Fact-checking guests — incentives vs disincentives

FACT-CHECKING GUESTS — INCENTIVES VS DISINCENTIVES…. There’s been quite a bit of talk of late about the Sunday public-affairs talk shows and the role of fact-checking. The issue was put on the map by NYU professor Jay Rosen, Rosen’s ideas were touted by the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz, and ultimately embraced by ABC’s Jake Tapper, the temporary host of “This Week.”

As the discussion continues, it’s worth considering why so many of the programs seem reluctant to incorporate this common-sense approach to quality journalism.

There are five Sunday shows: ABC’s “This Week,” CBS’s “Face the Nation,” NBC’s “Meet the Press,” CNN’s “State of the Union,” and Fox News’ “Fox News Sunday.” To date, only “This Week” has adopted Rosen’s idea on incorporating fact-checking into the process. “Meet the Press” host David Gregory has said he’s content to have viewers “fact-check ‘Meet the Press’ every week on their own terms,” whatever that means. As far as I can tell, Bob Schieffer, Candy Crowley, and Chris Wallace haven’t addressed the issue at all, though CBS, to its credit, published a fairly detailed fact-check item online after Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) lied repeatedly during a recent broadcast.

So, why do the shows seem so reluctant to pursue this? It’s certainly possible that they don’t want to look like “followers” — ABC is doing it, and if the other shows follow suit, it gives the appearance of trying to play catch-up. Shows generally want to look like trend-setters, not followers.

But Jay Rosen raises a more disconcerting possibility.

The more disturbing possibility is that [David Gregory] thinks Tapper’s policy may give Meet the Press a competitive edge in booking guests who won’t want to be checked so vigorously. (As opposed to competing with an even better fact check, which would probably cause Bob Schieffer at Face the Nation to adopt the same policy, forcing the guests to accept the new rules or flee to cable, which has a fraction of the viewers.)

Look at it this way: the Washington politician who’s been on Meet the Press more than any other is John McCain. On April 6, Politifact’s truth-o-meter rated McCain a pants-on-fire liar for claiming that he never called himself a maverick. See what I mean?

I obviously can’t speak to the motivations of the shows’ producers and hosts. I don’t know them and have no idea what they’ve considered and why.

But Rosen’s speculation is hardly unreasonable. If I’m a GOP lawmaker, and I know I’m going to repeat demonstrably false talking points about the major issues of the day, I’m much more likely to appear on a program that allows me to lie with impunity than one that incorporates fact-checking as an official part of the show.

The shows that count on high-profile guests to generate strong ratings may very well have thought of this, too.