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PolitiFact and the Limits of Fact-Checking

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PolitiFact, launched by the St. Petersburg Times four years ago with the aim of separating truth-telling from spin, is taking it from both sides these days.

Liberals are upset that the website has identified Democratic claims that Republicans want to abolish Medicare as one of its contenders for "Lie of the Year." Igor Volsky, writing at the left-leaning site ThinkProgress, complains the supposed falsehood is actually "100 percent true!" (Exclamation point most emphatically his.)

At Salon, Glenn Greenwald has his own issues with PolitiFact, citing its attempt to knock down a statement by Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul regarding an anti-terrorism bill that Paul said could be used to target Americans. Greenwald argues that PolitiFact's overreliance on Washington experts derives from "the cult of contrived neutrality that dominates so much political and media narrative."

Conservatives, meanwhile, are buzzing over the cover story in the current Weekly Standard, in which Mark Hemingway argues that fact-checking as practiced by PolitiFact -- as well as by the Associated Press, the Washington Post and others -- is just old-fashioned liberal media bias gussied up in the cloak of hard-bitten objectivity.

Now, I don't pretend to know what the folks at PolitiFact make of these complaints. Perhaps they're celebrating on the grounds that if both sides are upset, they must be doing something right. But if that's the case, then they really ought to hold off on popping the corks. Because what's really at issue here is not the power of fact-checking but, rather, its limits.

The problem is that there are only a finite number of statements that can be subjected to thumbs-up/thumbs-down fact-checking. Two years ago, you may recall, PolitiFact bestowed its "Lie of the Year" award on Sarah Palin for saying the health-care proposal that eventually became law would create "death panels" to decide who would receive life-saving medical care and who wouldn't. It was an easy call: Palin had made it up, and there wasn't a whiff of truth to it. Rarely, though, are things that easy.

For instance, Democratic assertions that a proposal by Republican congressman Paul Ryan would abolish Medicare is neither true nor false -- it's a matter of opinion. Personally, I side with those who say Ryan would alter and diminish the program so drastically that it amounts to virtual abolition. But I can see why conservatives would counter that Ryan is pushing for necessary reforms to save a program that's running off the fiscal rails.

As for Hemingway's bill of particulars in the Weekly Standard, well, he's not wrong, either. He seems particularly exercised by the AP. But since I'm writing about PolitiFact, let me cite one of Hemingway's examples: the site's judgment that Rand Paul, shortly after his election to the Senate, falsely claimed that federal employees earn an average of $120,000 a year compared to $60,000 in the private sector. Paul was essentially right. But PolitiFact labeled his statement a lie because he didn't explain that he was talking about total compensation, including benefits, rather than just salary.

John McQuaid, writing at Forbes.com in response to the Weekly Standard article, defines the challenge thusly:

"The problem with fact-checking is not that it's a liberal media plot. The problem is that fact-checking -- like everything -- is sometimes a lazy, half-assed business. If fact-checking is as important as it claims, its practitioners need to acknowledge its problems and fix them."

But I don't think it's so simple. I suspect the real problem is one of supply and demand. PolitiFact's entertaining approach, complete with "Pants on Fire" liars, and its 2009 Pulitzer Prize, has led to a veritable fact-checking industry that needs increasing quantities of fuel to keep the fires burning. And there just isn't enough. The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they're not necessarily doing it because they want to. They're doing it because politicians don't flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.

Later this month, PolitiFact will announce the winner of its "Liar of the Year" award. As Paul Waldman observes at the American Prospect, the 10 nominees are evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. After two years of singling out Republican statements, Waldman predicts that the Democrats' Medicare "lie" will be this year's winner, "despite the fact that it's actually not a lie at all." As Waldman notes, it would amount to an exercise in the sort of false balance that fact-checking was supposed to transcend.

Perhaps the biggest lie of all is that fact-checking can act as some sort of short-cut to the truth. For news consumers, there's really no getting around the time-intensive work of paying attention to multiple sources of information and making their own judgments.

And I'll bestow my own "Pants on Fire" award to anyone who claims otherwise.

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