It’s a laudable goal. With the rise of the internet, terabytes of digital speeches, TV ads, talk shows, and pure data from universities and government agencies all readily available, there are fewer excuses for factual errors in political speech now than ever before. But with so much information and misinformation, it’s hard for anyone to know what is true and what isn’t in politics. It was inevitable for the old debate truth squads to go 24/7.
Unfortunately, instead of making politics less divisive by ensuring that everyone is playing with the same set of facts, they’ve either made little difference or they’ve made things worse. Despite the number of fact checking groups like Politifact, Factcheck.org, the Washington Post’s fact checker team, Americans are now as cynical as they’ve ever been, and the idea that politicians continually lie has become so pervasive that most folks would consider “politician” and “liar” to be synonymous.
Why is that? Well, in my opinion, it’s because they’re doing it wrong.
As John Adams once remarked, facts are stubborn things. So stubborn that they are either true or false. Which is why we all should be skeptical of fact check sites that rate statements on a sliding scale. Either it’s true or it isn’t. There’s really no in between when it comes to facts. A fact being “mostly true” or “mostly false” is like being “kind of pregnant.” It’s one or the other. There is no in between.
This is where the fact checkers fail, and why so many commentators – including we at Bearing Drift – have been calling them out on it. Most political speech isn’t built on facts – it’s built on opinion. The result is that professional fact checkers constantly fall prey to the human failing of the “yes, but” retort. Too often, their attempts at fact checking don’t end with “this statement is true,” and instead go into a “yes, but” debate with the speaker. This has resulted in the inevitable calls of bias – from both sides. The Obama campaign strenuously objected to Factcheck.org’s review of their Romney/Bain ads and, in Virginia, the Republican Party of Virginia attacked Politifact with a 30+ page rebuttal of their ratings of Republicans as we’ve reported. Most of these groups have come in for similar criticism, and for good reason. They aren’t just checking facts – they’re demanding that politicians present both sides to the story. That’s just not reasonable.
The perfect example of this is Paul Ryan’s speech last week. As I noted the morning after, of the three things he was most attacked on – the Janesville plant closing, the Simpson-Bowles Commission, and the Medicare cuts – each statement he made was true. Yet he was still branded a liar, and Politifact rated all three statements “false” or “mostly false” and Factcheck.org wrote a long piece “debunking” the statements. Why? Because he didn’t go into full disclosure and detail mode on his statements.
Here’s the thing – he didn’t have to. What Ryan said in each statement he made was factually accurate. Politifact claimed what he said was misleading, which is their opinion, not a fact. Politicians using facts to persuade and not giving the entire context is to be expected, and there’s nothing wrong with it. We can’t expect a politician to act like a journalist or a lobbyist, presenting both sides of every story. That’s not what they do. As Gabriel Mallor noted in the New York Daily News, “the bottom line is that the fact checker criticisms of Ryan’s speech come in only one form: ‘Yes it’s true, but here’s some context that Democrats want to talk about.’ That’s not fact checking; that’s advocacy. And it’s not persuasive, it’s absurd.”
And that’s the point – Ryan’s statements weren’t false, so calling them false is dumb. We should expect more from folks who want to sit in judgment over “the truth.”
When fact checkers stop actually checking facts and begin checking opinion or try to place facts in “context,” they enter into murky water where bias is inevitable. A Republican is going to say that the stimulus failed and a Democrat will say it succeeded. There’s no agreed upon metric to determine success or failure of that kind of legislation, so you’re left with arguments on both sides that are both valid and invalid, depending on the point of few. Same with many, many types of political statements.
Fact check organizations need to take a step back and recognize that if they want to check facts, that’s one thing, but they should be very careful to check facts and facts only, and check their opinions on what a politician really meant at the door. As Politifact learned earlier this year, if you start talking about things outside the scope of your goal, you open yourself up to criticism.
And, what’s worse, you exacerbate the cynicism of an American people who are already too cynical as it is.