The Magazine

Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Fact Checking’

The liberal media’s latest attempt to control the discourse.

Dec 19, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 14 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

If you’ve ever found yourself engaged in a futile, one-sided argument with a politician on your TV screen, you’re hardly alone in your frustration. However, if you’re inclined to jot down such intemperate outbursts, and have the chutzpah to charge people for your services​—​you might have what it takes to join the ranks of one of journalism’s most popular and elite new breeds.

Photo of elephant and donkey boxing

Gary Locke

They call themselves “fact checkers,” and with the name comes a veneer of objectivity doubling as a license to go after any remark by a public figure they find disagreeable for any reason. Just look at the Associated Press to understand how the scheme works. The venerable wire service’s recent “fact check” of statements made at the November 12 GOP presidential candidates’ foreign policy debate was a doozy. Throwing no less than seven reporters at the effort, the piece came up with some unusual examples of what it means to correct verifiable truths.

On Iran, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney suggested that the U.S. government should make it “very clear that the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.”

Little did Romney realize that the AP is the final arbiter of America’s tactical military capabilities and can say with certainty that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program should not be attempted. “The U.S. certainly has military force readily at hand to destroy Iran’s known nuclear development sites in short order. This is highly unlikely, however, because of the strategic calculation that an attack would be counterproductive and ultimately ineffective, spawning retaliation against U.S. allies and forces in the region, and merely delaying eventual nuclear weapons development.”

Also fortunate for the savvy news consumer, the AP apparently has a better grasp of what America’s intelligence agencies do and do not know than Newt Gingrich, a man who used to be third in line for the presidency and has received countless classified intelligence briefings.

At the debate, Gingrich suggested that there was room for improvement at America’s intelligence agencies, and noted in particular that we don’t have a reliable intelligence operation in Pakistan. The AP sprang to the defense of the CIA:

“The U.S. killing of a succession of al Qaeda figures in Pakistan, none more prized by America than Osama bin Laden, demonstrates that the United States indeed gets vital and reliable intelligence out of Pakistan. While it may have been true when Gingrich left government in 1999 that the CIA’s spy network was limited, since 2001 the agency has dramatically expanded its on-the-ground operations worldwide,” the AP “fact check” concluded.

The fact that bin Laden, the most wanted man on the planet, was living in a compound in Pakistan possibly for years may seem like a sign that our intelligence sources in the country leave something to be desired​—​but guess again, Newt.

If these examples are laughably transparent attempts by the AP to weigh in with its own opinions against the opinions of the GOP candidates​—​thinly disguised as “fact checking”​—​they’re not unusual. And the rare occasions where fact checkers deign to deal with actual facts and figures inspire little more confidence.

Media fact checking endeavors have never been more popular and influential than they are now, largely thanks to the success of the St. Petersburg Times feature called “PolitiFact.” Launched in 2007, PolitiFact purports to judge the factual accuracy of statements from politicians and other prominent national figures.

A statement is presented in bold type at the top of the page, usually accompanied by a picture of the speaker. Off to the side is a “Truth-O-Meter” graphic depicting an old-school instrument gauge. The Truth-O-Meter displays a red, yellow, or green light depending on whether the statement is rated “true,” “mostly true,” “half true,” “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire!” (To drive the point home, on the website the “pants on fire!” rating is accompanied by animated flames.) Below the Truth-O-Meter is a short explanation from PolitiFact’s editors justifying their rating.

The feature quickly gained popularity, and in 2009 the St. Petersburg Times won a Pulitzer Prize for PolitiFact, endowing the innovation with a great deal of credibility. “According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact .  .  . ” has now become a kind of Beltway Tourette syndrome, a phrase sputtered by journalists and politicians alike in an attempt to buttress their arguments.

If the stated goal seems simple enough​—​providing an impartial referee to help readers sort out acrimonious and hyperbolic political disputes​—​in practice PolitiFact does nothing of the sort.

Here’s a not-atypical case study. On November 7, 2010, newly elected Senator Rand Paul appeared on ABC’s This Week with Christiane Amanpour. One of the topics of discussion was pay for federal workers. “The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year,” Paul said. “The average private employee makes $60,000 a year.”

Given that the news these days often boils down to debates over byzantine policy details, Paul’s statement is about as close to an empirically verifiable fact as you’re likely to hear a politician utter.

