Fact Chuck

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.

3 thoughts on “Fact Chuck

  1. I agree with your point that having a bias doesn’t necessarily undermine the argument (or fact check). But come on. Media Matter has its reputation because the average quality of its fact checks is low. Though when it comes down to it, PolitiFact isn’t much better. I’d call Annenberg the best of the lot, but I’d love to see your best example where they simply flubbed a fact check.

    1. I’m not an inveterate collector of examples of badly fact-checked stories, so I’m sure I’m missing better examples here, but the 2005 NARAL kerfuffle comes to mind pretty readily.

      If you’re not familiar with it, NARAL put out an ad urging supporters to call their Senators to tell them to vote no on John Roberts’ nomination. FactCheck went after it, flatly declaring the ad “false.” In response, NARAL circulated a letter via email, showing that although FactCheck may have disagreed with the slant and methods of the ad, the facts themselves were correct.

      Which they were.

      My own take on that ad was that it was indeed somewhat misleading. The ad makes no mention of the fact that Roberts was not actually defending the “violent anti-abortion group” or the “clinic bomber” by acting as their attorney, but was instead arguing the government’s position (that the basis for the protesters’ blocking the clinic was not discrimination against women, since they did it to boyfriends and husbands of women seeking abortion, not exclusively to women). I agree that simply stating “Roberts filed court briefs supporting violent fringe groups and a convicted clinic bomber” can lead the viewer to the false conclusion that Roberts actually supported or defended clinic bombers for their actions AS bombers. I would have supported a rating of “biased” or “misleading” for the ad, but not a verdict of simply “false,” because in fact, as the NARAL follow-up letter reiterated, Roberts DID file court briefs supporting those people.

      When it comes to fact-checking, I think it’s important to define one’s terms, as well as one’s goals – especially if one expects to be held up as a neutral arbiter of who’s right and wrong when a statement’s accuracy is disputed. Karl Rove has made a career out of (among other things) phrasing things in a way that is technically true, but misleading. It’s why he’s never been indicted, despite being guilty many times over of flagrant violations of existing law. He’s very good at knowing juuuust how much he can get away with before he’ll step over the line unambiguously enough to be indicted or convicted. Tom Delay thought he could pull the same tricks, but apparently that didn’t go quite so well in his case. And this NARAL ad is of the same caliber (though there’s nothing technically illegal about NARAL’s actions, even if the FactCheck analysis was 100% correct).

      Therein lies the rub, however: the FactCheck analysis is NOT 100% correct. Had they pointed out that the ad was weaselly or misleading, I’d have supported their analysis completely. But they said “false,” which has a very, VERY specific meaning…and they failed quite thoroughly to make that case.

  2. Lars,
    Thanks for the detailed and generally reasonable reply, and especially for the concrete example I requested of you. I may go back and pick at that NARAL/Annenberg scab a bit for fun–my impression after skimming the material is that we now have a pretty similar opportunity to point out that Roberts sides with virulently anti-homosexual hate groups who disrupt the funerals of our military dead.
    But the devil’s always in the details, so I’m planning a closer look.

    Cheers.

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