Eleventh in a series of endless, tireless, exhaustive, hairsplitting, obsessive, resounding, never-before-attempted, late-night posts and conclusive posts on the fact-checking industry.
Soledad O’Brien, the anchor of CNN’s morning program “Starting Point With Soledad O’Brien,” has a sense about what makes for a viral television interview. “Any time when you have an issue when you’re going to put someone’s feet to the fire, I think that’s what people are interested in,” says O’Brien in a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog. The key, she says, is to drive a “really good line of questioning that you didn’t let someone get out of.”
Bay Buchanan and John Sununu, among others, understand what that’s all about. In a bout this morning, O’Brien stung Buchanan, a Romney campaign adviser, over the Mother Jones videos depicting the Republican presidential candidate chatting about the “47 percent” of Americans who are “dependent upon government” and “believe that they are victims.” And she laid waste to Sununu in an interview over the finances of Medicare.
O’Brien credits extensive preparation and her “Starting Point” staff for enabling her to match wonks with prominent and opinionated guests. But there’s an underappreciated factor at work here, and it has to do with time: O’Brien has a great deal of discretion over how long she can sit there and trade facts and figures with her esteemed guests. Today’s session with Buchanan, for instance, lasted more than 16 minutes — plenty of time to examine the fine points of who does and doesn’t pay taxes, whether Romney was taking a shot at his own supporters and whether there are more important issues to nail. “It’s one of the nice luxuries for the morning show, that there be flexibility to go long,” says O’Brien.
Time also facilitates document-brandishing. In a recent barn-burner with Republican congressman Peter King, as well as with the Sununu brawl, O’Brien took to picking up papers and waving them before the cameras — proof that she has consulted critical source material. Could that be a touch of showmanship?
“Theatrical to me would be waving random papers,” responds O’Brien, noting that in the Sununu and King cases, she was pointing to the actual documents.
She uses those papers in much the same way that a site like FactCheck.org or PolitiFact.com uses them. That is, to hold accountable a public official or surrogate who has made suspect factual representations. Is she trying to turn CNN into a televised version of PolitiFactCheckorg.com? “I think it always depends on what you’re talking about, and it’s not always political. Anytime someone spins a story in a certain way, you’re responsible, you’re required to fact-check it,” she says.
By yourself, O’Brien. Here’s an arbitrary yet final and non-negotiable rule for CNN and any other outlet mounting a fact-checking operation: Don’t cite another fact-checking organization in your own fact-checking. In her discussion with King, O’Brien cited FactCheck.org to cement her case that President Obama hadn’t, in fact, taken a tour apologizing for America. King responded by famously saying he didn’t care what FactCheck said.
In her defense, O’Brien says she was merely making the point that “CNN has read through these speeches and in addition, others have said — outside of us — that these [arguments] are not true. He was saying, ‘I don’t believe in fact-checking, period.’ ”
O’Brien’s crusading efforts to stake out the refereed, factually upstanding, geographic center of the American political debate don’t always prevail. When Joel Pollak of Breitbart.com came on the program to discuss the thin story of President Obama and his allegedly radical history at Harvard Law School, O’Brien whiffed after she was called upon to describe critical race theory. A field day materialized for Pollak, who hammered O’Brien for a lame whack at defining the credo.
Looking back, O’Brien argues that “they [Breitbart & Co.] were completely wrong on that, but I did not have in front of me the definition of the theory, which I should have had. I was doing the definition of critical race theory off the top of my head.”
Any cable host who attempts to corner conservatives and liberals is going to be bashed as a porter of bias. O’Brien says she hears at one moment that she’s pro-Obama, the next that she’s pro-Romney. “I ignore it all,” she says.
Fourth: Clinton bedevils fact-checkers.
Seventh: Biden and Obama keep checkers busy.
Eighth: A task for fact-checkers: Did the administration apologize for American values?