Time Gives Up On Fact-Checking
In October, the inevitable was announced: StrugglingÂ NewsweekÂ magazine would be finished as a print publication as of the end of the year. But the last mass newsweekly left,Â Time, also made an announcement of sorts: It was out of the factchecking business.
âWho Is Telling the Truth? The Fact Wars,â readÂ TimeâsÂ October 15Â cover. With a setup like that, one might have hoped for a bold break from the campaign pack, an acknowledgment that facts matter, and that politicians who run on a record of resisting reality should be exposed.
InsteadÂ TimeÂ told a more familiar story, one in which both major parties commit comparable âfactual recklessness,â because accuracyâand realityâare less important than the appearance of evenhandedness. In the article, and a subsequent response to critics, the magazine essentially waved the white flag in the journalistic war against political deception.
TheÂ cover storyÂ by Michael Scherer kicked off with some anecdotes meant to be representative. On the one hand, Obama complained about Romneyâs repeated, highly publicized claims that the White House is doing away with work requirements under welfare. This was, at certain moments, a central part of the Republican campaign strategy. Scherer correctly noted Romneyâs claims were false.
But then, hewing to the idea that one must find political lying in equal measure, he pivoted to a claim from the Obama campâa campaign strategistâs offhand remark that, if Romney had misrepresented himself to securities regulators, that would be âa felonyâââa conditional accusation, but an accusation nonetheless,â Sherer explains, and justification enough for Romneyâs team to âtake its turn playing truth-teller.â
The two issues, though juxtaposed, are not remotely equivalent, illustrating one of the most common problems with media factchecking: the need to always be balanced, no matter how unbalanced reality might be. The losers in the Fact Wars, ironically, are the facts themselves.
Indeed, an entireÂ sidebar pieceÂ by Alex Altman (âWho Lies More? Yet Another Close Contestâ) seemed inspired by the same notion about perfectly symmetrical political lying. The feature chose 10 statements from each side to evaluate. It made for unusual comparisons, considering that one Romney claim was the hyperbolic âWe are only inches away from no longer being a free economy.â Not to worry, Altman rated that âhighly misleading.â
The equivalent Obama claimââWe do not need an outsourcing pioneer in the Oval officeââwas a âdistortion,â inÂ Timeâs judgment, because while Bain âinvested in companies that outsourced jobs, it was not the first to do so,â and Romney was not âdirectly responsibleâ when this occurred. Altman got this wrong, actuallyâRomney was actively running Bain when it âowned companies that were pioneers in the practice of shipping work from the United States to overseas call centers and factories making computer components,â as theWashington PostÂ (6/21/12) reportedâbut in any case, itâs hardly the same as declaring that the U.S. is on the verge of socialism.
Confronted by the obvious evidence that Romneyâs lies and exaggerations were of a different order, Altman came up with a novel explanation:
Compared with the Obama campaignâs, the Romney operationâs misstatements are frequently more brazen. But sometimes the most effective lie is the one that is closest to the truth, and Obamaâs team has often outdone Romneyâs in the dark art of subtle distortion.
So, to summarize: Romney lies more, and bigger. But Obama tells the moreeffectiveÂ kind of lies: the ones that are more accurate.
This kind of analysisÂ allows Scherer to confidently and categorically equate the two campaigns when it comes to reckless disregard for the truth:
Both of the men now running for the presidency claim that their opponent has a weak grasp of the facts and a demonstrated willingness to mislead voters. Both profess an abiding personal commitment to honesty and fair play. And both run campaigns that have repeatedly and willfully played the American people for fools, though their respective violations vary in scope and severity.
In the last phrase, actually, Scherer acknowledges that one side may specialize in lying more than the otherâbut nowhere in the piece does he giveÂ anyindication which side that might be. Itâs an exercise for the reader, apparently.
Scherer does seem troubled by the sheer volume of political lying he detected in the campaign, and thinks he knows whoâs to blame: the people. He wrote:
So what explains the factual reck-lessness of the campaigns? The most obvious answer can be found in the penalties, or lack thereof, for wander-ing astray. Voters just show less and less interest in punishing those who deceive.
Scherer concludes that âuntil the voting public demands something else, not just from the politicians they oppose but also from the ones they support, there is little reason to suspect that will change.â
Blaming a lazy or partisan public for politiciansâ lies seems more than a little odd, especially since there are people whose job it is to hold politicians accountable: Those people are called âjournalists.â And if they do not make politicians pay a price for lying, those politicians are not likely to stop any time soon.
To hear Scherer tell it,Â though, thatâs exactly what journalists have been doing. Unlike in previous campaign seasons, the press âhas largely embraced the cause of correcting politicians when they run astray.â This yearâs campaign âwitnessed a historic increase in fact-checking efforts by the media, with dozens of reporters now focused full time on sniffing out falsehood.â
Some of that sniffing has been partisan, though, so Scherer offers this bizarre advice:
The pundits onÂ MSNBC, theÂ Huffington PostÂ and the editorial page of theNew York TimesÂ do a fine job of calling out the deceptions of Romney, but if you want to hear where Obama is going wrong, you might be better served on theÂ Drudge Report,Â Fox NewsÂ or theÂ Wall Street JournalÂ editorial page.
Sureâif you want some factchecking of Barack Obama, watch an hour of Sean Hannity. Itâs bizarre, but itâs what youâre left with once you buy the premise that itâs impossible to discern fact from fiction and the only option is to read coverage equally skewed in opposite directions.
The problem, Scherer explains, is that voters doesnât want to hear the âother sideâsâ factchecking: âInstead the public increasingly takes issue with those who deliver the facts.â Ironically, he quotes former Al Gore press secretary Chris Lehane making the exact opposite point: âIn the past, the press effectively played the role of umpire…. Now they are effectively in the bleachers.â
So maybe the real problem isnât that the public has no love for âthose who deliver the facts.â It might beâas Lehane saysâthat they donât think journalists actually do that.
Reporters appearÂ to be wedded to a set of ârulesâ that say they are not allowed to convey reality to their readers and viewers. On theÂ Time SwamplandÂ blog (10/9/12), Scherer wrote in response to complaints about his cover story:
I would love to be able to tell you that Mitt Romney is misleading more than Barack Obama or vice versa…. The problem is that there is no existing mechanism for carrying this sacred duty out in real time…. There are just too many subjective judgements that have to be made to come to any conclusion.
This point of view, asÂ Extra!Â editor Jim Naureckas responded (FAIR Blog,10/9/12), should not be called impartiality or objectivity. Itâs really âradical post-modernismâa denial that anything can ever really be known about the world, that all we really can do is report variousÂ claimsÂ about the world.â
For Scherer, the biggest fear seems to be that the facts might pile up on one side. He approvingly quotes Brooks Jackson ofÂ FactCheck.org, who explains that truth-evaluating operations like his are only pretending to try to set firm standards by which political dishonesty can be measured:
Even if we could come up with a scholarly and factual way to say that one candidate is being more deceptive than another, I think we probably wouldnât just because it would look like we were endorsing the other candidate.
So long as the fear of being seen as unfair defines the corporate mediaâs approach to factchecking, they will not be âthose who deliver the facts.â Rather, they are people who carefully arrange each chip in an effort to create the illusion that they let the chips fall where they may.