When Fact Checkers Aren’t

I am sometimes troubled by the growing popularity of “fact checkers.” I think fact checking is great. The problem is the fact checkers becoming more and more popular don’t seem to be checking facts. For instance, Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler recently published an article “fact checking” statements by former president George W. Bush, including this one:

The man, Saddam Hussein, would have a lot of revenue as a result of high prices of oil. And even though there wasn’t, you know, a – we found a dirty bomb, for example – he had the capacity to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons. And so there’s – you know, it’s all very hypothetical. But yeah, I could argue that we’re much safer without Saddam. And I would argue that the people of Iraq have a better shot at living in a peaceful – a peaceful state.

The article begins on a troubling note:

The Fact Checker was puzzled by Bush’s reference to finding a dirty bomb in Iraq. It certainly sounded like he said that such a weapon was found in Iraq. But after listening to the tape a few times, we concluded that the former president, in an offhand manner, was giving that as an example of something that was not found after the United States invaded Iraq.

I find it puzzling anyone would think Bush’s statement was meant to indicate the United States found a dirty bomb. Taking out a few superfluous words in the sentence gives us the obvious meaning, “And even though there wasn’t a dirty bomb, for example, he had the capacity to make chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.”

The meaning is clear. I don’t know why someone would have to listen to a tape multiple times to realize the words “you know, a – we found” were little more than verbal ticks. It’s obviously nothing more than someone saying, “Uh, you know” to fill some space while they’re trying to think of how to express their idea.

It gets worse though. The next paragraph of this “fact check” says:

Who knew that the United States invaded Iraq because of a potential dirty-bomb threat? That’s certainly not what the administration suggested before the war.

This is incredibly misleading. The transcript shows Bush was asked a specific question:

You talk about the current situation in Iraq and the growth of ISIS. And you look at that country today, there are atrocities. There’s violence. There’s chaos. Can you argue today that that country is a safer place and a better place than it was when Saddam Hussein was in power?

This question clearly asks if Iraq is a safer and better place due to the invasion. That has nothing to do with the stated reasons for the invasion. Those reasons could have been wrong, false or even intentionally dishonest. That still wouldn’t tell us whether or not Iraq is a safer and better place.

Bush answered the question he was asked. Kessler’s “fact check” calls Bush’s answer misleading because if he had given it in response to an entirely different question, it’d be misleading. That’s ridiculous. You can’t strip a statement of all context in order to pretend it was given in response to an entirely different question then call it misleading like Kessler does when he says:

the former president misleadingly twists the initial rationale behind the invasion

The former president did not discuss “the initial rationale behind the invasion” in this interview. A “fact checker” simply made that up. I have no idea how that is supposed to be “fact checking.”

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6 comments

  1. In theory, formal fact checking is a good practice and should be more common. In reality, we still have to guard the guardians. J-schoolers aren’t that good at telling the whole story, in context, and with understanding. But then, they’re in the story selling business.

  2. Gary, I think you are right. Actual fact-checking is a great thing, but it is not sexy. It is tedious and largely unrewarding (on an external level). This new breed of “fact checking” is different. In my experience, it is little more than op-eds whose authors use other people’s supposed mistakes as subject fodder.

    Incidentally, this is not my first experience like this. One of the first times I remember seeing Glenn Kessler’s name was in a “fact check” about Climategate which didn’t investigate tue facts. Instead, it just accepted the reports of some “investigations” as gospel.

    I’ve written about another example with him on this blog. I won’t rehash it. Instead, I’ll discuss another troubling aspect. Not only do these “fact checkers” screw up like I’ve described, they also fail to uphold some basic standards. For instance, Kessler recently wrote an article which said a Republican relied on an eight year old fact check done in 2008. I pointed out the mistake, and it got fixed.

    Sounds good, right? One problem. No record of the error was kept. They changed the headline of the article without informing anyone. No respectable journalist should handle errors like that.

    There are other examples I could point to, and they don’t all involve Kessler. In fact, the most disreputable behavior I’ve seen came from another (whose name I don’t remember offhand) who pretty much lied to me in personal communication then misrepresented me in a publication.

    I’ve only focused on Kessler because he was the first fact checker I followed on Twitter, and he seems well-respected in the field. I don’t have the energy to follow others when I know it will be pointless.

    By the way, according to Kessler, it’s reasonable to call that six year old fact check “ancient.” I think any real fact checker would blush at doing so.

  3. The fact-checker in my daily paper is somebody I knew 35 years ago. He’s actually a bright guy with a broad range of knowledge and his pieces are generally fair. He has a good mix of evaluations between True and Pants-on-Fire and gives a rationale for the rating. Most are on the statements of local politicians, although a few have been on climate issues. He leans to the warmist side and the pieces were a bit lacking in complete information, but not egregiously so. Obviously, mileage varies with different papers.

  4. Gary, I suspect there could be (and probably are) good “fact checkers.” The problem I see is most of these “fact checks” deal largely with matters of opinion. That makes it incredibly easy for pieces to become op-eds instead of “fact checks.”

    On top of that, there’s no real protection against these fact checkers being wrong. These guys have managed to elevate themselves to the point of getting to determine what is and is not a fact. That’s pretty much the absolute position of authority. There’s the normal editorial staff/oversight, but otherwise, they’re unchecked.

    As it stands, it seems a fact checker could be wrong and obviously biased, and it wouldn’t matter as long as readers liked what he said.

  5. For these fact checkers, if the target is a Republican, subtract 1 or 2 pinocchios, and if a Democrat add 1 or 2. Politifact’s Lie of the Year for 2012 was in fact true, but they were too busy attacking Romney.

  6. MikeN, I don’t think it is that simple. Glenn Kessler’s piece gave George Bush three Pinocchios even though, as far as I can tell, what Bush said was completely true. Not only did Kessler misrepresent what Bush said as I show in this post, he also accused Bush of deception for claiming the two coalitions formed to invade Iraq were “large.” He did this on the basis Bush’s coalition was smaller. However, there is nothing about claiming two things are “large” that requires them both be the same size. I wouldn’t subtract any Pinocchios. I’d just scrap the entire article as a hatchet job.

    Besides, I don’t think any bias like you describe will come through in every article. Most people aren’t that ideological. Even if they were, they likely wouldn’t like/dislike everyone in various political groups the same so their bias wouldn’t be consistent.

    (Which is probably why Bush got what is purely a hatchet job. There are few people who get more biased reactions than him.)

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