The 'Truth' Hurts

How the fact-checking press gives the president a pass


For many in the media, the crowning moment of the Republican Party's long, campaign-accelerated slide into full-blown, fact-free delusion came on election night just after Fox News called the state of Ohio—and therefore the election—for President Barack Obama. Fox contributor Karl Rove, formerly the Svengali behind George W. Bush and currently the head of the influential Crossroads GPS political action committee, forcefully disputed the projection as numerically "premature." Exasperated co-anchor Megyn Kelly retorted, "Is this just math that you do as a Republican to make yourself feel better, or is this real?" 

Then Kelly got up from her desk and, cameras rolling, walked down several hallways to the network's team of number crunchers, who confidently explained and reasserted their decision. Rove was undeterred. 

"I'm just saying in terms of public perception, it looks a little odd for us to be making a call with 991 votes separating the candidates," he said. Kelly shot back: "But you know how the science works!" 

If there was one overarching journalistic theme of the 2012 election, it was the alleged Republican war on science, math, and basic facts, as called out by a newly emboldened political press. A proliferation of "fact-checking" enterprises at various mainstream media outlets, combined with an increasing willingness to abandon what New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan in September called the "false balance" of "giving equal weight to both sides of a story, regardless of an established truth on one side," produced a nearly consensus conclusion: "Let's Just Say it: Republicans Are the Problem."

That was the headline on an April Washington Post op-ed piece by longtime Beltway think tankers Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, adapted from their book It's Even Worse Than It Looks (Basic Books). These Washington insiders, after decades of evenhanded analysis, had finally seen enough. "The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics," they concluded. "It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country's challenges."

Finally, the he-said, she-said profession was naming out loud what the press critic Jay Rosen had long referred to as the "asymmetry" between Republican and Democratic truthfulness. Competing fact checkers were now pouncing on hyperbolic claims at GOP presidential debates. Bookstores were filling up with titles like The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality. Then on the eve of the Republican National Convention, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse taped a virtual "kick me" sign on the campaign by telling Politico, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers." 

Sure enough, the fact-checking establishment flipped its collective wig the very next day in response to the convention speech by vice presidential nominee Paul Ryan. "Paul Ryan Fails—the Truth," was the headline employed by liberal blogger Jonathan Bernstein at The Washington Post. "Beyond factual dishonesty," harrumphed New York Times editorial board member David Firestone. "As I listened to Paul Ryan," political writer Melinda Henneberger wrote at the Post, "I couldn't remember ever hearing an acceptance speech so rich in untrue un-facts."

What were these monstrous lies? Top of the list was Ryan's mention of an auto plant in Janesville, Wisconsin, that shut down during Obama's presidency the year after candidate Obama had vowed that the facility would be there for another century. "The plant was closed in December 2008, before Obama was sworn in," Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler wrote. But Kessler and the chorus of fact checkers turned out to be wrong; the plant did close down in 2009. Other alleged lies included Ryan's 100-percent-accurate assertion that Obama's presidency "began with a perfect AAA credit rating for the United States" but led to a "downgraded America" (fact checkers objected to the implied blame) and the would-be veep's failure to disclose his own participation in a bipartisan debt-reduction committee mentioned in his speech. 

After such an absurd display of overreach, the fact-checking enterprise started drawing some snickers on Twitter and in various corners of the political press, but by then the participants had dug in their heels. "Quite simply, the Romney campaign isn't adhering to the minimum standards required for a real policy conversation," popular Washington Post commentator Ezra Klein wrote after Ryan's speech. "I don't like that conclusion. It doesn't look 'fair' when you say that. We've been conditioned to want to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame, and the fact of the matter is, I would like to give both sides relatively equal praise and blame.…But first the campaigns have to be relatively equal."

Klein, editor of the Post's Wonkblog, is the leading exemplar of a new breed of media progressive in Washington and New York: self-consciously "wonky" on policy ("nerd" is another favored appellation), fond of boiling issues down into single everything-you-need-to-know charts, and pledged to a high-minded fairness even while rejecting hoary journalistic objectivity. The leftist media's nerd squad wins plaudits for thoroughness and dedication to facts, even while producing journalism that overwhelmingly supports Democrats and slams Republicans. It's a project that overlaps significantly with both the new fact checking and the older partisan bomb throwing.

Democrats were not deaf to what their ideological cohorts in the media were carrying on about. Republican truthfulness was one of the major subthemes of the Democratic National Convention. Keynote speaker Julian Castro, the mayor of San Antonio, kicked off the proceedings by decrying "all the fictions we heard last week in Tampa." And former President Bill Clinton stole the show with his memorable "one-word answer" for producing sane (i.e., non-GOP) federal budgets: "arithmetic."

Republican commentators did nothing to improve their reputation for innumeracy by spending the last several weeks of the election inexplicably ganging up on the shrewd New York Times political stat nerd Nate Silver, whose poll-of-polls model consistently (and accurately, it would turn out) gave Obama a strong shot at re-election. Instead, you had Dick Morris predicting a Mitt Romney "landslide," Peggy Noonan feeling a Romney wave in her "gut," and Karl Rove forecasting a 285-253 squeaker for the Republican.

