Straying from the Facts

AP's fact check of Palin reaches too far

Over the weekend, there was a bit of a dust-up between the Associated Press, Sarah Palin, and their respective supporters over the AP’s “fact check” of Palin’s campaign memoir, Going Rogue. Much of the discussion focused on the AP’s decision to put eleven different reporters on the story (for more on this, see here, here, here, and here). But leaving aside the issue of resource allocation, the question is: Did the fact check deliver?

Not so much—at least not if the phrase “fact check” is going to have any specific meaning. I’m not knowledgeable enough about some of the episodes the AP cites, such as the bidding on a contract to build a natural gas pipeline in Alaska, to weigh in on whose account is more factually accurate. And at points, the AP story does seem to offer useful pushback against, and context for, Palin’s arguments. But even accepting all of the AP’s claims, several of the cases it mentions are as much matters of interpretation and analysis as factual accuracy. And in some, the Palin statements that it scrutinizes don’t even make factual claims—meaning that there’s not much to “check.”

In the AP’s defense, some criticisms by conservative commentators—such as those by Mark Steyn and John Hinderaker—have attacked an early version of the story that was published Friday evening, making much of the fact that the wire service’s reporters found only six Palin missteps. A subsequent version of the story, which included twice as many items and added some detail to the original set, is more substantial and more persuasive than the earlier edition. Still, much of it is off the mark. For example:

PALIN: Says Obama has admitted that the climate change policy he seeks will cause people’s electricity bills to “skyrocket.”

THE FACTS: She correctly quotes a comment attributed to Obama in January 2008, when he told San Francisco Chronicle editors that under his cap-and-trade climate proposal, “electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket” as utilities are forced to retrofit coal burning power plants to reduce carbon dioxide emissions.

Obama has argued since then that climate legislation can blunt the cost to consumers. Democratic legislation now before Congress calls for a variety of measures aimed at mitigating consumer costs. Several studies predict average household costs probably would be $100 to $145 a year.

The AP attributes one claim to Palin here, and promptly acknowledges that it’s accurate, so the factual misstep is hard to see—there’s not even an argument by the AP that she manipulated or distorted the meaning of Obama’s original remarks. Palin is apparently selecting only those words uttered by her political opponent that bolster her case, and omitting information that would complicate her position. That may be worthy of criticism, and it’s certainly something to bring up in a counterargument. But it’s a run-of-the-mill debating maneuver, not a factual error.

Then there’s this:

PALIN: Welcomes last year’s Supreme Court decision deciding punitive damages for victims of the nation’s largest oil spill tragedy, the Exxon Valdez disaster, stating it had taken 20 years to achieve victory. As governor, she says, she’d had the state argue in favor of the victims, and she says the court’s ruling went “in favor of the people.” Finally, she writes, Alaskans could recover some of their losses.

THE FACTS: That response is at odds with her reaction at the time to the ruling, which resolved the long-running case by reducing punitive damages for victims to $500 million from $2.5 billion. Environmentalists and plaintiffs’ lawyers decried the ruling as a slap at the victims and Palin herself said she was “extremely disappointed.” She said the justices had gutted a jury decision favoring higher damage awards, the Anchorage Daily News reported. “It’s tragic that so many Alaska fishermen and their families have had their lives put on hold waiting for this decision,” she said, noting many had died “while waiting for justice.”

What seems to have happened here is that the court issued a ruling that didn’t overturn the company’s liability but did sharply reduce punitive damages. Palin, like plenty of other people, was disappointed, and said so at the time. Then, when it came time to address the issue in her book, she emphasized the positive: the case had, after two decades, been resolved, and the victims would receive compensation. This seems like a case of tailoring a message to the situation and, as such, entirely unremarkable—not even evidence of Palin changing her mind, let alone misrepresenting the facts.

The story continues:

PALIN: Describing her resistance to federal stimulus money, Palin describes Alaska as a practical, libertarian haven of independent Americans who don’t want “help” from government busybodies.

THE FACTS: Alaska is also one of the states most dependent on federal subsidies, receiving much more assistance from Washington than it pays in federal taxes. A study for the nonpartisan Tax Foundation found that in 2005, the state received $1.84 for every dollar it sent to Washington.

Here’s a case in which, as the AP is presenting Palin’s claim, there’s not really a fact to be checked. The statement attributed to Palin is about the self-conception of Alaskans, one that she apparently embraces. You can argue that that self-conception is unwarranted or even incoherent, and you can use facts—such as the disproportionate share of federal dollars the state receives—to build your argument. But you can’t show that the way Alaskans think of themselves is factually inaccurate.

Then there’s the closing item:

PALIN: “Was it ambition? I didn’t think so. Ambition drives; purpose beckons.” Throughout the book, Palin cites altruistic reasons for running for office, and for leaving early as Alaska governor.

THE FACTS: Few politicians own up to wanting high office for the power and prestige of it, and in this respect, Palin fits the conventional mold. But “Going Rogue” has all the characteristics of a pre-campaign manifesto, the requisite autobiography of the future candidate.

Why is this here, other than to sneak in a line about how the memoir is really a campaign autobiography, and a dig at Palin for being motivated by the same things almost all politicians are motivated by? The quote above is self-serving boilerplate, just what you’d expect from a politician’s book. It makes no factual claims, and there’s nothing there that warrants checking.

This sort of thing matters because, in an increasingly contested political landscape and wide-open media environment, there really is a need for fact checking. There is value in forging a consensus across ideological lines that adherence to the facts is a prerequisite for public debate, and the AP is, theoretically, just the sort of institution that can help police politicians who mislead the public. But for the idea of fact checking to have any weight—and any hope of broad credibility—it must mean something more specific than “contesting a statement that we disagree with.” When Sarah Palin talks about “Obama’s ‘death panel,’” she’s spreading misinformation that needs to be repudiated. When she talks about being beckoned by purpose, she’s being a politician. We need to recognize the difference.

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