In my February-issue editor's note, I lamented that "the fact-checking press gives the president a pass," in part by providing checks not "on the exercise of power," but rather "on the exercise of rhetoric."
As if to illustrate my point, NBCnews.com's First Read had a breaking fact-check earlier today not on the comments that President Barack Obama has made regarding gun policy, particular in regards to his 23 executive orders on the topic, but rather the "sound and fury" of the president's critics.
Conservative opponents of President Obama have called him a "dictator," a "tyrant," "imperial," for proposing executive actions he believes would help prevent gun violence.
"President Obama is again abusing his power by imposing his policies via executive fiat instead of allowing them to be debated in Congress," charged Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), who is widely believed to be eyeing a 2016 White House run, in response to the president's announcement Wednesday.
But the 23 executive actions the president signed today do not seem to go very far, as his critics suggest. In fact, most are administrative – publishing letters, writing memos, and appointing administrators.
It's true: President Barack Obama is not a "dictator." It's also true that NBC's Domenico Montanaro did not actually identify or link to anyone calling him one. The one contestable Rubio claim is whether the president's 23 gun-related executive orders are examples of him "abusing his power," a judgment which strikes me as entirely within the eye of the beholder. For example, prior to Obama's inauguration, there were many people–chief among them a politician named Barack Obama–who believed that George W. Bush's extensive use of executive orders and signing statements in and of itself constituted an abuse of power.
Providing an accurate fact-check on such a subjective judgment is much more of a fool's errand than, say, insisting that a single baseball statistic definitively determines who was the most "valuable" player in the American League last year. After all, we measure baseball one hell of a lot more precisely than we do the exercise of presidential power.
Instead we are left with the weasel-worded and subjective retort that "the 23 executive actions the president signed today do not seem to go very far." And worse, this sentence is offered as supporting evidence:
There is even one [order] the National Rifle Association would seemingly embrace—No. 18 "Provide incentives for schools to hire school resource officers."
So NBC is now outsourcing its fact-checking judgment to the NRA?
When you direct fact-checking at the exercise of power rather than at the deployment of hyperbolic rhetoric in opposition to it, you end up with a completely different category of question. A fine example of which came this morning from our own Jacob Sullum:
[I]t's fair to judge President Obama's gun control agenda, which he is unveiling today, by the extent to which his proposals can realistically be expected to prevent mass shootings like last month's attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Why? Because that is how he himself described his goal: "to make sure that the kinds of violence we saw at Newtown doesn't happen again" and to "make sure that somebody like the individual in Newtown can't walk into a school and gun down a bunch of children in a shockingly rapid fashion."