Watchdog Blog

Dan Froomkin: Fact Checking Is So 20 Minutes Ago

Posted at 1:56 pm, September 12th, 2008
Dan Froomkin Mug

Fact checking the presidential candidates is so 20 minutes ago. The fact is, facts don’t seem to matter anymore. Certain political apparatchiks have learned over the years that the effectiveness of a given statement has remarkably little to do with whether it’s true or not. How much it gets repeated by others is a much better indicator.

And it turns out that even the “fact-checkers” who repeat the statement in an attempt to rebut it are probably helping deliver the inaccurate message. See brain experts Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt in their recent essay on that subject.

Then there’s the fact that most fact-checkers feel obliged to provide balance, citing both side for misstatements even if they aren’t vaguely in the same league – and even if some didn’t actually come from the campaign. This creates a bizarre incentive system: If you’re going to lie, you may as well make it a real whopper. Similarly, after it’s been said once, there’s no incentive not to keep saying it. Chances are, you’ll only get zinged for it at most once per news outlet – even if you repeat it over and over again, long after it’s been firmly “rebutted.” In fact, it may well sneak back into the coverage, the rebuttal entirely forgotten.

So what’s our alternative? Well, one alternative would be to fight back – for the press to create some sort of hugely negative consequence for making stuff up. For instance, to make it the lede of the main story every time a candidate repeats an obviously untrue statement, rather than a one-time-only sidebar deep inside the paper or newscast. But my ever-triangulating colleagues in the media are loathe to do something that makes it look like we’re taking sides, even if that side is accuracy.

So here’s what I think should be the next big thing, after fact-checking: Call it meta-fact-checking — or worldview checking. Here are some questions reporters should be answering for their readers:

  • Call this the Bush Memorial Question: How reality-based is the candidate? Does he acknowledge unpleasant realities? Does he think he makes his own reality, and that asserting something that isn’t true will sort of make it true? Does he hold many beliefs – say, about Iraq or the economy – that most objective observers would say are not realistic?
  • Does the candidate say things that the people covering him know he doesn’t believe? For instance, is it obvious to everyone in the traveling press corps that he is repeating a line his speechwriters or pollsters have written for him, even though he knows full well it’s not true.
  • Is the candidate exposed to dissenting views – either in public or within his campaign? Does he encourage dissenting views? How hard does the campaign work to keep dissenters out of his way?
  • Is the candidate ever willing to try to make his case in front of people who don’t already agree with him? Is he willing to engage them? Does he tailor his speeches to specific audiences in order so that they will like what they hear? Or so that they will open their minds to views they may not initially share?
  • How does he respond to people who don’t share his views? Does he dismiss them? Does he try to persuade them? Does he listen?

11 Responses to “Fact Checking Is So 20 Minutes Ago”

  1. Thomas says:

    This is funny stuff coming from a press corp that can’t get basic facts right (see, e.g., Gibson’s misquotation of Palin last night) and doesn’t include any dissenting voices.

    It would seem worth mentioning that the left in this country is so uncivil that it is dangerous for conservatives to speak in front of them. Did Froomkin not see McCain’s convention speech, which was interrupted time and time again by left-wing morons (including an Obama fundraiser)?

  2. luigia simonich says:

    What McCain and Co. fail to realize is that when elections are won in an ugly and dishonest way, politicians are permanently forfeiting the good will of that portion (usually half) of the population that voted for the losing candidate and exacerbating the polarization that everyone is claiming to be against.

    I’ve heard a few commentators make note of the lies, distortions, fake outrage, etc., but no one is actually asking the most important of questions.

    Someone should ask Sen. McCain this:

    - Is he is really prepared to turn his back on everyone who does not support him the way GWB has done?
    - Does he actually believe that by irreversibly alienating so many people he can clean up the chaotic mess that eight years of this perverted style of governing has created?

    The Bush family’s discovery and employment of Karl Rove was the worst thing that ever happened to our democracy. It has caused people who once merely disagreed to hate each other and so divided us that working together for the betterment of our nation seems less important to many of us than actively opposing those with whom we disagree. Partocracy, anyone?

  3. Harlan says:

    Yes, Thomas, its a shame that our politics can’t be more civil toward those left-wing morons. Yup, those morons are MAKING ME HAVE TO CALL THEM MORONS.


  4. Thomas says:

    Harlan, I obviously think that name-calling is less of an offense to the norms of civility than interrupting a speech, and further I think that those who have offended the norms of civility by interrupting a speech should be ostracized for their behavior. Hence: morons.

  5. Ron B says:

    Oh, it’s so uncivil to interrupt someone’s speech?

