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Can Fact Checking be Politically “Neutral,” When Facts Are Not Equally Distributed Across the Political Spectrum?

By Climate Guest Contributor

"Can Fact Checking be Politically “Neutral,” When Facts Are Not Equally Distributed Across the Political Spectrum?"

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By Chris Mooney in a DeSmogBlog repost

Recently, I sat in on an off-the-record meeting about political fact-checking. I can’t report or quote from the event, but it spurred along some general thoughts that had already arisen in the context of writing The Republican Brain, which focuses a great deal on fact-checking—and thus, helped propel this post.

Fact checking is a phenomenon that has really taken off over the last half decade or so as, more and more, media outlets as well as independent and/or partisan voices are busily pronouncing on the “truth” of political statements. The reason? Well, there are many, but I would place the growing divide over reality and what is factually true, between the left and the right, as perhaps the leading one.

By far the best known fact-checking outlets are the websites PolitiFact, a project of the St. Petersburg Times, and FactCheck.org, based at the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Perhaps most prominently in the mainstream media, there is also the Washington Post’s fact-checker column, which regularly bestows one to four “Pinocchios” upon politicians’ statements.

These three main fact-checking outlets are then complemented by an ever growing number of blogs and, of course, fact-checkers on both sides of the political aisle.

Here, incidentally, arises a pretty sharp divide—between those who claim to check both political “sides” equally, and those who don’t.

The three fact-checking leaders are bipartisan. They expose falsehoods on both sides. But a site like PoliticalCorrection.org, a project of Media Matters, clearly focuses on blasting false conservative claims in particular. So does MediaMatters itself. Meanwhile, NewsBusters.org purports to combat “liberal media bias” from the right.

In response to these approaches, the three leading fact checking organizations would presumably argue that you can’t really fact-check “objectively” unless you’re willing to subject both sides to criticism equally. And as a journalist I do understand this perspective, up to a point. After all, my last post was about the Obama administration seriously abusing science on the issue of “Plan B” emergency contraception—behaving just as the George W. Bush administration might have. This recent case was so egregious that I would simply be intellectually dishonest if, after so often criticizing Republicans on science, I failed to point it out.

But here’s the thing. It may well be that the allegedly “partisan” fact-checkers are, in some cases, at least as accurate as the “professionals,” if not more so. And, I would argue, this is especially the case for Media Matters, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

First, though, when can partisan fact-checkers beat the pros?

One recent case in which this occurred is the flap over whether Fox News viewers are the “most consistently misinformed,” as Jon Stewart claimed. This claim was true, as I have extensively documented. Media Matters, of course, knew this, because it is the authority on all-things-Fox, and knows well that Fox is probably the biggest single source of misinformation in U.S. politics.

But PolitiFact rated Stewart’s claim false, committing a serious error in doing so.

PolitiFact was trying to be “balanced” here, presumably. Denouncing the leading conservative media organization in a blanket fashion, as the misinformation machine that it is, would not be very bipartisan or balanced. But in this case, “balance” actually backfired—because Fox is a misinformation machine, and its viewers are, not surprisingly, the “most consistently misinformed.”

I would suggest that a “balanced” approach to fact-checking is always susceptible to this sort of pitfall, in any area where the truth is not equally distributed across both sides—but one nevertheless strains to achieve a semblance of phony parity.

What are some such areas?

Science is clearly one of them. The U.S. political right, not the U.S. political left, is currently at war with scientific reality on issues ranging from global warming to evolution. So it is not a subject that you can really be “balanced” about. (Although it is worth pointing out any left wing science abuses, e.g., Obama and Plan B.)

Thankfully, the fact-checkers do seem to appreciate this, at least to an extent. Thus, the Washington Post recently gave Texas governor Rick Perry “Four Pinocchios” for his absurdly conspiratorial statements about climate researchers.

Frankly, I would suggest that economics is another such subject. I don’t dispute for a second that there are factual peccadilloes on both sides of aisle here. But if you look at mainstream economic debate today, what you find is Republicans once again committed to a stance of utter unreality: Tax cuts are always good, and therefore they can’t have anything to do with the massive deficits and debts we’re dealing with right now.

