Only Fact Check, Never Explain
Asked about evidence of partisan bias, fact checkers struggle to defend themselves.
Yesterday, at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. the heads of all of the major media "fact checking" organizations convened for a panel discussion. On the panel were PolitiFact editor Bill Adair, Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler, the Associated Press's Jim Drinkard, and it was moderated by Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org. The title of the panel was, "Deception Alert: Fact Checkers Forecast Deceptions in 2012 Presidential Debates." Aside from the rather bizarre notion of fact checking events that have yet to take place, you can probably gather from the title of the panel that the discussion leaned toward self-congratulatory, and away from measured and reflective. Here's a sample of the kind of brazen deception we can expect in the debates, courtesy of FactCheck.org's Jackson*:
Quite likely we will hear Mitt Romney say that gasoline prices have doubled under Obama, which is an example of one of those things that is, yes, literally true if you look at where gas prices were when he took office. They had plummeted due to the worldwide near depression, but the fact is that they have not quite gotten as high for Obama as they were for weeks under Bush in the summer of 2008.
So Mitt Romney is making a claim that is "literally true," but it doesn't seem that way if you measure Obama's track record on gas prices against Bush, who by the way, is not running against him for president. Further, Jackson is happy to pile on debatable macroeconomic context that is favorable to Obama on gas prices, but offers no context supporting the underlying critique of Romney's "literally true" claim, which is that Barack "energy prices will necessarily skyrocket" Obama has done a number of things that could be said to have significantly upped the price of gas. For instance, why isn't Jackson pointing out that Obama's got a pretty lengthy track record of impeding offshore drilling? What about holding up the Keystone XL pipeline? Couldn't that be said to raise the price of gas? And that's just the tip of the iceberg—there have been many extensive and legitimate critiques of Obama's energy policies and their contribution to increased gas and other energy prices that could be mentioned here.
Obviously, there's a difference between fact checking and saying someone is being deceptive because, well, here's some highly selective context. But media fact checkers remain obdurately unwilling to make a distinction between what is "literally true" and passing off a one-sided argument as "fact checking." There's a distinct lack of self-awareness here.
And this lack of self-awareness could not be more evident when you confront fact checkers with evidence of their partisan bias. At the panel discussion today, Time's Michael Scherer asked if the fact checkers thought that one presidential campaign was being more deceptive than the other and why. Everyone on the panel respectfully declined to single out a campaign, and most were at pains to reassure that they believed all politicians lie and they don't play favorites. With that in mind, I asked the panel a question: