Monday, August 22, 2005

Checking Factcheck; Pay Attention, ACs

The blogger Decembrist makes several important points about the problems with Factcheck.org's analysis of recent political debates. Decembrist accuses Factcheck of operating "at a level of amateurishness that is totally inappropriate for the position of final arbiter of truth that it has claimed for itself." And his argument holds up. For a project whose stated aim is to "monitor the factual accuracy" of public news releases and ads, Factcheck too often strays beyond its mandate.

About the controversial NARAL ad, Decembrist writes:

Factcheck.org's unqualified assertion that "the ad is false" seems to be the main thing that gave this story legs yesterday. Yet NARAL's rebuttal is solid, at least as to the literal question of the truth or falsehood of the ad. And why factcheck.org would include in its report such dubious statements of opinion as that Operation Rescue's harassment "in some ways mirrored the non-violent tactics used earlier by civil-rights activists" is beyond comprehension. If you want to be the absolute last word on the factual accuracy of ads, you have to extract the actual statements of fact that you are checking and leave the rest aside.

(Mark Kleiman's post on this is very good.)

This is hardly an isolated incident. Factcheck.org was particularly weak during the Social Security debate, as Josh Marshall noted on several occasions. In one instance, they deemed false a claim that privatization would yield big fee income for Wall Street, asserting that Bush's proposal was just like the federal employees' Thrift Savings Plan, which doesn't cost much to administer. That was wrong, of course, because the administration had said that it's plan would be different from the TSP and was never specific about it anyway. Yet in another case, they deemed as false specific statements about the cuts in benefits that would ensue from the Bush plan by arguing that Bush had not yet proposed a specific plan. Either he had proposed a plan or he hadn't. (In fact the one thing that Bush had been fairly specific about was the cuts in guaranteed benefits that would flow from his shift to partial price indexing.)

Factcheck.org also attacked a People for the American Way ad during the nuclear option debate. Factcheck opined that it was "ironic" that the NAACP and other groups were opposing the nuclear option, given that it was the filibuster that had long postponed civil rights legislation. It may have been ironic, but that has nothing to do with the truth of the ad's assertion that the filbuster was an important check on the consequences of lifetime appointments of extremist judges. (What was more ironic was that this charge was an exact replay of a Republican talking point.)

Is factcheck.org politically biased? I don't know, but my guess would be that it's not. The problem is that they get played, and I think the GOP has been more aggressive about playing them. If you set yourself up as the last word on the truth or falsehood of ads, you will immediately be the addresse of a lot of spin. Factcheck obviously wants to respond quickly, and they want to respond with clear assertions of truth or falsehood, unlike many of the newspaper "ad watch" projects which are so mealy-mouthed that a reader winds up more confused after reading it than before. But trying to fulfill those two goals, its far too easy to read the first spin that comes in on the fax, conclude that it sounds persuasive, and run with it.

Newspapers make errors, blogs make errors, political ads stretch the truth and make errors. But to have the credibility to be the ultimate arbiter of truth in political discourse, factcheck.org has to be impeccable. They have to limit their assertions to things that can be said with certainty and they need to at the very least correct their

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