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Fact Checking the Fact Checkers

The Convention season has unleashed an avalanche of half-truths and untruths. Some see this as politics as usual. Others claim we are living in a post-truth world. Stephen Colbert has long understood that our present condition has transformed truth into truthiness.

One response to our new practice of political lying is the rise of the fact finder. In general, I am all in favor of fact finders. When they labor in obscurity at, say, The New Yorker—or as I once did long ago at the Washingtonian Magazine—fact finders are supposed to check the facts referenced in an article and make sure that those factual nuggets are accurate: Does Mr. Green really live on 22 Wiley Street? Did he purchase a yellow car last year for $37,000? Is his house really worth $21 million? When I did this at the age of, I think, 18 before the Internet became what it is today, I spent my summer running over to the public records office and looking through the real-estate transactions of the rich and famous. We would not want to insult someone by saying he had paid less for his house than he really did.

Today, there is another kind of fact finding of increasing prominence: political fact checking. It is a different beast entirely. The most well-established of these is Politifact, which has the “Truth-o-Meter” that rates the truth or falsity of public claims on a spectrum that ranges from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” Other sites deliver similarly clever reports on the statements uttered by politicians during the course of the campaign. Part marketing and part well-intentioned policing of a discourse divorced from reality, these fact checkers are trying to bring sense and seriousness to political debate. What they are actually doing is making the problem worse.

The reason for this is that what is being checked today are less facts and more opinions. Take for example the recent anger over Mitt Romney’s advertisement and the continuing Republican claims that the Obama administration is trying to gut the 1996 Welfare Reform Law. Politifact and CNN and many other fact-check organizations labeled the ad a lie. Here is what Politifact said about it:

Romney’s ad says, “Under Obama’s plan (for welfare), you wouldn’t have to work and wouldn’t have to train for a job. They just send you your welfare check.”

That’s a drastic distortion of the planned changes to Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. By granting waivers to states, the Obama administration is seeking to make welfare-to-work efforts more successful, not end them. What’s more, the waivers would apply to individually evaluated pilot programs — HHS is not proposing a blanket, national change to welfare law.

The ad tries to connect the dots to reach this zinger: “They just send you your welfare check.” The HHS memo in no way advocates that practice. In fact, it says the new policy is “designed to improve employment outcomes for needy families.”

The ad’s claim is not accurate, and it inflames old resentments about able-bodied adults sitting around collecting public assistance. Pants on Fire!

On the other hand, here’s what The Daily Caller’s Mickey Kraus had to say after he fact checked a CNN fact check that had come to the same conclusion about Romney’s welfare ad as Politifact had:

The oft-cited CNN-”fact check” of Romney’s welfare ad makes a big deal of HHS secretary Sebelius’ pledge that she will only grant waivers to states that “commit that their proposals will move at least 20% more people from welfare to work.” CNN swallows this 20% Rule whole in the course of declaring Romney’s objection “wrong”:

The waivers gave “those states some flexibility in how they manage their welfare roles as long as it produced 20% increases in the number of people getting work.” Why, it looks as if Obama wants to make the work provisions tougher! Fact-check.org cites the same 20% rule.

I was initially skeptical of Sebelius’ 20% pledge, since a) it measures the 20% against “the state’s past performance,” not what the state’s performance would be if it actually tried to comply with the welfare law’s requirements as written, and b) Sebelius pulled it out of thin air only after it became clear that the new waiver rule could be a political problem for the president. She could just as easily drop it in the future; and c) Sebelius made it clear the states don’t have to actually achieve the 20% goal–only “demonstrate clear progress toward” it.

But Robert Rector, a welfare reform zealot who nevertheless does know what he’s talking about, has now published a longer analysis of the 20% rule. Turns out it’s not as big a scam as I’d thought it was. It’s a much bigger scam. For one thing, anything states do to increase the number of people on welfare will automatically increase the “exit” rate–what the 20% rule measures–since the more people going on welfare, the more people leave welfare for jobs in the natural course of things, without the state’s welfare bureaucrats doing anything at all.  Raise caseloads by 20% and Sebelius’ standard will probably be met. (Maybe raise caseloads 30% just to be sure.) So what looks like a tough get-to-work incentive is actually a paleoliberal “first-get-on-welfare” incentive. But the point of welfare reform isn’t to get more people onto welfare .

How is it that Kraus and Politifact could have fact checked the same statement (with Kraus even claiming that he was fact checking the fact check) and yet have come to different conclusions? Why is that all the fact checking that is going on today is not leading to a more truthful debate? Why is it that Republican campaign operatives say they will not be governed by fact checkers? Shouldn’t fact checkers be helping to keep political discourse grounded in truth? Actually, not.

The basic confusion here is that between a fact and an opinion. As Hannah Arendt argues in her prescient essay “Truth and Politics,” facts and opinions play very different and equally important roles in politics. Facts are essential insofar as they provide the ground and the sky on which and under which we live. It is crucial to have and accept common facts, for without agreed upon facts we cannot share a world with others. If I know that the President was born in Hawaii and you know he was born in Kenya (or doubt at least he was born in Hawaii) then we simply don’t trust each other. We can’t talk to one another. We don’t share the same world. And we cannot politically live together in good faith as we try to actualize the common good.

