by James Taranto
In the 19th-century fairy tale “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” the eponymous protagonist is a wooden puppet who dreams of becoming an actual boy. We suppose people who work as fact checkers have long dreamed of becoming writers and editors, who enjoy, respectively, the glory and the power in journalism.
The new face of journalism?
Outside the world of journalism, fact checkers were pretty much unknown until recently. Like proofreaders, they work behind the scenes. Their job is quality control. The most rigorous fact-checking operations–The New Yorker’s and Reader’s Digest’s are the best known among us who know about such things–would scrutinize every factual assertion in an article, reporting back so that any error could be corrected.
Over the past few years, many organizations have promoted “fact checkers” by making them writers, or perhaps demoted writers by making them fact checkers. No, it’s more the former, because other writers have been bowing to the “fact checkers” as submissively as Barack Obama upon meeting some anti-American dictator.
“Fact-checker findings, including those by The Washington Post’s project, figure prominently in campaign ads,” enthuses a Post news story. “The unique rating systems used by these organizations–including the trademarked Truth-O-Meter and Pinocchios–have become part of the political vernacular.” A New York Times news story laments that fact checkers “verdicts . . . are often drowned out by dissent.”
Perhaps the reason other journalists are so deferential toward the “fact checkers” is that these fact checkers, unlike the traditional ones, don’t check the facts of journalists but of politicians. By and large, they aren’t actually checking facts but making and asserting judgments about the veracity of politicians’ arguments.
The quality of their work is generally quite poor. “The MSM’s [‘mainstream’ media’s] fact-checkers often don’t know what they’re talking about,” notes Mickey Kaus, who cites an example on a subject he knows well:
The oft-cited CNN-“fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:
“The waivers gave ‘those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare rolls as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.’ “
Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.
I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.
But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysisof the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam.
The merits of the argument are beyond the scope of today’s column. It is quite possible that there are people whose knowledge of the subject is as deep as Kaus’s and Rector’s but whose honest interpretation is more favorable to the Sebelius position. An appeal to their authority could carry as much weight as our appeal to Kaus’s and Rector’s.
But an appeal to the authority of “independent fact checkers” carries no weight at all. In case you’re skeptical of this assertion, let’s look at some other examples of their output from the past week.
Here’s an excerpt from an Associated Press “fact check” of Paul Ryan’s convention speech:
RYAN: “And the biggest, coldest power play of all in Obamacare came at the expense of the elderly. . . . So they just took it all away from Medicare. Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama.”
THE FACTS: Ryan’s claim ignores the fact that Ryan himself incorporated the same cuts into budgets he steered through the House in the past two years as chairman of its Budget Committee. . . .
RYAN: “The stimulus was a case of political patronage, corporate welfare and cronyism at their worst. You, the working men and women of this country, were cut out of the deal.”
THE FACTS: Ryan himself asked for stimulus funds shortly after Congress approved the $800 billion plan.
In both of these cases, the AP neither disputes nor verifies the factual accuracy of Ryan’s statements. Each of these is simply a tu quoque–an argument against Ryan. Under the guise of fact checking, the AP is simply taking sides in a partisan political dispute.
The most disputed portion of Ryan’s speech involved the closing of a General Motors plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wis. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal Friday defended Ryan’s account against “the press corps ‘fact checkers’ and the liberals who love them.”
But even the so-called fact checkers can’t agree on the facts. PolitiFact rated Ryan’s account “false,” while CNN.com called it “true but incomplete.” Anyone who really believes in the authority of “fact checkers” has a liar’s paradox problem.
Sometimes the so-called checks are just red herrings. Here’s an example from ABC News:
In comparing President Obama to Jimmy Carter, Ryan said in July 1980 the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent and “for the past 42 months it’s been above 8 percent under Barack Obama’s failed leadership.”
Both parts of this sentence are true according to the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, but in July 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, unemployment was at 9.4 percent. In July 1982 it was higher at 9.8 percent.
In July 1992, when George H.W. Bush was president, unemployment was at 7.7 percent.
Is what Ryan said factually correct? Yes, but it leaves out some important data.
Ryan compared Obama to Carter. AP thinks he should also (or instead) have compared Obama to Reagan and Bush. There is no factual dispute here whatever.
Sometimes the “fact checkers” are ignorant even of facts that, in contrast with the welfare material above, require no special expertise to know. This is from aCNN.com “fact check”:
In a new policy paper, his Republican rival for the White House, Mitt Romney, says, “President Obama has intentionally sought to shut down oil, gas, and coal production in pursuit of his own alternative energy agenda.” . . .
Obama has, for sure, angered some oil and coal producers by steering federal money to alternative energy sources. But there is no evidence that he is trying to “shut down” traditional energy industries.
No evidence? How about Obama’s own words? “So, if somebody wants to build a coal-powered plant, they can. It’s just that it will bankrupt them, because they’re going to be charged a huge sum for all that greenhouse gas that’s being emitted.”
