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August 07, 2012 11:22 AM The Truth About Fact-Checking

By Ed Kilgore

As you probably know, Harry Reid has been taunting Mitt Romney for refusing to release his tax returns, claiming he has a reliable source who’s informed him Mitt hadn’t been paying taxes at all for a decade. Republicans and quite a few MSM types (most vociferously WaPo’s Richard Cohen) have freaked out about Reid’s “McCarthyism,” and were rewarded with that national political equivalent of a high school debate tournament trophy: a favorable PolitiFact ruling!

Yes, one of the handful of “fact-checking services” that gets national attention, the Tampa Bay Times’ PoltiFact gave Reid a “pants-on-fire” judgement for his claims about Romney’s tax liabilities. As Scott Lemieux quickly noted at Lawyers, Guns & Money, PolitiFact seems to be struggling with the definition of the word “lie:”

This does not, in fact, constitute a “lie.” If it is, then Romney has told “pants on fire” lies about what he’s paid in taxes as well. And PolitiFact is double-pants-on-fire-with-an-additional-Pinocchio lying, since they haven’t provided the slightest evidence that Reid wasn’t told by someone that Romney hasn’t paid taxes. As always, PolitiFact simply doesn’t understand what facts and lies are, which is kind of a problem when you purport to be a fact-checker.
If you want to say that Reid is engaging in dishonorable tactics, you can. For the reasons SEK and Jonathan Zasloff have stated, I don’t agree — Reid didn’t breach any actually existing standard of civility in American politics, and highlighting the embarrassing information that must be hidden in Romney’s past returns if Romney refuses to follow the existing norms and release them is Politics 101. A specific charge that can be refuted by releasing information that every other presidential candidate has released for decades isn’t McCarthyism. But all this is a matter of judgement; if PolitiFact wants to refuse to award Reid the David Broder Award for Adhering to Standards of Civility That Have Never Existed that’s fine. But it can’t call Reid a liar without providing some evidence that he’s actually lied.

Snark aside, Scott is exactly right: however you look at Reid’s tactics (and I’m not a big fan of this “secret-source” stuff myself), the central assertion isn’t a “lie” unless (a) Reid actually does not have any source for his assertions, and is just making it up, or (b) Romney did in fact pay taxes, which he’s asserted himself but refuses to document.

This is of a piece with PolitiFact’s notorious assignment of a “Lie of the Year” designation for the Democratic claim that a vote for the Ryan Budget was a vote to “end Medicare.” Aside from the fact that most Democrats qualified that attack line (“ending Medicare as we know it” is Obama’s typical description of the Ryan Budget proposal, which is entirely accurate), PolitiFact seems to think it’s a good idea to register its maximum disapproval or exaggerations and innuendoes by calling them “lies.” And that’s what seems to be going on with the Reid “ruling,” aside from the false equivalency temptation to which virtually all media “fact-checkers” are exceptionally prone.

And that, in my opinion, is a bigger problem than any one ruling. “Fact-checking” has emerged as a major part of American politics because of the polarization of “news” sources and (in my opinion) the self-liberating decision of conservative media to create their own “facts.” But when the fact-checkers start playing fast and loose with terms like “lie” and “pants-on-fire lie” and the various highly subjective “Pinnochio” ratings, fact-checking itself undermines its credibility, perhaps fatally.

I’m reminded of an old story, perhaps apocryphal, about 1960s-era Mississippi Governor Ross Barnett, who followed the then-common southern practice of staffing his own office with very cheap prison-work-release labor—people known as “trusties.” One day he sent a “trusty” out to bring back some coffee, and he never returned. Quoth Barnett: “If you can’t trust a trusty, who can you trust?” That’s where we are today with fact-checkers, and it’s a damn shame.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Tom on August 07, 2012 11:39 AM:

    I think they are referred to as "trustees".

  • Dave on August 07, 2012 11:42 AM:

    Time to rebrand politifact with a more accurate name. Politifarce might work.

  • rea on August 07, 2012 11:43 AM:

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

  • Theophylact on August 07, 2012 11:46 AM:

    It's still not a lie, whether or not Romney paid taxes, if Reid has a source he believes in who told him Roney paid no taxes.

