September 24, 2012

September 24, 2012 | Commentary on

Checkers Confuse Facts with Opinions

Fact-checkers have become a fact of life, so logic dictates that it's time we checked them. It's the age-old conundrum: Who controls the meta-controller? Our system of government depends upon checks and balances, a system that has long frustrated controllers from both parties. With the fact checkers, however, there seems to be none.

There are many issues that raise questions about the credibility and fairness of the fact-checking cottage industry, but let’s start with the pretentiousness of it all. What we have in many instances is a bunch of journalists, some in their 20s, who now have the chutzpah of arrogating to themselves the right to determine what is a fact.

It’s not just the age issue that sticks in one’s craw -- the fact that journalists are doing the “fact checking” doesn’t pass the laugh test for many, given the well-known biases of the profession. The “fact checking” façade makes it worse, as my friend James Taranto wrote in his Wall Street Journal column Best of the Web: “The form amplifies the bias. It gives journalists much freer rein to express their opinions by allowing them to pretend to be rendering authoritative judgments about the facts.”

Which leads us straight to the next problem: the checkosphere’s bad habit of presenting as quasi-scientific facts things that are at best debatable opinions.

Consider when PolitiFact stated that President Obama’s “stimulus program” (itself a highly subjective phrase) had “saved or created” one million jobs. This led economist Brian Riedl, then a colleague of mine at Heritage, to state that such a pronouncement "belongs in an opinion editorial -- not a fact check … there is no way to determine how the economy would have performed without a stimulus.”

And then there’s the sloppiness. When on July 12 the Obama administration said it would no longer require states to comply with the work requirements established under the 1996 welfare reform law, Heritage said flat out this action had “gutted” the reforms. We could say this because, modesty aside, the expert who wrote the law, Robert Rector, works at Heritage.

But what happened when the Romney campaign took up the charge? The “fact checkers” gave the Romney campaign gazillions of Pinocchios, Pants on Fire or whatever else gimmick they have. How many of the 12 fact-checks we counted called Robert to at least check with him? One.

As Robert likes to say, “Fact checkers don’t like calling me because they know they run into facts.” At least they should heed Mark Twain’s advice: “Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.”

About the Author

Mike Gonzalez Senior Fellow
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

First appeared in USA Today.