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Posted by on Apr 13, 2014 in Media | 15 comments

Fact Checking Valuable, But Not Always Right


The Moderate Voice has a post on the increase in fact-checking in journalism. Fact-checking is preferable to the standard media practice of quoting both sides as if they are equally valid, generally with an implied assumption that the truth is somewhere in the middle. This leads to erroneous reporting when one side is intentionally using misinformation and lying far more than the other. However labeling something fact checking doesn’t necessarily mean it is immune from journalistic problems. Paul Krugman pointed out one problem:

“The people at PolitiFact are terrified of being considered partisan if they acknowledge the clear fact that there’s a lot more lying on one side of the political divide than on the other,” Krugman wrote in 2011.

“So they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’ — and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.”

As Krugman pointed out, there are fact checkers which label an equal number of statements from Democrats and Republicans as being wrong in order to give the appearance of being impartial. That typically means that outrageous lies from Republicans are called lies but to provide a sense of balance,  statements from Democrats which are generally true but in which there is an exception are also called lies.

The entire idea of calling something true or a lie is often a poor way to handle complex issues which are stated by politicians in brief statements. Sometimes politicians are trying to be truthful, but boiling down a complex issue into a brief statement, or commercial, will result in exceptions where the statement is false. Often it is preferable to look at what is true in what is being said and where it isn’t entirely true and explain the issue rather than just calling it truth or a lie.

While Republicans have been hit far more with big lies on health care, Democrats have been harmed by the problems in how some fact checkers declare something either true or a lie (being a lie if not 100% true in every case). There have been two big examples of this. The first is Democrats saying that the Medicare proposals in the Ryan budget would destroy Medicare. Technically this is untrue as Ryan would replace Medicare with something named Medicare. On the other hand, it is true because the Republican proposals would change Medicare into something fundamentally different with far less protection for seniors. Rather than just calling it a lie, fact checkers would have done more good by explaining why Democrats consider these changes to be destroying Medicare.

The other is the greatly exaggerated “lie of the year” when Obama said people could keep their own doctor under the Affordable Care Act. This was an absurd statement on one level because every year insurance companies and doctors make decisions which can affect this which the government has no  power over. On the other hand, Obama was right in the context where he was speaking, even if worded poorly. Republicans were lying when they claimed that Obamacare would make people join some sort of government run program which would tell them which doctors they can see. The Affordable Care Act actually makes it more likely that people could have insurance which would allow them to keep their doctor than had been the case in the past and does nothing to force people to lose their doctor. People have a better chance of keeping their doctor when protected from losing their insurance. Frequently people are forced to change doctors because of employers changing insurance plans. Employees have a better chance of keeping their own doctor when provided more choice in plans, as under the Affordable Care Act.  Where Obama got it wrong was that the same forces already present which lead to people having to change doctors, while diminished, would still exist. It would be far better to explain this complex issue, where Obama was mostly right, than to just declare it a lie because it is not true one hundred percent of the time.

Originally posted at Liberal Values

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Copyright 2014 The Moderate Voice
  • ChrisCrawford

    It’s a real shame that so much of our political discourse is dependent on the ability to give one sentence answers to questions that deserve paragraphs. “I believe in freedom” polls a whole lot better than “we need to maintain a balance between our most essential liberties and the responsibility to protect our citizenry and help provide opportunity for all.”

  • JSpencer

    Fact-checking is preferable to the standard media practice of quoting both sides as if they are equally valid, generally with an implied assumption that the truth is somewhere in the middle.

    Some of us have been trying to get this message across for a long time. Do we want to settle for some feel good artificial, unoffensive “balance”, or do we still care about that thing once commonly known as “the truth”? The “both sides do it” response is enough for some people, who never bother to dig any deeper.

  • SteveK

    Hey Kevin and Ron… I like you both so I’m not going to jump in on this other then to recommend that you both read… But what do I know?

    Rolling Stone: Obamacare: It’s Working!

