James Taranto takes up a great example of the absurd fact checking project undertaken by the mainstream media in his column “Newt year in Jerusalem.” It is a project that raises the question posed by the Roman poet Juvenal in Satire VI: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” (Translation: Who will guard the guardians themselves?)
In the cover story of the new issue of the Weekly Standard Mark Hemingway does a number on the whole fact checking genre. Hemingway’s piece is “Lies, damned lies, and ‘fact checking.'” It doesn’t tell you anything you haven’t already intuited or observed, but it is must reading nevertheless.
Hemingway cites this incredible example of “fact checking” by the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler, with whom we have had our own go-around this campaign season:
Influential Politico blogger/reporter Ben Smith is one of the few media voices sounding the alarm about the pitfalls of fact checking. “At their worst, they’re doing opinion journalism under pseudo-scientific banners, something that’s really corrosive to actual journalism, which if it’s any good is about reported fact in the first place,” Smith observes.
When he wrote that, Smith was quite rightly annoyed with Glenn Kessler, who writes “The Fact Checker” blog on the Washington Post website. (Kessler’s gimmick is rating political statements on a scale of one to four with cutesy Pinocchio-nose graphics.)
On August 17, Kessler wrote an item supporting President Obama’s denial at a town hall in Iowa that Vice President Joe Biden had called Tea Party activists “terrorists” in a meeting with congressional Democrats. In the process, Kessler had singled out Politico for breaking the story.
Politico’s report about Biden’s comments indeed created a minor controversy. Days later, the vice president came forward and claimed the report was “absolutely not true,” that he was merely engaged in a discussion with unnamed lawmakers who were venting about the Tea Party.
After supplying a rudimentary summary of what happened, Kessler reached a conclusion that is at once unsure of itself and sharply judgmental. “Frankly, we are dubious that Biden actually said this. And if he did, he was simply echoing what another speaker said, in a private conversation, as opposed to making a public statement.”
In response, Smith unloaded on Kessler. “Either [Biden] said it, or he didn’t. That’s the fact to check here. The way to check it is to report it out, not to attack the people who did report it out and label their reporting ‘dubious’ based on nothing more than instinct and the questionable and utterly self-interested word of politicians and their staffers.”
Provoked by Kessler, Politico took the unusual step of actually detailing how the Biden story was nailed down. Politico maintains that Biden’s remarks were confirmed by five different sources in the room with Biden, and that they were in contact with the vice president’s office for hours before the story ran. Biden’s office had ample opportunity to answer the reporters’ account before it ran and didn’t dispute it.
Note that despite Biden’s subsequent denials, the vice president’s office never asked for a formal retraction. The facts here seem to suggest that the vice president, whose history of plagiarism and verbal incontinence is the stuff of legend, not only called Tea Partiers “terrorists” but later lied about having done so. One would think that this would be a news story in itself.
But instead of looking at these facts, it appears Glenn Kessler engaged in what his colleague Greg Sargent referred to as all “the usual he-said-she-said crap that often mars political reporting”—but with the extra dollop of sanctimony that comes from writing under the “pseudo-scientific banner” of “The Fact Checker.”
Hemingway quotes a University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs study of the fact checking granddaddy PolitiFact:
A Smart Politics content analysis of more than 500 PolitiFact stories from January 2010 through January 2011 finds that current and former Republican officeholders have been assigned substantially harsher grades by the news organization than their Democratic counterparts. In total, 74 of the 98 statements by political figures judged “false” or “pants on fire” over the last 13 months were given to Republicans, or 76 percent, compared to just 22 statements for Democrats (22 percent).
Let me just add that the University of Minnesota, the Humphrey School, and such Humphrey School pundits as Walter F. and Joan Mondale Chair for Political Studies Professor Lawrence Jacobs raise the academic counterpart to Juvenal’s question in acute form.