Fact-Checking and the Right-Wing’s Assault on American Democracy


    Thanks to Lowell Feld’s highlighting of the PolitiFact Fiasco, I went a-reading, and then was moved to start a-writing. Thus:


    The fact-checking organization, PolitiFact, has chosen as its “Lie of the Year” a statement that is essentially true: “the Democrats’ claim that the Paul Ryan proposal approved by House Republican would ‘end Medicare.'” (The fact is that it would change what has long been a kind of guarantee into a voucher whose ability to cover the actual costs would steadily decline each year,)

    That regrettable development in the “fact-checking” industry has provided the occasion for Alec MacGillis to write an article today in THE NEW REPUBLIC about the meaning of the rise of this kind of organization.  Here’s one passage from his article:

    “The truth of the matter is, fact-checkers wouldn’t be needed if all of us journalists were more able, willing and empowered to do our jobs: to vet and explain political claims as they were being made. But the media lives in such abject terror of the perception of bias that it has, in a sense, decided to outsource a big part of its job: telling readers what the real deal is. This has resulted in a strange sort of division of labor, bordering on ghettoization — all of these reporters over here will record what’s being said by politicians, while this one guy, or one organization, over here with the fact-checker cap on will tell you whether it’s true.”

    MacGillis also quotes from an editorial from last year in the Columbia Journalism Review:


    “Still, while PolitiFact and its Truth-O-Meter produce eye-catching accountability journalism, in some ways it’s also a symptom of how journalism has lost its way. The work it specializes in ought to be the task of every reporter on every beat. It shouldn’t be confined to a special team.

         “Too many reporters hack their way past policy debates by simply quoting political actors on each side, without making an effort to track down the facts, examine the logic, and flesh out the context. A twisted idea of fairness, combined with simple laziness, ends up obscuring issues, making them boring and complicated rather than big and vital.”


    Here is one piece, among many, of the answer to the question: How has the right-wing pulled off its coup, increasingly crippling our democracy and creating an America in which the lie and defeat the truth.

    Where do you suppose that “abject terror of the perception of bias” came from?  Of course, it came from the right-wing’s continual litany about “liberal bias,” even as the airwaves became increasingly dominated by right-wing points of view, even as even “responsible” journalism move away from talking to labor leaders, environmentalists, and average citizens to talk more and more to corporate spokesmen and those whom corporate money has promoted to positions of artificial prominence.

    (I worked in foreign policy circles in Washington while this process was gathering momentum, and I saw how Big Money was creating the “experts” that served its interests.)

    And that “twisted idea of fairness” phrase from the CJR calls attention to the same force:  where do you suppose the force to do that twisting –to take the journalistic principle of “find out what’s true” and turn it into the foolish “balance” that treats the truth and the lie evenhandedly– came from?

    Come to think of it, both MacGillis and the Columbia Journalism Review seem here to be tiptoeing around the real facts here. They leave out the crucial one-sidedness of this terror and this twist.  

    From MacGillis, one might get the impression that journalists are afraid of both sides.  Who could believe that?  

    From the CJR, one might get the impression that today’s reporters are failing to call out falsehoods –leaving that to the “fact-checking” outfits– because of a concern for fairness. Who can believe that?

    The right wing has intimidated our news media into giving its lies a pass.

    As for that unfortunate case of the supposed “Lie of the Year,” it is unsurprisingly Paul Krugman who, after declaring “This is really awful,” provides what is quite likely an accurate interpretation of PolitiFact’s “mistake”:

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


    Andy Schmookler is running for Congress in the 6th Congressional District of Virginia, challenging the incumbent Congressman, Bob Goodlatte.  An award-winning author, political commentator, radio talk-show host, and teacher, Andy moved with his family to Shenandoah County in 1992.  He is a graduate of Harvard University and holds a PhD from the University of California at Berkeley.  


    To learn more about Andy, please go to his website. You may also follow Andy on Facebook and on Twitter.  


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