And the numbers are reasonably clear. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis​—​yes, that’s a government agency​—​federal workers earned average pay and benefits of $123,049 in 2009 while private workers made on average $61,051 in total compensation. What’s more, the pay gap between the federal and private sectors has been growing substantially. A decade ago, average pay and benefits for federal workers was $76,187​—​federal civil servants have seen a 62 percent increase in their compensation since then, more than double the 30.5 percent increase in the private sector.

So federal workers are paid twice as much and their income has been rising over twice as fast. If that’s not out- rageous enough, from December 2007 to June 2009, the federal workforce saw a 46 percent increase in the number of employees with salaries over $100,000, a 119 percent increase in the number of those making over $150,000, and a 93 percent increase in the number of federal civil servants making over $170,000. Note that these figures do not include benefits, overtime, or bonuses.

Not only that, during Obama’s first two years in office, while the unemployment rate hovered near or above double digits, the size of the federal workforce increased by 7 percent. The president called for a federal pay freeze at the end of 2010; however, under the president’s supposed pay freeze, 1.1 million civil servants​—​the majority of the federal workforce​—​are still slated to get $2.5 billion in pay increases. And with the country on the verge of recession (again), 5 of the 10 richest counties in America now surround Washington, D.C. Given who the largest employer in the area is, this is hardly surprising.

Not only is what Senator Paul said about federal pay verifiably true, his simple recitation of the most basic facts of the matter doesn’t even begin to illustrate the extent of the problem.

Yet PolitiFact rated Senator Paul’s statement “false.” According to PolitiFact’s editors, because Paul did not explicitly say the figures he was citing include pay and benefits, he was being misleading. The average reader would assume he was only talking about salary. “BEA found that federal civilian employees earned $81,258 in salary, compared to $50,464 for private-sector workers. That cuts the federal pay advantage almost exactly in half, to nearly $31,000,” writes PolitiFact.

So the average federal employee makes a mere $31,000 more a year in salary than the average private sector worker​—​but also gets a benefits package worth four times what the average private sector worker gets.

PolitiFact further muddies the waters by suggesting that the discrepancy between public and private sector averages isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. Again, Andrew Biggs, the former Social Security Administration deputy commissioner for policy, and Jason Richwine of the Center for Data Analysis, writing in these pages (“Yes, They’re Overpaid: The Truth About Federal Workers’ Compensation,” February 14, 2011), observed that the most favorable studies of federal worker compensation “controlling for age, education, experience, race, gender, marital status, immigration status, state of residence, and so on” still find federal workers are overpaid by as much as 22 percent.

What accounts for PolitiFact’s inexplicably obtuse explanation? If you suspect that it might be PolitiFact’s pants that are on fire, you’re not alone.

PolitiFact and the Associated Press are hardly the only outfits playing this game. In recent years, the Washington Post and other media outlets have dutifully followed in PolitiFact’s footsteps and launched “fact checking” features, while established organizations such as the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s FactCheck.org have gained increased prominence.

It’s true that these items are popular. Who doesn’t want to use the “facts” as a cudgel against his political opponents? Groups across the political spectrum are increasingly prone to sending out press releases crowing about the latest media “fact check” finding that happens to vindicate their particular views.

But it seems the most outspoken fans of media fact-checking operations come from within the media themselves. “Has anyone else noticed that the Associated Press has been doing some strong fact-checking work lately, aggressively debunking all kinds of nonsense, in an authoritative way, without any of the usual he-said-she-said crap that often mars political reporting?” Washington Post blogger Greg Sargent wrote last year.

Sargent was conducting a fawning interview with the AP’s Washington bureau chief Ron Fournier about the outlet’s fact-checking operation. “The AP, for instance, definitively knocked down claims that [Supreme Court Justice] Elena Kagan is an ‘ivory tower peacenik,’ ” Sargent wrote.

Not surprisingly, Fournier agreed with Sargent. “What we tend to forget in journalism is that we got in the business to check facts,” Fournier says. “Not just to tell people what Obama said and what Gingrich said. It is groundless to say that Kagan is antimilitary. So why not call it groundless? This is badly needed when people are being flooded with information.”

Sargent and Fournier’s ouroboros of self-congratulation inadvertently revealed a problem: When it comes to fact checking, the media seem oblivious to the distinction between verifying facts and passing judgment on opinions they personally find disagreeable.

