Bogus media "fact-checking" continues, and the New York Times' Michael Cooper is leading the pack. His Saturday "Political Memo," "Fact-Checkers Howl, but Campaigns Seem Attached to Dishonest Ads," marks Cooper's second foray into the burgeoning genre in two days, focusing on the allegedly false statements emanating from Mitt Romney's ads and the Republican National Convention podium. Cooper heralds the "Pulitzer Prize-winning" fact-check website Politifact as the gold standard of objectivity, though conservatives point to analysis like this:
A Smart Politics content analysis of more than 500 PolitiFact stories from January 2010 through January 2011 finds that current and former Republican officeholders have been assigned substantially harsher grades by the news organization than their Democratic counterparts. In total, 74 of the 98 statements by political figures judged “false” or “pants on fire” over the last 13 months were given to Republicans, or 76 percent, compared to just 22 statements for Democrats (22 percent).
Cooper began with a blast from the past to argue that the Romney campaign set the initial tone for a fact-free presidential campaign:
In his very first television advertisement last year, Mitt Romney highlighted the nation’s dire unemployment crisis, its record number of home foreclosures and the rising national debt, and showed video of President Obama delivering this arresting remark: “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”
There was one problem: the quotation was taken so wildly out of context that it turned Mr. Obama’s actual meaning upside-down. The truncated clip came from a speech Mr. Obama gave in 2008 talking about his opponent, Senator John McCain of Arizona. The full quotation? “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.’ ”
PolitiFact.com, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking Web site, rated the advertisement “Pants on Fire,” its most deceptive rating possible, but it achieved what the Romney campaign had hoped: people started talking about the sluggish economy and how Mr. Obama’s campaign promises had fallen short. And it set the tone for the campaign that followed, which has often seemed dismissive of fact-checkers.
“We’re not going let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” Neil Newhouse, the Romney campaign’s pollster, said this week during a breakfast discussion at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., that was sponsored by ABC News and Yahoo News. He said that fact-checkers brought their own sets of thoughts and beliefs to their work, and that the campaign stands behind its ads.
Every four years there are lies in campaigns, and at times a blurry line between acceptable political argument and outright sophistry. But recent events -- from the misleading statements in convention speeches to television advertisements repeating widely debunked claims -- have raised new questions about whether the political culture still holds any penalty for falsehood.
Cooper sounded distressed that conservatives had the gall to question the "fact-checking" of he and his colleagues.
But while there is arguably more fact-checking now than ever -- and, thanks to the Web, more ways to independently check what candidates and campaigns say -- verdicts that a campaign has crossed the line are often drowned out by dissent from its supporters, who take it upon themselves to check the checkers.
Brendan Nyhan, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College, said nonpartisan fact-checking groups now compete with ideologically motivated groups from both sides that consider their work to be checking facts as well. (The political campaigns also call some of their own news releases “fact-checks.”)
After two paragraphs confessing that "The truth-twisting has not been limited to Republicans" and citing three examples of pro-Obama perfidy, Cooper settled the biggest portion of the blame onto the shoulders of the GOP by claiming as false the (oversimplified but true) claim that Obama has gutted the work requirements of welfare reform.
But some independent commentators have argued that the Romney campaign appears to be more dishonest at this point in the campaign, citing the many times it has broadcast a commercial making the false claim that Mr. Obama wants to gut the work requirements of welfare.
Mark Halperin, the Time magazine writer, made the point this week on MSNBC, even as he noted that the Democrats had lost some of the high ground with their recent misleading attacks. “But at this point I think the Romney campaign is besting them in making these distortions and untruths a bigger part of their message,” he said.
Confidence in the old arbiters, the mainstream media, has fallen precipitously in recent decades: the percentage of Americans who trust newspapers, television and radio to report the news accurately and fairly fell to 43 percent in 2010, down from 72 percent in 1976, according to the Gallup Poll. Mr. Nyhan’s research has shown the difficulties in trying to set the record straight through news accounts.
As if the media can be trusted to "set the record straight."
-- Clay Waters is Editor of the MRC's TimesWatch site.