Neil Macdonald: In defence of fact-checking, as the untruths grow

Republicans and Democrats alike may angrily assail fact-checkers fussing over every detail of their U.S. election campaigns, but Neil Macdonald says their work is journalism at its finest.

Glenn Beck had a big scoop last week. Even better, it was bogus, guaranteeing it would accelerate through cyberspace, propelled by the frenzied mass mouseclicking of the far-right demagogue’s millions of slavishly adoring followers.

Here, in part, is what appeared on Beck's website, The Blaze: "The host committee for the Democratic National Convention is raising a number of eyebrows after choosing to proceed with featuring Islamic "Jumah" prayers for two hours on the Friday before its convention, though Democrats denied a Catholic cardinal’s request to say a prayer at the same event."

Even if this were true, I’m not sure I'd be terribly shocked. It strikes me that in this nation, which is supposed to separate church and state, there’s an awful lot of ostentatious Christian praying at various political venues, including both houses of Congress.

But Beck’s newsflash was pure hooey, designed to rile up nativists and fundamentalist Christians and Muslim-haters in general, and it probably worked. (One anonymous commenter on Beck’s site described Muslims as "slime," and said he tries to slip bacon into their carts at the grocery store).

Still, the Beck claim acquired enough traction that, one of the best debunkers in the business, got involved.

It investigated the story and concluded that not only was no such event being held as part of the DNC, but Roman Catholic Cardinal Timothy Dolan was indeed leading the convention’s closing prayer, just as he led the closing prayer at the Republican convention last week in Tampa.

So far, there’s been no retraction or correction from Beck, who, to the relief of my profession, insists he is not a journalist.

Rather, as he once said on national TV, "I am a commentator. I commentate on life." 

Getting annoyed

The Republican Party hasn't issued any sort of denunciation of his nonsensical claim, or at least any that I can find.

The GOP is, though, getting pretty annoyed about all this damned fact-checking.

Republican vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Aug. 29, 2012. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)

The Republican anger arises from the derision heaped upon the convention speech last week of the party’s new big star, vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan., a creation of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, said "Paul Ryan's acceptance speech at the Republican convention contained several false claims and misleading statements."

The website then went on to analyze several of them. A perfect example: Ryan blamed President Barack Obama for failing to act on the "urgent" report of a deficit-reduction commission, without mentioning that he, Ryan, had voted against the commission’s urgent report, and helped ensure it was not sent to Congress. wasn’t the only one to point out the holes, omissions and hypocrisies in Ryan’s speech.

Politifact, the Pulitzer-prize winning enterprise run by the Tampa Bay Times, was equally critical. As was Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s increasingly influential fact-checker.

The Republican response? Need you even ask? Demonize the fact-checkers themselves as a bunch of lying Liberal liars.

Fact or spin?

The Washington Post, in a recent article, neatly summarized the onslaught. John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire and a surrogate for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, said "the fact-checkers themselves need fact-checking."

"The fact-checkers are not checking facts, they are spinning," wrote Erick Erickson on the conservative website "Lemmings go to their own death."

Romney pollster Neil Newhouse basically said the fact-checkers are just writing editorials.

It’s easy to see why the Republicans are so urgently attacking fact-checking organizations and journalists.

In a world of deliberate obfuscation, they matter. Voters, and other journalists, are paying attention to them.

Kessler, who awards up to four "Pinocchios" depending on the magnitude of a falsehood, has achieved national fame for his work. Politicians of both stripes love quoting him, especially when he drops one or more Pinocchios on an opponent.

Journalists, understanding the sort of assiduous, time-consuming research that goes into the verdicts on and Politifact, quote those organizations widely nowadays.

Romney himself advised Obama to pay more attention to them just last month: "You know, the various fact-checkers look at some of the charges in the Obama ads and they say that they’re wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them."

A 'vampire capitalist?'

Quite true. The fact-checkers have been tough on the Democrats. And of course when they are, Republican operatives nod in approval.

The Obama campaign, for example, has tried hard (as did some of Romney’s Republican opponents for the GOP nomination) to paint Romney as a "vampire capitalist" for actions taken by his former company, Bain Capital, after Romney had departed.

The fact-checkers have poured cold water on those assertions, and the Obama campaign has sent a public letter of complaint to FactCheck.Org.

And last year, Politifact awarded its "Lie of the Year" to Democrats who said the Republican budget had voted to end Medicare. (It would radically change Medicare over a period of years.)

If you conclude from all this that facts are not the primary concern of political parties, you’d be realizing the painfully obvious.

Where the other guy’s lies are concerned, politicos tremble with a terrible righteousness. But when someone answers their own malarkey with facts, they suddenly all become postmodernists: There are no facts, only political constructs, power controls knowledge, blah, blah, blah….

I’ve had a taste of this. I was first assigned to do "reality checks" during the run-up to the 1997 Canadian election.

After years of saying he would kill the GST, Jean Chrétien instead embraced it, and during a CBC town hall, he was challenged by an audience member named Johanne Savoie.

Hypocrisy exposed

Chrétien snapped at her that he’d never promised to kill the GST: "Where did you read that?" he barked at the startled young woman.

It took me about 15 minutes in the video archives to find several Chrétien quotes about "abolishing" or "killing" the tax.

I ran them, along with the exchange with Savoie, on The National that night.

Chrétien and his underlings, faced with video evidence of his hypocrisy, blamed … the CBC, saying that the broadcaster had planted Savoie and armed her with an embarrassing question (it had most definitely not). The CBC had "sandbagged" the prime minister, said his aides, ignoring the fact that he had basically sandbagged himself.

My only objection was ever calling these types of stories "reality checks." I find the label show-offy and self-important. I prefer to call such stories "journalism."

And make no mistake, Fact.Check.Org, Politifact, Glenn Kessler and the rest of their fussy, fact-obsessed community are committing journalism in the very best sense.