Why trust eludes GOP, Democrats at political conventions

Repeated disregard of the facts – and fact-checkers – forces voters to arm themselves by searching out the truth about candidates.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo
Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan and presidential nominee Mitt Romney wave as balloons fall during the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., Aug. 30.

It’s the Democrats’ turn this week. Not just to make a political pitch to Americans at their convention but to have every statement screened for half-truths, hyperbole, dissembling, misrepresentation, and lies – as Republicans had done to them last week.

Fact-checkers are out in force in the 2012 election. They’re in the traditional media, the blogosphere, and Twitter land. These referees pin a label such as “Pants on Fire” or “Pinocchio” on politicians if their claim doesn’t match the facts.

Doing so takes courage, especially as each party continues to bend the truth despite being caught again and again. “In a time of deceit,” wrote George Orwell, “telling the truth is a revolutionary act.”

Winning an election in a sharply divided America now means using even lies to rally the base to vote. The number of undecided voters is considered too small to be concerned about a reliance on simply facts to win them over.

“Besides being marked by a cavalier disregard for facts on both sides,” states one watchdog group, FactCheck.org, “the campaign also has become bitter and trivial.”

Both parties have been caught fibbing enough times that they have now turned on the fact-checkers, claiming bias, mistakes, covert agendas, or the like. “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” Neil Newhouse, the Romney campaign’s pollster, told reporters. The Obama campaign says fact-checkers often ignore the context of a remark or disagree among themselves about the veracity of a claim. Both wonder how a fact-checker can say something is “mostly true.”

And both parties now have their own army of fact-checkers, not only to catch their opponents in a lie but to check independent fact-checkers.

Undecided voters are left scratching their heads over whom to trust. More than half of Americans don’t trust newspapers, television, and radio to report the news accurately, according to a Gallup poll. Others worry about the effects of all this political dishonesty on children and raising them as responsible citizens.

When leading politicians aren’t even afraid of getting caught in a lie, what becomes of civic discourse? Voters are thrown back on themselves to do their own homework and weigh competing claims.

Truth is an armor to falsehood, but it takes work to find it. The Internet is both a boon to finding information and an overwhelming source that requires careful scrutiny.

After these political conventions come the Obama-Romney debates in October, not to mention an escalating tide of TV and radio ads. Many voters have already made their choices on how to vote. But all voters should be vigilant in demanding the truth from the candidates and their campaigns.

Facts are stubborn things. But it takes stubborn voters to make sure a democracy is run on facts.

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