The Myth of the Fact Checkers

If you’re like most Americans, you probably assume one thing before watching any debate: Both candidates are going to lie. And your assessment would be correct. We can log onto fact-checking websites (the two most common being www.factcheck.org and www.politifact.com) and have this suspicion confirmed. Given our starting premise that all politicians lie—especially during election season—we usually arrive at two questions: (1) Which candidate told the most lies and (2) Which candidate’s lies were the most egregious? Surprisingly, the fact-checking sites are of little help when it comes to answering these questions.

The original goal of these “fact checkers” (i.e. to hold politicians accountable) has been overtaken by the goal of appearing nonpartisan. While they sell themselves as non-partisan truth-finding police squads, their real aim is to always provide equal standing to both sides of an issue in an effort to appear fair and unbiased, thus increasing credibility and in turn, readership. Even if the issue is whether or not to feed children broken glass or fresh fruit, we can count on these fact-checking websites to provide us with a “fair” look at both sides of the issue. Pathologically lying candidates have no incentive to be honest because they know these websites will launder their dirty comments by creating false equivalencies and arriving at no other conclusion than both sides are dishonest. In fact, by revealing their techniques below, I will make the case that these fact-checking websites do nothing to promote honesty but rather foster dishonesty.

Their phobia of appearing partisan is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that they never provide any sort of conclusions on their analyses. Most of us would like to see a section that states, “While both candidates veered away from the truth at times, Candidate X used far more misleading statistics, erroneous data, and made-up statements…On our scale of truth-telling, Candidate X gets a D and Candidate Y gets a B-…For more information on how these grades were determined please read below.” But that’s not what we get on these sites. In their quest to appear non-partisan, they have taken the stance that they will not provide any conclusions. Rather, the fact-checkers merely present the facts and voters get to decide which candidate is more trustworthy. Sounds good, right? Not really. Here’s why.

Factcheck.org treats all departures from the truth the same. For example, if Candidate X states that there are 300 million Americans in this country, factcheck.org will ding the candidate for not being honest since the actual number is 312 million. Then when Candidate Y states that Abraham Lincoln was a thrice-divorced high school dropout who operated a meth lab out of his basement, the fact checkers will attack his wild claim as also being false. The fact checkers have now held both sides accountable and both candidates have been shown to be dishonest. This strategy is obviously flawed.

The second problem with factcheck.org is how it presents its data. For instance, when dissecting the Obama/Romney debate two weeks ago, the site presented a point by point analysis of the candidates. First was a criticism of Obama, then a criticism against Romney, then a criticism against Obama, etc. For the casual reader, it looked like both candidates simply took turns telling lies and one could assume both candidates were equally sleazy and devoid of all morals. This again feeds into the assumption that every mistruth is the same.

The mistruths are not ranked or listed in any meaningful way. They are simply presented as a bulleted list of dishonest statements. When factcheck.org ran out of misleading Obama statements, one might expect a continuation of the bulleted Romney mistruths, but instead the site abandoned the visually-striking bullets and instead chose to summarize the rest of Romney’s lies into a single paragraph at the end of the article, almost as a footnote. So to the casual observer, it looks like things were pretty even, perpetuating the widely-held belief that the two political parties are both dishonest and self-serving and equally to blame for our country’s problems.

Another problem is that when factcheck.org has trouble making both sides appear equally culpable, they will actually invent mistruths in an effort to look nonpartisan. For example, the site had no problem identifying Romney lies that were egregious and not based in reality (e.g. accusing Obama of doubling the federal deficit; claiming he will increase spending, decrease taxes, and balance the budget despite it being a mathematical impossibility; claiming Obamacare may result in 20 million people losing health insurance when the actual number has been estimated to be between 3-5 million, etc.). These whoppers are straight out of fantasyland. But what about Obama?  He must have told some whoppers himself, right?

Factcheck.org called out Obama for his claim that 5 million private sector jobs have been created in the last 30 months. The number is actually 4.6 million, though the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the 5 million mark will be reached very soon. But factcheck.org claimed Obama was caught lying, when really he simply rounded a figure up less than 10%, to a number that will be reached in a few months anyway. This so-called rounding mistake earned a bullet point for Obama while Romney’s claim about the increased number of uninsured Americans (off by 500%) was buried in the paragraph at the end of the article.

Ready for another Obama whopper? Here it is:

Obama accused Romney of proposing a $5 trillion tax cut. Not true. Romney proposes to offset his rate cuts and promises he won’t add to the deficit.

Wait a second. Obama’s statement was about the tax cut, not about how Romney would offset it. Besides, is Obama’s statement false because Romney promises he won’t add to the deficit? That’s Obama’s whole point. Romney has provided no specifics on how he will offset this tax cut for the wealthy. So how is Obama’s $5 trillion claim dishonest?

And Obama’s allergy to the truth continues. Check out this one:

Obama touted his “$4 trillion” deficit reduction plan, which includes $1 trillion from winding down wars that are coming to an end in any event.

