Fact checkers are under assault!
Before we present our list of the biggest Pinocchios of the year, we would like to address the torrent of criticism addressed at fact checkers (primarily PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and The Fact Checker) in recent weeks. The Weekly Standard last week had a cover story denouncing fact checkers as a liberal plot to control the political discourse. This week, PolitiFact’s decision to award its “Lie of the Year” trophy to Democratic claims that the GOP “killed” Medicare has earned it and its fact checking brethren additional scorn from the left.
As a writer at Gawker put it: “Politifact is dangerous. Stop reading it. Stop reading the ‘four Pinocchios’ guy too. Stop using some huckster company's stupid little phrases or codes or number systems when it's convenient, and read the actual arguments instead. You're building a monster.”
My colleague Ezra Klein even opined that “the ‘fact checker’ model is probably unsustainable,” based on the questionable belief that “half of the public leans towards one party and about half of the public leans toward the other” and thus will tune out commentary with which they disagree. That’s a pretty depressing commentary on the state of our politics. Thankfully, it bears little relationship to the reality we experience every day at The Fact Checker.
Yes, there are always partisans who, day after day, accuse us of either being left-wing hacks or right-wing crazies. But there are also many people who, every day, write notes of thanks--for explaining a difficult subject, opening their eyes to a new idea or providing the facts to a claim that had confused them. Many Americans are asking for more information, not less, and we are happy to help fill the void.
Some people are always going to be partisan. That fine, but that’s not the role of a reporter. We value the many comments we have received from our readers, the words of encouragement and also the criticism. Every day, we seek to live up to your expectations of a true, impartial seeker of the truth.
In fact, there is this strange myth out there that fact checkers aspire to be “referees” and strain to achieve a balance between the two parties. Not so. At The Fact Checker, we take a holistic approach to every fact we check. After more than 30 years of writing about Washington institutions, we truly find there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of twisting the facts and being misleading when it suits their political purposes.
The main difference between the two parties seems to be that the right assumes the media is out to get them (i.e., see The Weekly Standard) and the left seems to take it as a personal affront when you call them out (see the reaction to PolitiFact.) Maybe Democrats really believe that tale about the left-wing media bias? In any case, this month’s ruckus about fact checkers simply affirms what we’ve learned in our long experience in Washington.
There is one other enduring myth about fact checkers–that they are somehow a replacement for good reporting. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of our role in journalism.
Fact checking is a complement, not a replacement. Good beat reporters obviously are well placed to analyze issues and spot falsehoods, and that’s an essential part of their jobs. But, especially in a political season, it is difficult to analyze every claim and counterclaim while also writing day-to-day stories about the news. Fact checkers, by contrast, can dig deeply into an issue or even a single statement. We can help explain, at length, how a politician justifies his or her assertion and whether there is much of a factual basis for it.
In other words, the information we provide adds to the rich menu of choices that readers of The Washington Post find when they come to our Web site, in addition to sustained political coverage, beat reporting and various blogs. Sometimes you may choke on the meal we serve, but each day the food (for thought) will be different.
The biggest Pinocchios of 2011
In compiling this list, we primarily focused on claims that had earned Four Pinocchios during the year. If we have one quibble with PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year,” it’s that we have trouble selecting one statement as head and shoulders above the others. In fact, during the year, we repeatedly gave Pinocchios to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and other Republicans for mischaracterizing their Medicare and budget plans. (See, for example, here and here.) Both sides are adept at playing games with the facts.
To keep it simple, we have shortened the quotes in the headlines. Click on the headlines to read the original column. Live Q&A at 1 p.m. ET Thursday with Glenn Kessler. Ask a question now.
We first explored this issue in February, when it was emerging as a Republican theme. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has kept saying it, despite our many efforts to call him on it. The simple truth is this: the assertion that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context.
Vice President Biden repeatedly spouted off half-baked facts in service of the dubious argument that there was a connection between crime rate and the number of police. He even asserted that rapes and other crime would increase if the GOP did not vote for the president’s jobs bill. But you need to have your facts straight if you are going to make incendiary charges. We investigated and it turned out that incidents of rape in Flint, Mich., actually fell after the number of police was cut.
GOP candidates took Obama’s words completely out of context in an effort to earn cheap political points. Sadly, the claim was often repeated in the media before fact checkers pointed out it was false.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made an absurd claim in the heat of the budget debate. First her staff said she meant meals, not seniors—though she said seniors three times—but then it turned out the number was invented out of thin air as well. Moreover, the administration, not Republicans, had already cut 36 million meals. As we put it: “In a city with overheated rhetoric, Pelosi’s statement ranks high on this year’s list of bloviated bluster.”
No matter what you think of the founder of Planned Parenthood—and we learned many people do not like her—there is no truth to this claim by former GOP presidential aspirant Herman Cain. Even today, the percentage of clinics in African-American communities is relatively low.
Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), running for president, earned more Four-Pinocchio ratings than any other person. Rather than highlight a particular statement, we decided to honor her dubious achievement with this jaw-dropping comment. The link will take you to a collection of her debate misfires.
We stand with our colleagues at Politifact and Factcheck.org on this one. As we noted at the time, “there’s certainly a worthwhile debate about whether the Medicare changes proposed by Ryan would help or hurt Medicare, and whether too much of a burden would be shifted to beneficiaries.” But that does not mean “killing” Medicare.
(Note: Some Democrats have pointed to a Wall Street Journal article as justification for the claim that the GOP would “end” Medicare, but that passage was referring to ending Medicare’s role in directly paying medical bills. The first paragraph of the article said Ryan’s plan would “transform the Medicare health program”--a phrasing that is not in dispute.)
The Biggest Pinocchio Ads of 2011
Some of the most misleading claims are made in political advertisements. We can barely keep up with them, but these ads especially stuck with us for their sheer gall.
The venerable over-50 organization blew it by suggesting that minor programs that cost peanuts could help balance the budget.
The National Republican Campaign Committee, reeling from the Democratic success with “Mediscare” ads, decided to fight back with its own misleading version.
Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama group, decided to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Mitt Romney. This ad indicates it will be a rough campaign year, especially because of such mysterious “Super PACs.”
Crossroads GPS’s anti-Warren ad
Unfortunately we never found the time to write a column on this ad (Factcheck.org did) but it strikes us as one of the silliest ads of the year. Consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, who is running for Senate in Massachusetts, as a tool of the big banks? Please.
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