In the first Republican presidential debate, Megyn Kelly and fellow Fox moderators did something valuable: They confronted the candidates with some of their erroneous and outrageous claims. In the second debate, no one bothered to challenge the candidates’ accuracy. They freely repeated claims that had been exposed long ago as unfounded.
The American public deserves better, and it is up to all of us, including the media, to raise the stakes. We need a fair way to reward accuracy and withhold something valuable from candidates who make and repeat errors.
In a free society, we can’t stop people from making or condoning false claims. And in today’s America, we may not be able to level the financial playing field. But if we’re smart, we can put our society’s love of score-keeping and prize-winning to use on the side of responsible public discourse and against demagoguery.
To their credit, a few media organizations and universities already conduct some of the necessary fact checking. But their impact is blunted. Critics say the checked claims are chosen arbitrarily or subjectively. Worse, nothing discourages candidates from repeating inaccurate claims over and over after they have been exposed.
In the second debate, CNN moderator Jake Tapper did do one thing of value. He confronted the candidates with what their opponents had actually said about them. In fact, Ben Carson took the opportunity to correct Tapper’s paraphrase of his position. In other words, the candidates were forced to respond to each other instead of “strawman” versions of each other.
In one debate or the other, the candidates were asked to be accountable and responsive. Unfortunately these standards only apply during a tiny fraction of the 24/7 news cycles. Most other times, candidates, their campaigns, political action committee advertisers, news critics and guests on talk shows are unhindered in spreading misinformation and mischaracterizations. Each wrong claim accrues phony credibility through repetition.
The only way to break this dysfunctional cycle is to create a real system of rewards that gets media companies, as the major purveyors of information, to put some skin in the game. Between now and the election, the most valuable commodity to candidates is advertising.
How about enabling all candidates for president to compete each week for airtime or for a full-page ad in any market they choose? Candidates could earn points in the competition by submitting passages of up to 2,000 words from their own or their opponents’ documented communications that week: speeches, ads, or responses on a talk show. A panel of journalists would review the submissions, score them for accuracy and responsiveness, and then award points.
The panel could award points for accurate claims, correctly attributed quotes or paraphrases, and repudiations of errors. It could also deduct points from any candidate’s tally for making erroneous claims, mischaracterizing a documented public position, or leaving online, repeating, or rebroadcasting a claim that has been discredited. The scores for all candidates would be reported on a weekly basis, and the candidate with the highest score wins the ad or airtime to use as he or she wishes.
This would be just one practical way to promote accuracy and responsiveness and to discourage false claims. Imagine celebrities with large social media presences such as Kim Kardashian or Mark Zuckerberg retweeting the results each week.
Imagine the chagrin of those who make false claims losing week after week to candidates with less money and lower standing in the polls. Imagine the crowdsourcing of political activists to turn up the most credible evidence. Imagine candidates conceding that problems are more complicated than they first thought. Imagine the preening of the chosen media outlets.
We may not be able to stop candidates from making outrageous or false claims, but it’s clear that we need to change the way we do things to get more accuracy and responsiveness than the American public has seen thus far.
Davida Charney is a professor of rhetoric and writing at The University of Texas at Austin.
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