On its surface, the announcement by ABC's This Week that the website PolitiFact would monitor the show's content was a welcome development, despite the obvious downside that the Web-only fact-checking would deprive the show's TV audience of needed correctives. But an evaluation of the record thus far suggests that even this limited attempt to test the accuracy of claims made on the show has focused largely on trivial points and ignored more substantive and controversial arguments.
So far, the PolitiFact assessments of This Week -- which started on April 11, thanks to a suggestion from New York University professor Jay Rosen--have focused on relatively trivial matters. On one program, Bill Clinton said, "I never had a filibuster-proof Senate." PolitiFact determined this was true. Was anyone suggesting otherwise? Republican Sen. Jon Kyl noted (4/11/10) that Barack Obama had joined with other Democratic senators in an attempt to filibuster Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, which PolitiFact also judged to be true (and which also is not subject to much debate). When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to a question about a Mideast peace plan by saying, "I don't answer hypotheticals," PolitiFact attempted to determine whether that stray comment was true.
Not every assertion analyzed has been so trivial. When Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared on the program (4/11/10), he was asked about a video released by Wikileaks that showed U.S. helicopters firing on a group of Iraqis in 2007, killing a dozen people. Gates responded by saying that "the video doesn't show the broader picture of the firing that was going on at American troops."
PolitiFact judged that statement "Mostly True," based in part on the military's previously disclosed investigation of the incident, which claimed that weapons were found near the victims' bodies. To its credit, PolitiFact quoted Salon's Glenn Greenwald, who argued that Gates' response was "sufficiently vague that it can't be called factually false, but is quite misleading." Greenwald noted, for instance, that a firefight somewhere else would not justify the attacks portrayed in the video, and that those killed in an apparent attempt to retrieve some of the victims could not plausibly be considered as posing a threat to U.S. forces. So what would make Gates' words "mostly true," then?
This kind of analysis feeds the impression that everything else on these particular programs was more or less true or uncontroversial. But on many of these same episodes of This Week, guests and panelists have made puzzling comments that cried out for greater scrutiny or explanation. On April 18, for instance, Wall Street Journal columnist Kim Strassel seemed to echo a right-wing talking point that the Democratic Wall Street reform bill will actually create additional taxpayer bailouts of financial giants. Fellow panelist Al Hunt disagreed. Was one of ABC's panelists wrong about this, or was it a simply a disagreement over a matter of opinion?
PolitiFact had weighed in on this question already (4/14/10), determining that Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell's claims about bailouts were false: The language of the bill, as it was written at the time, concerned a special fund paid for by the industry that would be used to liquidate failing institutions--which is very different from being bailed out. So why not step in and clarify this argument between the panelists?
When host Jake Tapper interviewed former President Bill Clinton, he asked about regulation of Wall Street derivatives and the separation of banks' commercial and investment businesses. This led Clinton to bring up the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, which critics argue led to some of the consolidation in the financial services industry over the past decade. Clinton, though, argued that the deregulation -- championed by several Republicans and by the banking industry -- actually increased regulation: "There was already a total merger, practically, of commercial and investment banking, and really the main thing that [the repeal of] the Glass-Steagall Act did was to give us some power to regulate it." This is an unusual suggestion -- that a major deregulatory policy was in fact a move towards greater regulation -- and something that deserved greater examination.
On the April 25 show, ABC pundit George Will declared his support for the construction of a wall on the U.S./Mexico border: "Build the fence, do what McCain suggests, and you'll find that the American people are not xenophobic, they are not irrational on this subject, but they do want this essential attribute of national sovereignty asserted." When pressed by panelist Cynthia Tucker about the cost of this project, Will quipped: "It's a rounding error on the GM bailout." The border fence project has been marked by delays and cost overruns; the Government Accountability Office released an evaluation last year (AP, 9/18/09) that found that it could cost $6.5 billion to maintain the fence over 20 years -- on top of the $2.4 billion spent on 600 miles of fencing so far. A 2007 report by the Congressional Research Service estimated that a 700-mile fence could cost $49 billion over 25 years (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/8/07). ABC viewers could have benefited from some sort of clarification on this point.
It goes without saying that the ABC/PolitiFact effort could be a step in the right direction. Their network competitors have shown no interest in following ABC's lead; NBC's Meet the Press host David Gregory (Washington Post, 4/12/10) said that he was not interested: "People can fact-check Meet the Press every week on their own terms." CBS's Face the Nation host Bob Schieffer (Yahoo!News, 4/22/10) said that "everybody's welcome to fact-check us all they want," adding: "I kind of think that by the time we get around to fact-checking...we'd already be fact-checked."
Those dismissals are, at the very least, alarming. But it's little comfort that an effort that could in theory produce more rigorous fact-checking has so far offered so little.