Last week was the first Presidential debate between B. Obama and J. McCain. The media reports these events like boxing matches. They keep score. They compile the highlights: this uppercut, that right jab, the contender wobbling in the knees. They give you the assessment from the crowd, inviting voters to offer judgment – who won? who looked better for the next round?
A new feature has been added to the conventional sports analogy: “fact check.” It stays with the metaphor. Checking facts is like asking if the left hook was legal. To measure every other word of the candidates CNN outsources to Fact Check. The New York Times has its own service: Check Point. The BBC too.
But what is a fact? Take an example. The Obama campaign repeats all day long that Sarah Palin banned books from public libraries, that is spin. Sarah Palin tried to ban books from public libraries but ultimately failed, that is a fact. Fact is a semantic and syntactic correction. We learn a bit more, that Palin failed in her campaign against reading. Although we don’t learn that much else, why did she fail? which were the books?
By highlighting the embarrassing statements of politicians over truthful ones, by portraying inaccuracies as orchestrated deception, and by dressing fact checking with marketing slogans such as the “no spin zone” or “keeping them honest”, isn’t fact checking also spin?
There is a second campaign going on: the media against politics. One wants cynics and spectators. The other wants voters and militants. They are the two-faced Janus of public discourse.