Again, here are the facts: Kagan was a dean at a law school that had banned ROTC over what she referred to as the military’s “repugnant” ban on openly gay service. This was, not surprisingly, an issue raised when she was nominated for her current position on the Supreme Court. The AP’s own fact check even noted that she filed a legal brief in support of colleges that wanted to uphold their policies restricting military recruiters on campus, though she opted not to join the lawsuit. Whether the fact that Kagan valued making a statement about gay rights over supporting the vital national security effort of military recruitment amounts to being “antimilitary” is quite obviously a matter of opinion, as is the charge that she’s an “ivory tower peacenik.”

Revealingly, the inflammatory phrase “ivory tower peacenik” was never actually used by Kagan’s critics​—​it was from the AP headline and the first sentence of its fact check: “Elena Kagan is no ivory-tower peacenik.” Here the AP pulled off a seriously impressive feat of yellow journalism. By caricaturing the tone of the actual criticisms, the AP set up a straw man for its “fact check” to knock down before the reader even got past the headline.

At the most basic level, the media’s new “fact checkers” remain obdurately unwilling to let opinions simply be opinions. Earlier this year the AP fact checked a column by former GOP presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty in which the former Minnesota governor asserted that “Obamacare is unconstitutional.” Contra Pawlenty, the AP intoned, “Obama’s health care overhaul might be unconstitutional in Pawlenty’s opinion, but it is not in fact unless the Supreme Court says so.”

The AP aligns itself here with the myth of judicial supremacy, namely the mistaken idea that the Supreme Court has a monopoly on deciding what is and is not constitutional. But aside from this amateur-hour excursion into legal theory, the AP betrays a more basic problem of reading comprehension: Pawlenty’s USA Today column appeared in a section of the newspaper clearly labeled OPINION in large, bold letters.

And when you take the media’s desire to tamp down opinions they don’t like to its logical extreme, things get really messy. Sometimes opinions multiply to the point that media gatekeepers can no longer contain them. Thus “narratives” are born, which are even more pernicious to “fact checkers” than opinions.

“The AP also did an extensive investigation into Obama’s handling of the Gulf spill, and concluded it ‘shows little resemblance to Katrina,’ ” writes Sargent. “As [liberal Washington Monthly blogger] Steve Benen noted in lauding this effort, the AP definitively debunked a key media narrative as ‘baseless.’ ”

One could ask whether the BP oil spill was being compared with Katrina simply because of its relative proximity and public opinion that the Obama administration handled the crisis similarly poorly. But why bother? The very idea of fact checking a broad comparison should send readers who give a damn about facts screaming for the exits.

While it was always difficult in practice, once upon a time journalists at least paid obeisance to the idea of reporting the facts, as opposed to commenting on “narratives”​—​let alone being responsible for creating and debunking them.

But today’s fact checkers are largely uninterested in emphasizing the primacy of information. Accordingly, this is what happens when the media talk about fact checking: The Washington Post pats the AP on the back for questioning the veracity of a media-created narrative ex post facto, then cites a brazenly partisan blogger as proof that the effort to smack it down was successful.

What’s going on here should be obvious enough. With the rise of cable news and the Internet, traditional media institutions are increasingly unable to control what political rhetoric and which narratives catch fire with the public. Media fact-checking operations aren’t about checking facts so much as they are about a rearguard action to keep inconvenient truths out of the conversation.

While there’s been little examination of the broader phenomenon of media fact checking, the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs recently took a close look at PolitiFact. Here’s what they found:

A Smart Politics content analysis of more than 500 PolitiFact stories from January 2010 through January 2011 finds that current and former Republican officeholders have been assigned substantially harsher grades by the news organization than their Democratic counterparts. In total, 74 of the 98 statements by political figures judged “false” or “pants on fire” over the last 13 months were given to Republicans, or 76 percent, compared to just 22 statements for Democrats (22 percent).

You can believe that Republicans lie more than three times as often as Democrats. Or you can believe that, at a minimum, PolitiFact is engaging in a great deal of selection bias, to say nothing of pushing tendentious arguments of its own.

The media establishment has largely rallied round the self-satisfied consensus that fact checking is a noble pursuit. Nonetheless there are signs of an impending crack-up. In their rush to hop on the fact-checking bandwagon, the media appear to have given little thought to what their new obsession says about how well or poorly they perform their jobs.

It’s impossible for the media to fact check without rendering judgment on their own failures. Seeing the words “fact check” in a headline plants the idea in the reader’s mind that it’s something out of the ordinary for journalists to check facts. Shouldn’t that be an everyday part of their jobs that goes without saying? And if they aren’t normally checking facts, what exactly is it that they’re doing?

