Nonetheless, Borchers’ reframing of the question echoes claims made by many liberal Romney critics and commentators, who have criticized fact-checkers while arguing that Romney remained responsible for Bain’s decisions during that period and may have dissembled about the extent of his continued involvement. Nick Baumann of Mother Jones, for instance, asks the following question of fact-checkers:

Is it possible that even without day-to-day managerial control, Mitt Romney may bear some moral or personal responsibility for the actions of Bain Capital post-1999, given that no one is disputing that he benefited financially from its actions and that his name was on the door? Is that question even fact-checkable?

The answer to the latter question, in fact, is no, which highlights the second limitation of fact-checking. Readers are often frustrated with the narrow and seemingly pedantic nature of fact-checking by watchdogs like PolitiFact and Factcheck.org, which typically focus on the specifics of a given claim rather than the larger issue or debate in question. But there’s a good reason for the narrow focus of the genre—broader questions about significance and responsibility are simply beyond their purview and cannot be answered within the realm of facts. For example, as BostInno’s Walt Frick noted in a clever “Choose Your Own Adventure”-style Romney/Bain explainer, the significance of the dispute will vary depending on your answers to a series of highly subjective questions

How relevant do you think Romney’s time at Bain Capital is to his presidential candidacy?…

Is someone responsible for the business they own, even if they’re no longer involved in decision-making?…

How worried are you about offshoring of US jobs?

There are no objective answers to these questions. The irony is that many liberals were outraged by PolitiFact’s choice of the Democratic charge that the House GOP budget would “end Medicare” as its so-called 2011 “Lie of the Year.” As Chait wrote at the time, “it’s obviously a question of interpretation, not fact.” The same principle applies to Romney’s responsibility (or lack thereof) for decisions made at Bain during the period when he was technically its owner and CEO but not involved in “day-to-day” management of the firm. Some claims are too important to check.

Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at brendan-nyhan.com and tweets @BrendanNyhan.