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 Examinerconstrued 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 Slatequipped, "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."
Does omitting the phrase "moving all production" create "an air of plausible deniability"? (Remember that Romney's defenders are referring strictly to the wording of TV ad, while his detractors are including the more expansive wording in the campaign speech and the campaign's subsequent refusal to retract or amend any of the statements.) Because -- and here's the crux -- if you strip away the pejorative wording and agree to a literal word-for-word interpretation, the statement in the ad is true in an as-far-as-it-goes way.
Leave it to The Weekly Standard's Mark Hemingway to take this reasoning and run with it:
By expanding Jeep production to China, instead of increasing Jeep production in the U.S., it's safe to say Jeep ... is choosing to create more jobs overseas instead of in America where taxpayers bailed the company out.
Now one could argue ... that expanding production overseas is good for Jeep ... if you dig deep into the PolitiFact ruling, that's their essential objection to Mitt Romney's ad: It implies that it would be better for Jeep to create more jobs in the U.S. in the short-term, instead of expanding overseas production. So in the end, PolitiFact's beef with the Romney ad was an entirely argumentative disagreement about what course of action Jeep should take, not a factual objection to Romney's true statement that Jeep was going to start building cars in China. However, disagreeing about the implications of manufacturing Jeeps in China doesn't justify calling Romney a liar for accurately stating Jeeps would be manufactured in China.
(If you have a taste for this sort of thing you will also enjoy Hemingway's broadside attack on fact-checkers.)
We can speculate that part of the reason for Kessler's four Pinocchios was exactly the shady semantic trick of taking a technically "true" statement and twisting it into a 180-degree misrepresentation of the facts. And part of the reason PolitiFact named this "Lie of the Year" is because of the way it became notorious and backfired on the Romney campaign. But the important takeaway is that both Kessler and PolitiFact gave their most dire "false" award to a statement that, from the right vantage point and with the right squint, looks like the truth.
Enter NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen, who wrote a piece marveling at the Romney campaign's once and ongoing disregard for the consensus of the fact-checkers.
Stu Stevens isn't saying, "Oh come on, fact checkers, it was bad, but it wasn't that bad." He's not trying to make an outrageously false claim seem routine -- within the standard deviation for campaign rhetoric. No, he's upholding the "Jeep shipping jobs to China" statement as exceptionally well-founded, a kind of model for people in his business. "I believe that the ad and Romney's statement were completely accurate, unusually so by any standards," he wrote to Kessler.
Thus we have:
Lie of the year!
(Folds arms.) "Unusually accurate."
We double checked. Still a total lie.
(Stamps foot) "I shall not hear of it!"
Why is this a conversation that Stuart Stevens wants to have? He's initiating these events, after all. For what reason? Is there even a strategy here?
Rosen's project is to try to get the news media to take more of a stand about the veracity of public statements, to avoid presenting both sides of an argument and letting readers sort out the truth. He applauds the fact-checkers, and wishes their direct approach and decisiveness would find its way into more political reporting. Stevens's challenge, he concludes, is a push back in the other direction. "Even about your Lie of the Year there is doubt. So don't try anything," Rosen imagines Stevens saying.
"We know now that every assertion is either true or false or else neither true nor false; in the former case the assertion is meaningful, in the latter case cognitively meaningless." So says an unnamed teaching assistant in a recent article about philosopher Stanley Cavell. Would that it were so simple. But here we are, 1,600 words later, and I cannot form a definitive and intellectually honest opinion about Kessler's four-Pinocchio rating of Romney.
I'm glad that the Fact Checker, PolitiFact, and FactCheck.org do the work they do, and I agree with Rosen that reporters ought to have the bravery to incorporate some of their methodology. But politicians do not tell simple, easily refuted untruths. Their embellishments are plausibly deniable because they are carefully structured to be so, the difference between "true" and "mendacious" resting on how every word is parsed.
It's not the rating that matters, but the deep dive into the facts behind a statement and the vigorous debate that it engenders. You know that Romney's statement about Jeep gave an unfairly negative impression of the company's condition in 2012. Whether you think that's acceptable likely depends on how you view the 2009 auto-industry bailout. And that depends on your views about the proper role of government. The work that fact-checkers do is essential, but it's not enough to come to a verdict about a politician.