As the traditional media’s news divisions have been forced to enter the 24-hour news cycle (meaning they have a lot more time to fill each day), and they’ve become profit centers (meaning they’re now expected to compete not just on ratings but in revenue against not just each other, but CSI:Miami and American Idol, too), the budgets for in-depth, investigative journalism has gotten smaller and smaller almost with every passing year. Foreign bureaus are shuttered, departments are “combined,” and – most noticeably – the fact-checking often gets short shrift, if it’s even performed at all.
That’s led over time to the journalists themselves at various major news outlets actually coming to adopt the much-maligned (in the blogosphere) position of preferring a false sense of balance – of insisting that there are two sides to every question, and each side’s ideas are always equally worthy – over actually determining who is right and who is either wrong or lying. It doesn’t take a rocket surgeon to figure out that’s a big step down from the days when Joseph Pulitzer proclaimed loudly that “a newspaper should have no friends.” Increasingly, to avoid the everpresent spin of politicians and, increasingly, the corporations who employ them (sigh), the fact-checking has been outsourced to external groups not associated with the news outfits themselves. This can range from Media Matters on the left to News Busters/MRC on the right, but recent years have also seen the rise of self-proclaimed “independent” fact-checking organizations. By “independent,” they mean not clearly affiliated with any particular ideology or political party in the way that both News Busters and Media Matters are.
So that’s good, right? I mean, a truly “independent” fact-checking outfit restores the lost functions of the news departments of yore, pledging their allegiance ONLY to the facts, with impartiality foremost in their considerations, doesn’t it?
Well, not necessarily.
The two big players these days are the St. Petersburg Times’ (FL) PolitiFact, and the Annenberg foundation’s FactCheck.org. Both have served the public well on many occasions, ferreting out howling misstatements and outright lies from various politicians and corporate mouthpieces – and even a good number from journalists themselves. But I think PolitiFact and FactCheck.org stating they’re non-partisan, non-ideological and devoted only to the facts, causes problems of its own. Why? Not because either of those two organizations has necessarily exhibited a marked bias which they try to cover up under the guise of some slickly-innocuous-sounding motto like FAUX “News” “Fair And Balanced.” There’s certainly no evidence of that kind of sustained, large-scale deception being alleged about either of these two independent fact-checking outfits. But both PolitiFact and FactCheck.org get a free pass in the public consciousness on the partisanship/suspected bias issue that neither Media Matters nor News Busters does, and I think it leads to an undeserved bias toward favoring the judgments of the former over the latter.
Media Matters’ staffers have, on various occasions, exasperatedly pointed out that just because they are “dedicated to comprehensively monitoring, analyzing, and correcting conservative misinformation in the U.S. media,” it does not automatically follow that their research and results are suspect. Yes, both MM and NB technically fit the literal definition of biased (“a particular tendency or inclination, especially one that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question“). But notice that the definition does not require that the “particular tendency or inclination” be one “that prevents unprejudiced consideration of a question.” It merely states that the term applies even more to such a tendency or inclination (liberalism or conservatism in this instance) which does prevent such unprejudiced consideration. I think that’s a fine bit of nuance, but an important one. The lack of distinguishing between merely having a political perspective and being so blinded by it that one cannot possibly consider questions which enter the realm of one’s inclination is what has allowed uncounted debaters to discount a person’s arguments merely because the person is known to possess certain views on the subject. In traditional logic, this is a fallacy called “Circumstantial Ad Hominem.” It leaps to the conclusion that any arguments X made in support of position A by any person who either benefits personally from position A or is a known proponent of position A previously can be discarded because they are biased. Such arguments MAY be biased, but assuming they always will be denies that a person can form solid, defensible arguments for a position simply because they are already known to support that position. “You’re just saying that because you’re a Republican (or Democrat)” is the essence of such flawed dismissals, in the political realm.
Both Media Matters and News Busters and outfits like them, which do not hide their political leanings, are often mistakenly assumed by some people to be incapable of producing arguments that are anything more than homages to the political philosophies those outfits already support. Fact-checking outfits like PolitiFact and FactCheck.org, simply by virtue of claiming to be interested only in the facts and having no leanings or bias, avoid all such questions. Or, at least, they avoid them the vast majority of the time, far more often than either News Busters or Media Matters do. This is an impossible-to-quantify but nevertheless quite tangibly valuable advantage in the credibility department. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve quoted thoroughly-researched pieces from Media Matters when engaged in online arguments with some wingnut, who will invariably say (as soon as the see where the URL leads): “oh, Media Matters. They’re a ‘far-left smear site’. You expect me to believe THEM?” The implication being, I suppose, that it can’t be true if it’s Media Matters who’s saying it, because they’re just saying whatever they can to advance the cause of Team Progressive. PolitiFact and FactCheck.org don’t face that kind of skepticism and outright dismissiveness about their claims.
And that becomes a problem when stories like this one arise:
The Annenburg Public Policy School’s FactCheck.org refuses to back down to its “angry readers” in response to an article it published wrongly attacking Democrats for correctly pointing out that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit. As Dean notes on Beat the Press, the “on-budget” budget numbers are available here and here. They should probably check those facts.
Yup. They probably should. As should the readers of the FactCheck.org , web site, very few of whom probably approach that site – even if they are fairly sophisticated consumers of modern news – with anything approaching the sort of skepticism with which they approach regular news outlets. And that’s a shame, because it means that, on the occasions (which have seemed more-frequent these days) when FactChuck is simply flatly, provably wrong, most of the people reading their judgment won’t know it, and might not even believe it if someone told them. Fact-checking outfits – whether explicitly affiliated with particular political persuasions or not – are simply human, folks. They get it wrong, they make bad judgments, they don’t have all the facts, sometimes. And even if they claim to be totally unbiased, they’re sometimes not. I have no idea whether in this particular instance, FactChuck got it wrong because of error, bias or the moon being in Scorpio or something….but get it wrong, they did.