Who Needs Facts Anyway? The Pros and Cons of Fact Checking Presidential Debates in Real-Time

BLAINE B. REMMICK—A liberal and a conservative walk into a bar to calmly discuss the merits of each of their respective party’s presidential nominees. Five minutes later both are red in the face, screaming that the other party’s nominee is a blatant liar and unfit to lead the country. Hopefully the possibility of everyone getting along hasn’t been completely foregone due to political polarization; in the meantime, having a non-partisan, real-time fact checker cover the presidential debates may help viewers decipher who is telling the truth, distorting the facts, or outright lying. Or maybe a fact checker would only make things worse.

At first glance, what could be wrong with having a non-partisan fact checker cover the debates in real-time? A Republican would be happy that Hillary Clinton will finally be held to task about her notorious emails and a Democrat would be pleased that Donald Trump would not be able to deny his initial support of the Iraq war. Furthermore, voters who lack the time to review the nominees’ statements after the debate may be delighted their assertions are evaluated during the debates. But things are not always as simple as they first appear.

To begin, we need to decide if most Americans even care about facts. At least in this election, the answer seems to be no. Why is this? The Right claims that the “lame stream media” only covers what serves the liberal agenda. Similarly, the Left claims that the Right drank the Fox News Kool-Aid and cannot be reasoned with. So it may not be that voters do not care about the facts, but instead, those loyal to each political party think that the other side of the aisle influences the media and spreads misinformation. However, there is a sizable amount of the voting population that remains undecided – particularly in this race – and may be swayed by real time fact checking in debates.

For the sake of argument, let us assume that live fact checking was a great idea because it would help undecided voters select their candidate and may force party representatives to be more truthful. Finding a fact checker is the next hurdle. PolitiFact.com and FactCheck.org seem to be the most trusted fact checking websites, but that does not mean they are universally accepted. Additionally, it could be argued that if one of these fact checkers delivered a major blow to one party that cries of foul play would almost certainly follow. Having the major players on the Left and Right agree on a fact checker could mitigate the risk of claimed bias, if that is possible.

Let us further assume that a fact checker is needed and the major players of each political party agreed upon a genuinely non-partisan fact checker. We must now decide if adequate fact checking is possible. Surely, real time fact checking is possible for some claims. For example, we can verify and confirm that Donald Trump initially supported the Iraq war and Hillary Clinton mishandled her government email.

But some claims are not as easy to fact check in real time. In the first Presidential debate, moderator Lestor Holt challenged Donald Trump, saying “[s]top and frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York because it largely singled out Black and Hispanic young men.” Trump responded, “[n]o, you’re wrong.” Politifact said both Holt and Trump were somewhat right and somewhat wrong, but Trump was more wrong. Politifact’s claim is supported with a simple legal analysis. Would viewers find Politifact’s answer satisfactory, or would Politifact’s slightly ambiguous position raise more questions than answers? How much of an explanation would be needed to clear up confusion? There does not seem to be a clear answer.

In short, the answer to whether a non-partisan organization should provide real-time fact checking during Presidential debates is the same as any law school exam–it depends. Many voters are already decided and the fact checks that pop up on their televisions, computer monitors, or cell phones will not change their minds. But each candidate is still fighting for independent voters and real-time fact checking may sway them. Furthermore, even if the political parties could agree on a non-partisan fact checker, the nominees’ claims are not always checkable with a clear-cut true or false. However, real-time fact checking could help undecided voters who lack adequate time to research the candidates come to a more fact-based decision. But like everything else in politics, real-time fact checking could also generate so much controversy that it would distract and confuse voters, rendering it useless.

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