Sunday, October 26, 2014

Don’t trust the fact checkers

Posted on Sept. 23, 2012 at 1:00 a.m.

Richard Leib

Enough already! Fact checker pundits are bloviating and dim-bulbs are creating factoids out of fluff.

Let’s be clear. Republican activists are not quoting “You didn’t build that” out of context, Paul Ryan did not lie about the Janesville GM plant closure, and — aw, nuts.

My friend Lipton is one of those folks who frequently point out the liberal bias of the Major Media. Few people would argue that he’s wrong, but I’ve mostly not been irritated with it. It is what it is.

This year though, bias, especially on TV, does appear to be way more extreme than ever, and, as President Bubba might say, “I’m starting to feel Lipton’s pain.” Maybe some of the problem are those new media toys, the so-called fact-checkers like Politifact.com and FactCheck.org.

Newspaper articles and TV commentaries using content from “checkers” bring the thrill of professorial puffery to publishers and networks. And they create political talking points in the process.

Suddenly this type of content is the red meat of reporting. And it’s often the first thing on a page, or on a monitor, that grabs one’s attention.

But there is a problem with the concept as it’s being executed. And the problem is that the line between fact-finding and personal opining has become blurred in this material. These reports are becoming opinion pieces, and they’re usually not being billed as such.

Facts are massaged to insert judgments — and cutesy ratings like Pinocchios, stars, or pants-on-fire are awarded in order to indicate degrees of truth. The pieces become, thereby, not simply a checking of facts, but rather personal views.

ABC News recently afforded a “Yes, but” to an evaluation of an Obama/Carter jobs-record comparison that negatively reflected on Obama’s record. Then they threw in some statistics that made Obama look better … but they left out some others that made him look bad again. And they called it fact-checking.

Consider those who use the “fact-check” reports to allege that Paul Ryan blamed Obama for a GM plant closing in Janesville, Wis., when, supposedly, the plant had closed before Obama took office.

Simple enough to check, right? One might think so, but different “fact check” sources have given Ryan’s statement varying ratings from “Absolutely false” to “Somewhat true” to “True.” Hmmm.

Here’s what happened. In his speech, Ryan said that in February 2008 Obama told workers, ”I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another 100 years.” That’s true.

For what it’s worth, in October 2008 Obama also said that he would “retool plants like the GM facility in Janesville” as president.

In December 2008, the plant ceased building SUVs, but it continued making trucks until April 2009. Could Obama have saved the plant? I don’t see how. And he didn’t specifically say he would. But Ryan didn’t blame Obama for closing the plant. Ryan’s point was that Obama gave hope where none was justified.

One can make of that what one will. Is it a big deal? Not for me, it isn’t. I’m used to hearing overblown statements. But if I’d been one of the workers who believed the campaign pitch, I might be ticked off.

Complex issues often require interpretation. For instance, are the billions of dollars Obamacare is taking from Social Security not a problem if it’s just money to be taken from doctors’ reimbursements? Or is it an even bigger problem if it thereby reduces the number of those who want to be doctors?

Maybe “fact check” reports should be called “As I See It” reports. That’d be more accurate, and maybe then Lipton wouldn’t complain.

Former Elkhart furniture store owner Richard Leib has served on planning committees in several industries. An avid auto fan, he raced in the 1972 coast-to-coast Cannonball Run. He has written on a wide range of subjects.