Better Than Fact-Checking: An Ohio Reporter Speaks Truth to Power

By Conor Friedersdorf

Challenging President Obama on extrajudicial assassinations, a broadcast journalist whips out the "Reality Check."
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The fact-checking ethos suddenly prevalent in American journalism is a necessary but mixed blessing. As one of its intellectual champions, Jay Rosen, has long observed, the press diminishes itself and fails in its commitment to the audience when it uncritically airs all competing claims. It's inadequate to report, "Candidate A says apples are a fruit, while Candidate B insists that they are a vegetable." Yet journalists sometimes hide behind the need to remain "objective" in order to avoid doing the hard, potentially controversial work of figuring out the truth.

Fact-checking is nevertheless but one tool in a journalist's kit. Some disputes are matters of fact; others are matters of opinion. Surveying attempts at fact-checking, I've sometimes thought that individual fact-checkers are less adept than they ought to be at discerning the difference. It's as if they have the urge to weigh in on matters of opinion, sometimes with very persuasive analysis, but are uncomfortable straightforwardly operating in the realm of opinion journalism. So they declare what they're doing to be "fact-checking" as if to retain the fig-leaf of ostensible neutrality*.

In fact, it's even more complicated than that.

Good journalism isn't as easy as deciding that a particular claim is a matter of fact, and giving the answer, because some claims can be technically true but misleading, while other statements are technically false, but not worth nitpicking. As Kevin Drum explained in an excellent item on this subject, journalists are often better off focusing on the degree to which something misleads (for the goal is informing readers, not signaling which pols they should denounce as liars**).

Drum suggests a three-part test when evaluating a statement that may be in need of correcting:

1) What was the speaker trying to imply? This is necessarily a judgment call, but it's what gets us away from "lying" and instead focuses our attention on how badly a speaker is trying to mislead us.

2) What would it take to state things accurately? This is the most important part of the exercise. Without getting deep in the weeds (nobody expects politicians to speak in white paper-ese), what would it take to restate things reasonably accurately?

3) How much would accuracy damage the speaker's point? Obviously, if accuracy dents the speaker's point only a bit, not much harm has been done. If it demolishes the speaker's point completely, it's as bad as an actual lie.

Viewed alongside an example of its application, it's quite persuasive.

It seems to me that the video at the top of this item follows the spirit of the Drum approach. In any case, I would like to cite it both as an example of the ethos that Jay Rosen has been urging, and as something other fact-checkers should absorb to improve their product (though as we'll see, this isn't technically a "fact-check," it is a "reality-check," a distinction that matters).

The subject at issue is President Obama's secret assassination list. It is noteworthy that a local broadcast journalist even questioned him about a matter that is almost entirely ignored in that medium.

Kudos to the reporter. 

Here's what he asked:

The so-called presidential kill list that's gotten lots of attention. this list of folks who've been targeted for assassination. And on that list have been U.S. citizens who have not been afforded trial, including Anwar Al-Awlaki. How do you as president, or any president for that matter, regardless of party or person, utilize that power to assassinate even U.S. citizens?

President Obama's answer: "You're basing this on reports in the news that have never been confirmed by me, and I don't talk about our national security decisions in that way." Do watch the video yourself to see how adeptly and factually this was handled, but to summarize, the reporter tells the audience that, while it's technically true that Obama doesn't personally speak about targeted killings in quite that way, members of his administration do talk exactly that way, both on the record and anonymously in authorized leaks, precisely so that they can claim credit.

"The president acted like this is something secret that he'd never commented on," the reporter said. "But it's clear that members of his administration have no problem talking about the kill list to reporters."

This does a much better job than a narrow fact-check could showing how Obama misled viewers. And it acknowledges that, to inform them, it is doing a bit more than simple fact-checking.

The segment then cuts back to President Obama's answer:

More broadly though, our goal has been to focus on Al Qaeda. To focus narrowly on those who would pose an imminent threat to the United States of America. And that's why not just bin Laden, but a whole tier of Al Qaeda leadership, has been taken off the field. And that's part of what has now allowed us to begin to transition out of Afghanistan. To begin to bring our troops home.

As the reporter rightly points out, however, Obama's drone strikes have been waged far from Afghanistan and Pakistan: "For the president to make the argument that to kill those two American citizens in Yemen makes the end of the Afghanistan war? That's simply disingenuous."

What the reporter does in this segment is much harder than "he said, she said" reporting or narrow fact-checking. It requires deep knowledge, reflection, logical analysis, and a willingness to challenge authority. If executed poorly, it can go very badly, for it depends on the reporter's reasoning skills and lots of small judgment calls on subjects including framing and level of detail.

Insofar as fact-checking is an attempt to channel the spirit of what he is doing, I'm all for its spread. Insofar as fact-checking is an attempt to avoid the most difficult things about what he did, or to erect a substance-less bulwark against the inevitable blowback from those who disagree with one's analysis, I am wary of fact-checking. Without judgment and perspective, fact-checking gets us a national media that treats a campaign argument about when a plant in Janesville closed as a news-cycle capturing, watershed moment in dishonest politicking; while years of deliberately misleading Americans about a covert assassination program is basically ignored.

That isn't to excuse the campaign lies of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan, or to say that they don't merit attention. It is to warn that "fact-checking" does not obviate the need for wisdom and perspective. As a transitional phase away from "The View from Nowhere," the age of fact-checking is useful. But I look forward to the day when reporters don't feel the need to operate under a "fact-check" banner before summoning the confidence to execute good journalism.


*To borrow Jay Rosen's terminology, many fact-checkers grant the critique that "he said, she said" journalism is inadequate to the times, but refuse to abandon the "View from Nowhere" conceit that they've long internalized. So rather than lay out the facts, along with their assessments of reality and interpretations, like the rest of us, they do legitimate, narrow fact-checking, but seeing that it is inadequate, they offer additional analysis while still under the "fact-checking" rubric.

**Actually, one aspect of the problem is that many Internet users, when they go to fact-checking sites, aren't looking to be informed, so much as to get the catharsis of having people they disagree with labeled liars. They want to be able to say, "Here's proof that I'm right and they're wrong." Sometimes, it's owed them, but naturally, people tend to demand that judgment even when it isn't quite deserved.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/09/better-than-fact-checking-an-ohio-reporter-speaks-truth-to-power/261995/