Fact Checker: The biggest Pinocchios of 2011

Dec 22, 2011

The Post's fact checker, Glenn Kessler, chatted about his picks for biggest Pinocchios of 2011 and recent criticism of fact checkers (including Politifact, Factcheck.org, and The Fact Checker).

Note to readers: Unlike many of our other chat series, Fact Checker will not take place at the same day and time every week. The time of these chats will be determined by what Glenn is working on and current events. Chats in this series will be designated by the words "Fact Checker" in the chat title. Thank you.

Read: The biggest Pinocchios of 2011

Lots of questions so let's get started.

Aside from what you've already written, do you have a response to the Weekly Standard criticism of fact checking, and in its specific criticisms of you? Is there anything you've fact-checked that, looking back you feel was inappropriate for fact-checking? How is that you decide what is appropriate for a "fact-check" and what more appropriately qualifies as a politician giving an opinion or something that is inappropriate for a fact check?

The Weekly Standard article certainly raised an important issue--where do you draw the line between "facts" and "opinions"? I try not to check opinions, though I do think it is fair game to check the facts that politicians might offer in support of those opinions.  Many Republicans believe raising taxes will hurt the economy, and that is a legitimate opinion. But if someone says that small businesses will be affected by a tax on millionnaires, that is a fact that can be checked. Similarly, Democrats argue that "GOP kills Medicare" is more of a question of interpretation but there were specific facts that were offered in support of that claim. Those facts did not support the clain, however.

The writer of the Weekly Standard article quoted at length from a complaint by Ben Smith of Politico about one of my articles. This Ben Smith comment is frequently quoted, but few note that it was written to defend Politico's reporting, which I suggested was rather thin. (It had to do with something Biden supposedly said, which no other major news organization was able to confirm.) In fact, my original column was really to help readers understand that just because it's reported in the news, it may not be true. It was intended as a guide, but somehow that point was lost amid Politico's outrage at their reporting being questioned. Given the grief I got for that column, maybe it wasn't worth it!

 

If the Post ended your column and gave its readers a voucher to purchase fact-checking services from a private fact-checker, do you think I could get more objective analysis and less "balance"? Even your "biggest Pinocchios of 2011" are in perfect four-Republican, four-Democrat harmony.

You know, until you mentioned it, I had not realized it was in "perfect" balance. I just picked the best ones, in no particular order. I was more focused on the fact that I did not come up with 10 or 15 or something like that. Eight (or 12 with the ads) seemed a little odd but I decided there was no reason to dilute it by straining for 10.

I do plan to give a year end accounting of how many articles were Dems versus Republicans. I assume, given the GOP primary, it will tilt more toward the Republicans. But I have no idea!

So, the new publisher of the Tampa Bay Times has decided to turn Politifact into an advice column, keeping the same name (it's an advice column for wannabee pundits). People who love fact checkers criticize the publisher for "ending Politifact." They get 4 pinocchios from you?

Ha, cute experiment. But completely irrelevant to the Medicare debate.

PolitiFact can speak for themselves. In my article, I looked at the specific claims made by Democrats to back up the idea that the GOP would "kill" Medicare. They did not hold up to scrutiny. The GOP would certainly transform Medicare, and as I have written they have mischaracterized some of things they would do, but they would not kill it. It is not the same as relabeling a different product. 

We believe what we believe. This is true with all humans including reporters. Let's say I am a reporter who leans liberal. How can I MAKE myself be balanced? How can I MAKE myself temporarily agree with a conservative argument especially on the close calls? The only way that I can think of is to give the other side "the benefit of the doubt" especially on the close calls. But is that fair long-term to the the liberal side of the argument? Who in the conservative press give the liberal point of view the benefit of the doubt?

You may be describing yourself but you are not describing me. I have more than 30 years of experience as a reporter. I am trained to be skeptical of everyone and everything. I have never been part of "liberal media" or a "conservative media." Few reporters at organizations like the Washington Post are, in part because it is our job to be questioning and skeptical. 

The most persuasive argument against fact checkers is that "fact checking" is really what all journalists are supposed to be doing. By creating this separate category, it is encouraging what seems to be an increasing tendency towards "he said, she said, no facts or context" reporting, while at the same time reinforcing the biased media myth.

As I wrote, fact checking is a complement to other reporting, not a substitute. When I was a beat reporter, I wrote tough-minded analyses of the issues and frequently called out misstatements and falsehoods. But that material also can get lost in the day-to-day reporting. Or it can get buried in the day story.

I was especially frustrated when I was the chief political correspondent for Newsday in the 1996 campaign, trying to keep up with the charges and counter charges of Clinton and Dole. I finally convinced my editors to let me have a huge amount of space to "fact check" all of these claims on the eve of the first debate. It generated an amazing response from readers, who demonstrated they had a hunger for this information.

The idea behind the fact checking trend is to provide a platform that highlights the truth or fiction behind various claims being made in the political discourse. I can write 1,000 words on a statement that one of my colleagues could only devote 25 to in the course of an ordinary article. 