Sometimes the “fact checkers” simply pronounce trivial truths. From the AP on Mitt Romney’s convention speech:
ROMNEY: “I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs. It has five steps.”
THE FACTS: No one says he can’t, but economic forecasters are divided on his ability to deliver. He’d have to nearly double the anemic pace of job growth lately.
This is like “fact checking” somebody’s wedding vows by asserting that while marriage can be wonderful, it’s hard work and ends in divorce half the time.
Among “fact checkers,” the worst of a bad lot may be the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler. On Thursday afternoon he actually wrote a post called “Previewing the ‘Facts’ in Mitt Romney’s Acceptance Speech.” With those scare quotes, he declared the Republican nominee a liar before Romney had even opened his mouth.
Conservative blogger Stacy McCain describes “the pattern for Republican National Convention coverage: Democrats choose their themes, issue their talking points and their media henchpersons then repeat the partisan spin as if it were a matter of indisputable fact.” Kessler didn’t wait; he wrote the talking points himself.
The usual conservative complaint about all this “fact checking” is the same as the conservative complaint about the MSM’s product in general: that it is overwhelmingly biased toward the left. But the form amplifies the bias. It gives journalists much freer rein to express their opinions by allowing them to pretend to be rendering authoritative judgments about the facts. The result, as we’ve seen, is shoddy arguments and shoddier journalism.
The partisan fault-finding directed against Republicans is accompanied by partisan excuse-making for Democrats. Thus ABCNews.com tries yet again to rationalize away Obama’s most notorious presidential utterance:
Greeting Air Force One as it touched down [in Iowa] under sunny skies and sultry heat was a hand-painted banner draped across the top of an airplane hangar that reads, “Obama Welcome to SUX–We Did Build This.” “SUX” is the airport code for Sioux City.
The message appeared to be a response President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” remark from a July campaign rally, when he was trying to explain that government–not businesses–constructed public infrastructure on which the economy relies.
“Obama is casting his net for the moron vote,” wrote R. Emmett Tyrrell in a recent column. “I do not believe that there are enough morons out there to reelect him.” But if ABC is right that Obama found it necessary to “explain” that government builds “public infrastructure,” the president is also making a play for the idiot vote.
Bad journalism feeds into ever-more-extreme rhetoric from the left. “Last night, Paul Ryan lied to the American people,” wrote Brenda Witt of MoveOn.org in a Thursday email. “Some journalists and outlets covered Ryan’s lies. But others failed to check the facts and didn’t call Ryan out on his brazen lies.” The San Francisco Chronicle reports:
Greetings from the California delegation breakfast at the DNC where before he had a cup of coffee Democratic Party Chair John Burton–much like his ol’ palGuv Jerry Brown once did–just compared the Republicans to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, for “telling the big lie,” a reference to several [putative] falsehoods GOP VP nominee Paul Ryan recently told.
“They lie and they don’t care if people think they lie . . . Joseph Goebbels–it’s the big lie, you keep repeating it,” Burton said Monday before the Blake Hotel breakfast. He said Ryan told “a bold-faced lie and he doesn’t care that it was a lie. That was Goebbels, the big lie.”
You see the progression. Journalists claiming to be engaged in “fact checking” make tendentious arguments against Republicans. Left-wing partisans rely on the authority of the “fact checkers” to call their opponents liars or even Nazis.
One gets a sense of desperation from both the Democrats, who are trying to re-elect a president with a lousy record, and the MSM, who are trying to restore the authority they enjoyed when they aspired to objectivity, or at least pretended convincingly to do so.
Obama may yet eke out an ugly victory, but the decline of the MSM’s authority seems inexorable. And it’s not only “fact checkers” who are acting like out-and-out partisans. Time’s Joe Klein is “the Pope of American political journalists” according to the French newspaper Le Nouvel Observateur. RealClearPolitics notes an ex cathedra pronouncement he made the other day when he granted an audience to the New York Times’s Helene Cooper:
Cooper: Four years of covering Barack Obama, he does not play the race card. Not in a negative way. He does not do that.
Klein: He hates it. He hates it. He probably should, though. He probably should address it because the bitterness out there is really becoming marked.
Some may dispute Cooper’s claim that Obama doesn’t “play the race card.” But Klein’s assertion that he “probably should” is really quite stunning. It’s almost certainly bad advice. Indeed, we’d say following it in 2008 would have been one of the few ways he could have lost to John McCain. Successful or not, the attempt to foment racial division would be as repugnant coming from a black leftist as from a white conservative.
Above all, though: What in the world is a journalist doing offering such rancid advice? In general terms, the same thing all those “fact checkers” are doing. Also the same thing journalists did when they slandered the Tea Party as racist, and when they wrote puff pieces about ObamaCare and insisted the public would learn to love it, and when they falsely blamed conservatives for the Tucson massacre.
During the Obama era, so-called mainstream journalism has increasingly been characterized by a blurring of the distinction between not only fact and opinion but opinion and propaganda. One can only hope the audience sees matters more clearly.
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This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal on Sept. 4, 2012.