As such, fact checking frequently involves one news organization publicly accusing competing organizations of malpractice. Instead of newsroom watercooler kvetching and burying subtle digs in the eleventh paragraph, friendly fire is breaking out into the open.

Influential Politico blogger/reporter Ben Smith is one of the few media voices sounding the alarm about the pitfalls of fact checking. “At their worst, they’re doing opinion journalism under pseudo-scientific banners, something that’s really corrosive to actual journalism, which if it’s any good is about reported fact in the first place,” Smith observes.

When he wrote that, Smith was quite rightly annoyed with Glenn Kessler, who writes “The Fact Checker” blog on the Washington Post website. (Kessler’s gimmick is rating political statements on a scale of one to four with cutesy Pinocchio-nose graphics.)

On August 17, Kessler wrote an item supporting President Obama’s denial at a town hall in Iowa that Vice President Joe Biden had called Tea Party activists “terrorists” in a meeting with congressional Democrats. In the process, Kessler had singled out Politico for breaking the story.

Politico’s report about Biden’s comments indeed created a minor controversy. Days later, the vice president came forward and claimed the report was “absolutely not true,” that he was merely engaged in a discussion with unnamed lawmakers who were venting about the Tea Party.

After supplying a rudimentary summary of what happened, Kessler reached a conclusion that is at once unsure of itself and sharply judgmental. “Frankly, we are dubious that Biden actually said this. And if he did, he was simply echoing what another speaker said, in a private conversation, as opposed to making a public statement.”

In response, Smith unloaded on Kessler. “Either [Biden] said it, or he didn’t. That’s the fact to check here. The way to check it is to report it out, not to attack the people who did report it out and label their reporting ‘dubious’ based on nothing more than instinct and the questionable and utterly self-interested word of politicians and their staffers.”

Provoked by Kessler, Politico took the unusual step of actually detailing how the Biden story was nailed down. Politico maintains that Biden’s remarks were confirmed by five different sources in the room with Biden, and that they were in contact with the vice president’s office for hours before the story ran. Biden’s office had ample opportunity to answer the reporters’ account before it ran and didn’t dispute it.

Note that despite Biden’s subsequent denials, the vice president’s office never asked for a formal retraction. The facts here seem to suggest that the vice president, whose history of plagiarism and verbal incontinence is the stuff of legend, not only called Tea Partiers “terrorists” but later lied about having done so. One would think that this would be a news story in itself.

But instead of looking at these facts, it appears Glenn Kessler engaged in what his colleague Greg Sargent referred to as all “the usual he-said-she-said crap that often mars political reporting”​—​but with the extra dollop of sanctimony that comes from writing under the “pseudo-scientific banner” of “The Fact Checker.”

Of course, Ben Smith’s apostasy is born of experience. Even before the dustup between the Washington Post and Politico he found his own reporting being dissected, unfairly in his view, by an AP fact check back in May.

After that experience he concluded that while fact checking can be useful, “Most political disputes are too nuanced to fit the ‘fact check’ framework.” As more well-intentioned reporters get sandbagged by “fact checkers,” perhaps Smith won’t be alone in venting this view publicly.

In the meantime, don’t get your hopes up that Smith’s journalistic peers will be receptive to his criticisms. A major reason PolitiFact kicked off a national fact-checking craze was that it was introduced in 2007, just in time to play a major role in the last presidential election, in which one contender was an overwhelming media favorite. (Brooks Jackson, the founder of FactCheck.org, actually traces the genesis of media fact checking to the frustration journalists felt over the supposedly unfair media coverage Michael Dukakis received in the 1988 campaign. And who has not lamented the unflattering media coverage Democrats have received since then?)

Like it or not, it seems that media “fact checks” are poised to be even more widespread in the coming election. Aside from fact-checking debates afterward, as the Associated Press has done, the Washington Post and Bloomberg, which hosted the October 11 GOP debate, actually took the novel tack of running “fact checks” on what the candidates were saying in real time. While presidential candidates should not be above being held accountable for what they say in such a forum, there is good reason to be skeptical that instantaneous evaluations will ever prove useful or fair.

So with 2012 just around the corner, brace yourself for a fact-checking deluge. Just remember: The fact checker is less often a referee than a fan with a rooting interest in the outcome. 

Mark Hemingway is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

Recent Blog Posts