A few years back, the Los Angeles Times considered joining a runaway industry trend. Everywhere you clicked on the political web, it seemed, someone was putting the drywall and paint on a stand-alone, cleverly branded fact-checking machine or at least some sort of discrete truth-outing posts. FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, the Associated Press, numerous local TV stations, and on and on. Everyone’s in on this page-view-promoting gimmick or accountability tool or page-view scam or proud model of explanatory journalism.
Top editorial thinkers at the Los Angeles Times, however, passed up the temptation. “Our feeling was that the resources you would lose from overall newsgathering and putting them only on fact-checking — that the cost was just too high,” says David Lauter, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.
They came up with a prescription that nowadays looks revolutionary: “We could do fact-checking in the course of people’s normal reporting,” says Lauter.
That’s precisely what Lauter did this week, a feat that won him temporary cult status on the Internet. The topic of his story was a convention speech by Rick Santorum. Here’s what the headline said:
Rick Santorum repeats inaccurate welfare attack on Obama
That “attack” was the well-worn GOP line about how President Obama has “waived” work requirements for welfare. Lauter countered with this fact:
His administration in July issued a letter to state governments saying that the Department of Health and Human Services would consider requests from states to experiment with new ways to fulfill the work requirements. The letter said that in order to receive waivers to carry out the experiments, states would have to show that their plans would move more welfare recipients into jobs than existing policies.
Says Lauter about the Santorum thing: “We’ve gotten compliments from some and brickbats from others.”
The headline gained traction in part because of a surge of chatter among journo sites and analysts about the merits of cleaving fact-checking operations from news stories on politics. A post earlier this week by Dan Conover on the site Xark put the question in these terms:
What we call “fact checking” is simply traditional journalism dressed up in a modern gimmick. Poli-Fact and Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post aren’t doing anything that couldn’t be done in news stories. That we now place “fact” in a separate category from standard political reporting is a testament to a broken system, yet it doesn’t change the system.
The debate in journalism circles, says Lauter, filtered into the discussions of the Los Angeles Times. As did the trend toward brazen mendacity in politics. “I think there’s a feeling that people in both parties are loosening what once upon a time were the boundaries. People have been doing their best to strike well beyond them,” says Lauter. “We need to try new ways to at least make clear to the readers what the camps are doing."
Yeah, like advertising the lie right smack in the headline!
On that question, Lauter said that he’s always preached a simple rule to reporters who flinch at putting controversial things in the bright lights: “If you’re confident about putting it in print, you should be confident enough to put it in the lede, and if you’re confident enough to put it in the lede, you should be confident enough to put it in the headline,” says Lauter.
The headline on the Santorum story signaled the judgment of the Los Angeles Times that his inaccuracy was the news of the appearance, not whatever else he may have said about America, working in mines, freedom, opportunity or Mitt Romney.
“Candidates for high office that say false things are acting in a newsworthy manner,” says Lauter. “That in and of itself is a newsworthy event.” Does it throw a shadow over everything else? “Not necessarily,” says Lauter. “It depends on the situation.”
In the case of Santorum, he wasn’t the nominee nor the keynote speaker, and the point about work requirements has been significant to the Romney campaign. “So that heightened” the profile of the Santorum remark.
And the rest of the speech, well, we’d heard that pitch 300 times in the primary season. “The other things he had to say in the speech were interesting but not exactly news,” says Lauter. “In this case, it was not a particularly close call.”