PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-check outfit housed by the Tampa Bay Times, has come up with its list of 10 finalists for Lie of the Year, or "the most significant falsehood of 2012." The list runs 5-5 in terms of Democratic-lies-about-Republicans vs. Republican-lies-about-Democrats, so I'm sure that organizers feel very even-handed. But in this Year of the Fact-Checker it symbolizes something that is deeply wrong with both political journalism and its latest favorite toy.
And that is this: Such exercises are not primarily concerned with lies told to the public by our most powerful government officials in the service of wielding their power. They are instead focused on the way that politicians (and their surrogates) characterize their competitors' actions and words.
The 10 Lie of the Year nominees include the way Mitt Romney interpreted Barack Obama's "you didn't build that" comments, the way Obama characterized Romney's position on abortion, Rush Limbaugh's claim that ObamaCare includes "the largest tax increase in the history of the world," a Democratic National Convention speaker's contention that "Mitt Romney says he likes to fire people," and so on. Only one of the Top 10–Obama blaming 90 percent of the 2009-12 deficit increase on George W. Bush–involved a politician lying about his own record.
Political journalism is supposed to serve as a check on the exercise of power. Instead it is serving as a check on the exercise of rhetoric. The latter can be a valuable (if limited) contribution when accurate, but the general absence of the former is an ongoing calamity.
At Reason, we tend to focus on the lies of politicians in the service of their deeds (for some details on the current president's lying, click here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here, for starters). Wanna see more of this kind of writing? Donate to our annual Webathon today!