To Check The Facts, You Need The Facts

MSNBC’s fact-check segment falls short

When factchecking candidates’ claims and counter-claims, there is a fine line between mitigating and multiplying the confusion. You need to pick the right man for the job. And provide, maybe, some context.

On Wednesday, MSNBC’s Amy Robach attempted to sort out for viewers the facts behind two recent points of contention between Senators Clinton and Obama:

1) The Clintons’ characterization of Obama’s record on the war in Iraq.


2) Senator Clinton’s characterization of what Obama said about Republicans and their ideas in an interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal.

After rolling clips of Obama and Clinton making claims about the other’s forthrightness, Robach turned to—who else?—MSNBC’s own Pat Buchanan to cut through the spin:

ROBACH: Is this a case of he said/she said? Are both [candidates] right or is one campaign hitting below the belt?… It can be confusing for the different voters to hear the different rhetoric. How do they decide when they are trying to figure what is exactly truthful and what is not?

BUCHANAN: Well, the studious voter would take a hard look at it and see what is right and wrong, who’s exaggerated and who is misrepresenting…

Hypothetically, yes, that’s how a factcheck would work. Someone—“the studious voter,” apparently—would perform a checking of the facts and determine which candidate has them on (or closer to) his or her side.

And with that, Buchanan was immediately on to the essential stuff of who wins and who loses in these two (still) un-fact-checked instances.

BUCHANAN: The bottom line here, Amy, this has hurt Obama very badly. He has gotten off his transcendent message that he reaches across party and racial and ethnic lines. Bill Clinton has gotten into his head. [Obama] appears frustrated, angry, resentful, and I think he’s lost that tremendous image he had and so I think the real loser from this back-and -forth, especially the acrimonious charges of, you know, Rezko versus Wal-Mart, I think the real loser is the Democratic party but, in particular, it’s Barack Obama.

Robach’s other guest, Salon’s Joan Walsh, helped viewers out a bit on the
which-candidate-is-being-more-truthful part (“I think it’s very close. Obama has
been a staunch opponent of the war, so President Clinton is dissembling a tiny bit,
but it is fair to say once he joined the Senate, [Obama] was very much a listener …
so I think you can make the case that [Obama] gave a great speech and he didn’t
do a lot, but I think President Clinton goes a little bit too far in what he says.”) before weighing in on who wins in the dust-up (“If Barack Obama is the
nominee—if—he will be glad that this happened and I’m serious, because he really is untested in this kind of hardball politics…” and so on).

Yet, Buchanan redeemed himself somewhat later in the segment, when Robach looked into “what [Obama] said about the Republicans” and whether it is “being mischaracterized by the Clintons.” And how best to help viewers determine whether or not Clinton has “mischaracterized” Obama’s words? By keeping Obama’s words context-free, by running a clip of a single sentence out of an hour-long interview (“I think it’s fair to say the Republicans were the party of ideas for a pretty long chunk of time there over the last ten, fifteen years in the sense that they were challenging conventional wisdom”)—followed by Clinton’s “version” of what Obama said.

After which Robach turned to Buchanan and asked:

Is this a gross distortion of the truth, Pat?

BUCHANAN: Yes, it is. Now, Obama not only said that the Republicans seemed to be the party of ideas, he went on to say he disagreed with those ideas and so what the Clintons are saying here is misrepresenting what Obama said…

Much like MSNBC would have been. But for Pat Buchanan.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.