Factchecking Impossible, Pointless, Say Factcheckers

Time's Michael Scherer (10/9/12) responded to a FAIR Blog post by FAIR's Peter Hart (10/3/12), who apparently spoke for many:

Peter Hart, writing for the liberal Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, summed up many of the tweets I received. "The article kicks off with a hefty helping of false balance–the tendency to see all problems as coming more or less equally from both sides," he wrote. "One of the most common problems with media factchecking is the need to always be balanced–no matter what is happening in reality."

Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer: What is truth?

Scherer responds:

I don’t disagree with Hart's underlying point…. I would love to be able to tell you that Mitt Romney is misleading more than Barack Obama or vice versa…. The problem is that there is no existing mechanism for carrying this sacred duty out in real time….. There are just too many subjective judgements that have to be made to come to any conclusion.

Or, as Pontius Pilate said, "What is truth?"–before washing his hands of the whole affair.

It drives home the point that what journalists call "objectivity" is really a radical post-modernism–a denial that anything can ever really be known about the world, that all we really can do is report various claims about the world. While factchecking as an enterprise would seem to inherently accept the idea that, yes, there are facts and they can be checked, in practice the people called factcheckers deny that what they do can be used to meaningfully distinguish between candidates:

Some have tried to count up the factchecking ratings on these sites to determine which candidate is worse. But all the factcheckers agreed that this is a flawed methodology, since it pulls from a tainted sample compiled unevenly by the factcheckers themselves.

All that precise assignment of Pinocchios, those dials that indicate precisely what article of clothing is combusting? Those are just for show, to give a scientific-looking veneer to what is really just some guy rattling on based on his political prejudices. Which is often what I think when I read corporate media factchecks, but I didn't expect that the factcheckers saw it that way.

The most illuminating quote, though, is from Factcheck.org's Brooks Jackson–who acknowledges that even if he could tell you which candidate was the more deceptive…he wouldn't:

Even if we could come up with a scholarly and factual way to say that one candidate is being more deceptive than another, I think we probably wouldn't just because it would look like we were endorsing the other candidate.

Exactly. Jackson's job is not to be fair, but to look fair–and if he didn't conclude that each side was getting a lot of stuff wrong, that wouldn't look very fair, would it? The downside of this approach is that it makes Factcheck.org's whole enterprise essentially fraudulent, pretending to go through the motions of disinterested analysis in order to reach a pre-ordained conclusion. Again, this is the impression I have gotten from following Factcheck's work, but I didn't expect Jackson himself to issue a confession.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.