I"ve picked on factcheck.org before, because I find it very disturbing that they have assumed the role of ultimate arbiter of truth in political advertising and policy claims, despite being extremely amateurish and easily played by powerful interests. Another good example today:
An e-mail from factcheck.org challenges an ad related to the digital television transition. The underlying topic is is arcane, but stick with me. I happen to know a little about this, going back to the mid-1990s, when I followed it in the Telecom Act of 1996. In a nutshell, Congress long ago decided that we should shift television broadcasting to a new digital format, on a new section of the broadcast spectrum. Existing broadcasters will get new frequencies for free, which will allow them to develop many new ways to make money, but in return, they are expected to give up their old analog channels, which will eventually make that part of the spectrum available for other uses. Complicated as it is, the basic political dynamic here has long been that the broadcasters, by consensus one of if not the most powerful lobby groups in Washington, want the new digital frequencies, but also want to hold onto their old frequencies.
The ad in question focused on one of the new uses for the old analog TV spectrum: The newly available frequencies could be used by police and fire departments that currently don't have enough frequencies for their radios, or for new systems they want to develop. (There's something about the existing analog TV frequencies that makes them "good spectrum," and thus very useful for these purposes, but that's beyond my expertise.) In the fight against the broadcasters, these "first responders" make an appealing, succinct case for a rapid transition. The ad in question was sponsored by the "High-Tech DTV Coalition" and urges viewers to contact a group called "Support America's First Responders," which apparently is supported by Motorola. Factcheck asserts that the ad might have been paid for by Motorola, which would potentially benefit from the rapid transition by selling new equipment to police and fire departments.
The "first responders" are not quite central to the decade-long fight over digital broadcasting, and so the ad's attempt to compress the issue into something understandable might be considered a little manipulative. And if Motorola paid for the ad, sure, that should be disclosed. But factcheck.org makes only one factual point about the ad: they complain that the ad says that the digital transition "is a 'win-win,' implying that there are no losers." Jeez, "win-win" is one of the half-dozen most overused expressions in business and politics in this country today, and I wish everyone took it so literally -- that would really be a "win-win"! But the ad didn't say there are no losers. It made the perfectly accurate point that consumers are winners if they get the benefits of digital TV, and police and fire departments, among others, would be winners if they got access to new broadcast frequencies.
Factcheck says this about the losers: Consumers "would be forced either to junk their [TV] set and buy a new digital set, or to obtain a new converter that manufacturers estimate will cost about $50...Also not mentioned is that taxpayers will be asked to contribute up to $3 billion to subsidize the conversion. That money would come from the proceeds expected from auctioning off some of the airwaves now used by TV broadcasters."
But the subsidies, if they really reach $3 billion, would be intended to cover the cost of converters. So both these things can't be true. To the extent there are subsidies, consumers aren't losers. And it is only accurate to say that "taxpayers will be asked to contribute" to the subsidies if it would be reasonable to think that you could take back the analog frequencies, auction them off, and give all the proceeds to the Treasury. But you can't. If government takes back the analog frequencies, it could only be as part of a deal whereby the public (which owns the airwaves, by the way) gives the new frequencies to the broadcasters, in exchange for their old frequencies, which are then auctioned to pay for the transition that makes it possible for everyone to get TV on the new frequencies, and thus makes the change worthwhile to broadcasters. That's the "win-win" bargain. Without that deal, there's no auction, and thus no money for the "taxpayers." It's the rare case of government thinking ahead and trying to structure a good deal that works reasonably well for everyone. And the only obstacle to this sweet deal is that the broadcasters want it all. They want an even sweeter deal, where they get the new frequencies, but don't have to give up their old ones, which they also got for free, and which will have new money-making potential after the transition.
After that excursion, I have two simple questions for factcheck.org, which have to do with their methodology and not the arcana of spectrum policy:
1. This is the first e-mail I've received from factcheck.org in several weeks. Your web site shows that you haven't released any fact checks since October 28. In the two and a half weeks since then, there have been two state gubernatorial elections, a couple of dozen controversial state ballot initiatives, and lots of last minute ads on all of those. The president gave a speech in Pennsylvania making some very specific charges about Iraq war opponents "rewriting history." The congressional majority fell out over issues of tax cuts, oil drilling in ANWR, and spending cuts. The president withdrew a Supreme Court nominee and put forward a new one more amenable to the hard right. Print and broadcast ads were run on these issues and many others. On what basis did you conclude that this mildly misleading ad that stretched the term "win-win" was the only ad in this entire eventful period that deserved a "fact check"??
2. Did contacts from any of the well-funded lobbyists on the broadcasters' side influence your choice of this topic over the many others available in this period or the substance of your critique? Did you contact advocates on the other side of the issue, or neutral experts, to obtain any perspective on the underlying issue??
And finally, a question for me: "Why do you get so worked up about this?" Answer: It's because I believe there is a real potential for a neutral arbiter of factual claims in ads and speeches. Factcheck.org has occupied that space. There's only room for one. And it is infuriating that they allow themselves to be spun, played and manipulated by some of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington. They must do better, or else their reports should be considered not credible by the national media, and some other organization should take over their role.