October 19, 2012
JONATHAN ADLER: When “Fact-Checkers” Have Problems With Facts.
Media fact checkers not only have a problem characterizing matters upon which reasonable people can disagree as questions of “fact,” they also have problems with facts. So, for instance, ABC’s fact checkers labeled indisputably true statements about energy production on federal lands as “not quite true.” Romney claimed that oil and gas production on federal land is down, even if overall domestic production is up. His statement was true. If ABC had sought to provide critical context for Romney’s remarks, it could have noted that marginal changes in domestic oil production have relatively little effect on retail gasoline prices, or that there’s little any President can do to lower gasoline prices in the short-to-medium term (other than, say, playing with the strategic petroleum reserve). Such commentary would have provided voters with information they could use to assess the relevance of Romney’s claims. Instead, ABC claimed Romney’s literally true statements were “not quite true.”
Another example of fact checkers having trouble with facts can be found in Politifact’s commentary on whether it was fair for President Obama to criticize Mitt Romney for failing to say whether he supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. In making its assessment Politifact totally bungled its description of the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and in the process perpetuated a false claim about the decision oft repeated in political debate (including by Lilly Ledbetter herself).
It’s as if they’re really just a Democratic spin operation run out of media offices or something. “The bottom line is that if we can’t trust fact checkers to get their own facts right, how can we trust them to judge anyone else’s?”