  • T2 on August 07, 2012 11:51 AM:

    This Reid thing is interesting...first there's the Mormon against Mormon thing. Then there is the "Reid is a liar" fact chex part of it. PoltiFact has become an embarrassing excuse machine for the Romney/GOP lie machine....it's like a FOX News in print form.
    Reid didn't lie, maybe somebody lied to him, but repeating something like he did is a common tactic used by dozens of GOP operatives over the years. A smear - yeah, maybe. A lie? No. Clever politics, yep. But the esteemed Kevin Drum has harshly condemmed Reid for either making something up (which would be a lie if Romney has paid taxes) or repeating a lie told to him, or, perhaps, actually reporting the truth.
    Funny how that angle has been swept aside...the truth?
    In the end, Mitt Romney is probably hiding something in his taxes. Maybe he did pay taxes in the years Reid noted....but maybe they were very little. Or maybe it's Romney who is the liar.....and there's plenty of reason to suspect that.

  • Old Uncle Dave on August 07, 2012 11:53 AM:

    Perhaps Reid should have used the Fox news expression: "Some people are saying..."

  • Josef K on August 07, 2012 12:08 PM:

    For obvious reasons, there are some terms we're going to have to become better familiar with:

    1. "Down the memory hole."

    2. "The Commissar Vanishes."

    3. "We have always been at war..."

    This absurd manipulation of history and language may prove unsustainable in the long-run; information flows too freely now, and too many of the coming generation are too savy to be denied for long. On the other hand, it may prove easier than we could possible credit, given how large a sliver of the population think Glenn Beck is speaking the wisdom of Soloman.

    I'm seriously thinking of emigrating to Mars.

  • John B. on August 07, 2012 12:23 PM:

    Politifact is a self-evident joke. No one pays attention to it anymore. It committed suicide by incompetence and Rachel Maddow buried it. Since then, she's been regularly kicking sand over its rotting corpse.

  • Diane Rodriguez on August 07, 2012 12:38 PM:

    I think Kilgore exposes the real problem with Reid's statement when he indicates that he isn't a fan of "secret source stuff". The furor would have been much less if Reid had just made the statement outright without the secret source part. As we know that works awfully well for the GOP and draws little criticism. I love Reid and his unwillingness to back down with that great benevolent quiet smile while Priebus rages like a peewee leaguer who was called on the 3rd strike.

    Few journalists practice any kind of integrity or source checking. Reid is merely reporting what he was told just like 90% of the media. The "debate" among the media is laughable.

  • T2 on August 07, 2012 12:42 PM:

    @diane..."Few journalists practice any kind of integrity or source checking." Diane, you could have stopped after the word integrity. If "journalists" in the Media had any integrity left, the Romney campaign would have ground to a halt months ago.

  • drew42 on August 07, 2012 12:49 PM:

    Perhaps apocryphal? Pants-on-Fire!!

  • boatboy_srq on August 07, 2012 12:57 PM:

    TBT and PolitiFact are St. Petersburg Times components. The St. Pete Times is "liberal" only in comparison to the Tampa Tribune, which compares unfavorably with the NY Post and Washington Times for slant and accuracy.

    The MSM, as a whole, is latching onto the wrong part of this story. Reid's assertions aren't the point. What is important here is that Romney, after haranguing opponents for years (decades?) about making their financial reporting public, is suddenly refusing to do the same now that it's his turn. The more Reid makes statements like he has without the Romney campaign refuting them with concrete evidence, and the more Romney tries to make this less about the opacity of his finances and more about Reid's "lying," the more Romney looks like he's actually hiding something.

    I've said (elsewhere) that the problem with Romney's tax returns may have less to do with the tax rate he reports paying than the very real possibility that the returns would reveal tax evasion or false statements of either earnings or taxes paid to the IRS. If such were the case, then the embarrassment of paying the IRS next to nothing would pale in comparison to the audit and subsequent prosecution that would result. Romney can afford the derision of being a secretive wealthy entitled b#####d far better than he can the condemnation for being a scofflaw.

  • Rick B on August 07, 2012 1:16 PM:

    A quick review of the history of right wing war on the truth:

    1. Conservatives build alternate news media based on lies and propaganda. FOX is only the biggest and most visible.

    2. Conservatives have created their own alternative education system. See Oral Roberts "University", Regent "Law" school, private "religious" academies, etc.

