When fact-checking organizations like Politifact and Factcheck.org appeared a few years ago, they seemed like perfect antidotes to a lazy, corrupt and broke corporate media unable and/or unwilling to hold politicians to account for their lies. Cue Murphy's Law: Rather than set a higher standard, independent fact-checkers gave mainstream journalists more excuses not to work.
"Perhaps the most jarring aspect of media factchecking is that many reporters see it as someone else's job," Peter Hart and Julie Hollar wrote in FAIR's Extra! magazine.
This year's presidential debates have been showcases of absentee journalism. With the exception of a single interjection by Candy Crowley (on a trivial point), all three moderators sat silently and passively as Barack Obama and Mitt Romney told one lie after another to an audience mostly composed of citizens who were paying attention to the campaign for the first time.
"My moderator mission was to stay out of the way of the flow," said Jim Lehrer, moderator of debate number one.
Lame mission accomplished.
To make things worse, the pundits and journalists voters count upon to set things straight let the biggest lies and gaffes stand uncorrected. Even partisan screamers let us down: Fox News failed to call out Obama's biggest fibs while MSNBC dropped the ball on Romney's.
And the fact-checking commentariat let the ugliest and meanest sleeping dogs lie.
Last night's third and final presidential debate included a few gaffes—my favorite was the geographically challenged Romney's repeated statement that "Syria is Iran's route to the sea"—Iran doesn't have a border with Syria, nor is it landlocked—and the usual share of whoppers, most of which have gone unchallenged so long that people consider them facts.
Do politicians' lies matter? You bet.
Whether people are deciding which of the two corporate major-party candidates to vote for, or they're looking outside the system to a third party, voter boycott or revolution to overthrow the entire system, they can't make an intelligent decision without knowing the pertinent facts. The myth of U.S. exceptionalism, for example, mistakenly teaches Americans that their country is No. 1; if they knew the truth, that the U.S. is behind much of the industrialized world by such measures as child poverty (we're No. 34 out of the 35 industrialized nations, just ahead of Romania), they might decide to stop tolerating U.S.-style corporate capitalism.
Lies are the glue that hold a sick and sickening system together.
As far as I can tell, neither cable news networks, nor news websites, nor newspapers have questioned somewhere the following bipartisan lies, which all reared their heads at the third debate:
Obama said: "We ended the war in Iraq, refocused our attention on those who actually killed us on 9/11."
Actually, 16,000 U.S. troops will remain after the "pullout." Hilariously reclassified as "staff" of the U.S. embassy in Baghdad—world's biggest force of security guards—American soldiers will be fighting alongside 3,500 to 5,000 private U.S.-paid mercenaries.
9/11 was not carried out, or planned, by citizens of Iraq or Afghanistan.
What if they gave a war, and people came, but nobody knew? Some antiwar voters will vote for Obama for ending a war he is actually continuing.
Obama said: "We killed bin Laden…when we bring those who have harmed us to justice, that sends a message…"
The president could have argued that bin Laden got what he deserved. Bringing someone to justice means placing them under arrest so their fate can be determined by a judge and jury in a court of law. If the president can get away with saying—and the media doesn't question it—that an assassination is justice, then law and order no longer have any meaning.
We live in an authoritarian police state.
A police state full of lazy reporters.
Obama said: "Moammar Gadhafi had more American blood on his hands than any individual other than Osama bin Laden."
Everyone "knows" bin Laden was behind 9/11. That he admitted it in a video. But though bin Laden never shied away from his involvement in terrorism—he admitted ordering the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings—he denied ordering 9/11. The translated "confession" was shown to have been faked by the CIA.
Obama said: "Iran is a threat to our national security and it's a threat to Israel's national security…And they have said that they want to see Israel wiped off the map."
Though debunked, the oft-repeated canard that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wants to "wipe Israel off the map" is part of Democratic and Republican propaganda alike.
Jonathan Steele of the UK Guardian provides the best available translation of what Ahmadinejad really did say: "The Iranian president was quoting an ancient statement by Iran's first Islamist leader, the late Ayatollah Khomeini, that 'this regime occupying Jerusalem must vanish from the page of time,' just as the Shah's regime in Iran had vanished. He was not making a military threat. He was calling for an end to the occupation of Jerusalem at some point in the future. The 'page of time' phrase suggests he did not expect it to happen soon."
A top Israeli official, intelligence and atomic energy minister Dan Meridor, agreed recently that Ahmadinejad never used that "wipe off the map" phrase, which doesn't exist in Farci. Meridor says that Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said "that Israel is an unnatural creature, it will not survive. They didn't say, 'We'll wipe it out.'"
Romney again repeated his meaningless line that Iran is "four years closer to a nuclear weapon." By the same logic, Iran was eight years loser to a nuclear weapon during Ronald Reagan's two terms as president.
Bob Schieffer asked Romney: "What if the prime minister of Israel called you on the phone and said: Our bombers are on the way. We're going to bomb Iran. What do you say?" Romney replied: "Our relationship with Israel, my relationship with the prime minister of Israel is such that we would not get a call saying our bombers are on the way or their fighters are on the way. This is the kind of thing that would have been discussed and thoroughly evaluated well before that kind of action."
Romney can't be that sure. Israeli officials have told their U.S. counterparts that they won't ask permission before attacking Iran—and will give us no more than 12 hours advance notice.
Romney lied less but his biggest lie was the biggest.
"America's going to…continue to promote principles of peace," he said in his closing statement.
It must have been difficult for the audience, who'd promised to keep quiet, not to laugh out loud. America? Peaceful?
Unless they believe that stuff about Obama ending the war in Iraq.