Fact Checkers Abound During 2012 Election, But Are They Wasting Their Time?

Fact-checking has really come into its own as an aspect of politics as the 2012 presidential election rages on, but are our truth-seekers useful? Do they provide us with an indispensable service, or are they wasting their time?

It’s sad, even pathetic, that, for those tuning in to the presidential debates and countless other political rallies and speeches, the morning after requires a scrupulous search for various fact checks on what a politician or party hopeful has claimed. Though we all wish that our respective candidates would just be straight with us from the get-go, the fact is that they’re trying to run an election campaign, and politicians on both sides have to stretch the truth to blanket the oftentimes glaring flaws in their record and platform.

Fact-checking becomes a necessary evil in the sense that a perfect world would have our candidates speaking truthfully all of the time, so, while it can be considered “evil” that the political process requires fact checkers to exist, fact-checking in and of itself qualifies as a social good. But how much good does it do? Does it cause hopeful politicians to adjust their rhetoric? More importantly, does it influence public opinion?

Julian Zelizer wrote an op-ed for CNN that attempts to answer those questions. He opines, “There is little evidence that the public is outraged by any of the revelations nor that it has any real influence on how the politicians conduct themselves, other than to provide more campaign fodder for attacks on their opponents.”

Asking rhetorically, “Why isn’t there a penalty for lying?,” Zelizer says that, while fact checkers follow every word out of a candidate’s mouth, the only real impact that these scrutinizing reports have is that they provide ammunition for the other side. Each party will attack the other side using fact-checked data, but they won’t do what they really ought to do: Adjust their own platforms or dig for better data.

Given the historic high of public distrust of political figures, Zelizer says that “these revelations just confirm the general impression that the public has of their leaders,” and that “fact-checkers fade in the noise of the media frenzy over the campaign.” What’s worse is that non-partisan fact checkers have to compete with openly-partisan fact checkers to get good information out, so fact checkers are also fact checking other fact checkers, which really only results in the confusion and ultimate willful ignorance of the public.

“The public lives in a world where it seems impossible to know what is fact and what is partisan fiction,” concluded Zelizer, who says that it is incredibly difficult for the public to find real truth.

What do you think? Are fact checks important or do they simply provide more partisan distraction? Why is is so hard to find truth?