Sadly, this is not in the spirit of Christmas. I originally was going to write a charming tale about a Christmas-saving rodent of some kind, because people seem to like that sort of thing and because during Christmas-time, even disease-carrying vermin somehow seem like reasonable potential heroes for teaching values like generosity and cherishing family bonds or the like. It didn't pan out; the rodent in question turned out to be an ordinary rodent, and did not do a damn thing for Christmas one way or the other, as far as I could tell in my own observations, and so back to politics (or in this case, media-watching) we go.
The Washington Post's Fact Checker, in a not entirely impartial defense of fact checkers:
Fact checkers are under assault!
Before we present our list of the biggest Pinocchios of the year, we would like to address the torrent of criticism addressed at fact checkers (primarily PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and The Fact Checker) in recent weeks. The Weekly Standard last week had a cover story denouncing fact checkers as a liberal plot to control the political discourse. This week, PolitiFact’s decision to award its “Lie of the Year” trophy to Democratic claims that the GOP “killed” Medicare has earned it and its fact checking brethren additional scorn from the left.
Sorry, but I'm going to have to rate this one "Pants on Fire." Nobody is physically assaulting fact checkers. Also, criticism is not assault.
Also, when people criticize fact checkers for not actually checking the facts, then maybe they're not even really criticizing fact checkers, because are fact checkers really fact checkers if they aren't chucking wood—I mean, checking facts? All right, fine, scratch that last one.
Fact checking is a noble endeavor. Those of us that always had had sharp words for the national media have always pleaded, in fact, for reporters to not just repeat the words a politician deigns to impart to us all, but to do the rather more important job of determining whether or not those words are even remotely true. That turned out to be too hard, because it involves looking in books, calling people up and so forth and let's face it: Newspapers are barely hanging in there as it is. Instead, then, we have the new institution of "fact checking" reporters, neatly dividing the reporting part of journalism from the bothering to check whether it's actually true part of journalism. Don't laugh: It is almost certainly the best we're going to get. And it's still a hell of a lot better than not doing the fact checking at all.
Presuming, of course, that the fact checkers are not part of the same mindset that sent the rest of political journalism down the crapper in the first place. Dawdling through fields of false equivalences, say, or waffling between being astonishingly nitpicking in one moment, only to issue broad, dubious pronouncements in the next. The problem with fact checking is that it can be done well or poorly, just as with anything else, and doing it poorly can do more damage than not doing it at all.
Criticizing bad fact checking, then, is not the same as putting the entire (sigh) profession under assault. Deflating dubious editorializing itself masquerading as fact checking ought to be seen as a damn fine service to the cause. And yes, hostility may come with the territory—after all, nobody sets themselves up for criticism quite so easily as does a self-titled final arbiter of the truth.
The Fact Checker defense of much-put-upon fact checkers, unfortunately, strikes some sour notes. In a multi-paragraphed assertion of independence and objectivity, quite a few strawmen are propped up to serve as opposing army. The results sound, unsurprisingly, like a poor rehashing of every other defense of every other bit of bad political reporting. If the fact checkers are not captured by the same mindsets of false equivalence, faux balance, and stubborn dullness that infects so many of their political peers, they need to do a better job of proving it.
In fact, there is this strange myth out there that fact checkers aspire to be “referees” and strain to achieve a balance between the two parties. Not so. At The Fact Checker, we take a holistic approach to every fact we check.
That's lovely: A widespread critique of the political media is proclaimed a "myth" based on a sample size of One Guy. The notion of false balance is hardly an accusation hurled only at fact checkers; it is, by many critics of the modern media, considered an epidemic. The proof is in every story that follows up an obviously fraudulent he said with only a milquetoast she said, or the unending stream of "both parties do it" even in situations where, quite clearly, only one party is doing it (see: debt ceiling debacle; the current record of filibusters and other delays in the Senate; the record number of delayed executive appointments; the very next sentence after the above-quoted one).
After more than 30 years of writing about Washington institutions, we truly find there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of twisting the facts and being misleading when it suits their political purposes.
Really. You don't find there is much difference between the parties, in terms of twisting the facts and being misleading.
Here are a few words that ought to give one pause before saying such a thing: President Obama's birth certificate, as opined upon by actual Republican contenders for their presidential nomination. The widespread premise, promulgated by talking heads on Fox News and by Republican partisans, that the president is either only dubiously Christian or is secretly of the Muslim faith. The hypothesizing that the president's secret Muslim faith is causing him to be "weak" on terrorism. The assertion of conspiracies, again mainstreamed, based on Christmas cards, Christmas ornaments, an excessive number of Christmas trees, a suspicious lack of Christmas trees, etc., that the president of the United States is openly hostile to those of the Christian faith.
The madrassa mutterings, during the 2008 campaign.
Go on. Go on, and find me a Democratic example equivalent to Republican voices claiming the Democratic president is not legitimate due to invented suspicions about his birth, or heritage, or beliefs, promulgated at the same political levels. Find me the dark opining about President Bush's secret anti-Christian beliefs, as espoused on national television by national political figures. Find me those things, things of equivalent fraudulence, things as bald-faced, as offensive, as conspiracy-theory-riddled, as full of personal bile and willful disregard for the truth, things that have resulted in a double-diget subset of the American public actually believing the spiteful garbage years after their introduction.