By the time Rove had his on-air election night freakout, the media could smell the symbolism a mile away. "The face-off made for sublimely weird television but also crystallized what's become the meta-narrative of this election: the triumph of the data-driven nerds over ideological pundits," wrote TV critic Meredith Blake at the Los Angeles Times. 

"It was a fitting moment for an election that often seemed to be a campaign over the idea of mathematical knowability itself," Time columnist James Poniewozik wrote. "It was, as Bill Clinton told us at the Democratic convention, about the arithmetic. And last night, the arithmetic won."

Or did it?

Asymmetry in political discourse works more ways than one. For instance, there is the well-established asymmetry in the ideological sympathies of the working journalists who cover politics. (A 1997 survey by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, to cite one of numerous such examples, found that 61 percent of reporters identified with the Democratic Party, while only 15 percent leaned Republican.) As Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said, in the part of his Politico quote that didn't get nearly as much press play, "Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs."

Those beliefs, while not automatically determinative (ABC's Jake Tapper is a fine example of a liberal journalist who pulls no punches in holding Democratic power accountable), are nonetheless evident just about every time you open a newspaper or magazine. "Obama has not been all that adept at telling his story as Commander in Chief," Time Managing Editor Richard Stengel lamented in a special Democratic National Convention issue, swallowing the truthfulness line whole. "He likes to say that facts will win the day, but these days, people brandish their own facts. Obama is frustrated by this." Poor Mr. President!

It is stunning at this late date that an allegedly skeptical press is still pushing string on the theory that Obama just needs to explain himself better, but more disturbing (and emblematic) is the notion that the sitting president of the United States hasn't himself crossed the line between fact and fiction. Perhaps that conclusion is so widespread because the fact-checking exercise itself is not primarily concerned with the exercise of power.

In December the Pulitzer Prize–winning website PolitiFact, which is run by the Tampa Bay Times, announced its list of 10 finalists for "Lie of the Year." Perhaps sensitive to conservative criticisms over prior Lie of the Year winners (Sarah Palin in 2009 for saying that ObamaCare will create "death panels," and anyone in 2010 who said the law amounted to a "government takeover of health care"), the fact checkers came up with an evenly split list of 10 nominees: five that were Democratic lies about Republicans, and five that were Republican lies about Democrats. Delaware Gov. Jack Markell's assertion that "Mitt Romney says he likes to fire people" was there alongside Rush Limbaugh's claim that ObamaCare includes "the largest tax increase in the history of the world." And so on.

But the real problem with such lists isn't the lack of partisan diversity; it's the glaring lack of lies told to the public in the service of wielding government force. Only one of PolitiFact's Top 10—Obama blaming 90 percent of the 2009?12 deficit increase on George W. Bush—involved an official lying about his own record. The rest all focused on the way that politicians (and their surrogates) characterized their competitors' actions and words. This isn't a check on the exercise of power; it's a check on the exercise of rhetoric.

And when it comes to rhetoric that motivates journalists into action, nothing beats culturally divisive figures from the opposing political tribe. So it was that in May 2011, the respected Nieman Journalism Lab set the mediasphere abuzz with an academic study of more than 700 news articles and 20 network news segments from 2009 that addressed a single controversial claim from the ObamaCare debate. Was it the president's oft-repeated whopper that he was nobly pushing the reform rock up the hill despite the concentrated efforts of health care "special interests"? Was it his promise that "if you like your health care plan, you will be able to keep your health care plan," something that has turned out not to be true? Was it the way Obama and the Democrats brazenly gamed and misrepresented the Congressional Budget Office's scoring of the bill, claiming it wouldn't add "one dime" to the deficit?

No. The cause for reconsideration of the ObamaCare coverage was not the truth-busting claims made by a sitting president in the service of radically reshaping an important aspect of American life but rather the Facebook commentary of a former governor, Sarah Palin. 

"Our data indicate that the mainstream news, particularly newspapers, debunked death panels early, fairly often, and in a variety of ways, though some were more direct than others," survey authors Matthew Schafer and Regina Lawrence concluded. "Nevertheless, a significant portion of the public accepted the claim as true or, perhaps, as 'true enough.'?" Meanwhile, the president got away with abusing the facts while ramming through an unpopular law and continues to be hailed as a noble truth teller in a fallen empire of lies.

At the end of November, Politico published an article about how progressive journalists, now that Obama was safely elected, were beginning to consider criticizing the president a bit more. "He was the champion of our side, he vanquished the foe," New Yorker political columnist Hendrik Hertzberg said. "[But] now liberals don't have to worry about hurting his chances for re-election, so they can be tougher in urging him to do what he should be doing."

It was a remarkable admission of what many have long suspected: Portions of the press are in the tank for Democrats. Now that's a fact worth checking.