In the waning days of 2011, Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking site, brought the wrath of the liberal blog world upon itself when it dubiously—though not unexpectedly—chose as its “Lie of the Year” Democratic claims that House Republicans had voted to “end Medicare.” The uproar was just the latest wave of recrimination against the “fact-checking” enterprise, which has come in for scrutiny from outlets as diverse as Politico, The Weekly Standard, and Salon. But the rising tide of complaint seems not to trouble the fact-checkers—in addition to Politifact, the most prominent outlets include the Annenberg Public Policy Center’s Factcheck.org; The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” blog, now written by Glenn Kessler, who penned a defense of the genre as part of his own year-end list of “Pinocchios”; and The Associated Press—who can tell themselves, and their readers, that the grievances reflect partisan or tribal sentiments.
But if the fact-checkers won’t listen to their critics, here’s hoping they’ll listen to one of their declared friends, the press critic Jay Rosen, who offered one of the most acute critiques of Politifact’s choice. The Republican proposal would have phased out an open-ended, single-payer, fee-for-service health care program for senior citizens in favor of a very different program that would, in effect, give future seniors vouchers that could be used to purchase insurance on the private market. If you know what the plan would do, whether or not it amounts to “ending Medicare” is an endlessly debatable point. The potential objection to the Democrats’ language is that voters who didn’t know what the GOP plan entailed could be misled—which might make that language problematic, but doesn’t make it a lie, as Rosen noted in a Dec. 22 post. “I don’t think Politifact chose a lie of the year in 2011,” he wrote. “Their sights were set on something different, and they erred by calling it what they called it.”
In fact, the sights of the broader fact-checking movement often seem to be set on something different than strict truth and falsehood. And by acknowledging that, the fact-checkers might grapple with some important questions about the project in which they’re engaged—and might see more clearly the box in which they’ve trapped themselves.
To get at those questions, it’s helpful to think about why “fact-checking” has emerged now. I’d argue that it’s a response to many journalists’ perception that they are ever more outgunned by the increasing volume and sophistication of professional political communication. The fact-check is a tool with which reporters can rescue themselves from oblivion. And the morally freighted language invoked by full-time fact-checkers—true and false, fact and lie—is a weapon, to be wielded by journalists with authority against other, presumably less trustworthy types who make political claims. (At the same time, the framing implicitly exalts a certain class of “fact-finding” journalists above workaday hacks, as a peeved Ben Smith noted in a November story for Politico.)
And two cheers for that. In the face of more and more skillful spin, it’s encouraging that journalists are thinking about ways to be more than, in Todd Gitlin’s poignant phrase, “connoisseurs of our own bamboozlement.” I’m entirely in agreement with The New Republic’s Alec MacGillis, and the CJR editorial he cites, that there are problems with assigning specific teams of reporters to call bullshit on political nonsense, rather than expecting all journalists to do so in the course of their work. Still, it’s good to see the impulse to push back—to assert that good reporting can be an independent source of knowledge about the world—finding institutional expression.
But while the language of fact-checking is powerful, it’s also limited—and the fact-checkers’ tendency to stretch that language beyond its limitations undermines the credibility of their project.
One of the problems is that the occasions on which that language is appropriate are less frequent than you might think. As the media critic Dan Kennedy wrote last month in a terrific item at The Huffington Post, “politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.” To be sure, they do lie sometimes—and, more frequently, they say stuff without bothering to learn whether it’s true. (When that happens, CJR often joins in the effort to make sure it’s called out.) But the volume, and the consequence, of that material just isn’t great enough to sustain what Kennedy aptly calls “a veritable fact-checking industry.”