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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 02:58 PM ET, 09/05/2012

Fact-checking: What exactly are we debating again?


Obama, getting checked. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak) (Charles Dharapak - AP)
First in an endless, tireless, exhaustive series of blog posts on the fact-checking industry.

Margaret Sullivan, the new public editor of the New York Times, showed a nose for news when she penned her introductory blog post. It was all about fact checking. The debate over fact-checking, that is. Such as it is.

Here’s how Sullivan framed this clash:

In the blogosphere and on Twitter, a debate is raging among prominent media critics. New York University’s Jay Rosen is leading the charge for the importance of aggressive fact-checking, with Jack Shafer of Reuters playing his favorite role of contrarian, saying, in essence, politicians always lie – why get so worked up about this?

That’d be a good dispute, though it may not be all that. When asked on Twitter whether he agreed with the public editor’s take on his view, Shafer replied: “She does not accurately detect my essence.” The Reuters media critic wrote, in essence, fact-check the daylights out of everyone — just don’t expect results.

When asked about the debate that Sullivan posited, Shafer replied, ”I don’t know what she’s talking about.”

So just where is the big debate over fact-checking? “There is no one I know of who says we don’t need to address the facts,” says Shafer. That’s a point on which there appears to be agreement. When asked to pinpoint the current debate, Rosen’s first comments are these:

From what I can tell, there is no serious debate in journalism circles about whether fact-checking is a good thing. Almost everyone says it is. Almost everyone says: let’s have more of it, and of course let’s make sure both sides are fact checked with equal vigor. On those points there is broad consensus, which is important to note, even if it makes for boring columns by press bloggers.

Dissent, then, hovers around smaller points, like the way that the “culture war wing of the conservative movement thinks ‘fact check’ is just another name for liberal bias,” writes Rosen in an e-mail.

Another area of discussion, in Rosen’s view: “Ben Smith and Mickey Kaus are worried that legitimate policy debates can be submerged by the furor over who’s lying.”

That accurate, Ben Smith?

Not submerged — deliberately distorted. My view is more that while it is certainly our job to call out specific untruths, it’s also our job to resist partisan narratives that group apples and oranges to try to build patterns and narratives that aren’t really there.
I’m also a traditionalist in the sense that I don’t think reporters should write what they don’t know, and “lie” implies you know the speaker’s intent, which if he or she hasn’t told you, you don’t.

What accounts for the mushrooming of interest in fact-checking is a combo of political conventions, complicated policy matters that are at the center of the campaign, the emergence of politics as the country’s favorite spectator sport, not to mention a brazen statement of recent vintage.

“We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.,” declared Mitt Romney pollster Neil Newhouse last week. FactCheck.org Director Brooks Jackson last night told me that editors across the industry more or less freaked out upon hearing that salvo. Says Jackson: “Neil Newhouse stated it out loud. The obvious attitude of the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign has forced news editors to pay attention to this.”

And there’s never been a better time to do so, says Jackson. When the 70-year-old Jackson first got interested in journalism, it was an era of 15-minute news broadcasts and a smattering of very powerful newspapers. “The few editors really could act as gatekeepers and could keep [nonsense]out of the public discourse....Now, thanks to Matt Drudge and pajamas-clad bloggers and your crazy Uncle Harry sending you those fanciful e-mails, everyone’s swamped with rumors,” says Jackson.

By  |  02:58 PM ET, 09/05/2012

 
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