Fact-checking and Reality-testing

So the WaPo fact-checker decides to award Barack Obama Three Pinocchios – that is, call him a liar – for saying that “as many as” or “nearly” 40 percent of gun transactions now avoid background checks, based on the most recent study of the question, because the most recent study is old and had a small sample and the true number – unknown – might be less than 40%.

As the Phil Cook and Jens Ludwig, the authors of that study, had already pointed out, we already know that something like 80% of crime guns were acquired outside the background-check system. That already gives us an estimate of the benefit of tightening availability; the total number of unchecked sales helps us estimate the cost, with more sales outside the current system implying a higher cost of changing the rules.

So the President is guilty, at worst, of quoting the wrong statistic, not of making up numbers to support his case. The abuse of fact-checking, and especially the elision of the line between questions of interpretation and questions of deliberate deception that would justify the use of the term “lie” or the cutesy “Pinocchio” system, would be a disgrace to journalism, if the editorial page of the Washington Post were still considered a journalistic enterprise.

I understand that the persistent lying of Republicans puts honest fact-checkers in a bind; if they call the balls and strikes accurately, they wind up looking like partisan Democrats. Under the circumstances, I suppose it makes sense that Glenn Kessler decided that being an honest fact-checker wasn’t worth the hassle, and decided to take up an alternative line of work.

But the RBC hereby awards Kessler three “Benjy Compsons” for not checking with, or even Googling, Cook and Ludwig to actually understand the issue before calling the President a liar.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.