    Once left for dead, the president’s signature legislation is hitting its goals. And it’s changing the political calculus for November

    No one would claim that the Affordable Care Act rollout has all gone according to plan. The troubles started in the summer of 2012, when the Supreme Court took an ax to one of the main pillars of Obamacare: expanding Medicaid to cover any American earning less than $16,000. The federal government, the court ruled, couldn’t force the states to take funding to cover the working poor, leading nearly half of them to boycott the program out of partisan spite. Then, powerful GOP-governed states like Texas, Florida and Pennsylvania refused to set up their own insurance exchanges, foisting the responsibility onto the underfunded – which failed catastrophically at launch. The Congressional Budget Office downsized its first-year private enrollment projection from 7 million to 6 million people – a bar even administration allies feared could be impossible to clear, leading House Speaker John Boehner to brand the president’s signature legislation “a train wreck.”

  • petew (to comment which somehow wound up on another post in error):

    “I also think was incorrect to blame the debt ceiling crisis and the government shutdown, equally on both Republicans and Democrats.”

    I don’t recall the specific article but my first impression on this is that it sounds like a poor topic for a fact check article. Some things are fairly easy to fact check, such as if a politician claims the cost of something is far different than it is, or if Republicans talk about non-existent death panels. They might be able to discuss facts involved in the debt ceiling crisis, but assigning blame requires greater interpretation and can easily be influenced by the opinion of the writer. (That said, the Republicans were to blame).

    Another problem with newspaper analysis of debt issues is that such articles are almost always written based upon the assumption that lowering the deficit is the top priority. Maybe, but that is an opinion, not a fact. Others might believe that greater spending is now needed to stimulate the economy, especially considering the presence of such low interest rates and how much the deficit has fallen in recent years. Opinions such as this don’t fit well with a fact check article.

    As for climate change, 97 percent of climate scientists agree with one position. There is certainly no point for the media to try to take an unbiased position that each side has a valid argument. At least I’m not aware of any fact checker columns defending climate change deniers and hope such articles aren’t out there.

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    When reporters do stories about the Nazi horrors during WWII, do they really need to publish an equal amount of articles written by modern Neo-Nazis who deny that the Holocaust ever happened? Of course not—because we all know that such an assertion is clearly untrue, and requires a deliberate lie in order to report as being merely manufactured history!

    Good example, petew.

    You may remember a few weeks ago an infamous Holocaust denier did something similar, but in the comments section.

    Since, such “denials” come so close to pure anti-semitic hate speech, I could have deleted his comments.

    But then again, we do have free speech and such authors do a sufficiently good job of discrediting themselves that no help is necessary.

  • JSpencer

    As has been suggested, climate change is the poster child for this disingenuous trend. Kow towing to the dynamic is terrible in principle, but the upshot in terms of real world consequences has been (and will be) much,much worse. Journalistic standards have been shamefully compromised in this day and age, yet too many people gloss it over or simply don’t give a crap.

    And btw, I like both of our prickly gents too. 🙂

  • Thanks for the article Steve. It is full of great news where the ACA is concerned and I am hopeful millions more will be helped soon. Both of my adult daughters are being helped by Obamacare, which means my wife and I are as well.

    And thanks for the wise words, pally.


    I may be a bit out of date on this, but Politifact and Factcheck web sites actually tend to explain their reasoning. I was a “voting” member of Politifact a while back (2 or 3 years ago), when they covered some stuff. We would let them know when we disagreed with them. They were also very gracious about things and would often publish why people disagreed with them. Meanwhile, they also changed a rating (Barely True) to Mostly False when a candidate claimed that his statement had been rated as “True” on Politifact (it was listed as Barely True–which basically meant that it was one step above “Pants on Fire!”).

    Politifact, when it rates something, gives very large explanations as to the details of their investigation. They also rate things on a graduated scale: True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, and Pants on Fire. Death Panels were rated Pants on Fire when first stated and then several more times since the word just did not seem to get out.

