Anyone who knows me knows that journalistic integrity and accurate communication is an obsession of mine. Especially in complex situations where the simplicity of soundbites contributes much to the functional illiteracy of our society.
In that spirit, I’d like to remind folks of something that happened four years ago during a presidential debate. One candidate—Mr. Romney—made a false charge against the other—our president, as it happens. He claimed the POTUS did not refer to the Benghazi attack as a terrorist act until fourteen days after the fact.
This charge was easily disproven by a glimpse at a bit of video from the first presidential press conference given a day after the attack. So, the moderator, Candy Crowley, called the candidate on the error and corrected him.
Today, this moment resurfaced on Fox News. The context for this is the role of moderators in the upcoming presidential debates, though it is pertinent to any moderated event or interview:
STEVE DOOCY (HOST): …You don’t want a fact-checker like 2012 and Candy Crowley. Watch this.
MITT ROMNEY: It took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror
BARACK OBAMA: Get the transcript.
CANDY CROWLEY: He did, in fact, sir, so let me — call it an act of terror.
OBAMA: Can you say that a little louder, Candy?
CROWLEY: He did call it an act of terror.
DOOCY: She was wrong, and it cost Romney because he just sat there.
JAY TOWNSEND: You cannot let something like that stand. She corrected him. She was wrong. He was right. He stood there and took it like an admonished school boy, and you can’t allow that to happen in front of a national audience. That’s not presidential. It was not strong.
Jay Townsend is wrong about the emphasized points, but he’s right about not letting falsehoods stand, which is why I felt compelled to issue this reminder. There is incontrovertible video evidence from a slew of news programs (including Fox) and official videographers, as well as transcripts, that show the charge (whatever its merits as a measure of presidential mettle) to be false.
Mr. Doocy and his guest are wrong—factually, empirically, scientifically wrong. They are—whether intentionally or not—spreading a falsehood to the people who watch their show and take what they say as fact. I don’t pretend to know whether they have forgotten about the video evidence, and are simply remembering the past through the lens of bias or whether they are intentionally misleading their viewers for reasons known only to them. The net effect of this, however, bears on what viewers take away from the upcoming presidential debates which may be instrumental in the choices that voters will make. It plants the seed of distrust of any moderator (usually a fellow journalist) who corrects or questions the “facts” presented by a candidate.
In the larger picture, the context of a political event is really irrelevant. What is relevant is that these professing journalists are presenting their viewers with falsehoods. It does’t matter why they are doing it as much as it matters THAT they are doing it.
A healthy democracy requires a well-informed electorate, not a misinformed one.
I hope that in the upcoming debates—as well as in other situations—the moderators and journalists will concern themselves with getting at the truth and reflecting reality. I hope, wherever they have solid evidence to refute misstatements by the candidates, they will present it, calmly, firmly, and insistently, without straying into belligerence or harassment. If they do not do this, we will have allowed the line between fact, opinion and fiction to be blurred even further than it already has been.
This passage from the Bahá’í scriptures was written before television and the internet, but it rings as true today as it did when it was written, perhaps more so.
“In this day the mysteries of this earth are unfolded and visible before the eyes, and the pages of swiftly appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world; they display the doings and actions of the different nations; they both illustrate them and cause them to be heard. Newspapers are as a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech; they are a wonderful phenomenon and a great matter.
“But it behooves the writers and editors thereof to be sanctified from the prejudice of egotism and desire, and to be adorned with the ornament of equity and justice. They must inquire into matters as fully as possible in order that they may be informed of the real facts, and commit the same to writing. …Good speech and truthfulness are, in loftiness of position and rank, like the sun which has risen from the horizon of the heaven of knowledge.”—Bahá’u’lláh, Tablet of Tarazát.