I think there is a bit of specialization, in that if it is for PolitiFact the style is different. It’s more laying things out, almost like a proof for a magazine piece as opposed to the space crunch you have in a newspaper. In part that is because it is an online product first and the papers are picking it up second.
But on other hand it seems to me to be important for news media to explain the facts and explain what is true. If we are reporting things without giving any background, it’s almost like play-by-play for a sports event. I don’t think in the long run that particularly helps readers. If Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich start taking shots at each other and you hear their sound bites over and over again, but don’t have any idea of what is real there, you are no better off.
What do you think about the discussion following the Arthur Brisbane piece regarding “truth vigilantes” in The New York Times, and the failings of conventional journalism? Is that fair?
One of challenges you’ve got is that you can’t do a PolitiFact story in ten minutes or 15 minutes and file and post it online and you’re done. We are in an era where the turnaround time has shrunk dramatically. And not just for electronic media, but for print media, too, because they are often doing online posting, tweeting, and Facebook, and there is pressure to get stuff up quickly. It takes time to go and check the background on some of this.
I do think when media can check what’s behind a statement, it is important because it’s our job, basically, not just to parrot what people tell us, but to sort out what is really behind it and what’s not. At the same time, that doesn’t mean you pick a side or play “gotcha” or evaluate policy. We won’t get into policy debates; you can’t quantify that.
Some commentators have said that adding fact checks to stories, or calling someone a liar, would be too polarizing for the mainstream media. Your take?
I’m glad you mentioned “liar.” We don’t use the word “lie.” One time a year PolitiFact national does their Lie of the Year. They look at the claim most often repeated and which has the biggest impact, and they write a story about it. (For a skeptical look at that practice by CJR, see here.)
We don’t call somebody a liar at PolitiFact Ohio, probably because of the intent it is showing. We are not trying to divide in fact-checking. We will point out where something is false.
I can picture where you get into a situation, say like what you have with the British press or with other European press, where there is a lot more opinion and slant woven into the news pages. That could be polarizing. I think that is something to keep in mind, and I think that is a good thing we don’t go there.
One final note: Speaking of untruths, I decided, in the end, to fact-check that famous line attributed to Detective Joe Friday. Good thing. He never said it.