x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Debating facts

Are election-campaign debates really worth watching? We're not so sure.

Mitt Romney 512, Barack Obama 497. That might have been our tally of the "facts" and "statistics" flung about by the US presidential hopefuls in their first face-to-face debate Wednesday night, if fact-checking were an exact science.

Preparing for pre-election debates is a skill in itself, requiring days holed up with policy advisers, mastering binders full of numbers, acronyms, claims and denials. This cramming is punctuated only by consultations with voice and diction coaches, hairdressers, necktie consultants, pollsters and anxious spouses.

Campaign debates are common in the TV age, but do they do any good? The audience probably has more committed partisans than truly undecided seekers of truth. In any case the misleading claims, half-truths, insults and obfuscations of a debate usually have very little contact with "truth", that remote ideal. Then, when the debate ends, "spin doctors" from the two camps pour out of their warrens to boast, before the cameras, about how well their man did and how awful the other guy was. It's all as stylised as kabuki theatre, and about as useful to voters.

The sad truth is that doing well in a televised sparring match and governing well are two very different accomplishments, demanding distinct skill sets. But that doesn't mean, of course, that staying true to the facts shouldn't be a requirement for both.