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
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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.

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