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Factcheck.org strikes out

I'm not ready to take sides in the controversy about NARAL's ad attacking Judge Roberts for an amicus brief he filed arguing that federal law could not be used against abortion protesters. Is the ad somewhat misleading or not at all? Is it a politically appropriate message or unduly inflammatory?

I have no idea. But one thing is certain from this controversy:

Factcheck.org operates at a level of amateurishness that is totally inappropriate for the position of final arbiter of truth that it has claimed for itself.

Factcheck.org's unqualified assertion that "the ad is false" seems to be the main thing that gave this story legs yesterday. Yet NARAL's rebuttal is solid, at least as to the literal question of the truth or falsehood of the ad. And why factcheck.org would include in its report such dubious statements of opinion as that Operation Rescue's harassment "in some ways mirrored the non-violent tactics used earlier by civil-rights activists" is beyond comprehension. If you want to be the absolute last word on the factual accuracy of ads, you have to extract the actual statements of fact that you are checking and leave the rest aside.

(Mark Kleiman's post on this is very good.)

This is hardly an isolated incident. Factcheck.org was particularly weak during the Social Security debate, as Josh Marshall noted on several occasions. In one instance, they deemed false a claim that privatization would yield big fee income for Wall Street, asserting that Bush's proposal was just like the federal employees' Thrift Savings Plan, which doesn't cost much to administer. That was wrong, of course, because the administration had said that it's plan would be different from the TSP and was never specific about it anyway. Yet in another case, they deemed as false specific statements about the cuts in benefits that would ensue from the Bush plan by arguing that Bush had not yet proposed a specific plan. Either he had proposed a plan or he hadn't. (In fact the one thing that Bush had been fairly specific about was the cuts in guaranteed benefits that would flow from his shift to partial price indexing.)

Factcheck.org also attacked a People for the American Way ad during the nuclear option debate. Factcheck opined that it was "ironic" that the NAACP and other groups were opposing the nuclear option, given that it was the filibuster that had long postponed civil rights legislation. It may have been ironic, but that has nothing to do with the truth of the ad's assertion that the filbuster was an important check on the consequences of lifetime appointments of extremist judges. (What was more ironic was that this charge was an exact replay of a Republican talking point.)

Is factcheck.org politically biased? I don't know, but my guess would be that it's not. The problem is that they get played, and I think the GOP has been more aggressive about playing them. If you set yourself up as the last word on the truth or falsehood of ads, you will immediately be the addresse of a lot of spin. Factcheck obviously wants to respond quickly, and they want to respond with clear assertions of truth or falsehood, unlike many of the newspaper "ad watch" projects which are so mealy-mouthed that a reader winds up more confused after reading it than before. But trying to fulfill those two goals, its far too easy to read the first spin that comes in on the fax, conclude that it sounds persuasive, and run with it.

Newspapers make errors, blogs make errors, political ads stretch the truth and make errors. But to have the credibility to be the ultimate arbiter of truth in political discourse, factcheck.org has to be impeccable. They have to limit their assertions to things that can be said with certainty and they need to at the very least correct their errors immediately. Factcheck.org has forfeited the opportunity to play that role.

And that, I should admit, is nothing more than my opinion.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on August 11, 2005 | Permalink


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I agree. Factcheck.org drives me crazy....the last thing any of us needs...

Posted by: matt b | Aug 11, 2005 9:20:11 PM

Not knowing much about how this kind of stuff works, I'm curious how pressure gets to media outlets like Factcheck.org. What kind of groups send the faxes? And what goes into writing something that will actually affect Factcheck.org's view?

Posted by: Neil the Ethical Werewolf | Aug 12, 2005 3:07:33 AM

The damage is spreading: E. J. Dionne cites FactCheck today "-- not a haven for the right-wing conspiracy --" and the lead Post editorial runs with his view that NARAL smeared Roberts.

Posted by: Thomas Nephew | Aug 12, 2005 12:06:46 PM

On Thursday night John Stewart also criticized the ad severely; he didn't cite a source or sources but made much of the seven-year gap. NARAL has now withdrawn the ad; but as an influenceable voter, I must say that I tend to be UNpersuaded by so much vitriol, so it's probably a good plan to stop running that particular ad.


Posted by: | Aug 12, 2005 12:46:53 PM

I heard Karl Rove controls FactCheck with his secret weather machine... that also doubles as a vote stealer.

Posted by: Joel | Aug 12, 2005 2:15:40 PM

The ad in question does "imply" that he directly supported the bombers, although it does not specifically state it, in my opinion. Technically, it was not a false ad. But in the spirit of campaign ads that have been going on for quite a while now, it mimics the pattern of association = support.
So technically, you're right and factcheck is wrong. But in spirit, the ad was misleading. Of course, factcheck is still wrong in some of their statements.
I don't think that factcheck loses its veracity in other areas, however, as you seem to believe.

