Who’s Checking the Fact Checkers?

A new study sheds some light on what facts the press most likes to check.

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"Facts," someone once said, "are stubborn things." If there is one thing that is gnawing the marrow out of political coverage in America today, it's the so-called "fact checkers" whom editors of some of the nation's most prestigious publications have appointed to evaluate the veracity of statements made by candidates for public office.

According to the American Heritage dictionary, the definition of "fact" is: 1) Knowledge or information based on real occurrences; 2) Something demonstrated to exist or known to have existed; or 3) A thing that has been done, especially a crime. The last is especially interesting since the way fact-checking has been employed in the last two election cycles is as near to a crime as a journalist can commit.

Now comes a study from the George Mason University Center for Media and Public Affairs that demonstrates empirically that PolitiFact.org, one of the nation's leading "fact checkers," finds that Republicans are dishonest in their claims three times as often as Democrats. "PolitiFact.com has rated Republican claims as false three times as often as Democratic claims during President Obama's second term," the Center said in a release, "despite controversies over Obama administration statements on Benghazi, the IRS and the AP."

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

"Republicans see a credibility gap in the Obama Administration," said Dr. Robert S. Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs. "PolitiFact rates Republicans as the less credible party."

As the first person to empirically demonstrate the liberal, pro-Democrat bias in the Washington press corps, Lichter's analysis is worth further study and comment.  His study – and in the interests of full disclosure, he was once a professor of mine at the George Washington University  - "examined 100 statements involving factual claims by Democrats (46 claims) and Republicans (54 claims), which were fact-checked by PolitiFact.com during the four month period from the start of President Obama's second term on January 20 through May 22, 2013." The conclusion: Republicans lie more.

Or do they? As the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto has consistently reported, the fact checking business often – too often for anyone's good – turns on matters of opinion rather than matters of "fact." One recent example that drives the point home is the Washington Post's recent fact check that gave President Barack Obama "four Pinocchios" for asserting that he had, in fact, called what happened in Benghazi an act of "terrorism."

According to the Post's Glenn Kessler, Obama did in fact refer to it the next day in a Rose Garden address as an "act of terror," but did not call it "terrorism." Is this a distinction without a difference? Hardly, at least as far as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney might be concerned. It will be a long time before anyone forgets how the second presidential debate turned into a tag team match with Obama and CNN's Candy Crowley both explaining to the mystified Republican that Romney was, in fact, wrong when he accused the president of not having called the Benghazi attack a terrorist incident.

[See a collection of editorial Cartoons on Benghazi.]

The fact that, as the Lichter study shows, "A majority of Democratic statements (54 percent) were rated as mostly or entirely true, compared to only 18 percent of Republican statements," probably has more to do with how the statements were picked and the subjective bias of the fact checker involved than anything remotely empirical. Likewise, the fact that "a majority of Republican statements (52 percent) were rated as mostly or entirely false, compared to only 24 percent of Democratic statements" probably has more to do with spinning stories than it does with evaluating statements.

There is a "truth gap" in Washington, but it doesn't exist along the lines the fact checkers would have you think. It was Obama who said you could keep the health care you had if you liked it, even if Obamacare became law. It was Obama who said the Citizens United decision would open the floodgates of foreign money into U.S. campaigns. It was Obama who said Benghazi happened because of a YouTube video. It was Obama's IRS that denied conservative political groups had been singled out for special scrutiny. And it was Obama who promised that taxes would not go up for any American making less than $250,000 per year.

All of these statements and plenty more are demonstrably false, though some people still pretend there is truth in them. As the Lichter study demonstrates, it's not so much fact checkers that are needed as it is fact checkers to check the facts being checked.

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