Just the Facts—But From Whom?

NYT outsources fact-checking responsibility

Today’s New York Times includes a profile of Michele Bachmann, the conservative congresswoman from Minnesota whom Sean Hannity has called, approvingly, “the second-most-hated Republican woman in the country.” (Is there any doubt as to who is first?)

The story is fairly standard stuff as these things go, but what caught my attention is the sidebar—headlined “Fact Checker Finds Falsehoods in Remarks”—in which reporter Monica Davey notes that “critics say [Bachmann’s] sound bites also often carry a different quality: inaccuracy.” Those “critics” turn out to be the PolitiFact, the Web-based fact-checking project run by The St. Petersburg Times, which, Davey notes, has analyzed six of Bachmann’s statements and found them all wanting in truthfulness, with three of the six getting the lowest rating of “pants on fire.”

What to make of this? Well, it’s good to see the Times devoting space to the question of whether or not a subject can be counted on for honesty and accuracy (and, in the process, acknowledging that Betsy McCaughey’s distortions aren’t the only ones that matter). But at the same time, it’s a little disheartening that the New York TimesThe New York Times!—feels it has to outsource its fact-checking work to a Web site that was launched a little over two years ago. The Bachmann profile was not time-sensitive, and the subject of her comments—ACORN’s relationship with the Census Bureau, who was president during a swine flu outbreak in early 1976—are not especially arcane or hard to research. Couldn’t the NYT have done its own legwork, and refuted Bachmann’s statements on its own authority? (Or, for that matter, explored whether Bachmann has made any other statements that warrant scrutiny?)

This is not at all to slight PolitiFact, which has already won a well-deserved Pulitzer and is clearly responding to a need to more effectively police half-truths, untruths and other political misinformation. But that need existed because leading news organizations were not holding government officials and others in the public eye accountable for their statements; PolitiFact’s very existence is, in some ways, a challenge to the rest of the media world. Ceding the responsibility for fact-checking to the site, as the Times is doing here, sends a message that your own publication still isn’t up to the task, or that it would prefer to stay somehow above the fray. That’s the wrong course: whatever one thinks of the running debate over the politics of journalists, we can all strive to be partisans for accuracy, and to engage directly with those who spread bad information.

Indeed, by holding itself as a removed third party, the Times has effectively turned PolitiFact into a participant in a he-said, she-said debate—exactly the sort of weak-kneed reporting the site was created to address in the first place. After running through PolitiFact’s rebuttals of Bachmann’s various statements, the sidebar ends thusly:

Debbee Keller, the press secretary for Ms. Bachmann, said the congresswoman took PolitiFact’s analysis “with a grain of salt.”

“Despite the fact that they try to make themselves sound above the fray and objective, PolitiFact is nothing more than another Web site trying to make its own headlines,” Ms. Keller said.

Now, it is possible that Ms. Keller said something trenchant that never made it out of the reporter’s notebook. But what made it into print does not respond at all to the specific merits of the criticisms of her boss’s words. Instead, it is an effort to attack PolitiFact’s basic legitimacy and credibility as an arbiter of truthfulness. And, if we have learned anything over the last couple decades, it is that these attacks work.

So: good for the Times for recognizing that honesty and accuracy (or a lack thereof) are a key part of any individual’s public persona. But here’s hoping that the next time this topic comes up, the august Grey Lady breaks a sweat, gets her hands dirty, and takes on the responsibility for fact-checking herself.

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Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.