Presswatch

Fact-Check Follies

By From the December 2008 - January 2009 issue

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"In Lebanon," John McCain declared in his second debate with Barack Obama, "I stood up to President Reagan, my hero, and said, if we send Marines in there, how can we possibly beneficially affect this situation? And said we shouldn't. Unfortunately, almost 300 brave young Marines were killed."

The finest minds in American journalism set out to check McCain's claim and discovered it to be true.

The finest minds in American journalism set out to check McCain's claim and discovered it to be false.

Seriously. Here is CNN explaining why McCain's statement was true:

The U.S. Multinational Force operated in Beirut, Lebanon, from August 24, 1982, to March 30, 1984, as part of an international peacekeeping operation in the war-torn country.

McCain was a freshman member of the House of Representatives in September 1983 when it approved legislation "that would invoke the War Powers Act in Lebanon and authorize the deployment of American Marines in the Beirut area for an additional 18 months," the New York Times reported.

The resolution had the backing of House leaders of both parties and President Reagan, and it passed by a vote of 270 to 161, the Times report said. But McCain "argued that his military training led him to oppose the continued deployment of troops in Lebanon," the Times reported.

But here is how ABC concluded it was false:

This is an issue that came up in the first presidential debate, as well. And in both cases, McCain exaggerates his position. Marines were already in Lebanon when McCain arrived on Capitol Hill in 1983, and his vote was to prevent invoking the War Powers Act to extend the Marines already deployed. McCain did vote against that, but as he did in the first debate, McCain is wrong to imply that he opposed sending the Marines to Lebanon.

This was the year in which "fact checking" of political ads and statements became a full-blown journalistic fad, practiced by TV networks like CNN and ABC, newspapers like the Washington Post and USA Today, and even dedicated websites like FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com (the latter a joint venture of the St. Petersburg Times and Congressional Quarterly).

The "fact check" format is opinion journalism or criticism masquerading as straight news. The object is not merely to report facts but to render a judgment--or a "verdict," as CNN calls it. The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog ends each assessment with between one and four "Pinocchios," just like movie reviewers giving out stars.

Like movie reviewing, the "fact check" is a highly subjective process. If a politician makes a statement that is flatly false, it does not need to be "fact checked." The facts themselves are sufficient. "Fact checks" end up dealing in murkier areas of context and emphasis, making it very easy for the journalist to make up standards as he goes along, applying them more rigorously to the candidate he disfavors (which usually means the Republican).

McCain's Lebanon statement, about which ABC and CNN reached opposite conclusions, is a prime illustration. Both networks agreed on the underlying fact, namely that McCain voted against what CNN called the "continued deployment" in Lebanon. ABC had a niggle--that the vote was not on the initial deployment, which occurred before McCain took his seat in the House. ABC did not mention that when Reagan deployed the Marines in August 1982, he did so on his own authority. Congress's 1983 vote on "continued deployment" was the first time lawmakers weighed in on the subject. (Neither network seems to have made an effort to determine if candidate McCain took a position on the deployment in 1982.)

To this writer, it appears that ABC was going out of its way to make McCain look bad. The timing of McCain's vote vis-à-vis the deployment was not essential to the points he was trying to make at the debate, namely that he does not always favor military action and has not always sided with presidents of his own party.

HERE IS ANOTHER EXAMPLE, one in which the criticism of the McCain campaign had a stronger basis. On October 6, USA Today published a "reality check" of a McCain ad whose script ran as follows:

Narrator: Who is Barack Obama? He says our troops in Afghanistan are…

Obama: …just air-raiding villages and killing civilians.

Narrator: How dishonorable. Congressional liberals voted repeatedly to cut off funding to our active troops, increasing the risk on their lives. How dangerous. Obama and congressional liberals: too risky for America.

The USA Today headline read "Quote From Obama Taken Out of Context." The paper gave a longer version of the Obama quote: "We've got to get the job done there, and that requires us to have enough troops so that we're not just air-raiding villages and killing civilians, which is causing enormous pressure over there."

Was McCain's quote fair? It's a close call. On the one hand, Obama was making a broader argument, which the McCain ad ignored: that America should send more troops to Afghanistan. On the other hand, Obama clearly did assert that America is "air-raiding villages and killing civilians," though one could argue about whether he was asserting or merely worrying that we are "just" doing so.

But again, why is it necessary for USA Today to have an opinion on the matter at all? Why not just report what the McCain ad said, report what Obama said, and let the reader make up his own mind as to whether McCain was lying, telling the truth, or engaging in ordinary political hyperbole?

"Ordinary political hyperbole" is a concept with which reporters ought to refamiliarize themselves. In their zeal to uncover political "lies," journalists have increasingly adopted a prissy and ridiculous literalism, exemplified in this October 6 report from the New York Times:

There is no way, of course, that Senator Barack Obama would ever nominate three controversial figures from his past to serve on the United States Supreme Court: the convicted felon Antoin Rezko; the former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers; or Mr. Obama's former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr.

Yet the names and faces of the three men appear in a new television advertisement--running in Michigan and Ohio this week and nationally on Fox News on Monday, at a total cost of $500,000--arguing that Mr. Obama's judgment about his associates shows that he cannot be trusted to pick justices for the Supreme Court.

In September 1984, Walter Mondale asked, "Do you really want Jerry Falwell to pick the next two judges to the Supreme Court?" The Times quoted him and did not think it necessary to point out that only the president has the power to make nominations to the federal bench, that Falwell was not running for president, and that therefore the premise of Mondale's question was false.

Back then, the Times took for granted that its readers were smart enough to make sense of Mondale's statement on their own. Today, journalists seem to assume that their readers and viewers need to be told what to think of everything the politicians say. It just may be, however, that people are as smart today as the Times gave them credit for being 24 years ago.

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.