In Politics, Does Truth Matter?

In 1644, John Milton wrote a stirring argument for free speech, asserting that Truth and Falsehood should be allowed to grapple because “who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter.”

Milton couldn’t have foreseen that Truth and Falsehood would be grappling in a society with the Internet, where anyone can post anything for millions to see. Or with 24-hour news cycles where being first is more important than being right.

Truth takes a backseat in the current political landscape. Take these examples:

  • Almost 20 percent of Americans still believe President Barack Obama is a Muslim despite a lack of supporting evidence and overwhelming opposing evidence.
  • Ads from a political action committee (PAC) supporting Republican candidate Mitt Romney repeatedly claimed that opponent Newt Gingrich supported China’s one-child policy even though Gingrich never expressed support for such measures either in speeches or in his legislative votes.
  • Gingrich claimed in a February 2012 interview that he was totally exonerated in a 1997 ethics probe when in fact he was reprimanded and fined $300,000 for breaching House ethics rules.
  • In a TV ad, former Republican candidate Rick Perry claimed that Obama called Americans lazy, a claim he stuck to even when footage of the actual speech surfaced showing that Perry took the words out of context.

Attack ads are nothing new. They stretch back to the beginning of our democracy. But they gained new attention when Swift Boat Veterans for Truth launched an effective campaign against presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004 with an emotional ad featuring veterans whose facts were not supported by Navy records or key eyewitnesses. Before that came the “Willie Horton” ads that helped to derail Michael Dukakis’s 1998 presidential bid.

It seems the public doesn’t even want the truth. In a Republican debate in February 2012, candidate Rick Santorum – defending his votes for No Child Left Behind and other legislation – gave a frank account of how senators are frequently forced to vote for items they don’t like when such items are part of a larger bill with more important ramifications. The audience booed his honest response.

The increase in blatant lying has given rise to independent fact-checking sites like Politifact and FactCheck. These sites spare no one, not Democrats or Republicans, not sitting presidents or senators, not PACs, not even candidates for state office. All are routinely caught lying – and sometimes telling the truth.

Politifact rates statements on a scale ranging from TRUE (like Romney’s statement “If you take into account all the people who are struggling for work, or have just stopped looking, the real unemployment rate is over 15 percent”) to PANTS ON FIRE (like Romney’s claim that the American military is at risk because “our Navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947.”)

These independent organizations are voters’ only defense. We get no help from the government. The Federal Communications Act says that media outlets are required to run a candidate’s ads even if the outlet knows the content of the ad to be false or misleading. A station’s only recourse is to ban all ads from all candidates for that particular office, a decision that pits ethics against profits.

We know who wins that battle.

Stations can refuse ads from PACs. But PAC ads generate millions in profits for media outlets.

Oddly enough, federal law protects consumers from other fraudulent ads. Companies can be fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for false or misleading ads about their products. But the people running for our nation’s highest office don’t have to meet the same standards.

So, voters, it’s up to you. Jump into the arena where Truth and Falsehood are grappling to make sure Truth wins the match.

References and related reading:

The editorial Truth in Political Advertising in the Los Angeles Times explains that although TV stations can’t reject false ads from candidates under federal law, they can reject ads from PACs.

The Wall Street Journal is keeping track of PAC spending.

Rick Perry Doubles Down on “Lazy” ad, Slams Obama as a ‘Socialist’

“The Post-Truth Campaign” by Paul Krugman, New York Times.

Federal Communications Act listed by Cornell Law School

The Lanham Act banning misleading representations to consumers

FTC press release regarding one stiff fine issued because of misleading advertising

John Milton’s quote is from Areopagitica, available online through Project Gutenberg

Growing Number of Americans think Obama is a Muslim (Pew Research)