JESUS SAID, “ANYONE COMMITTED TO THE TRUTH HEARS MY VOICE.” PILATE SAID, “TRUTH, WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?”
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
September 9, 2012, 6:54 p.m. ET
Double-Checking the Journalist ‘Fact Checkers’
Their claims of campaign falsehoods are often a matter of opinion.
By L. GORDON CROVITZ
The political season brings out the worst in many, but it’s still surprising that some journalists are reliving the good old days when the media claimed a monopoly on truth. Decades ago Walter Cronkite could sign off his CBS News broadcasts by declaring from on high, “And that’s the way it is.” Journalists can no longer claim that only they know the way it is.
Reporting as “fact checking” might have started as a check on outright falsehoods, but it has morphed into a technique for supposedly nonpartisan journalists to present opinion as “facts.” The credibility of reporting has enough problems without claiming objectivity while practicing subjectivity. Not when anyone with an Internet connection can discover the difference.
It’s important to distinguish between true untruths and pretend untruths. For example, both the Obama and Romney campaigns deserved to be called out for the untruths of running advertisements clearly quoting each other out of context.
But cheerleaders for a more aggressive definition of “fact checking” have a different agenda. Justifying journalism that takes sides, New York University professor Jay Rosen claimed in his PressThink blog that Republicans are pursuing a “post-truth strategy in electioneering.” Rem Rieder, editor of the American Journalism Review, posted an article last week praising the media’s “aggressive” fact checking of the Paul Ryan acceptance speech as a “watershed moment.” The Week magazine captured the braying of the media pack in a headline: “The Media Coverage of Paul Ryan’s Speech: 15 Euphemisms for ‘Lying.’”
Since the Republican convention, there’s been bipartisan fact checking of the fact checkers. Mickey Kaus, a Democrat who ran for Senate in California in 2010, posted an item on his blog last week on “why the Fact-Checkosphere is failing,” in which he cited “the ease—rather, the constant temptation—of presenting debatable policy issues as right/wrong fact issues.” He wrote that when journalists claim that a candidate has lied, it “opens up a giant sluice for the introduction of concealed bias, especially when the ‘facts’ are fed to the fact-checkers by the competing campaign.”
Mr. Kaus added: “Fact checkers often don’t know what they’re talking about.” He pointed to the drumbeat of accusation that the Romney-Ryan campaign was wrong to say the Obama administration had relaxed work requirements for welfare. Mr. Kaus argued to the contrary that administration claims were “bureaucratic fakery.” A Brookings Institution analyst likewise told the Fiscal Times that the new policy would enable the administration to “undermine the work requirement” if this was the intent. In short, this is a policy debate, not a question of fact.
The Romney campaign may have invited media interest when one of its pollsters, Neil Newhouse, defended the campaign’s advertisements by saying: “Fact-checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs and you know what? We’re not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
Ironically, President Obama then misquoted Mr. Newhouse in a campaign speech on Aug. 29 by claiming that the pollster had instead said: “We won’t have the fact checkers dictate our campaign. We will not let the truth get in the way.” As an article in Washington Post noted, Mr. Newhouse “did not say Romney’s campaign ‘will not let the truth get in the way’—his argument was that fact checkers do not have the final say on what is and isn’t true.”
Misquotes are a problem, but accusations of lying are often politics by another means. As Washington Post “Fact Checker” Glenn Kessler wrote, “Ryan was so quickly labeled a fibber by the Obama campaign that one suspects it was a deliberate effort to tear down his reputation as a policy expert, similar to using attacks on Romney’s Bain Capital record to undermine his reputation as a skilled business executive.” Another Post writer, Erik Wemple, highlighted the humor in the self-referential nature of fact checking as journalism by referring to one of his blog posts as “second in an endless, tireless, exhaustive and hairsplitting series about the fact-checking industry.”
Readers know that digital technology means they no longer have to rely on the media to pass judgment on what politicians say. Voters can go to the source and make up their own minds.
Consider President Obama’s “You didn’t build that” quote, which became such a staple of the Romney campaign that Mr. Obama made a counter-advertisement claiming: “Those ads taking my words about small business out of context—they’re flat-out wrong.” Watch the video of “You didn’t build that” at http://bit.ly/RKNEZ3 and decide for yourself if the president was more sincere when he spoke or when he backpedaled.
Democracy always means politicians will duke it out over both what is true and what is the best policy. But now readers can go over the heads of the media and figure out the truth on their own.
About L. Gordon Crovitz
Gordon Crovitz is a media and information industry advisor and executive, including former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, executive vice president of Dow Jones and president of its Consumer Media Group. He has been active in digital media since the early 1990s, overseeing the growth of The Wall Street Journal Online to more than one million paying subscribers, making WSJ.com the largest paid news site on the Web. He launched the Factiva business-search service and led the acquisition for Dow Jones of the MarketWatch Web site, VentureOne database, Private Equity Analyst newsletter and online news services VentureWire (Silicon Valley), e-Financial News (London) and VWD (Frankfurt).
He is co-founder of Journalism Online, a member of the board of directors of ProQuest and Blurb and is on the board of advisors of several early-stage companies, including SocialMedian (sold to XING), UpCompany, Halogen Guides, YouNoodle, Peer39, SkyGrid, ExpertCEO and Clickability. He is an investor in Betaworks, a New York incubator for startups, and in Business Insider.
Earlier in his career, Gordon wrote the “Rule of Law” column for the Journal and won several awards including the Gerald Loeb Award for business commentary. He was editor and publisher of the Far Eastern Economic Review in Hong Kong and editorial-page editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe in Brussels.
He graduated from the University of Chicago and has law degrees from Wadham College, Oxford University, which he attended as a Rhodes scholar, and Yale Law School.