Posted by: Cole | Aug 12, 2005 6:34:01 PM

I think FactCheck exists simply to point out occasions where other groups present something as fact that is either not true, or not proven.

However, since FactCheck is non-partisan, they have no obligation to substitute some "truthhood" in its place. They are not doing anything intellectually fallacious by pointing out the flaws in someone else's argument.

Scott: "Did you know that 150 million people died in car accidents in the U.S. last year?"

Bob: "What? 50% of the population? That's not true."

Scott: "Just because you're skeptical doesn't mean it's not true. Since you didn't provide any facts of your own, and I did, we'll go ahead and assume that I am correct."

Posted by: Andy | Aug 13, 2005 10:57:15 AM

Andy -

Your point doesn't make sense when extended to a place called 'Factcheck'. If two people are walking down the street talking and one makes a specious claim the other can't go research it in the confines of the conversation. If some makes a public assertion it can be researched.

Your argument reminds me of the Onion head line where two people argue over the capital of Hungary with in arms reach of an Almanac.

Posted by: Zach | Aug 13, 2005 2:03:52 PM

factcheck.org has lost all credibility since november 04. How they conveniently witewashed Cheney on his 'differed payment' and stock-options from Halliburton in the run-up for the election, forgetting to point out the most interesting part of the story, definitively discredited their so-called 'neutrality'

Posted by: Dave | Aug 14, 2005 3:30:32 AM

For those who'd like to see exactly what I meant, see this

Posted by: Dave | Aug 14, 2005 3:39:18 AM

Factcheck.org has pretensions to non-partisanship, but these remain largely unfulfilled. The root problem is the source of its "primary" funding -- the [Walter] Annenberg Foundation, whose trustees still are dominated by the right-wing Annenberg family. An 18 1/2 minute gap runs through their genes.

Another problem is the organization's own appetite for publicity, the sine qua non of fund-raising and professional standing. Factcheck.org can't attract extra-Foundation funding or retain its pretnesions to be properly placed in the U. of P. academic community if it doesn't stay in the news. So there is a natural tendency to hype themselves, build mountains out of molehills, and scrounge for face time on TV.

The largest problem of all is Kathleen Hall Jamieson. Despite her carefully cultivated image of "neutrality" she's just not very bright. If you can't do it, teach. If you can't teach, work for a foundation.

One also must question Jamieson's supervisory skills. She has only two listed "fact-checkers" on staff, both of whom are relatively inexperienced and both need closer supervision than Jamieson seems capable of giving them.

Professional journalists routinely cite Factcheck.org because they assume, without evidence, that it's as neutral as it claims. Which just goes to show that most journalists are clueless. Clueless about who Walter Annenberg was, what he did, how deep his DNA is embedded in the Annenberg Foundation, and how superficial the trade of journalism has become.

Posted by: larry | Aug 15, 2005 1:03:27 PM

Isn't it affiliated with the Annenberg family? I thought they were hardcore Republicans who used the media to punish their enemies and who were in bed with Nixon. Perhaps the family still has some level of control of the foundation and who runs what amongst the donees. http://slate.msn.com/?id=2071870

Posted by: Rob W | Aug 15, 2005 3:55:26 PM

I have followed FactCheck.org for some time, and I think that they are both
1.) amateurish
2.) reflective of a right-wing bias

A fact check of People for the American Way's pro filibuster ad, earlier this year was instructive on both points, but particularly on the amateurishness.

Repeatedly, they got the arithmetic of the Senate's filibuster rule wrong.

Here's a quote: "Under present Senate rules, 60 votes are required to end debate. That means ,as a practical matter, that 40 of the 100 senators can block any measure". If 60 can end debate, then 41 are required to block a measure. How difficult could it have been to get that right? And, how difficult would it have been to correct that mistake, after I e-mailed them about it repeatedly.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Aug 17, 2005 11:53:28 AM

Thanks for bringing this up again. The irony of calling themselves "factcheck" while engaging in some of the most egregious errors of he said-she said journalism has been a thorn in my side for a long time. On more than one occasion the right has used them, effectively, to wrongly declare an argument decided. And everyone laps it up.

The only question is, what can people do to discredit this 'service' and put it it out of commission? It's not like a newspaper that has some kind of accountability to readers and subscribers, or a university with an academic reputation and the confidence of a massive community of faculty and alumni to uphold. At the risk of sounding like a foundation basher (especially since I work for one) this is quite a disturbing example of the deadly combination of nonexistent oversight, claimed impartiality, and a pretense of academic rigor that can make foundations trading in information very, very dangerous.

Posted by: Alex | Aug 18, 2005 3:13:18 PM

This could be one of my favorite posts of 2005. These are exactly some of the concrete issues that can be addressed yielding tangible benefits for our country.

Posted by: Tomcraft | Nov 17, 2006 7:52:45 AM