Checking the Fact-checkers

Checkbox iconFact-checking politicians seems to be the journalistic "in" thing to do this campaign season. Aside from the self-aggrandizing nature of such pronouncements, there isn't anything necessarily wrong with the concept.

The devil is in the details, however. Over at the Wall Street Journal, James Taranto notes that these esoteric fact check stories too often end up as opinion pieces criticizing the policies or rhetoric of politicians.

In more cases than not, it's Republicans who bear the brunt of such "corrections," simply because truth in politics is often a highly subjective thing. Taranto focuses on one particular fact check by USA Today criticizing a John McCain ad for quoting Barack Obama out of context:

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.

Read the rest.

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013