In other words, you are getting more--not less.

Be honest: was it a conscious choice to include the same number of "lies" from both parties in this article? And if so, isn't there a chance that your belief in both sides being equally dishonest fuels your choice of which lies to highlight, rather than the other way around?

It was not conscious. I am amazed people even bothered to count. The point was not who said it, but what was said.

Please note--I did not say both sides are equally dishonest. Instead, I said:  "There is little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of twisting the facts and being misleading when it suits their political purposes."

In other words, they both stretch the truth when they think it furthers their political objectives. I make no judgement on whether one party is more dishonest than the other. 

In your article you mentioned your belief that both parties are equally quilty of stretching the truth. I don't have any facts to dispute that assertion, but you do. Have you thought of compiling an overall Pinocchio rating for each party? It seems that by now you have a big enough sample from which to draw conclusions. BTW, a quick look at your Pinocchio tracker shows that at least at the presidential and vice-presidential level, the GOP seems to be a little more fact-challenged: President Obama is at 1.91 and VP Biden is at 2.67, while the GOP candidates range from 1.50 for Huntsman and 2.06 for Romney to 3.08 for Bachmann and 3.5 for Ron Paul. You'd have to factor in sample size for each candidate, but at this level here seems to be little doubt that he GOP has longer noses. I don't know how this would change if you factored in Pelosi, Bird, McConnell, Boehner, etc. into the mix, but it would be interesting to know.

At six months, I wrote a column in which I gave that information. At that point, it was 2.32 for Democrats and 2.53 for Republicans, based on 54 columns for each party.

Over the holidays, I hope to provide a one-year accounting, though a recent change in the publishing system made it more difficult to maneuver through the archive. My guess is the rhetoric in the GOP primaries will continue to drag down the GOP numbers. 

I'm interested in your opinion on the current attitude in media coverage that assumes all issues have two equally creditable sides. From your position as a working prize winning journalist do you agree with that attitude? If not, is there a way to remedy this?

Part of the purpose of the fact checker column is to assess the credibility of each side's assertions. I don't look at opinion, but I look at the facts. I do not believe each issue has an equal set of facts. 

Bravo for some good *centrist*, non-partisan fact checking! Both sides do it. And both sides got the same number of Pinocchios. That proves you are doing a good job! Keep up the good work. Was the spirit of David Broder communing with you as you did your fact-checking?

Thank you for this comment! I recently attended a conference on fact checking, and it seems that many people point to David Broder's columns after the 1988 election as helping pave the way for today's fact checking organizations. 

I earned my Masters of B.S. from the University of Hops and Malt. I don't mind many of the exaggerations on either side, but I do think it's good to point them out. Political campaigns would be no fun if we stuck to the facts (I still watch the Elizabeth Dole "There Is No God" ad a couple times a week, and I completely collapse in laughter), but hall monitors are useful. Even if, like at school, everyone hurls spitballs at them.

ha, I like this comment. 

...could you please give a dishonorable mention to Newt Gingrich for blasting Mitt Romney's failure to remove a negative ad from a SuperPAC, when it's only against the law for a candidate to tamper with such PACs, isn't it?

I think Gingrich was asking Romney to disavow the ads. I don't think there is anything against the law for saying you think an ad is bad. 

When you claim that you don't feel pressure to have an equal number of Democratic lies and Republican lies, it insults my intelligence and it makes me very angry, to quote Michael Corleone. Why not just admit that you feel this pressure? Do you actually think anyone believes you?

I'm sorry you feel that way. I seriously have no idea how many Dem versus GOP statements I have checked, but I assume it is mostly Republican these days, because of the primaries. At least I get enough mail telling me I am beating too much on Republicans!

You sometimes award Pinocchios to someone who says somehting that is factually correct, but you infer that it was presented in a misleading manner or was designed to confuse the audience - is that fact checking or inserting your opinion into what is suppoesed to be fact based reporting?

No, it is not inserting opinion.  Context is important. If Mitt Romney suggests Obama does not believe America is exceptional by only quoting the first half of a sentence, when in fact the second half shows Obama says he beleive America is exceptional, then it is my role to show what Obama said in full context. 

That's why we have four levels of Pinocchios. Out of context is important to note, but it is better than something invented out of thin air. 

Isn't the difference between "transforming" Medicare into a new form and "killing" its current form a petty and abstract basis for calling it the lie of the year for democrats?

I cannot speak for PolitiFact. I don't single out a statement--nor do I ever call these statements "lies." I do not pretend to know the motivations for why politicians say the things they say. As I noted today, while I thought "kill Medicare" was not supported by the evidence, I also criticized Paul Ryan and the Republicans for misrepresenting what their plan would do. 

Politico had 5 sources who all confirmed what biden said - and Biden never asked for a correction or retraction. Pehaps Biden's comment was not reported on by the Post and NYT because they were not as on the ball as Politico in this case?

