If Facts Don’t Matter, Presidential Debates Are Just a Reality Show

Janet Brown, the executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates has declared that the debates should be a fact-check-free zone:

“I think personally, if you start getting into fact-checking, I’m not sure. What is a big fact? What’s a little fact? And if you and I have different sources of information, does your source about the unemployment rate agree with my source? I don’t think it’s a good idea to get the moderator into essentially serving as the Encyclopedia Britannica.”

This is terrible on many levels. Debates are supposed to illustrate how the candidates would respond to a variety of policy challenges. Those challenges depend on having a shared set of facts: a 10% unemployment rate would create a very different policy environment from a 5% unemployment. If each candidate is claiming different unemployment statistics, you don’t have a debate. You have a noisy argument that sheds a lot of heat and no light. It’s a useless exercise.

Moreover, the example she gave is frankly bizarre. It’s one thing to dispute, say, models of economic growth or the efficacy of various foreign policy approaches. But the unemployment rate? That has a single reliable source: the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That is literally the only legitimate source for unemployment numbers. There is a small debate within economic circles as to whether the BLS unemployment statistics appropriately reflect the reality of economic pain within the country, in terms of not counting people who stopped looking for work or potentially ignoring too many of the underemployed. Some people use a U6 model for unemployment rather than a U3 model. But the starting point for any reasonable discussion of the unemployment rate is the official BLS number.

If one candidate says that unemployment is at 5% and the other candidate says it’s much higher, it’s absolutely the job of a moderator to inform the public that the official BLS statistics support one candidate’s assertion. The candidate trying to claim an alternate reality should then be pressed to say why they disbelieve the BLS, proving either that they’re a conspiracy monger, or potentially that they have a sophisticated critique of the government’s economic model–which would certainly be an interesting and informative conversation, but one that can only happen in the context of a single, authoritative factual source acknowledged by both candidates.

Republicans are still furious that Candy Crowley fact-checked Mitt Romney’s lies about Benghazi in 2012. But Crowley did precisely the right thing. When the candidates are presenting not just different perspectives but different versions of easily verifiable reality, it’s up to the press to ground the debate in fact.

Otherwise it’s just a spectacle, and one that damages the fabric of the country further as our country’s ideological tribes inhabit not just different cultures and geographies, but different understandings of reality entirely. That serves no one, and it’s the opposite of objective.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.