In defense of fact-checking

IN DEFENSE OF FACT-CHECKING…. Jay Rosen’s modest proposal for more fact-checking on television news programs seems to be generating some worthwhile discussions. We saw one yesterday on CNN’s “Reliable Sources,” when host Howard Kurtz returned to the subject.

Kurtz noted a couple of major-league lies from last week, highlighting Sen. Jim DeMint’s (R-S.C.) obviously false claim that President Obama refuses to use the word “terrorism,” and Rudy Giuliani’s (R) claim that there were no domestic terror attacks during the Bush/Cheney era. He noted that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow presented reality to her viewers, prompting Kurtz to ask whether “television need do more of that.”

If we’re voting, put me down for a “yes.”

Kurtz noted, “I’ve been in a situation where people have made charges in an interview, and I don’t have the facts to challenge them at that moment. I’m talking about coming back later and doing that.” Now, I’m not unsympathetic to media professionals who don’t always realize when a politician is lying — journalists can’t know everything. But it’s worth noting that the reporters asking the questions have to know at least a little more about the subject at hand. In theory, it’s their job.

After DeMint starting telling his favorite lie last week, for example, there were widespread reports online documenting how false his claim was. He kept repeating the lie anyway, and media interviewers seemed completely unaware of reality. (I’m not saying every high-paid media professional should be as quick, informed, and intelligent as Rachel Maddow … but our discourse would be less stupid if they were.)

But Kurtz’s other point — that networks can come back later and do fact-checking — is the angle of note here. He asked Amanda Carpenter of the admittedly right-wing Washington Times about this, and she suggested network fact-checking is unnecessary*: “I mean, there’s a number of blogs on each side of the political who go through these shows line by line.”

To which Kurtz responded, “Exactly. And I’m saying why leave it entirely to the blogs? Why don’t television producers and correspondents do it themselves?”

The discussion ended there, but Kurtz’s questions have real merit. In recent years, the media has created a truly bizarre dynamic — news consumers who want to hear a bunch of politicians make a lot of claims can watch television news interviews, and news consumers who want to know if those claims are accurate can go online.

At that point, television news stops informing the public, and simply becomes literally nothing more than a conduit for talking points and pretty pictures. Viewers who want to learn accurate information about current events are told they must go elsewhere — it’s not CNN’s job to tell you the facts; it’s CNN’s job to tell you what “both sides” think about the facts.

In theory, if major media outlets started caring about fact-checking, fewer people might turn to blogs like this one. At this point, though, I think the benefits for the discourse would be worth the risk.

* I talked to Amanda Carpenter via email today, and she reminds me that she actually likes the fact-check idea, but as the video clip notes, she’s concerned “that some fact-checks are more like opinion checks.”