This is an attempt to protect the George W. Bush legacy, and so to blame Barack Obama for everything that’s wrong with the economy. But the argument just doesn’t add up—the math simply fails, when you look at what the real contributors are to our current deficits and debt. And trying to advance the current GOP view in the face of the numbers leads to all sorts of unequally distributed unreality.

And…well, don’t even get me started on health care.

This, I think, is why a site like Media Matters gives politically “neutral” fact-checkers such a run for their money. At least at the current moment in American politics, the two sides—Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, what have you—are not equally moored in reality. They disagree sharply over what is true; and one side, more than the other, is actually right.

Or as Stephen Colbert put it: “Reality has a well known liberal bias.”

I want to stress that in this environment, anyone dedicated to the truth is to be treasured and admired. Not only do the “neutral” fact checkers have such a dedication—they’re vastly more accurate, overall, than those they purport to check. I think this is indisputable—and they do, indeed, catch liberals and Democrats in real falsehoods and errors.

But in such an environment, these “neutrals” must also beware: Play too much tit-for-tat, too much “pox on both houses,” and you’re going to end up less accurate than fact-checkers coming from the left—simply because of the current alignment of the two political camps with respect to reality.

– Chris Mooney

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4 Responses to Can Fact Checking be Politically “Neutral,” When Facts Are Not Equally Distributed Across the Political Spectrum?

  1. FedUpWithDenial says:

    Let’s do a fact check on Joan Savage’s statement, “A cat leapt on my keyboard and posted the message before the end of the sentence.”

    This can’t be true because (i) Savage’s comment contains no incomplete sentence, and (ii) comments posted by cats cannot contain a statement that the comment was posted by a cat, which would imply a reversal of causality. (As to the question of whether comments can be posted by keystroke command, I can’t comment. As far as I know, the cat would have had to go after the mouse to actually post.)

    Note, however, that this claim of cat-posting is far easier to dispose of (due to internal logical inconsistency and violation of the order of cause and effect) than the statement, “A dog ate my homework,” which is not inherently implausible and might even be likely under some circumstances, as in the case where the homework was written out on, say, an oversized dog biscuit.

    Otherwise, if a dog eats your homework, then when it comes time to turn in the homework you can just turn in the dog.

    It seems, in other words, that the commenter (Joan Savage) is a humorist. Am I missing anything?

    Sadly, typical comments on almost anything by extreme Right wing politicians in the United States today abuse both fact and logic to a far greater degree than the example just considered. Truly, the GOP is living in a parallel universe where causality doesn’t exist, the order of events can be reversed at will, down is up, and the laws of physics as we know them don’t apply.

    Time to find new jobs for those people. (Ever heard of job creation?)

  2. I tend to like the term false balance, to describe what mainstream media often seem to try to – giving roughly equal weight to both sides.

    If one side is dealing in truth and another in falsehoods, then it is not balanced to suggest they are equally correct. It maybe equal ism, but isn’t balance in any technical sense. Rather, it’s false balance.

    Consideration of this topic taps into some deep issues. Before the last few hundred years, there were few tools to reliably distinguish truth from fiction in most areas of human concern. Social determinations were all there was to go on.

    Over the last couple of hundred years, the extent of things greatly clarified and pinned down through science has gradually increased to the point that there is an element of absurdity in holding socially-based votes on matters clearly established by science.

    Journalism, politics, and binary democracy all have some deep adjustments to make.

    Further ruminations along these lines published at this new Notre Dame site…
    http://mobilizingideas.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/reflections-on-digitally-enabled-social-change-activism-in-the-internet-age/

  3. Joan Savage says:

    That should be:
    Politics are inherently non-neutral. Start with a strong sentiment component, follow a familiar plausible argument structure, and include supporting examples. That’s how debates work.

    It’s inverse to many a scientific process which begin with accumulating data, followed by trying out alternate explanations, and at last ending up with an observation or conclusion that might or might not have some element of sentiment in the form of a recommendation.

    Finding errors of fact, or omissions of relevant fact, is only one part of a rebuttal. “Balance” is nonsense, as it can take a lot longer to get to the bottom of one argument than another.

    News media can hold audience attention by appealing to underlying sentiments and familiar arguments, so only correcting the facts can miss a lot. The humorists can point to all components.

    (A cat leapt on my keyboard and posted the message before the end of the sentence.)

  4. Joe Romm says:

    That’s right up there with a dog ate my homework.