By Mike Deupree
Ronald Reagan said facts are stubborn things.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan said everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.
In my role as a fact-checker, I would judge those statements “mostly false.”
They may have been mostly true when they were uttered, but the fact-checking fad that has swept through the news media in recent years has made those statements — in the word of a presidential press secretary of that earlier era — “inoperative.” Judging by what we’re reading and hearing, in today’s political world, facts are pretty adaptable, and everybody is free to pick and choose the ones they like.
Which is, when you get down to it, what the fact-checkers are doing.
The phenomenon known as fact-checking is relatively new. Editors and reporters once felt their job was to report what a politician said. They checked their facts, but the goal was to ensure the accuracy of their reporting, not the veracity of the speech they were reporting. That was left to the politician’s opponent, who also would be quoted fairly and completely. Thus informed, readers could decide who was right.
At some point, some journalists — probably frustrated because readers weren’t making the decisions the journalists thought they should be making — decided readers needed to be told not only what was said, but whether to believe it. Before you can say “I never had sex with that woman,” just about every news medium had its own truth squad.
The intention was to end the public’s confusion. In practice, the result is too often exactly the opposite. As a consumer of news, you started out wondering whether to believe a politician. After reading the fact-checker’s report, you’re wondering whether to believe a politician and/or a fact-checker. Or two. Or more, since it isn’t unknown for different fact-checkers to reach different conclusions.
If that weren’t confusing enough, the fact-checkers hedge their bets with modifiers like “mostly,” or in some cases, phrases like “true, but misleading” or “accurate, but incomplete.”
Wow! A political statement didn’t provide both sides, completely and in context? Thank God the reporters caught that one.
Seriously, this illustrates one argument against fact-checking as frequently practiced: Uncovering a misleading statement in a political comment is about as newsworthy as finding a leaky bowl in a colander factory.
A much more serious problem with the practice is that any statement ambiguous enough to require checking probably doesn’t have a definitive answer, and it is impossible for a fact-checker to present an objective evaluation because the process involves wholly subjective decisions.
First is the decision of what to check. Second is which evidence to consider. Third is how to interpret the evidence. If you’re going to bat for absolute, objective truth, that’s three strikes.
So what is a poor confused voter to do? Simple. Treat the fact-checking article as what it is — opinion, another piece of the puzzle — not as the truth, which it may or may not be.
On that basis, the fact-checking article can be valuable. It can provide background information. It can lead the reader to other sources for more information. If you are arguing politics with somebody, it can be used to counter the fact-checking article cited by the other guy. Not least of all, it can provide insight into the political leanings of the fact-checking organization.
Finally, early in this column I referred to myself as a fact-checker, which may have led some readers to wonder who appointed me to this position. The answer is that I appointed myself — just like all the other fact-checkers did.
Mike Deupree of rural Solon, retired, is a former Gazette reporter, editor and columnist. Comments: email@example.com