Ten Miles Square


August 08, 2012 11:28 AM Everybody is Wrong, Continued

By Jonathan Bernstein

Last week, I declared a pox on both the houses of Harry Reid, for making reckless and irresponsible charges, and Mitt Romney, for violating the norm of releasing tax returns.

Now? Politfact, too. They gave Reid a “Pants on Fire” rating, despite the uncomfortable situation that they have no evidence at all about whether Reid is telling the truth when he claims that a “source” told him Romney hasn’t paid taxes.

Look, three things are true here. The first is that Harry Reid is misbehaving, and he should be called on it, and it should stain his reputation. Kevin Drum is absolutely correct on this when he tells liberals:

Take a deep breath, folks. This is contemptible stuff and it’s not just business as usual. We’ve spent too many years berating the tea partiers for getting on bandwagons like this to get sucked into it ourselves the first time it’s convenient. It’s time to quit cheering on Reid and get off this particular bus.

And that’s true even though Romney deserves what he gets because he hasn’t released his tax returns.

But none of that makes what Politifact has done any better.

Brendan Nyhan has been defending Politifact on twitter today, but I really disagree with him on this one. If they’re to be any use at all, fact checkers need, in my view, to take their mandate narrowly and literally: they need to check facts. Granted, the line between “fact” and “interpretation” can be slippery both in theory and in practice, but that’s all the more reason for these folks keep things as narrow as they can.

See, even in the best of all possible versions, it’s not at all clear that the fact checkers can really do much (see, in addition to Nyhan generally, the case my brother has been making). But every time they leave themselves open to obvious partisan rejoinders, they risk whatever nonpartisan authority they do have.

Reid may be simply flat-out making stuff up, or he may “only” be behaving irresponsibly by being deliberately naive about what someone tells him, and at any rate what he’s doing is not how people should conduct politics. But Politifact doesn’t really know how to sort that out, and it’s not their job to judge political ethics. It’s even worse than that, perhaps: by dredging through the accusation, odds are they’re just rewarding Reid by putting  the spotlight on speculation about what Mitt Romney may be hiding. I know it’s cheap and cheesy to end with it, but when it comes to Politifact and the others of their type, the real guiding idea really has to be: just the facts.

[Cross-posted at A plain blog about politics]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.


  • Sharon on August 09, 2012 9:15 AM:

    OR, maybe the 'source' is someone who is of the same faith as Mr. Romney and Mr. Reid is an investor and member of the same church. Just maybe this 'source' had a clarity of conscience and wants to confess what he knows and has known for a long time he called Mr. Reid. How about giving this accusation some truth until proven wrong?

  • castanea on August 09, 2012 11:13 AM:

    Harry Reid is "misbehaving" and should be "called on it"?

    One of the qualities I loathe in my fellow liberals is the tendency they have to scold people who don't need to be scolded.

    I also have little patience for bloggers who furrow their brows and clutch their pearls while commenting on the actions of politicians who actually are In The Game and who are the ones throwing, and taking, punches.

    The practice some liberals have of criticizing Reid when they have no idea about the veracity of the claims his source has made honestly makes me wonder if some on the left have been bitten by a mass hysteria bug.

  • joel hanes on August 09, 2012 11:21 AM:

    When it turns out that Romney did, in fact, pay no federal income tax for a decade, and that Reid is, in fact, faithfully reporting that someone had apprised him of this --
    what will you think then?

  • SadOldVet on August 09, 2012 12:56 PM:

    re joel hanes...

    Bernstein will then think what Ed 'DLC/DINO/Repuke-Lite' Kilgore will think. That it is better to have lost 'with dignity' than to win by playing not-nice with repuke liars. So what if a Mittens presidency (especially if the repukes retake the senate) will totally f*ck the working classes of ameriKa. Small price to pay for maintaining their "we are better than you" attitude.

    I pledge allegiance to the flags of the Corporate States of AmeriKa, one nation under the 1/10th of 1%ers, by the 1/10th of 1%ers, and for the 1/10th of 1%ers, with liberty and justice for all wealthy and corporate persons.

  • MichaelF on August 09, 2012 1:05 PM:

    I added this comment at Plain Blog:

    I disagree -- Reid has every right to accuse, especially given that he named a source, yeah, an anonymous source, but still a source. "Fact-checkers" can either grow up and become real journalists (I'm guessing they make as much money as journalists) or at the very least they can call on journalists to do the legwork, i.e., the JOURNALISM that can shed light on Reid's accusation, one way or the other.

