by Matthew L. Schafer
Recently, PolitiFact, a fact checking organization within the St. Petersburg Times, has been receiving heat. It recently gave the “Lie of the Year” award to a whole slew of Democratic claims that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget proposal would “end medicare.” This caused a backlash from commentators like Paul Krugman (who has fared quite well in PolitiFact rankings), Steve Benen, and Alex Pareene.
“The people at Politifact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other,” Krugman argued. “So they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’ — and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.”
Pareene agreed with Krugman’s assessment that PolitiFact (or fact checking generally) is broken, stating, “fact-checking practiced under the operating rules of ‘unbiased’ ‘objective’ political journalism will sometimes just highlight the failings of ‘unbiased’ ‘objective’ political journalism.”
Specifically, Pareene argues that fact checking isn’t different from news organizations’ normal he said/she said approach, which highlights the arguments of competing sides and lets the reader decide which side makes more sense.
Frankly, Pareene, Benen, and Krugman are wrong. First, the smell wafting off of Pareene’s article is that it is somehow disingenuous to “debunk” political exaggerations. What Pareene doesn’t grasp is simple: If you don’t want it debunked, don’t resort to hyperbole.
“The idea is that scare-mongering is basically the same thing as deceiving, which seems to make it extremely difficult to make a forceful political argument, in cases where you believe your opponent’s policies would make things radically worse,” Pareene said.
It is as if Pareene would like to draw a line somewhere between a shadow cast by a falsehood and a shadow cast by an exaggeration. The problem being, of course, there really isn’t a distinction between the two.
Second, some statements have strands of truth and falsity, and sometimes the falsity will be so great that it will obscure the truth. As an exemplar, how about political cartoons? Many are based on some amount of truth, but make their point by adding a cup of exaggeration for flavor. Recognizing this, Politifact doesn’t have a binary scale, but rather a variety of rankings: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. In an effort to get it “right,” PolitiFacts has to make editorial choices. Indeed, what’s the difference between mostly true or half true? This, however, is exactly the risk that PolitiFact has agreed to open itself up to in order to better inform its readers.
Third, Pareene ironically relies on political insiders–the supposed problem of PolitiFact according to Pareene–to support the claim: “The press has a real and serious need for a mechanism by which it can report the unvarnished truth, which by necessity involves judgment calls and the application of critical thinking that can often look like ‘bias.’ Right now, the most prominent version of that mechanism has revealed itself to be as flawed as the rest of the political press.”
Obviously, the press needs a mechanism to report the “truth.” That is exactly what PolitiFact is trying to do, while at the same time recognizing that fact is more elusive than Yeti. Unlike traditional he said/she said reporting, PolitiFact sets out in search of the elusive monster, instead of leaving it up to the ill-informed reader to decide without any guidance. (Additionally, notice that in Pareene article, as well as many others, there is no real suggestion of an alternative, what that alternative would look like, or how it would “solve” the failings of PolitiFact.)
The lesser point is political commentators attacking PolitiFact are doing exactly what their job description is: commentating, because they are either happy or unhappy with the result. The greater point is one has to take the bitter with the sweet. PolitiFact provides a valuable service. If nothing else, at least PolitiFact takes the time to lay out in clear bullet points what Ryan’s plan does and offers support for those points, all the while telling us why some exaggerated claims are, in fact, wrong. That is more than one can say for most articles about medicare.
Give PolitiFact a break. It sure is doing the reader a lot more favors than those criticizing it. Of course it’s not infallible, but its defendable. Instead of PolitiFact’s tagline “sorting out the truth in politics,” maybe those critics would be happier with “trying the best we can to cut through the bullshit.”
Correction 12/21/2012: As originally published, this article erroneously attributed Alex Pareene’s commentary to similar commentary by Steve Benen. LWR regrets the error.