Everybody is Wrong, Continued

Last week, I declared a pox on both the houses of Harry Reid, for making reckless and irresponsible charges, and Mitt Romney, for violating the norm of releasing tax returns.

Now? Politfact, too. They gave Reid a “Pants on Fire” rating, despite the uncomfortable situation that they have no evidence at all about whether Reid is telling the truth when he claims that a “source” told him Romney hasn’t paid taxes.

Look, three things are true here. The first is that Harry Reid is misbehaving, and he should be called on it, and it should stain his reputation. Kevin Drum is absolutely correct on this when he tells liberals:

Take a deep breath, folks. This is contemptible stuff and it’s not just business as usual. We’ve spent too many years berating the tea partiers for getting on bandwagons like this to get sucked into it ourselves the first time it’s convenient. It’s time to quit cheering on Reid and get off this particular bus.

And that’s true even though Romney deserves what he gets because he hasn’t released his tax returns.

But none of that makes what Politifact has done any better.

Brendan Nyhan has been defending Politifact on twitter today, but I really disagree with him on this one. If they’re to be any use at all, fact checkers need, in my view, to take their mandate narrowly and literally: they need to check facts. Granted, the line between “fact” and “interpretation” can be slippery both in theory and in practice, but that’s all the more reason for these folks keep things as narrow as they can.

See, even in the best of all possible versions, it’s not at all clear that the fact checkers can really do much (see, in addition to Nyhan generally, the case my brother has been making). But every time they leave themselves open to obvious partisan rejoinders, they risk whatever nonpartisan authority they do have.

Reid may be simply flat-out making stuff up, or he may “only” be behaving irresponsibly by being deliberately naive about what someone tells him, and at any rate what he’s doing is not how people should conduct politics. But Politifact doesn’t really know how to sort that out, and it’s not their job to judge political ethics. It’s even worse than that, perhaps: by dredging through the accusation, odds are they’re just rewarding Reid by putting  the spotlight on speculation about what Mitt Romney may be hiding. I know it’s cheap and cheesy to end with it, but when it comes to Politifact and the others of their type, the real guiding idea really has to be: just the facts.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.