My unscientific sampling of the twitterverse tweets during the Democratic National Convention’s first two nights of speechifying revealed what seemed like a distinctly lower frequency of instant fact-correcting than what I observed during the Republican convention. That may be because Democrats are an inherently more truthful group of speakers than are Republicans – or it may indicate that my twitterverse feed is dominated by left-leaning pundits. I’ll let you decide.
Despite the relative lack of prodding from the twits, however, the main stream media fact-checkers such as Factcheck.org and Politifact.com gamely persisted in informing us about what the former labeled “Democratic Disinformation from Charlotte.” At the top of their list of misinformation? The claim during the first night by keynote speaker San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and other speakers that Romney would “raise taxes on the middle class”, followed close behind by a misleading claim of job growth under Obama. (The list of false assertions is actually longer, but these two will suffice to make my point.) Factcheck is correct that Romney has made it clear that, contrary to the assertions by the Democratic convention speakers, he will not raise taxes on the middle class. However, as Greg Sargent points out, Romney has promised across-the-board tax cuts in his budget plan while insisting it will be revenue neutral (that is, it will not increase the deficit). It is possible, of course, that he could fulfill both promises, but to do so would probably require an unlikely combination of rapid economic growth and a significant alteration to the tax code that eliminates or changes many current exemptions, deductions and loopholes. The problem for fact-checkers is that Mitt has yet to specify what those changes to the tax code might be. A study by the independent Tax Policy Center that tried to reconcile the competing claims in the Romney budget plan, while stopping short of endorsing the Democrats’ charge that Romney must raise taxes on the middle class, concluded that the only way for Romney’s budget to include tax cuts for all and not add to the deficit is by eliminating current tax exemptions for the middle class. That sounds suspiciously like a version of a tax hike.
So, did the Democrats really misstate the facts? Or did they highlight inconsistencies in Romney’s budget proposal? Or both?
A similar argument can be made regarding the Obama job growth claims. Castro, the keynote speaker on the first night, asserted that since Obama took office, “we’ve seen 4.5 million new jobs.” That claim, however, uses February 2010 as the starting point – “the low point for private sector jobs” – rather than the date at which Obama took office. Moreover, as Factcheck.org points out, “if you include all jobs — including the hard-hit government job sector — there remains a net decrease of 316,000 jobs since the start of Obama’s presidency. Total employment has gained about 4 million since February 2010, not 4.5 million. It’s all in how you slice the data.”
Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats slice that data differently. Like Paul Ryan, Castro might not have been “lying”, but clearly he was shading the facts in a way to make Obama’s job creation record look better. But isn’t that the point of a convention speech? In defense of Castro’s spin, the economy is creating jobs and has been for many months (albeit more slowly than one might like.) And one might argue that Obama’s policies prevented an even worse job loss – most economists argue that without the stimulus bill the number of jobs lost would be even greater. Shouldn’t Obama get some credit for this? Isn’t that the point Castro was trying to make?
Look, I have nothing against the efforts by independent factcheckers at sites like this to police politicians’ statements in order to catch the most egregious errors. But as I hope I’ve demonstrated in these last few posts, once the factcheckers move beyond simple factchecking and attempt to compensate for partisan-induced “misleading statements”, they enter a deep thicket of half-truths, spin, and rhetorical excess that makes it almost impossible to locate the “truth.” Moreover, we are naive if we think the partisan bloggers living in the twitterverse will, through the wonders of “crowd sourcing”, hold politicians’ feet to the fire and elevate the accuracy of political discourse. Instead, the evidence so far suggests that the twits in the twitterverse are largely reinforcing the partisan spin that characterizes political debate today. They are awfully quick to point out the other sides’ misleading statements, but perhaps a bit slower to hold their own side accountable. It is a reminder of the old adage that there are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.
A final thought: if Factcheck and Politifact really want a challenge, I dare them to enter the twitterverse and try to hold participants there to some standard of “truth” in real time! As the journalist Herbert Agar reminds us, “The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.” The denizens of the twitterverse, it turns out, are particularly hard of hearing.
P.S. Sorry about the last-minute decision to live blog last night, but Clinton is such as charismatic figure that I fell under his spell and couldn’t help myself. I realize some of you wanted a deeper analysis of the particulars of his speech, but I was trying to view it not as a partisan supporter, but as an undecided voter who might be tuning into the convention for the first time. First impressions can matter. (Also, I was trying to put together a course syllabus while tweeting and listening to the Big Dog Bark. There’s a reason I caution my students not to multitask!) I’ll say more about Clinton’s speech in a later post.