Debate fact-checking

Debate fact-checking October 12, 2011

Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not “Every man for himself.” And the London Underground is not a political movement. Those are all mistakes, Otto. I looked them up.

I’m not a fan of designated “fact-checking” reports following speeches and political debates. Either every report from that paper, station or site checks the facts or else none of their reports can be trusted to do so.

This was a widely shared complaint when I worked in a newsroom — shared among reporters and copy editors, but not among the bosses. The paper I worked for followed the common convention of Big Front-Page Story on major speeches and debates, paired with Inside Sidebar Story “fact-checking” what was said in the speech. The implication there is that the facts reported as facts in the Big Front-Page Story had not been checked and might not be facts at all.

And that implication was true — true not just of those particular front-page stories, but true of almost everything we published. Statements by public officials were almost never verified, questioned or challenged. Our newspaper was not equipped or inclined to fact-check its stories and did not regard that as its job. That fact-checking task used to be what was called “journalism” — “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” For political stories at the paper, this journalistic aspect of journalism had been subcontracted out to partisan factions. Those factions didn’t really check the facts or correct the misstatements, but they could be relied on to make an equal-and-opposite counter-claim to whatever the other party was saying. We printed both, unverified and unquestioned, and thus supposedly insulated ourselves from accusations of bias.

So newspapers and TV news programs and news sites need to stop segregating out their “fact-check” stories. Every story  — on every debate, every speech, every press conference, every interview, every ad — ought to be a fact-check story. If it’s not, then it should not be published, broadcast or posted. Period.

All of which is why you should skip Bloomberg News’ mainbar report on last night’s Republican presidential primary debate and just go directly to the actual journalism of their “fact-checking” sidebar.

The Claim: [Mitt] Romney said Obama’s health-care law raised spending by $1 trillion.

The Facts: The law increases spending by $788 billion over 10 years, while achieving $931 billion in savings over the same time for a net deficit reduction of $143 billion. …

The Claim: [Herman] Cain said Bloomberg News’ analysis of his 9-9-9 tax plan is incorrect. …

The Facts: Cain said his campaign has received an independent revenue analysis of his plan, though it hasn’t been publicly released. He also hasn’t detailed the specific assumptions his campaign is using. Working with the only data publicly available, Bloomberg News calculated that the 9-9-9 plan would have generated about $2 trillion if it were in place in 2010, compared with the $2.2 trillion the government collected that year. …

The Claim: U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas said Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke has compounded the problem of inflation in the U.S., and that “he’s inflating twice as fast as Greenspan was,” referring to Bernanke’s predecessor Alan Greenspan. …

The Facts: The Labor Department’s consumer price index, one of the most common inflation measures, has climbed 2.2 percent on average per year during Bernanke’s 5 1/2 years in office, less than the average 3 percent rate during Greenspan’s 18 1/2 years. …

The Claim: U.S. Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota said Obama’s health-care law will be run by a board of 15 political appointees who will “make all the major health- care decisions for over 300 million Americans.” …

The Facts: The board only has authority over Medicare, in which about 48 million elderly and disabled Americans are now enrolled, not the 300 million Bachmann mentioned. The law doesn’t grant the panel power to make health-care decisions and prohibits the group from cutting benefits, changing eligibility rules or increasing beneficiaries’ premiums or cost-sharing. …

See also’s “Recycled Spin at New Hampshire GOP Debate.”

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