This one just confuses me. Is Obama not allowed to include the ending wars as a way to decrease the deficit? I can only guess that factcheck.org thought Obama was trying to give himself credit for reducing the deficit when really it was just the result of the wars coming to an end that were going to end anyway (although a fairly problematic assertion since Romney has said his administration could not guarantee a withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2014 like Obama has promised). I tend to think we should give the Obama Administration some credit for ending the wars, but apparently the good people at factcheck.org feel differently. You see where this is going. Romney invented his own “facts” in an attempt to deceive the American people, which is very different from the actions of Obama. Yet factcheck.org treats the candidates the same. Factcheck.org’s intentionally-deceiving headline for the story says it all: “Dubious Denver Debate Declarations: Obama and Romney swap exaggerations and false claims in their first meeting.”

Checking out the Biden/Ryan debate revealed a very similar pattern. Ryan made wild claims about nursing homes closing down because of Obamacare; he said the country’s unemployment pattern was identical to that of Scranton, Pennsylvania’s, when in fact the opposite is true; he said that Obamacare will use taxpayer money to pay for abortions, etc. This political rhetoric has been debunked time and time again. Biden’s big lie? He said that Congressional Republicans voted to cut embassy funding by $300 million. The actual number was $264 million. Factcheck.org was all over this. Another rounding error (which may not have even been an error at all but rather just rounding) that in no way changed the message of what Biden was saying.

Factcheck.org also leveled this crippling criticism at Biden:

“Ryan repeatedly criticized the Obama administration for calling Syrian President Bashar Assad “a reformer when he’s killing his own civilians.” At one point, Biden tried to interrupt Ryan to ask who had done so.”

Turns out Hillary Clinton made the statement that some people in Congress refer to Assad as a “reformer.” According to factcheck.org, asking for a name somehow equates to a lie on Biden’s part. Talk about reaching. In fact, I would argue this was another misleading statement by Ryan. He took a comment made by Hillary Clinton, which she attributed to unnamed members of Congress, and tried to pass it off as a comment made by and/or endorsed by Obama. Despite these stark contrasts between Biden and Ryan, factcheck.org ran another wildly deceiving headline: “Veep Debate Violations: Ryan, Biden rough up the facts in their one and only meeting.”

Politifact.com is a slight improvement over factcheck.org for the reason that they grade the lies. They famously started a category called “Pants on Fire” which highlights the most egregious of lies, like when Rush Limbaugh told his audience that Obama was trying to make circumcision mandatory for all American males or when the NRA said they had proof Obama was waging a war to repeal the Second Amendment. But politifact.com does the same thing as factcheck.org. They try to paint both sides as equally guilty, no matter what; and their findings never lead to a conclusion.

I would argue these types of fact-checking websites are not helping the political discourse, but actually making it worse. In their effort to appear nonpartisan and unbiased, they fail to acknowledge the very real differences between candidates and political parties, and provide cover to the most dishonest of politicians by muddying the important waters that separate pathological liars who will say anything to get elected and otherwise honest politicians prone to an occasional exaggeration. Worst of all, the American people have the illusion that politicians are being held accountable because organizations like factcheck.org and politifact.com are hard at work.

– Nathan

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5 Responses to “The Myth of the Fact Checkers”

  1. The only use I’ve found for the sites you list is linking to them when a friend tries to spread a lie. Otherwise, they’re fairly useless.

    My favorite Politifact “make-up call”: Obama campaigned earlier this year on a piece of economic good news that was completely factual, but because they decided that on that occasion he couldn’t take full credit, they called it “half true.”

    Many more instances like that one, sadly.

  2. Interesting post. Leaving aside your own obvious bias here, I think the problem with this type of reporting is that it’s too surface-oriented. I see it almost every time the media tries to offer a balanced view of something. Take the Israeli-Palestinian thing. You get some report about Israel killing a militant who killed someone else who killed someone else… That issue is way more complicated than who did what to whom last week.

    Similarly, the matter of dishonesty in politics isn’t defined by any specific debate performance. You alluded to this in your post, but I think the problem with fact checkers isn’t the pseudo-balanced reporting; rather, it’s that such reports really don’t matter. They ignore the deeper issues at hand: the fundamentally different ideas that shape the parties and their candidates, their visions of the role of government, their notions of what America is and should be, etc. No fact checking report of this type is going to sway a voter from his/her core beliefs. If Obama said the earth was flat, you wouldn’t suddenly vote Republican, because you don’t believe in the GOP vision for America.

  3. Note to self: read the last paragraph of a post before commenting.

  4. Brian Gustafson Says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with this post. I too found the argument that it was a lie to call it a 5T tax cut because Romney may have some secret way to pay for it infuriating. Under that logic, nothing is a lie as long as you say “I have a way to make this true, trust me.” On another note, I think the media is often just a bad for a similar reason to appear nonpartisian. They feel they have to give some sort of equivalency to the other side (usually a false one) or else they will be called biased. They need to learn it isn’t bias to call someone out for being wrong.

  5. Nate, you might find this effort from a friend of mine here at the UW enlightening on the matter of measuring frequency and severity of untruths of politicians: http://www.malarkometer.org/1/post/2012/10/introducing-malark-o-meter-measuring-bullpucky-and-its-confidence-intervals.html#.UIVkfm_A92B

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