In defense of fact-checking, cont’d

IN DEFENSE OF FACT-CHECKING, CONT’D…. The larger discussion about Sunday shows and fact-checking continues to percolate, and I’m delighted to see the concerns that originated with NYU professor Jay Rosen generate so much attention.

We know that ABC’s “This Week” is partnering with PolitiFact.com to check its content, and Jake Tapper has defended the idea. We also know that “Meet the Press” has declined, and David Gregory has said that viewers can fact-check the program “on their own terms.”

This week, Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’s “Face the Nation,” weighed in, taking Gregory’s side.

Bob Schieffer, host of CBS’ “Face the Nation,” similarly described his role as “the front line on fact-checking,” when a guest makes a dubious claim, he’s there to ask follow-up questions.

And if an inaccurate statement slips by, Schieffer said he expects that viewers and media-monitoring groups on the left and right will call attention to it quickly, noting that “everybody’s welcome to fact-check us all they want.”

To be sure, the notion that the host is the first line of defense against false claims is compelling. When a guest says something that’s not true, ideally the host would follow-up and make that clear to viewers. But the first line of defense often fails — sometimes a host isn’t aggressive enough; sometimes the host simply doesn’t have the information at his or her fingertips to know that the guest isn’t telling the truth.

That said, Schieffer’s take, like Gregory’s, seems to miss the point of the exercise.

About 2.3 million Americans tune in to watch “Face the Nation.” Presumably, they watch to learn something about current events and public affairs. Schieffer asks questions, and we hear arguments from various political figures. If those 2.3 million Americans want to know if the arguments are accurate, why would Schieffer expect them to go figure it out on their own? If they trust “Face the Nation” and its host enough to tune in, shouldn’t they also trust the program to separate fact and fiction?

I suppose it’s nice, in a way, to give the audience credit for being so sophisticated, they’ll not only watch the interviews, but also have the wherewithal to do independent research to verify the accuracy of the claims.

But realistically, a mainstream audience isn’t well equipped to do its own analysis and fact-checking — the public relies on professional news outlets to provide them with reliable information. Schieffer wants to give viewers the arguments, not the truth. At that point, the show itself becomes unnecessary — we can all just read press releases and then scour the ‘net to learn if the points are true.

A couple of months ago, when this discussion began in earnest, the Washington Post‘s Howard Kurtz, host of his own CNN program on the media, talked to a guest who said online sites are adequate for fact-checking the newsmakers. Kurtz responded, “Exactly. And I’m saying why leave it entirely to the blogs? Why don’t television producers and correspondents do it themselves?”

That was in January. We haven’t heard a good answer yet.

Postscript: In related news, some interested students have launched “Meet the Facts” to fact-check “Meet the Press.” Seems like a worthy endeavor.