    And what is it to turn this nation from a nation of laws to a nation of men?

    What is it to shred the 4th Amendment by recording every phone call and every email by every American since about Feb.-Mar. 2001, BEFORE 9-11?

    What is it to destroy the foundations of the military power that conservatives seem to so worship, by allowing potential competitors such as Japan, Korea, Saudi Arabia and above all China, to finance our government debt to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars, and to finance our consumer debt to the tune of trillions of dollars?

    What is it to imitate the Soviet Union in constructing a vast network of secret prisons, including a torture chamber in the basement of the White House itself?

    Our children’s prosperity is in severe danger from the financial policies of the Republican administration and Congress. Our children’s freedom may already be lost, if the Rovians can steal just one more election. The empire the wingnuts seem to worship is already ultimately doomed, as empires do not survive massive debts to their potential competitors.

    And the media institutions owned by a few corporations who also own the Republican Party can’t mention any of this. Indeed, they seem to be on massive campaign of obfuscation and elevation of irrelevancies in order to complete the destruction of the American public’s intelligence and civic spirit.

    But, oh, it’s so terrible to interrupt someone’s speech. So uncivil. Yes, the left sure has been heck on poor little John McCain — did you know he was a POW? — and cute little Sarah Palin. So uncivil.

  6. Vito Danelli says:

    What’s sad is that McCain actually believes the BS he says. When he was asked about the “lipstick on a pig” line on “The View”, he said Obama “chooses his words very carefully”.

    So when McCain said “maybe 100 years” in Iraq, was he choosing “his words very carefully”?

  7. Allyson says:

    Hi Thomas. Let me start by saying that I won’t call you any names. I’m not sure I get your point as it relates to the article. Don’t you agree that it would be best for the public if the campaigns would not deliberately mislead? Who could possibly argue with that? But since that is not likely to happen, because the un-truth seems to be effective with much of the public, can’t you agree that the media needs to do a better job of providing the public with an accurate accounting when the campaigns mislead? Or do you think the media should perpetuate falsehoods? How else do we enable voters have the information they need to make informed decisions?

  8. Thomas says:

    No, I don’t think the media should perpetuate falsehoods. Unfortunately they do it all the time. My local paper is a McClatchy paper, so I read lots of McClatchy fact checks. Often as not, they’re wrong. They had a fact-check on McCain’s ad about Obama’s sex education position and they managed to get the facts wrong. They had a fact-check about McCain’s ads about Obama’s position on taxes and drilling and got Obama’s position on drilling wrong. They had a fact-check saying that Palin had confused Iraq and al-qaeda, which isn’t true. They had a fact-check saying that a McCain radio ad on Obama and immigration was inaccurate, and they misstated Obama’s record there. The media doesn’t do a good job of these sort of things, so why would we want them to expand this kind of coverage?

  9. Rose Moss says:

    I’d love to see someone check the to 10 donors to each candidate’s campaign – including the VP.
    I hear that BP gives large sums to Palin.

  10. Thomas says:

    I hear that Fannie Mae gave more to Obama than to all but one other Senator. Now the government is bailing them out for hundreds of billions.

  11. ryan says:

    What does it mean when CNN continues to rely on the opinions of other people instead of reporting. Why didn’t anyone at CNN check to see that McCain promised to fire the head of the SEC, someone the president has no authority to fire? CNN continues to promote that it is giving full coverage because it has democratic and republican spin doctors (on the CNN payroll) ready to tell you what each party thinks.

    Instead of hiring people who are still more loyal to the party or even a candidate (James Carville, Alex Castellanos and most of the rest with a few independent minds – Roland Martin and David Gergen), why not hire a handful of journalists at half the cost to check the validity behind candidate comments?

    Why does the Daily Show do a better job of reporting and giving information like the comments of McCain and others go totally against comments he made last week, last month of in the 2000 campaign?

    Giving a platform (or free advertising) to both parties is not balanced reporting, it is lazy, spineless reporting. It is time to put pressure on CNN and other media outlets to give us the REAL NEWS, which means finding the facts. Where are the future Woodward & Bernstein? Where were they when we went to a war on lies? When doing its job, the media is the fourth branch of government, but it has been asleep at the wheel for far too long.

    We need to find a way to make the networks responsible journalists again. Right now they are more intent on entertainment and the perception of being balanced – put on the two spin doctors and let them fight. That is the circus, gladiators or throwing people to the lions – a distraction put on by the network heads and the political parties (it is so much easier to just run some good footage of the politician at the podium or rephrase a press release than to do actual reporting).

    Demand more of your news sources, tell them you want real reporting not the circus.

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