    How? Well, start with a bit of research. Reid identified his source as a "Bain insider." How many "Bain insiders" will have a working or personal relationship with the Democratic Majority Leader of the US Senate? Look for public records or newspaper reports of meetings, ribbon cutting ceremonies, charity or other functions that might include prominent men and women of business, industry...and public service. Look for any public records that might be available regarding meetings between Reid and businessmen. Check campaign finance disclosures.

    One problem with trying to take a pox on both sides with this is that the "equivalence" (in quotes because I think it's a false equivalence) anyway, the equivalence from the wingnut crowd -- birtherism, Obama's-an-Islamo-Facist-Socialist, the ACA is government death panels, or, going back to 2004 the Swiftboating of John Kerry -- never got real scrutiny. Instead, alleged journalists hid behind a one-side-said-this, another-side-said-that fake journalism that's a huge disservice to the public...


    And to add to it, if/when a journalist was able to figure out Reid's source, they could be contacted and asked for an on-the-record statement. That could be reported. If the source declined to comment, that could be reported. If the source only would speak on deep background, that would be up to the journalist and their company's policy regarding how deep background is handled.

    If exhaustive research failed to come up with a plausible source for Reid, that could also be reported.

    Geez, makes you wonder how or even if Watergate would get reported in this day and age.

  • Objective Dem on August 09, 2012 3:01 PM:


    The problem is you want reporters to work rather than pontificating.

    Likewise they could report on the different ways that the rich avoid taxes or on the UBS scandal. They could talk about Greece to put the problem of tax avoidance in context. etc. etc.

  • Texas Aggie on August 09, 2012 3:06 PM:

    What exactly was reckless and irresponsible about what Harry Reid said? He had what he considered a reliable source inform him that Romney had paid little or no taxes in these last few years. He would be very remiss if he DIDN'T share that with voters. If Reid wasn't very sure of his source, he would have been a fool to make the statement about something that could so easily be disproven. I think the whole screaming fest against Reid is the equivalent of going after a whistleblower.

  • MichaelF on August 09, 2012 3:27 PM:

    Objective Dem, you're right. How silly of me. Reporters work? That'd cut into their quality time at the Chevy Chase Club or rehearsals for White House Correspondent Dinner rap sketches with Karl Rove, or -- god forbid -- face time on a television talk show.

    Thanks for setting me straight on that. Wow, for a second there I thought the Fourth Estate came with significant responsibilites...

  • Doug on August 09, 2012 5:47 PM:

    Would someone please explain to me why it's perfectly allowable for journalists to write an expose, something along the lines of, say, Woodward/Berstein on Watergate while relying on an anonymous informant, but it's NOT allowable for a Senator to repeat what he was told by a source that, one presumes, he considers as reliable as the reporters considered theirs?
    I would really appreciate it if one of these pearl-clutchers would explain just exactly WHAT makes Senator Reid's actions "irresponsible", "below the belt" or, in Kevin Drum's words, "contemptible stuff"? Really, what?
    Because THEY find it hard to believe that Mitt Romney WOULDN'T pay as little income tax as he could, legally, get away with? That Romney, or someone very close to Romney, wouldn't brag to a potential Bain investor about how they too could pay little or no taxes on their investment, just like Romney?
    What I find most disturbing is the near-complete inability of these bloggers to realize the one important fact in this affair: IF Senator Reid ISN'T telling the truth, he WILL be punished for it by his fellow Democrats and, more importantly, the voters in Nevada.
    Somehow, I rather think he knows that...

  • sapient on August 09, 2012 9:35 PM:

    Harry Reid is, most likely, telling the truth. And it's also plausible that his source is telling the truth. That these pundits are insisting that political figures, when they make statements, have to present evidence that would stand up in a courtroom, but that journalists can quote anonymous sources to their hearts' content - that's what needs to be called out.

    As to the comments above taking journalists to task to do some actual journalism, yes. Wouldn't it be nice.

  • sapient on August 09, 2012 9:38 PM:

    Harry Reid is, most likely, telling the truth. And it's also plausible that his source is telling the truth. That these pundits are insisting that political figures, when they make statements, have to present evidence that would stand up in a courtroom, but that journalists can quote anonymous sources to their hearts' content - that's what needs to be called out.

    As to the comments above taking journalists to task to do some actual journalism, yes. Wouldn't it be nice.

  • Big River Bandido on August 10, 2012 8:32 AM:

    With punditry like this, no wonder Democrats get their asses handed to them on a plate all the time.