Do the presidential debates need fact-checkers?

(MoneyWatch) Politicians lie and Vicki Meyer is sick of watching them get away with it. The retired Florida school teacher started an online petition asking the Federal Election Commission to require that fact checkers be included in the presidential and vice presidential debates in order to hold them accountable to the truth -- loudly and in public.

It's particularly important to have the fact-checking in real time -- with lies called lies before the debates are over. The reason is simple: Once a lie -- or even an error -- is out and unchallenged, it's nearly impossible to stop its spread.

I can verify that fact from personal experience. During some two decades of writing a syndicated newspaper column, I made a handful of errors. Each time an error was made, I attempted to get it corrected in every newspaper and website that ran the column. But it was impossible to check whether that happened. Worse, even where I knew that corrections ran immediately and prominently, readers would miss the correction. And the old error had a way of cropping up over and over again. Once out, a lie (or error) is pernicious, insidious, malignant. And those were unintentional errors. In today's political arena, the "errors" are intentional attempts to gain political advantage.

"A democracy cannot work properly if political leaders can lie to the public without fear of being challenged," Meyer says in a CNN internet report."I have met too many people who are dropping out of the [election] process because they feel like they are being lied to by both sides."

Indeed, whether lies or simply half-truths, both parties are guilty. It's become media sport to fact-check both candidates and point out where they've lied or exaggerated after the fact. For instance, when Obama claimed he'd moved on fuel efficiency standards for the first time in 30 years, CBS news pointed out that fuel efficiency standards had been raised in 2007 during the George W. Bush Administration.

Romney, meanwhile, claimed that Obama had "gutted welfare reform," which, as FactCheck.org explains, is far from the truth.  

With talk about taxes, the misrepresentations are legion. Both sides want to maintain that they'll give the middle class a tax break, when their ability to pull this off hinges on an undefined definition of "middle-class." Both candidates claim that the other will destroy Medicare, when they both have plans to make cuts to the program. 

In reality, the nation's fiscal house is in shambles and we all may need to accept both some of the responsibility and shoulder some of the cost of cleaning it up. Sugar-coating that fact with lies and half-truths does American taxpayers no favor. Perhaps fact checkers at the debates would create an environment where pretty lies can't shout away the truth - even when the truth is unpleasant.

If you want fact checkers, consider signing Meyer's petition here.

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