Over the last year or so, the argument has been made many times in these pages that media “fact checking” organizations are a discredit to the journalism profession. Further discrediting the journalism profession at this point is no easy thing to do, yet fact checkers seem more than equal to the task.
There are a lot of sophisticated ways to explain why media fact checkers are bad, but the simplest is just to tally up their rulings. A new study by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University examined 98 statements rated by PolitiFact from June 1 to September 11. “A majority of the Obama campaign’s statements (55 percent) were rated as true or mostly true, compared to one out of four statements (26 percent) by the Romney campaign,” concludes the study. “The difference is even greater at the other end of the spectrum, where 26 percent of the Romney campaign’s statements were rated as either false or ‘Pants on Fire,’ compared to only 5 percent of the Obama campaign’s statements.”
This discrepancy is not because the Romney campaign is egregiously truth-challenged—which is no doubt what will be argued by Obama partisans and the mainstream media, but because the “fact checking” enterprise is more often than not partisan. If you read Mark Hemingway’s “Obama’s Palace Guard” on page 24 of this week’s issue, you’ll see that PolitiFact’s two “Pants on Fire” ratings for the Romney campaign regarding welfare reform weren’t just wrong; they demonstrated an adamantine unwillingness to try to understand the issue at hand. Such examples can easily be multiplied.
Even if you buy into the notion that Romney is running an exceptionally dishonest campaign, this same partisan pattern appears for all Republicans. “PolitiFact rated Democratic statements as ‘mostly true’ or ‘entirely true’ about twice as often as Republican statements—42 percent true ratings for Democrats vs. 20 percent for Republicans. Conversely, statements by Republicans were rated as entirely false about twice as often as Democratic statements,” according to the George Mason study. Well, this is at least progress. A University of Minnesota survey of PolitiFact rulings published in January 2011 found PolitiFact accused Republicans of having smoldering trousers three times more often than Democrats.
No, the evidence here is pretty conclusive: PolitiFact disproportionately targets Republicans and leaps to so many inept conclusions that their entire enterprise is little more than a baseless attack on the political views of half of America. Forget “Pants on Fire.” The Scrapbook gives PolitiFact our most severe rating: “Flaming Dirigible.” The credibility of mainstream American journalism has long been on the same trajectory as the Hindenburg. When it comes to evaluating “fact checkers,” the only thing left to do is steer clear of the fiery wreckage.