Facts are extraneous at the Vice Presidential debate

I don’t remember ever being this glad that I missed watching a debate. This morning I watched a few clips and skimmed the transcript of last night’s Vice Presidential debate, and shook my head at how little policy seemed to matter. As with most national debates, the worst part wasn’t the moderator, or even the candidates themselves, but the whirring nonsense of the news media.

Before the debate, we already knew that Pence had won, thanks to the RNC’s prematurely-published declaration of victory. But even after the debate, many journalists declared Pence the winner regardless of – or in spite of – what was actually said.

Here’s a few representative bits:

  • “After, Pence was lauded for his debating acumen, and on efficacy, the strategy scores high. Scored on accuracy, however, Pence fares far worse.” – Henry C. Jackson, Politico
  • “[Kaine] was over-rehearsed and often hyper while Pence was calm and looked into the camera. He failed to effectively call out Pence for denying basic facts about Trump.” – Tom Squitieri, The Hill
  • “I thought that Mike Pence did all the things right that Donald Trump did wrong. His body language was excellent, he was very good on reaction, he looked like a grown-up.” – Chris Matthews, MSNBC
  • “…voters rarely scrutinize debates line-by-line, instead making their judgments on the overall tone and performance of a candidate. Pence will not fare well with fact checkers, but his poise and polish played well with voters. For better or worse, style counts a lot in these debates.” — David Gergen, CNN
  • “In this regard, Pence, whose job of defending Trump on Tuesday night was both complex and thankless, may have benefited most. He was unable to defend much of what Trump has done or said, but he was earnest and artful in turning the multiple challenges aside.” – Ron Elving, NPR
  • “An unflappable Pence benefited from the contrast and won the night – with 48% of those who watched it saying he had the best night, compared to 42% saying Kaine won, per a CNN/ORC poll of debate viewers.” — Eric Bradner, CNN

I worried, briefly, that I was being unfair. After all, no one has ever sought out Chris Matthews for rational, measured policy discussions. David Gergen has spent decades substituting style-over-substance banalities for analysis. And

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, to be fair, Eric Bradner’s full CNN piece on the debate is actually quite good. (That’s not surprising, since Bradner was an excellent statehouse reporter at the Evansville Courier & Press, and has been a reliably bright spot for CNN’s otherwise terrible election coverage.) For that matter, Elving’s NPR piece is not bad on the whole, either.

But that Politico line just seemed to scream at me: “Scored on accuracy, however…”

How else would you score a political debate? For that matter, how do you score any kind of debate without accuracy being the primary measure?

It doesn’t matter how calm my demeanor is if I argue that the Yankees have the best chance of winning the World Series this year. (They missed the playoffs.) It doesn’t matter how confident my body language is if I assert that Peyton Manning is the best player on the Broncos this year. (He retired after last season.) It doesn’t matter how earnest or artful I am when I claim my student loans are paid in full. (If only.)

Maybe the outsourcing of fact-checking to designated arbiters like Politifact has encouraged journalists to see basic accuracy as some extraneous, unnecessary feature, like the classic “undercoating” upsell.

Even David Leonhardt’s construction of the problem in his New York Times column assumes that reality is somehow separable from the debate itself: “If there were no such thing as facts, I too would have scored the debate as a narrow Pence win… But the truth means something, too.”

I’m glad there was lots of fact checking. Jackson’s Politico piece, mentioned above, went on to list “6 things Trump definitely said that Pence claimed he didn’t.” Politifact did a running fact check during the debate, and also published an annotated transcript of the debate. Many media organizations also did their own fact-checks, some better than others. But none of that matters if journalists continue to view facts and accuracy as separate from, rather than intrinsic to, their reporting and analysis.