Show me what you consider to be the countering equivalents to those mutterings by one party, and I will entertain the notion that your 30 years of experiences has found "little difference" between the parties "in terms of twisting the facts and being misleading." I might believe you, then, and not chalk it up to the premise that a vast swath of the media tortures themselves in an attempt to proclaim balance between the parties. Go, and do it. Conspiracy theories and flagrant lies of that caliber, promoted by the same number of partisans and politicians, at the same level of national discourse. I am awash in politics every day of my damned life, I have a profound distaste for both parties and nearly all politicians in general, and yet I have yet to find the bullshit-filled Democratic sack that can balance those scales.
The main difference between the two parties seems to be that the right assumes the media is out to get them (i.e., see The Weekly Standard) and the left seems to take it as a personal affront when you call them out (see the reaction to PolitiFact.)
This has not a damn thing to do with whether a criticism of PolitiFact was warranted or not. Conservatism has long since held that identical charge against every aspect of the media, not just fact checkers, so there is nothing new there; the left's critique of PolitiFact had nothing to do with personal affront and was instead based on perceived dubious logic on the part of PolitiFact, explained at great length by the critiquers. To dismiss it as personal affront seems weak at best, though again: Kudos for juxtaposing a decades-long campaign to discredit the media on the right with supposed bouts of silly emotionalism on the left. The all-important cosmic balance is maintained.
The critiques of PolitiFact—not just against a single story, but as pattern—are rather less hissy-fit oriented than the Fact Checker is willing to entertain. The whole argument over whether ending something as we know it does or does not represent ending something has seemed from the outset to be a bit on the esoteric side, at least when it comes to holding it up as one of the prime examples of discourse-shredding malfeasance. PolitiFact has had an ongoing habit of being compulsively hyper-precise for some stories, while goofily throwing up their hands at others.
Their practice of randomly choosing cardboard signs held up by street protesters or "stuff they saw on Facebook" to be placed up against flagrant falsehoods by top political leaders seems also to be, at best, spurious, but it points to the biggest difficulty faced by political fact checkers: the apparent unwillingness to differentiate between organized misinformation campaigns, which are brutally dangerous things, versus mere botched statistics or even, in some cases, dubious bits of political hyperbole. It is reasonable to call out each of these, but apparently it has been made mandatory that each be treated with equal importance.
The PolitiFact "Lie of the Year" finalists was a decent demonstration of the form, as are the Fact Checker's own choices: Assertions from random political figures are lumped in with all-encompassing, organized lies like "the stimulus created zero jobs" which were manufactured as political campaigns within themselves. That is fine as far as it goes, but the lies regarding, say, climate change are so ridiculous as to fall squarely in the realm of conspiracy theory; it seems difficult to compare inane one-off statements from random politicians to that campaign. But that is probably neither here nor there, other than as example of perfectly legitimate criticism of "fact checking" as currently practiced. Mark it down, though: I would much rather lies promoted by a political organization to be faxed off to all of their members, or lies based on focus-grouped tests of what lies might best work, or lies that are just plain more commonplace than others be somehow singled out as particularly egregious, because that is what differentiates organized propaganda from mere hyperbole or plain error.
No, I do not believe that the recent PolitiFact debacle demonstrates that fact checkers are under assault. I think that is the sort of hyperbole that the fact checkers regularly and gleefully ding politicians for on a regular basis. Getting crabby emails from readers does not count as an attack on the profession; the mere presence of critics on both left and right does not somehow magically cancel out the validity of any particular critique. PolitiFact itself offered an exceptionally pouty and narcissistic take on the affair; that editorial probably did as much damage to their desired reputation for even-handed objectivity than anything else they have done of late.
The more reasonable interpretation is that fact checking as "new profession" (and seriously, nothing is more humiliating than the notion that our media is so incompetent at verifying facts that an entirely new sub-profession needs to be assigned to the task) has a bit of growing up to do. It is, as I said before, a task that by its nature is a magnet for criticism, but that does not mean that all actual instances of fact checking are, by their mere presence, factual. Sometimes a person claiming fact-checking status will have their own partisan interests at heart; sometimes they will merely choose numbers arrived at in a different fashion; sometimes they will over-interpret a statement; sometimes they will be flatly wrong. This is not surprising.
It is also not surprising that the reputation of a fact-checking organization will rise or suffer based on the tightness, or dubiousness, of their logic. It is not an indictment of the profession. It may, however, be an indictment of individual practitioners.
Now go. Go and find the countering, just-as-egregious sort of claims that balances out things like the Democratic president is perhaps not even an American citizen, a claim that partisan pundits, multiple members of Congress, and even high-profile contenders to the Republican presidential throne all tuttered about, or demanded investigations over, or proposed legislation over, or insinuated that they had dramatic, suspicious information about. I want to see what is out there that can possibly justify the statement that there is currently little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of twisting the facts, and why it should not be discounted as exactly the sort of egregious, silly humping at the altar of balance that makes all of the media so profoundly insufferable and has inflicted upon us so many years of rigorously enforced reportorial incompetence. I want to fact check that.