Not to rehash old ground, but a) the sources were not identified b) Biden's staff says they did ask for a retraction (Politico says they did not. Go figure). c) WaPo and NYT have pretty fine reporters who could not confirm this to their satisfaction. 

I used to cover Congress. If something like this happened, it would have been easily confirmed by the dozens of people in the room. It is not like we are talking about uncovering a CIA operation. 

But lay aside Politico's reporting. The point of the column was somethingwas treated as a "fact" when it was based on a single news report. I was simply saying caveat emptor. I am sorry I upset anyone at Politico!

How many people, other than yourself, contribute to the WaPo Fact Checker? How much time per day do you spend looking over political statements looking for false ones? How do you pick which ones make the cut?

It's me and my assistant, Josh Hicks. I spend a lot of time watching TV, scanning the web and reading transcripts to look for potential statements. Sometimes readers flag potential statements for me as well. (Thank you!)

Sometimes it is apparent early in the day what would make for a good column; other days, it is real touch and go. 

I look for things that are in the news and would be of broad interest to readers. I try to avoid things that are too narrow or obvious. 

... that the biggest Pinocchio of the year should go to Gingrich for pretending he didn't know what the Pinocchios were for, as MSNBC kindly provided the video footage of him touting one of his rivals getting four Pinocchios from you?

ha, missed that. I will have to look it up.

Great article, Glenn. Just one thing: when I've heard Dems talk about the GOP's plans for Medicare, I've heard many say the plans would "kill Medicare as we know it." Would you think that statement was true, or is it too misleading?

"kill, eliminate" is still rather strong. But the "as we know it" caveat--which is what Obama says--gets it much closer to the truth. 

I think you're making a big mistake in skewing your work to placate the far right. How many of your readers are Tea Partiers anyway? And you know that you will never be able to placate them anyway, right?

what makes you think I skew the work toward the right? 

I wish everyone had the same attitude, but a great deal of journalism these days seems to be driven by access at the top levels. And many journalists seem to view passing along information given on "background" as the price of access. Judith Miller, for example, was neither questioning nor skeptical of the specious WMD information she reported. Would you ever consider doing fact checker pieces on news stories with unnamed sources?

well, as the Politico comments above suggest, the only people more thin-skinned than politicians are reporters! Not sure I could stand the grief.....

Living in the DC area, we're bombarded with advertisements from corporations, think tanks and other special interest groups promoting their particular concern (e.g., the benefits of merging AT&T and Sprint, building the latest pipeline, aircraft refueling tankers). Many of the advertisiements seem so far-fetched that they strain credulity. Does the fact-checker have any plans to test the statements in these ads?

Yes, I would like to do more of that. It is certainly an area ripe for exploration, especially when the election season passes. 

It is not against the law to stop someone from spending money - its only against the law to tell them how to spend it. If they aren't spending money - there is no illegal coordinated contribution, by definition.

I think that is correct.

If you say you don't consciously try to beat up both parties the same amount, then I believe you (although, I still think it must be happening on a subconscious level then). I don't always agree with your verdicts, but I think your column does much more good than harm. Thanks for your hard work.

Thank you!

This may be a question more for "The Fix" but, based on all the Pinocchios they've generated, do you think that all those Republican Presidential candidate debates will ultimately help or hurt the party and its eventual nominee?

The statements said in the primaries always come back to hurt the nominees....remember Kerry saying he was for the $69 billion before he was against it?

Anyone should be capable of fact-checking a factual statement, regardless of his political bias. Yesterday was uncomfortably warm. That's my opinion, and I'm entitled to it. But I'm not entitled to claim that "it was in the 80s" in order to get more people to agree. Anyone should be able to verify that temperatures hovered around 60, regardless of whether they thought it was too hot or too cold.

excellent example!

More of a comment... The slings and arrows of bias that I have seen hurled at you typically decry an up or down decision and/or degree of phoniness based on fact and context. Where I come from, bias would be the conclusion on the aforementioned based on who said it, not what was said. Just thought you might need some unbiased kudos.

Appreciate it!

"I make no judgement on whether one party is more dishonest than the other. " But shouldn't you make a judgement about that? Shouldn't the scale, magnitude, and pervasiveness of the dishonesty be just as important as the mere existence of it on both sides?

That is a meta-question. At the moment, I am a bit more focused on the trees (ie, statements) rather than the forest. I view my role as helping readers understand more about the facts behind the various statements made in our political discourse. I guess someone could draw broad conclusions based on my work--at least I hope it helps readers think about the issues under discussion.

But I cannot do my job correctly if I think one party is more dishonest than the other. Instead, I simply have to view each statement as something fresh and new to be explored, and not pay as much attention to who said it. 

Thank you for all the excellent questions. I did not get to them all, even though we ran much longer than expected. Happy holidays...and watch your facts!

In This Chat
Glenn Kessler
Glenn Kessler is an acclaimed diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and has been recipient of numerous awards, including two shared Pulitzer Prizes. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he has reported from dozens of countries and also has covered the White House and Congress. Kessler is the author of The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy. He is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and lives in McLean, Virginia.
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