During the recent political campaigns in the United States it has become fashionable to do fact checks on what the candidates say. Reporters scrupulously follow each phrase and statistic and then follow through with a specific analysis of whether the statement was true or not. Woe be to the candidate who does not adhere to facts. The next day’s papers will show how far the candidate was off the mark.
But does this really matter? Benedict Anderson wrote a wonderful book on imagined communities. His argument was that communities create myths around which they develop a common history. Does Switzerland really care if William Tell existed or not? Did he really shoot the apple off the head of his son?
In a famous article in the New York Times of 2004, an aide to President George Bush was quoted as saying about the United States: “We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” Do facts matter? In the recent U.S. campaigns, Republicans are trying to sell a 1950’s vision of America, white, male dominated, hard working, nuclear family oriented with little government intervention and global hegemonic exceptionalism. Democrats are presenting a United States that is moving forward, allows people of color, foreign origin and non-nuclear family orientation to get ahead with a government safety net and a country that is still the beacon of democratic idealism for the rest of the world. Both myths are important, but do they correspond to reality?
What is more important, myth or reality? The New York Times is supposed to be the newspaper of record. It ran a story by Michael Cooper on August 31 entitled “Campaigns Play Loose With Truth in a Fact-Check Age.” The website, NYTimes eXaminer, does regular fact checks on the New York Times. Will we need a new site to do fact checks on NYTimes eXaminer? Do people really care about whether a campaign statement is true or not or are most people more concerned with the image that the candidate or newspaper puts forward?
Separating myth from reality is part of a journalist’s job. But, as the Bush aide maintained, campaign spin doctors will continue to put out their version of reality, both in terms of the candidate’s personality as well as the candidate’s platform. And the journalists will continue to do fact checks about what was said.
Given that reality, the real question is whether people in general and the voting public specifically care about the difference between fact and myth. After all, living in imagined communities is usually more secure and comfortable than reality.