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Fact-checkers blurring the line between facts and meaning

Posted by Mark Leccese  September 17, 2012 08:28 AM

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Never have journalists and “non-partisan” organizations published as much fact-checking of candidates’ speeches, TV ads and press conference statements as this election season, and for the most part the fact-checks provide a useful and valuable service to the public discourse.

Not all the time, though — only for the most part. The fact checkers too often confuse facts with context and, worse, with meaning.

Plenty of examples from the past couple of months exist, but I’ll focus on two from FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, the first and one of the most respected fact-checking organizations.

On August 31, FactCheck.org posted an article on Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s convention speech titled “Another Middle-Class Falsehood.” The piece focused on Romney’s statement that “unlike President Obama, I will not raise taxes on the middle class.” FactCheck.org stated: “But Obama has not raised taxes on middle-income taxpayers, and, in fact, he has targeted tax cuts and credits to benefit them.”

The Republican nominee did not explain what he meant by his remarks. But some Republicans have claimed that the president’s health care law amounts to a tax on the middle class, because it imposes a penalty on those who do not buy health insurance. But, as we have written before, those arguments are overstated.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that about 3 million taxpayers earning less than $120,000 will pay an average penalty of $667 by 2016 [emphasis added].

Whether the fine for not having health insurance under Obamacare is a “tax” or a “penalty” remains in dispute. The Supreme Court of the United States, in its June 28 opinion, specifically called it a tax. Many Republicans and opponents of Obama hold the same view – they call it a tax.

For FactCheck.org to airily dismiss this view as “overstated” is not fact checking, it is taking a political position. Facts are indisputable. What name to attach to something is not.

Another example: On September 7, after Vice President Joe Biden’s speech to the Democratic National Convention, FactCheck.org published an article titled “Biden’s bin Laden Baloney.”

Biden repeated the Obama campaign’s claim — previously made in a Web ad — that Romney said that “it’s not worth moving heaven and earth, and spending billions of dollars” to catch Osama bin Laden.

The claim, which Republicans disputed, fails to include the rest of Romney’s quote from an Associated Press story. Romney said the country’s focus should not be on one person, but it should be a “broader strategy to defeat the Islamic jihad movement.”

Romney: “I think, I wouldn’t want to over-concentrate on Bin Laden. He’s one of many, many people who are involved in this global Jihadist effort. He’s by no means the only leader. It’s a very diverse group – Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood and of course different names throughout the world. It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person. It is worth fashioning and executing an effective strategy to defeat global, violent Jihad and I have a plan for doing that.”

Hold on a minute. That Romney said “It’s not worth moving heaven and earth and spending billions of dollars just trying to catch one person” is a fact. FactCheck.org demonstrates that it is a fact by quoting Romney. That Biden failed to include the sentences around Romney’s quote does not make it any less of a fact.

Reading the complete quote, it sure sounds to me that if Romney had been president he would not have dedicated the resources and focus Obama did to capturing or killing Osama bin Laden. The context adds nuance and fills out Romney’s policy position, but it doesn’t change the meaning of the one-sentence quote.

That’s my interpretation. It is not FactCheck.org’s interpretation, and FactCheck.org’s interpretation is far more influential than mine. But it is essential to recognize that FactCheck.org is interpreting the statements of Biden and Romney, not fact-checking them.

The fact-checkers should stick to checking demonstrable, verifiable facts.

If journalists and organizations are going to vet candidates’ statements, they need to tell the public that they are vetting the statements for context and meaning and not claim to be checking facts. The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein insists on a distinction in fact-check pieces between “the true, the false, and the misleading.”

That makes sense to me. Don’t tell your readers you are rendering an objective judgment on facts when you are rendering a subjective judgment about whether a statement is misleading.

An argument can be made that Biden, by not putting Romney’s quote in context, misled his audience. Or you can argue that it is misleading to call a sanction for behavior that is contrary to law a tax and not a penalty. Either way, an argument is not a fact.

Or you could take the more skeptical position that all this “fact-checking” matters little in the midst of a campaign, as does Jack Shafer, the media critic at Reuters.

As much as I applaud the fact-checker profession — it’s vital for politicians to know that we know that they know they’re lying — the enterprise is a mug’s game. Of course politicians and their campaigns lie. Of course they continue to lie even when called out. If you think otherwise, you’re looking for truth in all the wrong places.

Shafer’s point is clear-eyed and practical, but if the fact checkers themselves would be a little more factual about what they say they're checking, maybe the whole enterprise wouldn’t be such a mug’s game.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.


This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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