In last week's Republican debate in Des Moines, barbs flew among the candidates. Here's Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich:
If you look at "Newt Romney" they were for cap and trade -
I opposed cap and trade. I testified against it the same day that Al Gore testified for it. I helped defeat it in the Senate through American Solutions. It is simply untrue.
Actually, according to the AP fact check, it was true. Quote, "Bachmann's suggestion that Gingrich and Romney are in lock step was oversimplified, but she was right that Gingrich once backed the idea of capping carbon emissions and letting polluters trade emission allowances. It's not just the AP sorting through the truths and the lies. There's PolitiFact and Factcheck.org and partisan outlets that are also joining the fray.
Press accuracy watchdog Craig Silverman predicts that this campaign season news consumers will find it even harder to sort fact from fiction.
There are lots of things labeled as fact-checking that wouldn't really fit the definition, if you're talking about a, you know, dispassionate and fair search into a claim or a statistic to see if it's true or not. There are lots of people who label things a fact check when they're not actually fact checking anything. And so, yes, I think that creates confusion, even just around the term itself. Journalists see it as a way to go after something and help make sense of the news. And yet, because fact-checking has become a good way to label stuff, you know, it's being misused, and the term itself is now becoming muddy.
And complicating problems, the mode of the fact-checkers themselves have been called into question. And I'm not speaking of the explicitly partisan ones. I'm speaking of the putatively neutral ones, like the Associated Press. Tell me about the Weekly Standard article.
The Weekly Standard, a conservative publication, recently published an article that's really saying to readers the term "fact check" and "fact-checking" is being used by people from the liberal side of the fence to push forward opinion journalism. It's, in some ways, an attack on the foundation of these non-partisan groups, saying that they're really not as non-partisan as you think.
So a lot of people are looking at that Weekly Standard piece and saying, okay, so this is setting the tone for what's gonna happen in 2012, where you're gonna have not just these non-partisan places like PolitiFact trying to to get their fact checks out there, but they're probably also gonna have to be actively engaged with the dialogue from people on the right and perhaps also on the left, who are saying don't trust PolitiFact.
Now, the piece used examples and, you know, I wouldn't say that there were billows of smoke pouring from the guns, but they were able to make an argument on a couple of AP pieces which did seem to veer from strictly being the arbiter of fact to opinion journalism.
The AP pieces are, are really kind of interesting because if you look at how it’s structured, say, at PolitiFact, you know, they sort of list the facts, they list the sources they go to and then they give a verdict with their little Truth-O-Meter.
With AP it's really written more the traditional article, and if you're used to reading AP news articles, I think when you read some of their fact checks, you see a very different tone being taken.
Personally, I like to see them being forceful about things but I can understand how people are looking at these fact checks and saying, wait a second, this isn't fact-checking, this is opinion journalism. But I suppose that does back to the idea of how do you actually make fact-checking effective, how do you convince people.
And it seems to me that AP is saying, well, let's not be equivocal, let's not sort of bow down to that god of objectivity, let's really call the shots here.
So I guess the unknowable at the moment is have candidates been chastened by the certain knowledge that if they tell a whopper, they're gonna be called out for it.
My understanding is that there are actually campaigns who will call up folks at PolitiFact and say, we have an announcement going out, here are some of the statistics we're planning to cite, do you guys see a problem with any of these?
I don't think that it's usually widespread, but now that PolitiFact actually organizes people with their own page, so you could see, for example, all of its ratings about Mitt Romney, the candidates are starting to pay a bit more attention.
This gets, actually, to a subject we were talking about earlier in the show, the question of when something becomes a social or political penalty. We were talking about the texting while driving, but is there a penalty for telling a bald-faced lie?
I guess the sort of wishy-washy answer that I would give is sometimes yes. What we do see is a candidate's opponent using a PolitiFact finding to beat them over the head with.
I think our challenge is actually getting these things to be a little bit more viral and shareable and interesting to the public at large.
One high profile example from this time around was a Mitt Romney ad where he took a video of Obama quoting a McCain advisor in the last election, and Romney presented it as Obama's thoughts and words.
PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE BARACK OBAMA (2008):
I have confidence that we can steer ourselves out of this crisis. We need to provide relief for homeowners…. If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.
What was most notable to me was the fact that that when Romney got busted for it and when one of his senior campaign people actually responded to everyone pointing out, listen, this is completely outrageous, the campaign person basically said, yeah, we know. And, guess what, it worked, we're happy with it. And I think that really shows the challenge that's here. This is a conscious decision.
And so, to me it really underscores how much better we have to get at this because the people on the other side, they know to appeal to people's emotions, they know to tell a story. They know to scare them. They know to do all these things that we don't do when we just try to debunk it.
Well, your conclusion is we need to get better at it. You could equally conclude that it's a futile enterprise because there doesn't seem to be a penalty for being caught in a lie.
That's one of the challenges because we know that the more a person hears a lie, the more it is sort of implanted in their brain, even subconsciously. And if they see an ad even once or twice, what are the chances they're going to see that fact check piece?
So you can definitely get discouraged if you want to, but for me I don't know that it's a battle that we can really give up, especially considering I don't think there's really been as much effort put into these fact-checking efforts that there can be.
Just now we see technologists coming together, we see social scientists providing research. We're seeing PolitiFact grow. We're seeing other organizations. And I'm hopeful that maybe in 2012 we'll be a little bit better.
Well Craig, once again, thank you so much.
As of Monday, Craig Silverman will be doing his blog, Regret the Error for Poynter Institute, where he is now a member of the adjunct faculty.