Sorting through the Texas debate spin — in real time

By Jake Batsell

Candidates will be slinging their share of tall tales and fudgy facts at tonight’s GOP primary debate in the Texas governor’s race. And on the real-time Web, it’s more challenging than ever for journalists to sort the truth from the spin.

HutchisonTwitterTonight, as Gov. Rick Perry and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison trade barbs on live TV, their staffers will spin relentlessly on social media sites while also using their own campaign sites to host live blogs and chats to “fact-check” (ahem, spin) the debate. Dark-horse candidate Debra Medina will chime in, too, with up-to-the-minute texts.

Journalists trying to give readers a balanced picture of the debate have their work cut out for them. Especially in real time.

Two weeks ago, I was part of the press corps covering the first Texas GOP debate at the University of North Texas in Denton. As my attention bounced between the debate itself and its resulting Web chatter, I became transfixed by how ferociously the Perry and Hutchison campaigns were using the Web for real-time rapid response through tweets, a “Debate Central” live blog and even a CoveritLive chat.

PerryTwitterOnce the debate was over, the post-debate action in the actual Spin Room was a lot more sluggish than I expected. Why waste time spinning individual reporters in person when you can bypass the filter and directly shape your message online?

Perhaps my expectations for the Denton debate were too quaint. I hadn’t been in a Spin Room since the 2008 Democratic presidential primary debate in Austin, when spokespeople and surrogates crowded the floor to declare their candidate the winner. Compared to two short years ago, campaigns seem ever more determined to circumvent the mainstream media during live events.

As Clay Shirky has observed, one of the most powerful aspects of Web 2.0 is its ability to convene a community. Campaigns, naturally, are taking advantage of this capability, rallying the faithful troops in a friendly virtual venue during high-visibility events.

Texas’ traditional news organizations are reliably performing their watchdog fact-checking duties, as evidenced by the Austin American-Statesman’s PolitiFact and the Dallas Morning News’ Texas Heat Index. Earlier this week, the Statesman’s partner — Pulitzer-winning PolitiFact National — hustled to bring a nonpartisan, fact-checking, real-time(ish) perspective to President Obama’s State of the Union address with its Truth-O-Meter.

But good reporting takes time. Thoughtful, nuanced fact checks of specious sound bites often don’t appear online until hours after the masses have tuned out of the debates. Tonight, if Perry’s followers entrust his campaign to check Hutchison’s facts, and vice versa, how much of an audience will there ultimately be for good, old-fashioned, unbiased fact-checking?

Political reporters and editors, I’d love to hear your comments: How do you deal with this 21st-century conundrum?

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