On the subject of fact-checking the presidential debates, it’s worth noting that while the proliferation of “fact-check” stories over the last few years is probably a step in the right direction, it does come with a risk—that by assigning “fact-checking” responsibility to a particular story or blog, we send a message that the vast majority of political news stories that aren’t explicitly part of the genre are absolved of that responsibility.
Consider a short article published Wednesday night on CBSNews.com, “Rick Perry stands by calling Social Security a Ponzi scheme.” The article reports that at the Republican debate, Perry stood by his earlier characterization of Social Security despite the fact that “fellow Republicans” consider the remarks “polarizing.” Indeed, Karl Rove called Perry’s stance “toxic,” Dick Cheney “said recently it was inaccurate to call the program a Ponzi scheme,” and Perry’s rival Mitt Romney attacked his position.
All of this is accurate and newsworthy. But none of it attempts to answer an important question: Is Social Security like a Ponzi scheme?
In fact, it is not. Dick Cheney is right, and Rick Perry is wrong. Glenn Kessler, in one of today’s “fact-check” pieces, explains why here. Matthew Yglesias explains why here. Jonathan Bernstein explains why here and here. Andrew Sullivan’s readers explain why here, and conservative policy wonk Josh Barro calls Perry’s remarks “incorrect” here. I could go on. But if you’re not a political junkie, and you just happen to be skimming the CBS News story while sipping your morning coffee, you’d have little idea that there’s a clear, factual answer here.
Look: good fact-checking, performed in the normal course of political reporting, is no panacea. It might make a dent in the lies, misinformation, and assorted other BS that afflicts our political discourse, but it’s not going to get rid of them.
It would, though, make for better journalism, and on those grounds alone it’s worth the effort. We can do better than this.Greg Marx is an associate editor at CJR. Follow him on Twitter @gregamarx.