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The Fact-Check Fetish

By Matthew Yglesias on November 19, 2009 at 3:14 pm

"The Fact-Check Fetish"

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In addition to displaying clear ignorance, on the campaign trail last year Sarah Palin demonstrated a habit of lying. Consequently, it makes sense that some media organization decided to scrutinize her book for accuracy. It seems pretty clear, however, (see Greg Marx) that the Associated Press’ big Going Rogue fact check is itself a bust.

This is perhaps a good time to note that there’s something a bit weird about the whole fact-check conceit. If you’ve ever written for a magazine that does a fact-checking process, you’ll know that the point of fact-checking is really to prevent a certain kind of silly inadvertent error. I remember one time at the American Prospect where I turned in a draft that had a typo that wound up misstating some funds by a factor of ten. For an Atlantic piece one time I was waxing narrative and described a road as “brand new” for some reason, then turned out to have no really clear basis for saying that, but the checking process revealed that it really was new. Another time I think I called a 1950s-era Senator a Democrat when he was an independent who caucused with Democrats or something. Part of what makes quality magazines quality magazines and not blogs is that they put in the time to fix this kind of stuff. From a writer’s perspective, it’s annoying. From a reader’s perspective, it’s nice that it’s done.

But from the overall perspective of getting it right or wrong on the big issues checkable facts are totally useless. Robert Kaplan’s 2005 Atlantic story “How We Would Fight China” is insane and irresponsible, but impeccable from a fact-checking standpoint. An assertion like “we need to be prepared at any time to fight, say, a conventional war against North Korea or an unconventional counterinsurgency battle against a Chinese-backed rogue island-state” isn’t a factual error but it is a display of incredibly poor judgment and that’s considerably more important than quibbling over precise dates.

What that means, however, is that if you want a real critique of Going Rogue you need to get a writer to deploy some judgment and interpretation and critique the ideas, not just pretend to do a “fact check.” Thus, for example, something like Annie Lowery’s review for Foreign Policy provides real value. Her conclusion, “Ultimately, Going Rogue goes rogue as a political memoir, demonstrating what can only be described as a persistent and guileless lack of knowledge of even basic foreign-policy or domestic political issues” is far more damning than anything a fact-check could provide.

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