    Meanwhile, I had noticed that Politifact had been rating some statements by liberal thinkers when those statements did not seem to be relevant. In other words, being from Florida, I think that they felt the need to “appear” unpartisan and thus hunted for things to list that Democrats were saying that were somewhat or mostly false. However, the last time I checked (a while back, I admit), the ratings for conservative politicians and personalities were far worse than their liberal counterparts (based on numbers of bad ratings and how bad those were).

  • Politifact and Factcheck are probably a couple of the better fact checking sites, while Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post is probably at the other extreme.

  • There is more favorable news in today’s CBO report.

    The bottom line is that they project that the Affordable Care Act will provide coverage to more people at a lower cost than previously projected–104 billion less over 2015–2024. They also project that insurance premiums for silver plans will on the average only go up $100 in 2015 with 6 percent annual increases afterwards (which is less than increases we have often seen in the individual market in the past). I will also post this here tomorrow.

  • petew


    Here is the URL of a article which generally blames both sides for the debt ceiling standoff:

    But no matter how logically, as they say, the idea that “it takes two to tango,” is, this crisis was completely manufactured by Republicans. There is no getting around the fact that this crisis involved an attempt to interfere with the normal workings of Congress, and I don’t have to tell you, that there are plenty of other ways to work out budget differences, than threaten to let the debt ceiling lapse, in order to force the will of one side over the ideas of the other. It involves the apparently obsolete concept of COMPROMISING.

    I know you agree with me and I don’t want to give the impression that I am arguing with you. I just feel the need to question the wisdom of on this one thread, especially since the article linked to above spends a lot of time analyzing specific claims of both sides, and feels it necessary to question even whether the debt ceiling is a routine thing or not—ultimately admitting that it had indeed been raised before by many Presidents without anyone opposing it by resorting to political blackmail.

    If our fact checkers want to claim that their decisions are based only on reason and from logically discussing the facts, then one would think they would recognize that whether the idea of routinely raising the deficit is indeed, routine or not, is not directly related to the question—the question being whether both sides are to blame—not whether the ceiling has been raised often before. To base a decision purely on logic would require attention to the present tense charges that Democrats also brought on this extortion attempt–not whether other administrations had also raised the debt ceiling before Obama.

    The only action I see the President taking is, the fact that he resisted giving into the GOP demands for several good reasons—ones which should be obvious to anyone who cherishes the democratic process. As I said, the president only pulled the fire alarm so that the Tea party inferno threatening our government (not just theirs) would not have to happen.

    Its a shame that, as you say, this was a poor topic for Fact checkers to lend their interpretations to in the first place, and, it is also a shame that all of the historical analysis they used to make their determination, is really null and void, since when one party deliberately blocks a routine government function, in order to extort cooperation, it is that party alone which is the instigator and the aggressor, and also, the only cause of the problem.

    Glad you agree with me, this is just one of those topics that gets me going—even though generally I find’s other opinions reasonable and valid. I just feel inclined to jump on my own soapbox and rail about this political travesty, that could have severely damaged our credit rating permanently.

    As far as journalists printing the decisions of climate deniers, these deniers are not so much given credit for being right, as much as being given credit for having equal credibility along with PhD climate scientists, when actually the so called fact they are use, have already been frequently debunked by real facts and real science. Its not so much that our news outlets have published their opinions, its that the valid rebuttals of real scientists are not often given serious emphasis, when actually it is deniers that are dead wrong about many issues that the press (if it is truly dedicated to delivering truth) , should not even need to humor deniers about—balanced reporting is one thing, but when there is no real argument from one side that has Merritt, then what we get is UNFAIR BALANCE on the part of a compliant Press.

    I’m sorry my post ended up in the wrong thread following the wrong article. I had almost completed my post when suddenly I hit a certain key on my keyboard and it was suddenly zapped, so this probably rattled me and caused me not to notice that I was writing the new one in the wrong place.

    • petew,

      That is definitely a flawed analysis.