    3. Conservatives intimidated real news organizations out of exposing the truth and calling lies what they are - Lies.

    4. Searchers for the truth searched for replacements for the real news organizations and began creating fact-checkers.

    5. Conservatives have infiltrated and destroyed the fact-checkers.

    6. Republicans are running a candidate for President (Romney) who never in recent history has been known to tell either the truth or even consistent lies. They back him with massive amounts of money for propaganda and further lies.

  • c u n d gulag on August 07, 2012 1:43 PM:

    I love how many of the same Republicans screaming about Reid saying someone told him that Mitt didn't pay any taxes for ten years, are the same ones who either accused Obama of being born somewhere else, or said they had to take the President's word that he was born in Hawaii, since they hadn't seen his birth certificate - which was on his website since before the election of 2008.

    It's too bad Republicans suffer from a severe "Irony Deficiency," or they would laugh and laugh and laugh at themselves.

    @$$HOLES!!!

  • Fess on August 07, 2012 1:53 PM:

    At one time PolitiFact was on my menu bar. Then there was the Ryan-budget-kills-Medicare fiasco. PolitiFact fell off my menu bar right into the trash can. Sometimes an action kills all future credibility. This is not an error or a difference of opinion, it's pure partisan propaganda. I'll give it a pass.

    Meanwhile, go Reid! The longer Romney digs in his heels, the more taint applies.

  • Andy Olsen on August 07, 2012 1:58 PM:

    WaPo "fact checker" Glenn Kessler really does not have a leg to stand on here. He frequently uses unnamed sources in his columns, including for some outrageous claims, including his claim that Bain Capital's SEC filings showing Mitt was involved there when he claimed otherwise, did not need to accurately reflect facts.

    "We consulted with securities law experts, with many years of experience with these forms. One expert examined this document at our request. He suspected that someone had simply duplicated a filing that had been made many times before, though he acknowledged, “it looks inartful in retrospect.” He pointed out that the titles are basically meaningless, that someone can be listed as a chief executive and actually have no responsibilities whatsoever. "

    Why not name these "securities law experts," Mr Kessler?

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/post/do-bain-sec-documents-suggest-mitt-romney-is-a-criminal/2012/07/12/gJQAlyPpgW_blog.html

  • The DeMBA on August 07, 2012 2:23 PM:

    Harry Reid claims that someone told him that Romney paid no taxes for 10 years; the claim is unveriable but there is nothing in the public record to contract either what someone told him or whether Romney paid taxes for those years.

    Right above that "Pants On Fire" rating is a softer "False" is Romney's claim that the Obama campaign's Ohio lawsuit seeking to keep the advance voting window open for all voters is about reducing military voting priviledges.

    Romney's (and other Republicans) repeated statements are verifiably, demonstrably, completely, false. Given that these statements are so undeniably false, I'm not clear on why Romney's statements are rated so much less harshly than Reids. Even if you take the most uncharitable interpretation of Reids statements - that he just made up the source - Reid's statements are no more false than Romney's, and the underlying facts about Romney's tax rates may still be true.

    There's simply no justification for why one Reids statements are rated more harshly than Romney's; my guess is that Politifact is simply doing their version of bi-partisan balance; rating statements of Democrats more harshly than Republicans so they can have the appearance of even-handedness in an uneven world.

  • TCinLA on August 07, 2012 2:41 PM:

    If you want to tell otherwise-unemployable Bill Adair, the "creator" of Politi"fact" what you think of his work at the neighborhood-advertiser-formerly-known-as The Tampa Bay Times, here's his e-mail address:

    adair@politifact.com

  • Eric F on August 07, 2012 5:39 PM:

    Don't forget... Politifact chose the meme that the Ryan Plan ends Medicare as the 2011 Lie of the Year. Of course, if you had been paying attention to the debate, the actual claim being made by opponents of the plan was that it ended Medicare *as we know it*. Which is inarguably true in that it replaces a guaranteed benefit with a voucher indexed to CPI, rather than the cost of healthcare. Since the cost of healthcare rises much faster than inflation, the voucher becomes more worthless each year. That is NOT Medicare anymore, even if they retain the name. That was when Politifact cemented its rightful place in the trash heap.