The Truth About Fact-Checking

As you probably know, Harry Reid has been taunting Mitt Romney for refusing to release his tax returns, claiming he has a reliable source who’s informed him Mitt hadn’t been paying taxes at all for a decade. Republicans and quite a few MSM types (most vociferously WaPo’s Richard Cohen) have freaked out about Reid’s “McCarthyism,” and were rewarded with that national political equivalent of a high school debate tournament trophy: a favorable PolitiFact ruling!

Yes, one of the handful of “fact-checking services” that gets national attention, the Tampa Bay Times’ PoltiFact gave Reid a “pants-on-fire” judgement for his claims about Romney’s tax liabilities. As Scott Lemieux quickly noted at Lawyers, Guns & Money, PolitiFact seems to be struggling with the definition of the word “lie:”

This does not, in fact, constitute a “lie.” If it is, then Romney has told “pants on fire” lies about what he’s paid in taxes as well. And PolitiFact is double-pants-on-fire-with-an-additional-Pinocchio lying, since they haven’t provided the slightest evidence that Reid wasn’t told by someone that Romney hasn’t paid taxes. As always, PolitiFact simply doesn’t understand what facts and lies are, which is kind of a problem when you purport to be a fact-checker.

If you want to say that Reid is engaging in dishonorable tactics, you can. For the reasons SEK and Jonathan Zasloff have stated, I don’t agree — Reid didn’t breach any actually existing standard of civility in American politics, and highlighting the embarrassing information that must be hidden in Romney’s past returns if Romney refuses to follow the existing norms and release them is Politics 101. A specific charge that can be refuted by releasing information that every other presidential candidate has released for decades isn’t McCarthyism. But all this is a matter of judgement; if PolitiFact wants to refuse to award Reid the David Broder Award for Adhering to Standards of Civility That Have Never Existed that’s fine. But it can’t call Reid a liar without providing some evidence that he’s actually lied.

Snark aside, Scott is exactly right: however you look at Reid’s tactics (and I’m not a big fan of this “secret-source” stuff myself), the central assertion isn’t a “lie” unless (a) Reid actually does not have any source for his assertions, and is just making it up, or (b) Romney did in fact pay taxes, which he’s asserted himself but refuses to document.

This is of a piece with PolitiFact’s notorious assignment of a “Lie of the Year” designation for the Democratic claim that a vote for the Ryan Budget was a vote to “end Medicare.” Aside from the fact that most Democrats qualified that attack line (“ending Medicare as we know it” is Obama’s typical description of the Ryan Budget proposal, which is entirely accurate), PolitiFact seems to think it’s a good idea to register its maximum disapproval or exaggerations and innuendoes by calling them “lies.” And that’s what seems to be going on with the Reid “ruling,” aside from the false equivalency temptation to which virtually all media “fact-checkers” are exceptionally prone.

And that, in my opinion, is a bigger problem than any one ruling. “Fact-checking” has emerged as a major part of American politics because of the polarization of “news” sources and (in my opinion) the self-liberating decision of conservative media to create their own “facts.” But when the fact-checkers start playing fast and loose with terms like “lie” and “pants-on-fire lie” and the various highly subjective “Pinnochio” ratings, fact-checking itself undermines its credibility, perhaps fatally.

I’m reminded of an old story, perhaps apocryphal, about 1960s-era Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who followed the then-common southern practice of staffing his own office with very cheap prison-work-release labor–people known as “trusties.” One day he sent a “trusty” out to bring back some coffee, and he never returned. Quoth Barnett: “If you can’t trust a trusty, who can you trust?” That’s where we are today with fact-checkers, and it’s a damn shame.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.