Romney, Jeep, and China: A Case Study in America's Fact-Checking Fetish

Seen from the right angle with the right squint, the claim that PolitiFact named 2012's lie of the year looks like the truth. What does that mean?

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Reuters

We live in the age of the fact-check. 

Google Trends shows the term spiking dramatically leading up to the election last year, and our moon shot is a planned smartphone app that will fact-check statements in real time. The media was collectively gobsmacked when a Romney staffer proclaimed, mid-campaign, "We're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers." I'm not immune: When I wrote in November about our ability to fool ourselves, I framed it with a series of links to PolitiFact articles. If Americans are convinced our political system is broken, we are equally convinced that fact-checking is a big part of the solution.

Leading politicians have access to researchers, speechwriters, and the smartest advisers money can buy, so we're predisposed to believe that if they tell an untruth it's both deliberate and unacceptable. The allure of the fact-check is undeniable -- a dispassionate, scientific analysis that returns the truth or falsehood of a statement. Fact-checking organizations reinforce this objectivity with impartial-seeming instruments: PolitiFact's "Truth-o-meter," Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler's Pinocchio scale.

But spend any time diving into the write-ups that accompany these dispassionate evaluations and their messiness emerges. Truth becomes shaded, often dependent on a person's perspective and willingness to tolerate the motivation behind bending facts. Some statements take a detail out of context and are literally true while giving an impression opposite of what would be formed by a more comprehensive examination of an issue. Others rely on inveterate disagreements about the fundamental nature of human beings and society. Many hang on just what sort of real-world inferences we can make from a specific scientific study.

Besides, the truth of some statements cannot be evaluated without guesses about the speaker's mental state. Asked whether a Senate delay on voting on Chuck Hagel's nomination for secretary of defense constituted a filibuster, PolitiFact's Richard Arenberg concluded, "In the end, answering the questions rests on an analysis of the motivations of those seeking delay and what you believe about the duration of the delay which they seek." When it comes to political sophistry, it turns out that the truth is seldom as simple as a binary yes or no, or even as simple as a four-point Pinocchio scale or five-point truth dial.

A useful specimen is Mitt Romney's claim that because of Obama's handling of the auto industry, Jeep would be moving manufacturing to China. This claim got four Pinocchios and was later named PolitiFact's 2012 "Lie of the Year":

It was a lie told in the critical state of Ohio in the final days of a close campaign -- that Jeep was moving its U.S. production to China. It originated with a conservative blogger, who twisted an accurate news story into a falsehood. Then it picked up steam when the Drudge Report ran with it. Even though Jeep's parent company gave a quick and clear denial, Mitt Romney repeated it and his campaign turned it into a TV ad.

Here's the ad in question:

Key line: "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China." Romney's wording of this statement in a prior speech was even stronger: "I saw a story today, that one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep, now owned by the Italians, is thinking of moving all production to China."

The claim originated in a Bloomberg News story, which the conservative Washington Examiner construed to mean that Jeep was struggling and considering moving some or all manufacturing from the U.S. to China as a result. When the Romney campaign was questioned about this statement, aides conspicuously stuck to it.

In an important way it is the opposite of the truth. Between the 2009 bankruptcy filing and 2012, Jeep had robust growth. Its manufacturing in the U.S. was expanding and it was hiring workers. Its overseas sales also picked up, and it was considering re-opening shuttered factories in China. These facilities were not going to replace domestic manufacturing -- they were for making certain models of compact SUVs specifically tailored to the Chinese market, which are impractical to import from the U.S. So the statement, "Jeep is doing poorly and so will move manufacturing to China," is false, while "Jeep is doing well and may resume manufacturing in China," is true. (Furthermore, the deal that left Fiat with a controlling share of Chrysler emerged from talks begun before Obama was president.)

Writing about political distortions during the campaign, John Dickerson of CBS and Slate quipped, "If you're not getting four Pinocchios or a pants-on-fire, you're not doing it right."

****

Last month, when Chrysler announced that it would in fact resume building some Jeep models in China, top Romney strategist Stuart Stevens sent a letter to the Washington Post asking for a retraction of the four-Pinocchio ruling. The Post's response reaffirms the judgment, adding:

To some extent, this may be a matter of semantics. Stevens says Chrysler is "moving production" to China. We think it is more accurate to say that Chrysler is expanding -- in fact, returning -- production to China. A "move" suggests that some jobs in the United States will be lost, and that does not appear to be the case. Instead, jobs are being added in both the United States and China.

Kessler's article calls the central claim of the television ad -- "Obama took GM and Chrysler into bankruptcy and sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China" -- "a smarmy way of restating the previous incorrect statements with an air of plausible deniability."

Presented by

Alesh Houdek lives and works in Miami. He writes occasionally at Critical Miami.

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