By Jason Miks
GPS Editor Jason Miks speaks with Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, about media bias and the presidential campaign. Watch Keller on "Fareed Zakaria GPS" this Sunday at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. ET.
Both presidential candidates have come in for criticism for playing hard and fast with the truth during the campaign. How bad has this campaign really been, and is the media doing enough to hold the candidates to account?
In the heat of it, we always think it’s the worst election ever, but I’m sure there have been other elections where the misstating of facts and the outright fabrications have been more egregious than they are in this one.
I think by and large this election cycle will be remembered as the coming of age of the fact checker. My newspaper, the New York Times, has done fact checking for several election cycles, but there has been a really big commitment to it this time. The Washington Post has been doing this, and there are websites like PolitiFact that exist only to fact check statements made in the campaign and in the advertisements, and I think that’s a real public service.
It’s a dream that you can get candidates to only speak careful, nuanced truths in a campaign. Even when they’re not abusing the facts, they are putting a questionable spin on them. So the only antidote to that is that someone watches closely and points out when they get it wrong. Social media has been a big contributor to this and has raised the level of skepticism. Sometimes I think it has turned us into a nation of cynics, but it has contributed considerably to the likelihood that if you say something that’s false, you’ll get caught.
Speaking of fact checking, there sometimes seems a temptation in the media when holding either side to account for their statements for them to try too hard to be even-handed, and they end up creating a false equivalence. Is that a fair assessment?
Yes, and it’s a danger that doesn’t just apply to fact checking. There is a potential in journalism in aiming to be impartial, that you develop a misleading impartiality in that you always treat two opposing positions as equal. That didn’t originate in the fact checking business, and it’s something to be on guard against. I think editors and reporters have to watch very closely to make sure we’re not giving one to the other side, whether it deserves it or not in an attempt to be even handed.
But it’s also important that we’re seen as impartial, so you also want to second guess yourself when you’re doing these stories – you need to ask yourself if you are going too easy on one candidate or the other. And you need to ask yourself if you’re just responding to what the talking heads said on the TV after the debate. That said, I read a lot of the fact checking out there and find it quite helpful, and amongst the serious fact checking outfits there’s plenty of nuance and fairness.
The talking heads were scathing about President Obama’s debate performance last week. Did the commentary fairly reflect his performance?
I think Obama had a really, really bad night. But what I think has gotten less attention is that Romney had a really good night. I did a blog post the next day, the headline of which was “Scoring Obama’s debacle”. That tells you what I thought of it. I did watch the talking heads on Fox and MSNBC, and it’s sometimes entertaining to toggle back and forth between the two. In an election year as polarizing as this one it’s interesting to see the two takes, and sometimes it’s from the friction between the two of them that you get a sharper sense in your own mind of what you’ve just watched.
Some argue that the rise of channels such as MSNBC and Fox News creates a troubling echo chamber effect as viewers are only exposed to their own point of view. Does this worry you?
It does. I think the kind of MSNBC/Fox news dichotomy is a symptom of a larger, polarized quality in our public conversation. The same is true on the internet. You can easily put together a diet of news and information that just confirms your prejudices. I don’t think it’s the end of the world, but it does cause me some serious concern because I think it contributes to the kind of gridlock you get in Washington where one party is pandering to one audience that only listens to MSNBC or reads Daily Kos, while another is pandering to an audience that reads Tea Party websites and watches Fox News. I’m something of a centrist, so I find this a little disconcerting.