But things get tricky here, too. Marx concludes (and Rosen agrees) that “you can’t report your way to the conclusion” that the GOP plan does or doesn’t end Medicare. The dispute turns on politics, not factual evidence. But by the same logic you can’t strictly report your way to the conclusion that the Affordable Care Act doesn’t take over the healthcare system. Your can’t report your way to finding that President Obama didn’t go on an “apology tour,” or that he didn’t propose to “gut welfare reform,” or (to take a contrary example) that Mitt Romney never “backed a law” to ban all abortion.

All of these conclusions rest on subtle judgments about what arguments are reasonable and what language is appropriate. Even in technical matters, “true” and “fair” quickly get tangled up. Take a simple question: How many millionaires don’t pay federal income taxes? Sen. Harry Reid said the number was 7,000 for 2011, and earned two Pinocchios from The Washington Post. It turns out there’s more than one way to count millionaires, so there’s no truly value-free way to rate the claim true or false. These are the kinds of unstable facts the factcheckers work with all of the time. They navigate a messy political economy of information in which there’s always more than one standard to choose from, and experts and data sources inevitably come with some bias.

The factcheckers do issue some rulings that don’t provoke much disagreement. In these cases, questions of legitimacy fade into the background. This may happen much less often than we would like to think, though, and it’s a litmus test that political actors can easily game. To apply it too rigidly—to say these are the only questions factcheckers should rule on—would provide a powerful shield for politicians’ most misleading claims.

More to the point, this is the wrong litmus test for a journalism that very deliberately rejects the “he said, she said” formulations that sustain the “View from Nowhere.” We can’t ask journalists to make the judgment that torture is torture—in the face of the rhetorical, political and legal apparatus that has been erected to redefine that word—and then also insist that they stick to pure “reporting.”

Or to put it the other way around: The fiction of a clear division of labor between reporting, on one hand, and interpretation or argument on the other is an artifact of conventional objective practice, which obscure the reporter’s decision-making and argument-building to make it seem “as if the facts speak for themselves.” We can’t have it both ways.

 

More in United States Project

Lights! Camera! Tax credits!

Read More »

Lucas Graves is an assistant professor in the school of journalism and mass communication at the University of Wisconsin. Follow him on Twitter at @gravesmatter.