Here’s what we can be fairly sure will happen in Monday’s presidential debate: Donald Trump will lie repeatedly and grotesquely, on a variety of subjects. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton might say a couple of untrue things. Or she might not.
Here’s what we don’t know: Will the moderators step in when Trump delivers one of his well-known, often reiterated falsehoods? If he claims, yet again, to have opposed the Iraq War from the beginning – which he didn’t – will he be called on it? If he claims to have renounced birtherism years ago, will the moderators note that he was still at it just a few months ago? (In fact, he already seems to be walking back his admission last week that President Barack Obama was indeed born in America.) If he says one more time that America is the world’s most highly taxed country – which it isn’t – will anyone other than Clinton say that it isn’t? And will media coverage after the debate convey the asymmetry of what went down?
You might ask how I can be sure that one candidate will be so much more dishonest than the other. The answer is that at this point we have long track records for both Trump and Clinton; thanks to nonpartisan fact-checking operations like PolitiFact, we can even quantify the difference.
PolitiFact has examined 258 Trump statements and 255 Clinton statements and classified them on a scale ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” One might quibble with some of the judgments, but they’re overwhelmingly in the ballpark. And they show two candidates living in different moral universes when it comes to truth-telling. Trump had 48 Pants on Fire ratings, Clinton just six; the GOP nominee had 89 False ratings, the Democrat 27.
Unless one candidate has a nervous breakdown or a religious conversion in the next few days, the debate will follow similar lines. So how should it be reported?
Let’s take it as a given that one can’t report at length on every questionable statement a candidate makes – time, space and the attention of readers and viewers are all limited. What I suggest is that reporters and news organizations treat time and attention span as a sort of capital budget that must be allocated across coverage.
What businesses do when they must allocate capital is to establish a “hurdle rate,” a minimum rate of return a project must offer if it is to be undertaken. In terms of reporting falsehoods, this would amount to devoting on-air time or column inches to statements whose dishonesty rises above a certain level of outrageousness – say, outright falsity with no redeeming grain of truth. In terms of PolitiFact’s ratings, this might correspond to statements that are False or Pants on Fire.
And if the debate looks anything like the campaign so far, we know what that will mean: a news analysis that devotes at least five times as much space to Trump’s falsehoods as to Clinton’s.
If your reaction is, “Oh, they can’t do that – it would look like partisan bias,” you have just demonstrated the huge problem with news coverage during this election. For I am not calling on the media to take a side; I’m just calling on it to report what is actually happening, without regard for party. In fact, any reporting that doesn’t accurately reflect the huge honesty gap between the candidates amounts to misleading readers, giving them a distorted picture that favors the biggest liar.
Yet there are, of course, intense pressures on the media to engage in that distortion. Point out a Trump lie and you will get some pretty amazing mail – and if we set aside the attacks on your race or ethnic group, accusations that you are a traitor, etc., most of it will declare that you are being a bad journalist because you don’t criticize both candidates equally.
One all-too-common response to such attacks involves abdicating responsibility for fact-checking entirely, and replacing it with theater criticism: Never mind whether what the candidate said is true or false, how did it play? How did he or she “come across”? What were the “optics”?
But theater criticism is the job of theater critics; news reporting should tell the public what really happened, not be devoted to speculation about how other people might react to what happened.
Now, what will I say if Trump lies less than I predict and Clinton more? That’s easy: Tell it like it is. But don’t grade on a curve. If Trump lies only three times as much as Clinton, the main story should still be that he lied a lot more than she did, not that he wasn’t quite as bad as expected.
Again, I’m not calling on the news media to take sides; journalists should simply do their job, which is to report the facts. It may not be easy – but doing the right thing rarely is.