Reality-checking the “fact checkers”

Fact checkers are everywhere these days.

They’re the new best friends of journalists, and the new sworn enemies of the Romney campaign—and rightfully so, right? After all, journalism is all about the cold, hard facts, while the only thing cold and hard about Romney is his heart. Right?

Well, I’d like to challenge this assumption that fact checkers are a force for good, if only for a moment. Because after scratching beneath the surface, it doesn’t appear that “fact checkers” are any more reliable than the “facts” they’re checking.

The problem is not that these so-called “fact checkers” are factually incorrect in their zeal to leave no facts unchecked, but rather that their idea of what a “fact” actually is seems to be far from…well…factual.

The Wall Street Journal recently took fact checkers to task for what they see as the checkers’ ideological motivation. A prime example of this ideology, says the Journal, was the response by fact checkers to a claim made by Paul Ryan. In his speech at the Republican convention, Ryan implied that Obama was responsible for the closing of a General Motors plant, swiftly sidestepping the fact that George W. Bush was president when it was slated to close. Democrats jumped on the assertion, blasting Ryan as an all-out liar. Here’s what he actually said:

“When he [Obama] talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory. A lot of guys I went to highschool with worked at that GM plant,” said Ryan at the Republican National Convention.

“Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: ‘I believe that if our government is there to support you, this plant will be here for another hundred years’. That’s what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day.”

The truth of the matter is, as the WSJ points out, there is nothing factually-inaccurate about Ryan’s statement. And this is where the whole idea of “fact checkers” gets kind of sticky.

What Ryan was doing should be obvious to anyone even remotely aware of how politics works: that is, using factually-accurate statements to paint a distorted picture of reality.

But what are fact checkers to do when the facts don’t lie, but the politicians do? For one, they should stop masquerading as under the guise of objectivity, and instead call themselves what they really are: political commentators and journalists.

Now don’t get me wrong: there’s nothing wrong with political commentators and journalists, obviously. The public needs to be told when a politician is stretching the truth or implying things that are far from accurate. But instead of outsourcing the job to “fact checkers”, the media should just be doing it themselves instead of pretending that they’re infallible human beings who don’t hold opinions on political issues.

The real problem is one of semantics: while the term “fact checker” suggests objectivity, actual fact checkers bring forth nuances in the interpretation of facts. In other words, they are concerned with subjectivity. The WSJ, in the same article, lists statements proven “false” by several other fact checkers. But these statements, upon closer inspection, were never “facts” to begin with.

Here’s an example from the WSJ article, this time from the Associated Press fact check of Ryan’s speech:

RYAN: “The stimulus was a case of political patronage, corporate welfare and cronyism at their worst. You, the working men and women of this country, were cut out of the deal.”

THE FACTS: Ryan himself asked for stimulus funds shortly after Congress approved the $800 billion plan.

As the WSJ points out, the rebuttal from the AP is a tu quoque fallacy that attacks Ryan instead of addressing the information at hand; that information being that what Ryan said is not even a “fact” to be disputed, but rather an opinion on the stimulus package. The AP seems to be just as ideologically motivated as Ryan is. The difference is that one of them belongs to a profession known for its liars, and the other is from a purportedly-objective truth dispenser. Who’s to be trusted?

A more intelligent way to deal with the factually-accurate bullshit spewing from the mouths of politicians and, now, fact checkers, is to take every statement from either party with a giant grain of salt. We, as media consumers, need to accept that objectivity does not exist, and anyone who claims to be should not be trusted.

What we really need to do—and I never thought I’d say this—is take a page from the Romney campaign book, and not let our opinions be dictated by “fact checkers.”

*Photo by NewsHour (via Flickr, under a CC license).

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