. McCain's economic position is rated "Mainly True," while the McCain campaign's ad about Mr. Obama's legislative record on sex education draws a "Pants on Fire" condemnation as wholly false.

Factcheck.org is the product of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. It finds the Palin claim on energy to be "Not true. Not even close." It also reviews James Corsi's book, "The Obama Nation," and rules it to be "a mishmash of unsupported conjecture, half-truths, logical fallacies and outright falsehoods."

Along with explicating the candidates' positions on important issues, this is what the press should be doing, don't you think? What we citizens need between now and Nov. 4, is more, much more, serious reporting on serious substance.

George Kennedy, BJ '64, was the Missourian's managing editor from 1990-2001.

 

 


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