Brisbane Traces Media's 'Fact-Checking' to Outcry Over Willie Horton Ad

New York Times Public Editor Arthur Brisbane followed up in Sunday's edition on his controversial January 12 blog post, 'Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?,' in which he asked readers if the paper should be more direct in challenging the statements of politicians in its straight news reporting. As Times Watch reported, the paper already does this, albeit almost solely to Republicans.

At The New York Times, coverage of campaign debates typically includes a main article and a sidebar labeled 'Fact Check' in which candidates' claims are vetted. Last week, to Mitt Romney's claim that the president does not have a jobs plan, The Times countered: 'This is incorrect.' To Ron Paul's statement about troop deployment costs, The Times hedged: 'not as black and white as Mr. Paul made it sound.'

It's no surprise the liberal media only got into 'fact-checking' after Michael Dukakis's Democratic candidacy was ruined by the (unfair, misleading, racist, etc.) Willie Horton ad in 1988:

Journalists have always seen it as a duty to check claims, but the form has evolved. The current movement has its roots in the late 1980s, a response to aggressive advertising like the Willie Horton ads aimed at Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee in 1988, according to Bill Adair, editor of PolitiFact.

He traces the most recent approach, involving dedicated fact-checking units, to 2003, when was created by the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Brisbane at least asks the right questions.

First, are you rebutting a fact that is quantifiable and knowable, or are you rebutting an opinion? Political rhetoric is replete with buzzwords and labels, many of them stretched to reflect the speaker's opinion. A lot of this isn't worth rebutting.

Can you fact-check without displaying bias? Some argue that fact-checking operations fail this test. Writing in The Weekly Standard, Mark Hemingway cited a University of Minnesota study that found PolitiFact had assigned 'substantially harsher grades' to Republicans than Democrats between January 2010 and January 2011.

Fact-checking organizations, he told me, 'are doing opinion journalism, but they are doing it under the guise of pseudo-scientific objectivity.'

(Mr. Adair responded: 'We don't keep score by party because we want our selection to be based on what's timely and relevant to our readers - not on false balance that tries to make sure each side gets an equal number of Pants on Fire ratings.')


I join others who worry that The Times needs to be very careful with this. Jill Abramson, the executive editor, said that if fact-checking were made a 'reflexive element of too many news stories, our readers would find The Times was being tendentious.' Readers, she added, could come to see The Times 'as a combatant, not as an arbiter of what the facts were.'