The Star Tribune published a commentary piece October 28 featuring “The Top 10 whoppers of both leading presidential candidates” as identified by Politifact.com. What’s wrong with that? Plenty.
The clear implication is that both candidates are equally liars. That’s wrong. Even worse, the “everybody is a liar” meme increases cynicism not only about the candidates but about the political system, voting, and the possibility of meaningful choice.
Let’s go beyond the “top ten whoppers” to take a deeper look at Politifact’s reporting. As of today, October 31, Politifact has checked 315 Donald Trump statements and 287 Hillary Clinton statements. Politifact classifies statements as True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. (Pants on Fire is the rating for extremely false, as in the children’s rhyme that goes “Liar, liar, pants on fire.”)
Politifact found that Trump lies most of the time and Clinton tells the truth most of the time. Hillary Clinton had 26 percent mostly false, false or pants on fire ratings and 74 percent true, mostly true or half true. Donald Trump had 70 percent mostly false, false or pants on fire ratings and 30 percent true, mostly true, or half true.
That’s not a ringing endorsement for Clinton. But it is certainly different than the false equivalence implied in the “top ten whoppers” commentary.
Featuring the “top ten whoppers” makes it sound like both candidates have the same disregard for truth. This summary also fits a traditional journalistic desire for “balance,” which results in reporting what both sides say without making an independent investigation of facts. “He said, she said” is shorthand for lazy, irresponsible reporting. Here’s a 2012 New York Times critique:
“In journalism, as in life, balance sounds like an unassailably good thing.
“But while balance may be necessary to mediating a dispute between teenage siblings, a different kind of balance — some call it “false equivalency” — has come under increasing fire. …
“Simply put, false balance is the journalistic practice of giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side.”
Or, as journalist, editor and journalism prof Steve Buttry succinctly summarizes:
“Source A says the sky is blue. Source B says the sky is red. Shouldn’t the reporter look at the sky rather than just report the disagreement?”
Journalists have an obligation to seek the truth. That means going beyond the false balance of stories like the “top ten whoppers.”