The 'Fact Checking' Fad
In a September 1984 campaign speech, Walter Mondale, the Democratic presidential nominee and former vice president, asked, "Do you really want Jerry Falwell to pick the next two judges to the Supreme Court?" What reminded us of this was a story from yesterday's New York Times, written by Patrick Healy, which begins as follows:
There is no way, of course, that Senator Barack Obama would ever nominate three controversial figures from his past to serve on the United States Supreme Court: the convicted felon Antoin Rezko; the former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers; or Mr. Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.
Yet the names and faces of the three men appear in a new television advertisement–running in Michigan and Ohio this week and nationally on Fox News on Monday, at a total cost of $500,000–arguing that Mr. Obama's judgment about his associates shows that he cannot be trusted to pick justices for the Supreme Court.
We wondered if the Times had thought it necessary back in '84 to point out that only the president has the power to make nominations to the federal bench, that Falwell was not running for president, that there was no way he would end up holding any office that would put him in the line of presidential succession, and, therefore, that the premise of Mondale's question was false.
Nope. Times reporter Fay Joyce merely quoted Mondale, apparently confident that her readers would be smart enough to distinguish political hyperbole from fact.
So why, a generation later, does the Times begin an article by rebutting an assertion that the ad in question (watch it here) does not even make? Because 2008 is the year in which "fact checking" of political ads and statements became a full-blown journalistic fad. May it soon go the way of streaking and Mexican jumping beans.
The "fact check" is opinion journalism or criticism, masquerading as straight news. The object is not merely to report facts but to pass a judgment. The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog ends each assessment with between one and four "Pinocchios," just like movie reviewers giving out stars.
Like movie reviewing, the "fact check" is a highly subjective process. If a politician makes a statement that is flatly false, it does not need to be "fact checked." The facts themselves are sufficient. "Fact checks" end up dealing in murkier areas of context and emphasis, making it very easy for the journalist to make up standards as he goes along, applying them more rigorously to the candidate he disfavors (which usually means the Republican).
Example: USA Today has a "reality check" of a McCain ad whose script runs as follows:
Narrator: "Who is Barack Obama? He says our troops in Afghanistan are . . .
Obama: ". . . just air-raiding villages and killing civilians."
Narrator: "How dishonorable. Congressional liberals voted repeatedly to cut off funding to our active troops, increasing the risk on their lives. How dangerous. Obama and congressional liberals: too risky for America."
The USA Today headline reads "Quote From Obama Taken Out of Context." In a way this is a tautology, since a quotation by definition is taken out of its original context (and placed in a new one). But of course the phrase out of context usually connotes "used in a misleading way." Is that the case here? Here is a longer version of the Obama quote, per USA Today:
"We've got to get the job done there, and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there."
One the one hand, Obama was making a broader argument, which the McCain ad ignores: that America should send more troops to Afghanistan. On the other hand, Obama clearly did assert that America is "air-raiding villages and killing civilians" (the subsequent clause makes that undeniable), though one could argue about whether he was asserting or merely worrying that we are "just" doing so.
USA Today's "reality check" quotes another news organization's "fact check":
After Obama made that statement, the Associated Press produced a "fact check." It concluded that "Western forces (in Afghanistan) have been killing civilians at a faster rate than the insurgents have been killing civilians."
This certainly raises more questions than it answers. Given that the enemy in Afghanistan does not distinguish itself from the civilian population, how many of the putative civilians who have died in attacks by the West were actually enemy combatants? And on what basis does one assign blame for civilian casualties when the West attacks terrorists who are hiding among civilians?
A look at the original AP "fact check" shows that it is based on number from . . . the Associated Press! The AP admits that "tracking civilian deaths is a difficult task," but it takes its own numbers as definitive, although it apparently makes no effort to deal with the questions we raised in the preceding paragraph.
In any case, the AP's dubious numbers are hardly relevant to the truth of the McCain ad's assertion about what Obama said. And why is it necessary for USA Today to have an opinion on the latter point anyway? Why not just report what the McCain ad said, report what Obama said, and let the reader make up his own mind?
Somehow these reportorial "checks" almost always seem to come out in Obama's favor. Is that because he is the more honest candidate, or because he is the candidate reporters find more attractive? Here's an example that strongly suggests the latter, again from the Associated Press:
Corsi's book claims the Illinois senator is a dangerous, radical candidate for president and includes innuendoes and false rumors–that he was raised a Muslim and attended a radical black church.
Obama is a Christian who attended Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and his campaign picks apart the book's claims on the Web site FightTheSmears.com.
It is a "false rumor" that Trinity United is a "radical black church"? It's hard to see how anyone could believe this even as a matter of opinion, but for the AP to present it as fact makes a mockery of journalism.