Of the 84 million viewers of last week’s presidential debate, I am certain that I was not the only one grimacing throughout the 90 minutes.
The atmosphere at the South Quad big-screen debate watch was one of interested anticipation; students clicked away at laptops and finished last minute math problems by the light of their phones in the minutes preceding the debate. During the course of the debate itself, students groaned more than they cheered and laughed more than they applauded. Based on the media coverage and vitriol of the last year, we knew that the debate would probably be no different, yet we all watched anyway.
The candidates dazzled only in the reflectivity of one’s curious tan and the other’s blinding red pantsuit. In keeping with the lack of substance that has come to characterize this election cycle, Trump and Clinton criticized each other more than they presented concrete policies, interrupted each other, and strong-armed poor Lester Holt into granting more speaking time. Honestly, America should give Holt credit just for agreeing to attempt to moderate a discussion between two people for whom any moderation in discourse, lifestyle, etc. is a foreign concept.
At the outset, the news network announced that they would be fact-checking the candidates’ statements in real time, and many other websites such as Politifact took up the same charge. Clinton herself converted her entire website into a live fact-check machine called “Literally Trump.” According to the NPR website, a team of 30-plus newsroom staffers fact-checked, annotated, and added certain contextual descriptions to the debate transcript in real time. By the evening of the next day, nearly 6 million people had looked at the document that was published in the form of an editorial.
NPR’s lead political editor is quoted as writing, “We wanted to try something new and comprehensive that focused on the facts … [W]e told our folks essentially if you see something, say something. Like viewers at home, when we heard something that made us go, ‘Is that true?’ or ‘That’s not true.’ or ‘well that’s not the whole context,’ our reporters were on it.”
A quick skim of the Politifact articles following the debate provides insight into exactly what the candidates were misrepresenting about themselves, their records, and their opponents’ statements. Interestingly, the website states certain quotes and has even developed a sort of truth scale, ranging from “True,” to “Mostly True,” to “Half True,” to “False.”
At first, I did not give much thought to this practice of fact checking. After reflecting in the days following the debate, however, I became increasingly troubled by the idea that the truth of the statements by the two candidates chosen by the country for public office require verification in this way.
An estimated 84 million individuals watched this debate. Over half of the households who own a television set across the country tuned in, and the retention rate of those who watched until the bitter end was high. What is the message that we are sending to ourselves, our children, and the world when we begin with the assumption that candidates running for public office are going to lie in the most public forum available?
It is questionable whether the perpetuation of falsehoods is intentional or stems from mere ignorance. Regardless, both are problematic if we consider the stakes of the presidential office and its revered position.
On a deeper level, it is fascinating that the media has recently become interested in the facts, while the majority of the campaign coverage has centered around anything but. If you have managed to isolate yourself from the mainstream media’s election coverage over the last year, you may be more informed about the candidates’ policy positions than the devout watchers of prime time news. You are certainly less saddened by the state of our politics if so.
Yet, the problem is not solely with politics, the media, or a culture that places dishonest people on pedestals. These three facets of American life all inform each other in our modern society. What our culture values becomes what our politicians espouse and what our media covers. The feedback loop occurs in the opposite direction as well; culture, politics, and the way in which they are presented to us exist in an evolving state of interconnectedness.
If this election cycle teaches us anything, it is that our culture has increasingly come to value deception rather than genuine discussion, entertainment rather than substance, insults rather than civility, and polarization rather than compromise.
Though a longtime news junkie, I recently began watching an older HBO series called The Newsroom in lieu of watching actual news broadcasts focusing only on candidates’ personalities, ridiculous statement of the day, or latest scandal.
In the first episode, broadcast news Anchor Will McAvoy, played by Aaron Sorkin, gives a striking monologue that I think is relevant to our media today. Though Sorkin’s character takes his argument to the extreme that American exceptionalism no longer exists—a position that I do not share—his words are still interesting.
Lamenting the status of America vis-a-vis the media, Sorkin states, “It sure used to be [a great nation] … We stood up for what was right. We fought for moral reason. We passed laws, struck down laws, for moral reason. We waged wars on poverty, not on poor people. We sacrificed, we cared about our neighbors, we put our money where our mouths were and we never beat our chest. We built great, big things, made ungodly technological advances, explored the universe, cured diseases, and we cultivated the world’s greatest artists and the world’s greatest economy. We reached for the stars, acted like men. We aspired to intelligence, we didn’t belittle it. It didn’t make us feel inferior. We didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for in the last election and we didn’t scare so easy. We were able to be all these things and do all these things because we were informed … by great men, men who were revered. First step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.”
The key part of this quote is its end. We must recognize our flaws as a nation, whether they be in the current state of our politics, culture, media, other area, or all areas. Truth and substance, especially from our leaders and those who report their movements, should be the point, the aspiration, the everything of American life.
Kate Hardiman is a senior PLS major and PPE minor living in Breen-Phillips Hall. She interned as a political journalist for The Hill Newspaper in Washington, D.C., is a current writer for The College Fix, a contributor to Minding the Campus, and has been the Campus editor of the Rover for three years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.