“Writers have been bowing to the ‘fact checkers’ as submissively as Barack Obama upon meeting some anti-American dictator,” the Wall Street Journal’s James Taranto quipped in a devastating take-down of the rise of the news media’s so-called “fact checkers.”
In “The Pinocchio Press: The bizarre rise of ‘fact checking’ propagandists ” posted on Tuesday, the author of the daily “Best of the Web Today” noted “the usual conservative complaint about all this ‘fact checking’ is the same as the conservative complaint about the MSM’s product in general: that it is overwhelmingly biased toward the left.” But, he concluded, “the form amplifies the bias. It gives journalists much freer rein to express their opinions by allowing them to pretend to be rendering authoritative judgments about the facts.”
“The result,” he thoroughly documented, “is shoddy arguments and shoddier journalism.”
Taranto suggested “perhaps the reason other journalists are so deferential toward the ‘fact checkers’ is that these fact checkers, unlike the traditional ones, don’t check the facts of journalists but of politicians.”
Running through some examples from the week before, Taranto demonstrated how “the quality of their work is generally quite poor.” An excerpt from Taranto's persuasive September 4 post:
“The MSM’s [‘mainstream’ media’s] fact-checkers often don’t know what they’re talking about,” notes Mickey Kaus, who cites an example on a subject he knows well:
The oft-cited CNN-“fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary [Kathleen] Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:
“The waivers gave ‘those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare rolls as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.’”
Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.
I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state's past performance,” not what the state's performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal – only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.
But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam.
The merits of the argument are beyond the scope of today’s column. It is quite possible that there are people whose knowledge of the subject is as deep as Kaus’s and Rector’s but whose honest interpretation is more favorable to the Sebelius position. An appeal to their authority could carry as much weight as our appeal to Kaus’s and Rector’s.
But an appeal to the authority of “independent fact checkers” carries no weight at all. In case you’re skeptical of this assertion, let’s look at some other examples of their output from the past week.
Here’s an excerpt from an Associated Press “fact check” of Paul Ryan's convention speech:
RYAN: “And the biggest, coldest power play of all in Obamacare came at the expense of the elderly....So they just took it all away from Medicare. Seven hundred and sixteen billion dollars, funneled out of Medicare by President Obama.”
THE FACTS: Ryan’s claim ignores the fact that Ryan himself incorporated the same cuts into budgets he steered through the House in the past two years as chairman of its Budget Committee....
RYAN: “The stimulus was a case of political patronage, corporate welfare and cronyism at their worst. You, the working men and women of this country, were cut out of the deal.”
THE FACTS: Ryan himself asked for stimulus funds shortly after Congress approved the $800 billion plan.
In both of these cases, the AP neither disputes nor verifies the factual accuracy of Ryan’s statements. Each of these is simply a tu quoque – an argument against Ryan. Under the guise of fact checking, the AP is simply taking sides in a partisan political dispute.
The most disputed portion of Ryan’s speech involved the closing of a General Motors plant in his hometown of Janesville, Wis. An editorial in The Wall Street Journal Friday defended Ryan's account against “the press corps ‘fact checkers’ and the liberals who love them.”
But even the so-called fact checkers can’t agree on the facts. PolitiFact rated Ryan’s account “false,” while CNN.com called it “true but incomplete.” Anyone who really believes in the authority of “fact checkers” has a liar’s paradox problem.
Sometimes the so-called checks are just red herrings. Here’s an example from ABC News:
In comparing President Obama to Jimmy Carter, Ryan said in July 1980 the unemployment rate was 7.8 percent and “for the past 42 months it's been above 8 percent under Barack Obama's failed leadership.”
Both parts of this sentence are true according to the Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics, but in July 1983, when Ronald Reagan was president, unemployment was at 9.4 percent. In July 1982 it was higher at 9.8 percent.
In July 1992, when George H.W. Bush was president, unemployment was at 7.7 percent.
Is what Ryan said factually correct? Yes, but it leaves out some important data.
Ryan compared Obama to Carter. AP thinks he should also (or instead) have compared Obama to Reagan and Bush. There is no factual dispute here whatever....
Sometimes the “fact checkers” simply pronounce trivial truths. From the AP on Mitt Romney’s convention speech:
ROMNEY: “I have a plan to create 12 million new jobs. It has five steps.”
THE FACTS: No one says he can’t, but economic forecasters are divided on his ability to deliver. He’d have to nearly double the anemic pace of job growth lately.
This is like “fact checking” somebody’s wedding vows by asserting that while marriage can be wonderful, it’s hard work and ends in divorce half the time....
-- Brent Baker is Vice President for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center. Click here  to follow Brent Baker on Twitter.