Thursday, October 09, 2008

Fake Fact Check

Two days ago, James Taranto in WSJ discussed the subjectivity of fact checking:
Like movie reviewing, the 'fact check' is a highly subjective process. If a politician makes a statement that is flatly false, it does not need to be 'fact checked.' The facts themselves are sufficient. 'Fact checks' end up dealing in murkier areas of context and emphasis, making it very easy for the journalist to make up standards as he goes along, applying them more rigorously to the candidate he disfavors (which usually means the Republican).
Today, the WSJ seems to follow up by pointing out that CNN and ABC fact checked the same McCain claim from the last debate and came to different conclusions.

I disagree with Taranto's claim that Republicans are the target of bias, because I think that Al Gore in 2000 and the Clintons in...well, pretty much whenever got bad press treatment, too. But I think the larger point, that fact-checking is itself subjective, is absolutely true.

Each individual judgment is subjective. These smaller judgments then coalesce to form an overall impression of the truthfulness of a campaign. That overall impression is a subjective call itself, as are all the data that inform the impression. It's a snowball of judgment calls. Ultimately, by making the call, are you doing anything other than expressing your basic political preference?

"McCain is a liar" got traction in the mainstream press, and that seems to have been the end of him. He's no longer serious, and so the deadly dull debate performances by Obama/Biden are solid wins. Obama and Biden are the adults running against the jokers.

I don't disagree with the result, because I would rather have a Democrat in the White House than a Republican. At the same time, I remember when the press was just as much aligned against a Democrat, Al Gore. It's distressing to see some voices of sanity from back in the Gore days join the insanity because it's a Republican in the cross hairs.


Leo said...

Ask George H.W. Bush about what's happening to McCain. That's a much closer analogy than Gore.

factory123 said...

Is the idea that, as the economy tanks, the incumbent/Republican gets more and more desperate and attacks on character issues, flagellating impotently until the Dem wins?

That reminds me, I learned something about the Bush 88 campaign today. Donna Brazile was fired from the Dukakis campaign for saying that GHWB should tell the truth about his relationship with Jennifer Fitzgerald. Interesting.

Leo said...

Well that, all that supermarket scanner stuff, and the age/charisma gap. There are obvious differences, but the overall pattern seems really similar to me.

At any rate, I think your epistemological doubt goes a bit far in this post. I would state pretty strongly that the overall liar narrative has much more basis when applied to McCain than to Gore. But it is certainly true that McCain has been the subject of some very Gore-esque treatment at various points, including in the debates.

The question I would ask you is: Do you think it's ever appropriate for the press to treat a candidate's claims with heightened skepticism?

factory123 said...

David Duke - I support being skeptical of anything David Duke claims. Aside from him, I'm skeptical.

It's a big leap from reporting on a claim to passing judgment on a candidate's truthfulness. The more analytical reporters become, the greater risk that what they're saying is based more on partisanship than anything else.

Campaign reporters and news organizations don't really stand at arm's length to their subjects. They embed themselves within campaign organizations and foster relationships with the actors. While that improves access to information, it ruins objective consideration.

To analogize, Eva Braun probably had valuable observations about Hitler's life and relationships, but I wouldn't trust her as a judge of his character.

Leo said...

Then why have a press at all? Why not just have self-publishing operations for each candidate's press releases?

factory123 said...

You have a press because you want people to be informed about the world. Campaigns are weird because they aren't really newsworthy. Little of what's reported adds information. Mostly, it's entertainment - watch the ads and parse the speeches and so on, but that's like cheering on a sports team.

The press should remove itself as much as possible from that.

Leo said...

"Little of what's reported adds information. Mostly, it's entertainment - watch the ads and parse the speeches and so on, but that's like cheering on a sports team."

I agree with all of this. The only time that the coverage is actually informs is when it breaks out of the horserace and compares the candidates claims with the real world. I.e., broadly speaking, fact checking.

Gore and Kerry sure could have used a bit more real fact-checking and a bit less coverage of clothes, sighs, and he-said/she-said.

factory123 said...

I agree with you about the coverage of clothes and sighing and such. That stuff is crap, and it really screwed up Gore.

Fact-checking, though, is a part of the same process. In 1999-2000, Al Gore was relentlessly fact-checked. Love Canal, Love Story, Internet, FEMA - from the primary on, the press decided "Gore is a liar" and subjected him to unfair scrutiny in the guise of fact-checking to support this story.

(The same thing happened, though to a lesser extent, to Kerry.)

So we're back at the beginning of the conversation.