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Maybe facts don't matter

Since July, John McCain and his campaign have made 11 political claims that are barely true, eight that are categorically false, and three that you'd have to call pants-on-fire lies — a total of 22 clearly deceptive statements (many of them made repeatedly in ads and stump speeches).

Barack Obama and Joe Biden, meanwhile, have put out eight bare truths, four untruths, and zero pants-on-fire lies — 12 false claims. These stats and categories come from the St. Petersburg Times' PolitiFact.com, but the story looks pretty much the same if you count up fabrications documented by FactCheck.org or the Washington Post's Fact Checker, the other truth-squad operations working the race: During the past 2½ months, McCain has lied more often and more outrageously than Obama.

Of course, it isn't possible to prove in any scientific manner that McCain is being more deceptive than Obama. Judging political lies is a bit like trying to evaluate bad American Idol performances; we agree that they all kind of suck, but we can still have endless fights about which ones suck the least.

Some of McCain's recent claims, though, are the William Hungs of political lies: so heroically deceptive that anyone not blinded by partisanship feels the urge to cover his ears. Take McCain's ad claiming that Obama's "one accomplishment" on education policy was to push "legislation to teach 'comprehensive sex education' to kindergartners." It's difficult to find a single true word in the whole spot. The Illinois Senate bill the ad refers to was not Obama's legislation. (He voted for it but didn't write or sponsor it.) It was not an "accomplishment" — the bill didn't pass. Nor did it advocate teaching kids about sex before they learned to read, as McCain claims; it envisioned "age-appropriate" language instructing children on "preventing sexual assault," among other dangers, and it allowed parents to hold their kids out of these classes.

Obama, too, has run deceptive ads. He edited a McCain quote to suggest that the senator favors trucking nuclear waste through Nevada but not through his home state of Arizona — a trick that renders the spot barely true. And Obama claimed McCain doesn't support auto industry loan guarantees, which used to be true but no longer is.

But Obama's ads employ the routine deceptions of politics — they exaggerate the opponent's positions, they play fast and loose with dates, they draw convenient inferences from strings of unrelated events. Yet they also contain a few actual facts. That's not high praise, but it reaches a higher standard than McCain's accusation that Obama called Sarah Palin a pig. Or McCain's insinuation that FactCheck.org found Obama making "false" attacks on Palin — a complete distortion of FactCheck's finding that anonymous e-mailers were attacking Palin.

The McCain camp's other sin is one of repetition: They keep saying things that have been proved untrue. In TV ads and nearly every stump speech, Palin has repeated the line that she stopped the federal government's plan to build the "bridge to nowhere," a claim that fact-check sites and nearly every major news organization have shot down. McCain keeps running ads stating that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class when Obama's plan would actually lower taxes for most people.

On several occasions, Obama has adjusted his message when called out by fact-checkers. Last month PolitiFact wrote that Biden was wrong to say McCain voted with Bush 95 percent of the time. Shortly thereafter, the Obama camp began using a more accurate measure, 90 percent.

This is exactly what's so puzzling about Obama's strategy — why is he paying any attention to the fact-checkers? So far, McCain has seen little blowback from lying. Polls show that he's perceived as more "honest and trustworthy" than Obama and that the public believes his claim that Obama would raise taxes on the middle class.

In my book True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society, published earlier this year, I argued that in the digital world, facts are a stock of faltering value. The phenomenon that scholars call "media fragmentation" — the disintegration of the mass media into the many niches of the Web, cable news, and talk radio — lets us consume news that we like and avoid news that we don't, leading people to perceive reality in a way that conforms to their long-held beliefs.

In the past, Democratic voters have been willing to accept lies. Researchers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that in 2004, the Kerry campaign managed to convince Americans that 3-million jobs had been lost during George W. Bush's first term (at the time of the election, it was less than 2-million) and that Bush "favored sending American jobs overseas." (He didn't.) Kerry and others on the left repeated these claims often, and in time they took root.

The misstatements of 2004 suggest a category of lies that Obama could get away with — ones that the public is already primed to believe about McCain. What about that 100-years war? Picture an Obama ad showing McCain saying that the war in Iraq will last 100 — or even 1,000! — years. The ad patches in footage of McCain singing "bomb Iran" and describing all the devastating effects of war. Actually, that ad exists—a comedy group posted it on YouTube in February. Nearly 2-million people have watched it. It's hilarious, effective, and a complete lie. Obama's advisers should be pushing him to approve that message.

Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society.

Maybe facts don't matter 09/20/08 [Last modified: Sunday, September 21, 2008 7:39pm]
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