Brendan Greeley is moderating a panel on truth and factchecking. He begins by wondering if we need argument-checking as well as fact-checking.
Bill Adair of Politifact.com gives the first brief talk. He says (in response to Brendan’s question) that he is an Internet optimist because the Net can reinvent political discourse. He was a political reporter, but in 2008 felt that he and other reporters had been letting candidates get away with falsehoods.It was easy and comforting to cover politics as horse races. So, he started his fact-checking site.
The site researches claims and scores them. The research is done by paid journalists. The sources are transparent. They compile records on elected officials. (Cf. Michelle Bachman.) They also check pundits. And they have an Obameter that tracks how Obama is delivering on his 500+ campaign promises. They have also begun state sites. “It’s a whole new form of journalism,” he concludes.
Brendan: Couldn’t you have done this before the Net? No, says Bill. You couldn’t do the research. Plus, the corrections would have only run in the one edition of the paper, and if you missed it, you would have missed it forever.
There is a jurisprudence to the Truthometer, Bill says. They’ve had to invent how to distinguish an “untrue” from a “pants on fire.”
Jay Rosen says that 58 yrs ago, Joe McCarthy exploited defects in the media to make a name for himself, at great cost. Charges are news. What happens today is news. Senators are worth reporting on and have some credibility. News can’t be untold. Eventually, the media figured out that they’d been exploited; the press had been put in the service of untruth. So, reporters changed the rules: It suddenly became ok to do “interpretation.” I.e., it was ok for them to point out that a public official might have another motive for what he said. Fifty years later, politicians are exploiting different weaknesses. The best known is “he said she said” journalism. That’s a response to the quest for innocence, i.e., a demonstration that you are neutral in the cultural/political wars. Rather than having an agenda for the left or right, the press has an innocence agenda. He-said-she-said also helps journalists make their deadlines: you don’t have time to interrupt, so you get someone to state the other side.
In December, Jay tweeted that Meet the Press ought to fact check its guests and run the results on Wednesday. ABC has started doing it, for ABC This Week. MtP has refused, possibly because the person who’s been the most frequent guest is John McCain, who Politifact rates as a pants-on-fire liar. But, some college students have put up MeetTheFacts.com to
Marc Ambinder says that he’s getting more comfortable going outside of traditional journalism’s box, and getting angry about being told to stay inside of it. E.g., there’s nothing to the story of the White House offering a job to Sestak, but the press is covering it as if it’s an issue. The solution is for reputable journalists to say that it isn’t a story and then covering something else, but you’re dealing with an entrenched set of habits.
Bill points to TechCrunch as his favorite voice on the Web, which, as he says, is strongly voiced and non-neutral. Jay says that it used to be that you lost credibility if you judged, but that has flipped. This is part of a culture war in which the press is an object of attack, Jay says.
Brendan says that Jay was right 5 yrs ago to say that the war between journalism and blogging is over. Now there’s the same sort of controversy over factchecking. How do we get past the conflict, Brendan asks. Bill says we need to get past the “bucket of quotes” mentality. Factchecking should be a standard part of the journalist’s toolkit. Jay says that the birther phenomenon is interesting. That Obama was born in the US is as verified as a fact can get. But, within politics, the overriding of that fact has given rise to a political movement. There is no journalistic response to this. They can’t treat it as a claim within the spectrum; it’s actually a repudiation of journalism. Marc and Jay agree that the remedy is not within journalism but within the political system: Republicans ought to shame the birthers.
Q: What about factchecking that goes wrong?
A: There’s still room for journalists.
A: (jay) Reputation systems work.
A: (brendan) But email is anonymous.
Q: Reputation systems can be gamed. And we need the Sunday shows to do the factchecking on the same episode so people can see it.
A: Yes. We’re seeing progress, but… ABC deserves credit.
Brendan: There’s selection bias in factchecking. Factcheckers decide what to count as worth checking?
Bill: Is it something that Mabel — our typical reader — would wonder about?
Jay: News orgs used to establish trust by advertising their viewlessness. now they need to say where they’re coming from.