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How Are Voters Supposed to Know the Truth?

Thomas Whitley

In my experience it is not uncommon for the majority of the electorate to think that all politicians lie, all the time. While I don't think this is true at all, I do think that politicians employ a great deal of spin on a regular basis and often seem to live in the gray areas. The current campaign season seems to only be making things worse. In the past week, the Romney campaign has not just put their spin on two important issues (early voting in Ohio and Welfare waivers for states), but has blatantly lied about both.

This new reality is complicated even more by certain groups that claim to be non-partisan fact checkers. Take PolitiFact's recent ruling on Harry Reid's statement that a highly credible source told him that Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years. Jamison Foser sums up the problem with their ruling quite well:

The way PolitiFact chose to criticize Reid is, unsurprisingly, stupid. PolitiFact says that because Reid has not proven his claim, he is a “pants-on-fire” liar. By this standard, Romney -- who has said there was not a year in which he paid less than 13 percent taxes, but has not proven the claim, is also a pants-on-fire liar. (Don’t hold your breath waiting for PolitiFact to tell you that.) Also by this standard: PolitiFact, which has said Reid is lying but has not proven he is lying, is itself a bunch of pants-on-fire liars. Like I said: Dumb. PolitiFact has three basic problems: Their work is often lazy, dumb, or both; they apply frequently-misleading labels like “mostly true” and “pants-on-fire” to everything in a triumph of gimmickry and marketing over clarity and substance; and they’re remarkably thin-skinned, sanctimonious, and unresponsive to substantive criticisms of their errors of fact and logic for an organization that presents itself as guardians of truth.

I'm not naive enough to think that the Obama campaign doesn't spin things to make them look better for themselves, but there has been widespread reporting that the Romney campaign doesn't seem to be playing by any rules at all; it's no longer spin, but outright lies. And in attempts to sound more neutral, many news organizations seem to be shying away from pointing out these blatant lies. Then, supposedly neutral fact checking organizations like PolitiFact offer "dumb" reasonings for their rulings and don't couple their rulings with appropriate nuance.

So, my question is how are we, as voters, supposed to know the truth? We don't have the time to fact check every claim we hear from every politician and the news many are watching is consistently misinforming them (see this study that finds that Fox News viewers are less-informed than those who watch other news and even than those who watch no news at all).

I've written before about how we, as responsible citizens, have a responsibility to inform ourselves and I think this is still true. It takes a lot of time and work, to be sure, but it's worth it to me. I don't want to just ingest everything a politician - or a news anchor - tells me to believe. I'm trying to maintain intellectual integrity and this means that I need to think for myself, to hear multiple perspectives and sometimes do the work that others can't or won't do for me.

So, for views on the economy I read the columns of actual economists or respected journalists that have been covering the economy for a long time and have no problem admitting when they're wrong (see: Paul Krugman and Ezra Klein). For politics I vary my sources early and often. This means that I very often read dissenting views (see: NYT, WSJ, WashingtonPost, Fox, CNN, MSNBC, AP, and numerous journalists from each organization). For instance, I follow the official Obama campaign accounts on Twitter, but I know that everything they share will be positive for them, so I seek out contrasting perspectives to get a fuller picture so I can make my mind up myself.

I'll admit, I'm a bit of a political junky (I even started a new politics podcast with my friend Andrew Barnes - who is much more conservative than me - called ThinkingPolitics), but I think that everyone owes it to themselves and to their fellow Americans to be an informed citizenry. As I understand it, the very idea of a democratic society is predicated on an educated citizenry. We are quick to talk about the responsibilities that our politicians have; it's time we lived up to ours.