Debate prep: How to call out a lie without calling it a lie

Lester Holt. Photo (cc) 2016 by Hermann.
Lester Holt. Photo (cc) 2016 by Hermann.

The big question going into tonight’s debate is whether moderator Lester Holt should call out blatant lies by the candidates—and especially by Donald Trump, whose relationship with the truth is tenuous, to say the least.

I don’t think it’s realistic for Holt or the moderators who come after him to act as a real-time fact-checking machine. He’ll have enough to do with keeping Trump and Hillary Clinton on track and making sure they’re both getting more or less equal time. But if someone—again, most likely Trump—tells a whopper, then Holt shouldn’t let it go. It’s all in how he does it. I’ll adopt the wisdom of my fellow Beat the Press panelists Callie Crossley and Jon Keller, who have both said that the way to do it is through tough follow-up questioning.

For instance, Candy Crowley took a lot of heat four years ago for essentially calling Mitt Romney a liar when Romney claimed that it took President Obama many days before he was willing to refer to the attack on Benghazi as “terrorism.” Given the pressures of the moment, I have no real problem with what Crowley said. But here’s what she could have said: “Governor Romney, didn’t the president refer to the attack as an ‘act of terror’ the next day?” Yes, that’s a loaded question, but it’s not an assertion, and Romney would have had an opportunity to respond.

In other words, fact-checking can be done with persistent questioning rather than by calling out BS. Even when it’s BS.

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Polls, pols and the obsession with horse-race journalism

b_kirtzBy Bill Kirtz

Does polling drive or mirror public opinion?

Three prominent political figures offered different answers during a spirited discussion Friday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. They agreed that that there are too many context-less statistics and too few ways to winnow the precise survey from the sloppy.

“We’ve stopped listening to the voices of the people — everything is numbers,” said Peter D. Hart, whose company polls for NBC and The Wall Street Journal and who has worked with more than 40 senators and 30 governors. “All the media care about is the latest head-to-head” competition between candidates.

He said the polls have no “bandwagon” effect of driving more support to the favorite, saying he’s never seen the “undecided” vote break toward the winner. “We’re takers, not makers. We reflect public opinion,” he said.

Without a sense of public opinion, he said, Richard Nixon wouldn’t have been impeached. He added that “the public was way ahead of the politicians on opposition to the Vietnam War.”

Hart said he’s never seen public opinion change as rapidly as on the issue of approving gay marriage, saying public opinion helped shape politicians’ growing support.

Hart and former CNN chief political correspondent Candy Crowley agreed that the media don’t know how to report and analyze a poll. “The problem isn’t the polls. It’s the use of them,” she said. “‘Horse race’ numbers are catnip to reporters.”

Differing with Hart, she contended that polls influence elections because “Americans love to be on the winners’ side.”

Crowley said polls are like tweets, and there’s nothing like talking to people to get nuanced views, as Hart said he was able to do at the start of his career.

Harvard historian and New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore said, “In the world of [financially] starved journalism, polls are cheap journalism.” She asserted that pollsters directed opinion in support for the Iraq War.

Thursday night, she had told the Harvard audience, “We’re drowning in a sea of polls. Polls raise the pulse of democracy — they don’t take it. A fast pulse is not a sign of health but of distress.”

She added, “Polls drive polls,” causing a “bandwagon effect.”

Lepore and the other speakers deplored the plummeting response rate to pollsters. In the 1950s, she noted, there was a 90 percent response rate while now it’s in single digits.

Friday, she said Internet polling over-represents left-leaning young, white males.

Bill Kirtz is an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University.

Black-lung investigation wins Goldsmith Prize

breathless1b.jpg

The nonprofit Center for Public Integrity and ABC News last night won the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, presented by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The award was for a report on black-lung disease, described as a “yearlong investigation [that] examines how doctors and lawyers, working at the behest of the coal industry, have helped defeat the benefits claims of miners sick and dying of black lung, even as disease rates are on the rise and an increasing number of miners are turning to a system that was supposed to help alleviate their suffering.”

CNN’s Candy Crowley received the Goldsmith career award and delivered an address that she devoted mainly to misgivings about Twitter — an odd topic that led me to make this observation as I live-tweeted her talk:

The Shorenstein Center Storified all the proceedings. Click here to have a look.

Fact-checking the fact-checkers on an “act of terror”

In claiming that President Obama was not fully truthful last night regarding when he said he labeled the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an “act of terror,” the fact-checkers are adopting as their own the manner in which Gov. Mitt Romney wants to frame it. The attack claimed several American lives, including that of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

When the exchange took place, Romney appeared to be wildly, extravagantly wrong in claiming it took Obama two weeks to utter those words. He never fully regained his composure after moderator Candy Crowley read a transcript in which Obama, in a Rose Garden address the day after the attack, spoke of it in the context of “acts of terror.”

And it turns out that Obama said it again two days later: “I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished.”

Hard to be much clearer than that. Yet look at how some of the leading fact-checkers handled it.

PolitiFact, on Obama’s insistence that he labeled it an “act of terror” right from the beginning: “Obama described it in those terms the day after the attack. But in the days that followed, neither he nor all the members of his administration spoke consistently on the subject. There were many suggestions that the attack was part of demonstrations over an American-made video that disparaged Islam. We rate the statement Half True.”

FactCheck.org, on Romney’s claim that it took Obama withheld the terrorism label for two weeks: “Romney isn’t entirely wrong. Romney claimed Obama refused for two weeks after the Benghazi attack to call it a terrorist attack and, instead, blamed it on a spontaneous demonstration in response to an anti-Muslim video that earlier that day triggered a violent protest in Egypt.”

The Washington Post: “Romney’s broader point is accurate — that it took the administration days to concede that the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was an ‘act of terrorism’ that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad. (The reporting is contradictory on whether there was indeed a demonstration outside the mission.) By our count, it took eight days for an administration official to concede that the deaths in Libya were the result of a ‘terrorist attack.'”

It’s pretty easy to see what’s going on here. Romney has attempted to frame the issue as though any suggestions from the White House that the attack may have had something to do with the inflammatory video “Innocence of the Muslims” are incompatible with Obama’s statements that the attack was an “act of terror.”

But why should that be so? Why are they mutually exclusive? Obama said from the start that the attack was an “act of terror,” he repeated it and he hasn’t wavered on it. The administration has wavered on what role the video might have played. It’s worth noting that the New York Times, which had people on the ground in Benghazi, stands by its reporting that the anger stirred up by the video actually did play into the attack. The terrorist attack, if you will.

The administration’s response to the Benghazi attack has not been a shining moment, and Romney had plenty to work with. So it was obviously a huge mistake on Romney’s part for him instead to dwell on whether and when Obama labeled it an “act of terror” rather than focusing on the reasons for the security breakdown and shifting explanations for what went wrong.

But thanks to the fact-checkers’ genetic disposition to throw a bone to each side regardless of the truth, Romney’s mistake looks less damaging today than it did last night.

Photo (cc) by Cain and Todd Benson and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.