Fact Checkers


My young conservative, even libertarian, friend asked me about the now popular fact checkers. Here’s his note:

Are you familiar with Politifact? http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/blog/2011/oct/06/who-pays-for-politifact/

It’s a fact-checking organization that’s apparently owned by the Tampa Bay Times.

The question, of course, is what are the partisan leanings of the people behind it.

Yes. I enjoy reading it, as it is part of the Tampa Bay Times, the old-fashioned newspaper we get at our house.

The Tampa Bay Times used to be the St. Petersburg Times, and Tampa had the Tampa Tribune. Their editorial policies differed. The Times being more liberal and the Tribune more conservative. The Times changed its name to the Tampa Bay Times, and just a couple of months ago, surprised everyone by buying and then shutting down the Tampa Tribune. The Tampa Bay Times showed no interest in my essay about the Confederate Soldiers Monument, but the Tribune published it along with a strong column by one of their regular columnists on a related topic, and a strong editorial, during the week after Dylan Roof shot the black Bible study group in South Carolina.

As you know, these days the convention in the media is to distinguish news from editorials or opinion pieces. The news is supposed to be reported, in so far as possible, objectively and independently from the editorial stance of the paper’s publisher and its editors. It wasn’t always this way. In the 19th century newspapers tended to be associated with one party or another and to actively report news items favorable to their side and ones that showed their opponents as scoundrels or worse. Somewhat in the manner of today’s Fox Noise News.

Generally speaking I like Politifact and the other fact checking groups, such as the one at the Washington Post, and ad hoc reports, such as reporters’ fact checking Trump’s and Clinton’s convention speeches. Also useful in this regard are the various urban legends sites such as Snopes. I often check the right-wing political e-mails forwarded to me on Snopes.

This is not to say that I don’t have criticisms of the fact checkers.

I think that it is useful and important to distinguish between a lie: That is, something said or not said with the intention to deceive listeners, where an intention to deceive means that the speaker knows what he or she is saying is false; And a mistake, which is a falsehood believed by the speaker uttered with an intention to persuade but with no intention to deceive.

Just to pick an example, Politifact, I think it was, declared President Obama’s “If you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it.” the lie of the year a few years ago. But he had no intention to deceive anyone, and it’s even complicated to figure out if what he said was a substantive mistake.

Politicians and others fling accusations of lying and broken promises at one another with abandon, but I think that this mudslinging splashes the slingers as much as the targets. Personally, I don’t think politicians are more or less dishonest than the general population from which they come. Of course, sometimes they tell lies, and sometimes they are mistaken, but I think that most of the time they say what they believe to be true.

Another problem with the fact checkers is that they believe that to maintain the appearance of objectivity they should find about as many lies from the right as from the left. Sometimes this leads them to false equivalence, as when they point to an outright fabrication on one side (as Donald Trump’s claim that Muslims danced on New Jersey rooftops as the Twin Towers fell) and a mistake, misstatement, or slip on the other, such as “Biden has wrong Republican in carpet bomb claim”.

The past few years have made this superficial objectivity increasingly difficult. My joke is that these days the facts have a liberal bias. But it appears that the Republican Party lives increasingly in an alternate universe than the rest of us. Every one of the dozen and a half Republican presidential primary candidates denied of the massively supported science of global warming, for example. Or attempts by conservatives to teach Bible stories in biology classes, or to elide slavery as a, or really, the cause of the Civil War in school textbooks.

Here is the Politifact home page http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/ .

Here’s a summary chart from late June on Politifact:

Or this:

With data such as this, it is difficult for the fact checkers to maintain their “both sides do it” convention, because that convention is false, in this particular election.

Donald Trump is not a normal person. His pronouncements don’t really align along a line from 100% true to 100% false. He is what is known as a bullshitter. He is unconcerned with their truth or falsity. That is why, for example, he continues to cite the dancing Muslims after 9/11 even though neither his own staff nor any reporter can find any evidence of this happening, or even of it being reported. That is why he continues to state that he opposed the 2nd Iraq war even when interviewers show him videos of him stating tepid support for it and praising it once it began.

But he, and many other Republicans, respond to the fact checkers’ declarations by claiming that they are just part of the liberal biased lamestream media. When the Washington Post sent its reporters to check on Donald Trump’s many claims to be donating money to veterans’ groups and other charities and found that few of them reported receiving any money from him, and what they had received was much less than he boasted, he accused the Post, and its owner, of bias against him, and promised anti-trust action against Jeff Bezos when Trump was President.

He and other Republicans accuse the fact checkers of bias, that is of corruption, when the fact checkers anger them. It sometimes happens that liberals disagree with the fact checkers, and I can find examples, if you wish. The Obama lie of the year is one example. But the liberals don’t accuse the fact checkers of corruption and bias. They say that the fact checkers are mistaken, and present the evidence that they believe supports this.

Finally, your question about the necessity for learning the political leanings of the people behind the fact checkers suggests the idea that there is no such thing as facts that can be found and agreed upon. Everything is opinions. To this, I say that everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but no one is entitled to their own facts. While we don’t know the facts about everything, and we probably don’t know all the facts about anything, there are some facts that are known to us. The Earth is pretty nearly spherical. Abraham Lincoln was our 16th president. I confess to being an intellectual heir to the Enlightenment and its proclamation that human beings, through the use of their minds, can learn about nature and about themselves. The Enlightenment project has been successful, but not without setbacks and failings, and more successful in easier realms, such as physics, than in the more difficult ones of medicine, psychology, history, or even politics. I definitely object to the Post-modernist claim that there are no facts that are independent of their social context. What we need to know about the fact checkers is not their politics, but their track record for accuracy and objectivity.



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