At the end of October, 2015 the remaining Republican candidates engaged in what the media billed as a debate. Many people have been rather critical of the way the moderators managed the debate and the questions they raised. While some attribute their behavior to political bias and present it as evidence of the dreaded liberal bias of the media, a better explanation is that the main concern of the moderators was to maximize the number of eyeballs watching the event. Substantive questions about the nuances of policy and their answers tend to bore people. Questions that compare Donald Trump to a comic book villain and pit the contestants against each other are entertaining and more likely to draw an audience.
While the quality and intent of the “debate” moderators are matters of interest, my main concern in this essay is the matter of truth and its relevance to politics. I am well aware that the cynical view that truth matters in politics as much as Jek Porkins mattered in the attack on the Death Star. While people often shrug and make jokes about politicians being liars when the matter of truth in politics comes up, if truth does not matter much in politics, then we are to blame. We accept the untruths of those who share our ideology, though we pounce with ferocity on the lies of the opposing team. In fact, we even pounce on the truths of the opposing team. This is largely due to well-studied psychological biases. Fortunately, there are those who make it their business to assess the claims of the political class. Most notable among them is Politifact.
While politicians grow a bounteous crop of untruths in their minds, I will focus on one interesting example of Ben Carson and his relationship with Mannatech. Carl Quintanilla, one of the moderators, asked Carson about his relationship with this company:
Quintanilla: There’s a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a ten-year relationship. They offered claims that they could cure autism, cancer. They paid $7 million dollars to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet your involvement continued. Why?
Carson: Well, it’s easy to answer. I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda. I did a couple of speeches for them, I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches, it is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them. Do I take the product? Yes. I think it’s a good product.
While some might regard this as a “gotcha” question or an example of the liberal media bias, it is actually as reasonable to ask this of Carson as it would be to ask Hillary Clinton about her various financial connections. These sorts of questions are legitimate inquiries about judgment, character and the sort of interests that might influence a politician. They also are relevant in terms of what potential scandals might emerge.
Carson was also given a clear test of character: would he bear false witness in regards to his own deeds and say something false or would he set himself free with the truth? His choice was to say he “didn’t have an involvement with them.” Unfortunately, this claim contradicts the known facts. The Wall Street Journal has laid out Carson’s ties to this company. Politifact has, not surprisingly, rated his claim as false. They did not, however, apply the lowest ranking, that of Pants on Fire.
No doubt aware that Carson had make an untrue claim, the moderator endeavored to press him on this point:
Quintanilla: To be fair, you were on the homepage of the website with the logo over your shoulder.
Carson: If somebody put me on their homepage, they did it without my permission.
Quintanilla: Does that not speak to your vetting process or judgement in any way?
Carson: No, it speaks to the fact that I don’t know those… See, they know.
At this point, the audience began to boo Quintanilla, presumably in defense of Carson. This was not particularly surprising: Fox New and conservative politicians have been pushing the “liberal media” and “gotcha” question talking points very effectively and a dislike for non-conservative media is very strong in many conservatives. To be fair to the audience, they might not have known that Carson said something untrue and that the moderator was endeavoring to make that clear—which is what should be expected in a forum that should involve challenging questions.
However, the audience did not need to be aware of the particular facts that made Carson’s claim untrue. There was no need for them to have done research since he refuted his own claim about not being involved with the company in his reply. Carson said, “I did a couple of speeches for them, I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches, it is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them.” A reasonable interpretation of the claim that he “didn’t have any kind of relationship with them” is that he had no relationship with the company. Doing paid speeches for the company would certainly seem to be involvement and a relationship. The facts, of course, point to a significant involvement with the company. But, even without those facts, his own claim he was paid by the company shows that he was involved with the company.
It could be claimed that Carson meant something else by “involvement” and “relationship” and he could be defended on semantic grounds—much as Bill Clinton attempted a definitional defense regarding the word “sex” when pressed by the Republicans. To be fair, “involvement” and “relationship” could be taken to require more than being paid to give speeches. To use an analogy, while a hooker might be paid to provide a man with sex, this does not entail that she is involved with him or that she has a relationship with him. As such, the audience could be forgiven for booing the moderator for endeavoring to take Carson to task for saying an untruth. The audience members might have honestly believed that being paid to give speeches does not count as involvement or a relationship and presumably they would extend this same principle to Democratic candidates who have been paid by various interests yet are not “involved” with them.
When pressed by Jim Geraghty of the National Review about this matter, the Carson camp engaged in an intriguing semantic defense involving the path by which the compensation reached Carson and what actually counts as an endorsement. The reader is invited to view the video featuring Dr. Carson talking about Mannatech and judge whether or not this should be considered an endorsement. To my untrained eye, this seems indistinguishable from other paid endorsements I have seen. As such, it seems reasonable to hold that Carson spoke an untruth and some of the audience rushed to defend him for this. Neither is surprising, but both are disappointing. Especially since Carson’s poll numbers are doing just fine. Either his supporters do not believe he said untrue things or they do not care. Both of these explanations are worrying.