  • petew


    The difference between allowing Holocaust deniers to share their bigoted and anti-Semitic views in news publications and, allowing climate science deniers to disseminate misinformation and lies about man’s role in global warming is critical in a couple of ways. First, most of us now know that the reality of Hitler’s concentration camps is factual, and, is backed up by a ton of written, photographic, and spoken records, including the testimony of eye witnesses that survived those horrors. So, consequently not much of what Holocaust deniers say is believed by reasonable and ordinary people. Thus there is no longer any possibility that such propaganda will have a serious effect on the pubic. Secondly, deniers of the Holocaust are questioning historical records which involve atrocities that really happened and are completely verifiable. They don’t threaten our knowledge about something as critical as the possible future survival of the human race!

    Instead, climate change deniers represent current and dangerous attempts to deny or misrepresent the facts of climate change in the minds of the very people whose will is critical and needed to motivate truly informed Americans who can then determine the voting body of our legislature, which in turn, should reflect the will expressed by voters who NEED to be accurately informed when selecting candidates. The distortion of factual science is particularly vile, since members of both the public and the press are usually not knowledgeable about the science which is involved, and deniers are consciously attempting, (in the here and now), to use their ignorance in order to dispute solid scientific facts.

    If the press really takes its role seriously, it should realize that the factual content of what it report is every bit as critical as providing non-biased and balanced reporting. Unfortunately they have been giving undue credit to the claims of deniers who really no very little at all about the truth. Certainly those with various beliefs should be allowed to express them, but, just like Edward R. Murrow confronted Joe McCarthy about his manufactured fear and propaganda, we now need reporters and journalists to step up and write many articles disputing the lack of real scientific knowledge on the part of global warming deniers who either know little about science, or who are deliberately distorting that science at the whim of big oil and other Co2 producing corporations.

    Regarding the mere 3% of “scientists” who continue to question the truth, we will find those whose degrees are in minimally related fields, and those who therefore do not really know about the science and the tons of evidence which supports man’s role. We also will find those people and groups (such as republican think tanks) who are paid to deliver information that is unfairly skewed in favor of oil companies and other Carbon producing industries that falsely portray climate science.

    Now that more and more of us are witnessing the erratic weather patterns that are most likely the result accumulating greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, the press is finally stepping up to the plate and actually daring to report the findings of the IPCC and other bodies which have tried to get out their vital message for years—sometimes actually leaving out the traditional disclaimer which falsely implies that many reputable scientists still doubt what is happening.

    When balance is fair, it doesn’t hesitate to point out actual knowledge vs. concocted propaganda which is intended to deceive, and mislead the public. The scientific community has tried to edify members of the press who also lack knowledge about man-made global warming and the solid evidence which supports it. So, if the press really intends to give unbiased and balanced coverage, it should frequently include articles which allow members of the scientific community to fully rebut the claims of deniers and should stress the specious reasoning and false research behind these denier’s claims. Fact checkers should already have been working overtime to reveal this vital difference between misinformation and lies, but even when they have, their objective analysis has remained largely unknown to the public.

    So sure, let deniers have their say, but don’t simultaneously mute or deliberately overlook the facts revealed by real climate scientists. Anything less provides Unfair bias rather than a fair and balanced representation of the facts!

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    I understand what you’re saying, Peter, and I don’t disagree with it.


  • DR. CLARISSA PINKOLA ESTÉS, Managing Editor of TMV, and Columnist

    Hi there, Dr. E here. Comments have been removed that do not comply with our clearly stated Commenters Rules which if you have not read them, are at the top of the home page. READ THEM; they are our Rules for civility here. There will be no attacking other writers or commenters. Stay to the topic of the post only and all is well and will be well. Hijackng any thread to hurl insults is not the purpose of our comments section that we keep here at TMV as a courtesy– and we ALL who are paid the royal sum of zero $ to write and moderate here, still pay the bills for hosting from personal finances to keep this space for thoughtful comments. We are in the midst of a gigantic upgrade also as you can see, and appreciate everyone’s cooperation.


    Dr. E

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