Because facts of these kinds are so important, the rise to mainstream prominence of conspiracy theories that question the President’s citizenship or insist that President Bush and his administration faked 9/11 are deeply destructive of our political world. Such destructive facts are always present in politics, and yet it is also the case that at certain periods they gain more credence and credibility than at other times. Now is clearly one of those times.

There are many reasons for the splitting of the common-sense world, but one at least is the speed and ruthlessness of change in our modern world. As people are dislocated, uprooted, and unsettled, they naturally seek certainty in what is increasingly an uncertain world. Arendt labeled this phenomenon homelessness and rootlessness.

In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt explores how the spiritual and material rootlessness of the 20th century have made people today uniquely susceptible to grand narratives provide clear and simple explanations for complicated and often upsetting events. That Jews were the root of Germany’s problems or that collective ownership in the Soviet Union could usher in a utopia were stories contradicted by myriad facts. One core element of totalitarian times is that people prefer the security of a coherent narrative to the uncertainty of reality. People latch on to ideologies because they provide meaning and security. What Arendt saw is that the uncertainties of the modern era have made people so needy for such ideologies that they will sacrifice truth to fiction.

There is no doubt that the Internet eases the dissemination and also the force of conspiracies, as people can click through hundreds of links and never leave what is in essence an echo chamber of ideological purity. When people fall into such rabbit holes, they are enveloped by a world that seems real and is difficult to penetrate from the outside.

For that reason it is important to starkly and loudly confront ideological fictions. President Obama was right to launch his “Fight the Smears” website in 2008 to contest and disprove the smears about his religion and citizenship. Many of the fact-checking sites that now exist emerged out of a similar initiative, and in this sense they are deeply important.

But these sites today have gone beyond their original mission of checking facts.  It is a fact that welfare reform was passed. It is a fact that the President’s administration offered waivers to states to change how the reforms are implemented. As far as I know it is a fact that Republican governors requested those waivers. Whether these waivers go against the spirit of the reforms and whether they are wise, however, those are matters of opinion. No amount of fact-checking can tell you whether what the President did “guts” welfare reform or strengthens it. These are opinions about which reasonable people can and do differ.

While facts are essential to provide us with a common world that we share and in which we can advocate for our particular opinions, opinions are the life-blood of politics. Politics is the activity of people who, while sharing a factual world, come together to talk and act in public. Since people are different, their opinions will differ and they will seek to persuade each other that one way of handling welfare is better than another. That is the beauty of politics, the incessant talking and debating and compromising and leading through which common decisions are made.

That we today seek to transform opinions into facts is, at least in part, a result of our desire for clear answers. We live in a time when we have little patience for meaningful public engagement. We want government to work, which means we want it to keep the roads safe and the borders sound. We want our water to be clean and our food to be safe. And we want children to be fed and the sick to be healed. We don’t much care how this is done so long as we can live comfortably and securely and go on with what is really important, namely our private lives. In essence, what we dream of today is a technocratic government that gives us much and demands from us very little.

If government is to work like a well-oiled machine, we need to input the correct facts. This leads us to insist that there are indeed such correct facts, even when we are confronted over and over again with evidence to the contrary. If there is a totalitarian element of modern politics, it is the technocratic insistence that if we simply all agreed on the facts and analyzed them correctly, our problems would be solved. It is no accident that both Mitt Romney and President Obama are technocratic pragmatists. Romney may have more interest in the power of data, but the President has an equally profound faith in the power of experts. Both appeal to the technocratic demand of an electorate desperate for clarity, certainty, and coherence in at a moment of profound upheaval.

As important as facts are, it is just as important to remain clear about the border between fact and opinion. Instead of gimmicky truth-o-meters, which give the illusion that political questions have easy answers, we need to encourage people with different opinions to discuss them in good faith. But the plague of fact checking what are in fact opinions has the opposite effect, since it proceeds on the assumption that opinions are true or false and that one who differs from you is a liar. The effect of fact checking in 2012 is to further polarize discourse and make political discussion almost impossible.

Instead of naming opinions lies, we are better served by good investigative reporting and opinion journalism that makes sound arguments and clarifies the stakes. A well-reasoned article that seeks to argue pro or contra can offer a depth of opinion and insight that far surpasses the gotcha journalism of fact checking. What is needed is not a demand for simple factual reporting, but a willingness to read and talk with people with whom one disagrees.

The problem today is that when confronted with opinions we don’t like, we demand not arguments and other opinions but facts and objectivity.  Ironically, it is the very demand for facts and objectivity in politics that leads to ideological organs like Fox News and CNBC. Because people insist on technocratic clarity in the mess that is politics, they now gravitate towards those news organization, blogs, websites, and communities that deliver them coherent narratives.

—RB (with assistance from Josh Kopin)

Posted on 11 September 2012 | 12:20 pm

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