Fact Checking and "post-truth" Politics

Friday, August 31, 2012


Paul Ryan (Getty)

In pursuit of balance, there is a journalistic inclination to shy away from fact-checking in favor of reporting both sides of a debate. Brooke reflects on fact-checking assertions made at the Republican National Convention, and talks to The Atlantic's James Fallows who says that Journalists are - slowly and painfully - becoming more courageous in embedding fact-checks in their stories.


James Fallows

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [16]

Gary Duell from Portland

I too am flabbergasted at the FOXing of NPR. My jaw dropped when NPR's two female "fact-checkers" (who sound like they're both teenagers)opined that the Democrat's fact bending during their convention was about equivalent to the Republicans'. What? Even FOX news disagrees with that baffling conclusion. Where they just tallying inaccuracies, regardless of how extreme or egregious? NPR has apparently been infiltrated by the tea party.
Then, this idea of presenting "both sides" is utterly obtuse. Facts plus fiction does not equal balance.

Sep. 10 2012 11:45 AM
Bill from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Our politicians are a bunch of habitual liars, and we only have the press to help us sort them out. Thank you, NPR (and OTM staff in particular), for taking on this very difficult task.

Sep. 09 2012 10:02 AM

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal's online "Best of the Web" column, on the general topic of "factcheck" journalism:


Henry Payne of the National Review Online, regarding the failure of so-called factchecking of Paul Ryan's mention of the Janesville GM assembly plant:


And Mark Hemingway in the Weekly Standard online:


These three journalists would have been good subjects for an interview in pursuit of this story. They would have been able to talk about journalism versus so-called fact-checking. And explore, seriously and searchingly, why it is that we would lower ourselves to "Pinocchios" or "Pants on Fire" ratings.

OTM does meta-journalism stories. This wasn't a meta-journalism story. This was Brooke Gladstone, picking a fight with John Sunnunu and using the so-called "fact-check" arms of other MSM outlets as her weapon of choice.

And please, John Sunnunu knows exactly what was going on in this interview. He treated Brooke Galdstone as a debate opponent; an adversary. Because that is PRECISELY how seh treated Sunnunu.

I say again; this interview did nothing so much as prove the point about the dubiousness of the "fact check" enterprise as some sort of suprajournalistic arbiter of truth.

Sep. 04 2012 08:56 PM
Cindy Walsh from Baltimore, MD

Thank you so much for making a statement about the need for the media to stand firm on the integrity of information hitting the airwaves. We need to triple down on truth at a time when the country is in integrity-crisis. It is the only thing that saves us from third world status. Perhaps a tele-prompter for journalists that shows split-screen for immediate correction on the most abused truths.

What your report didn't address, I feel deliberately, is that with two corporate politicians running for office and 3/4 of people not liking either, you fail to mention the falsifying of issues. For example, Obama's health care reform is all about creating mega-institutions just like the banks that we all know will prey on the poor and elderly and end entitlements if laws restricting health system size aren't in place. That fact isn't even discussed by media. Also, Obama's education reform is all about privatizing public education, giving education to Wall Street. Everyone knows that won't strengthen education it will end it for most people. That issue is never discussed. Both of these are examples of false claims that aren't fact checked.

Sep. 04 2012 09:25 AM

Chris Wallace didn't debunk much of anything that Paul Ryan said.

He first observed that "Democrats" would complain about Ryan's reference to the closed General Motors plant in Janesville, Wisconsin. He was right. There has indeed been a fight about that, and to a great extent, the so-called "fact check" organizations got their versions -- and significantly, the fact check organizations themselves didn't even agree (what does that tell you?) -- all wrong themselves.

Chris Wallace's second observation wasn't any sort of "fact check" at all. He observed that Ryan had been a member of the Simpson Bowles Commission and voted against the Commission's final report. It wasn't as though Paul Ryan misstated any fact; rather, Chris Wallace was pointing out that Paul Ryan's own position on his characterization of the Obama history on budgeting might be regarded as inconsistent in that regard. But of course anyone who asked Paul Ryan could flesh out that story. You know; like that stuff that journalists do. "Stories."

Sep. 04 2012 08:26 AM
John Heenehan from Madison, NJ

My factcheckers demand I issue the following correction to my prior post here: John Sununu's actual quote was "I've enjoyed being on the air." My apologies to OTM ... and NPR.

Sep. 04 2012 06:43 AM
John Heenehan from Madison, NJ

Where were the factcheckers during John Sununu’s unhinged rant? Even his attempt to end the interview – “I’ve enjoyed being on NPR” – would likely be rated a pants on fire. Except for the eloquent Clint Eastwood, the “tell” for when speaker after speaker at the Republican convention was lying soon became evident: Their lips moved.

Sep. 04 2012 06:25 AM
Andy M from Boston, MA

It's incredibly frustrating that in an article about truth and fact checking, of all things, you let Sununu repeat the "media liberal bias" libel without responding that this is exactly the kind of "big lie" that is so sorely in need of fact checking.

Sep. 03 2012 12:48 PM
Michael from NC

I found this interview so confusing. On the face of it, I'm supportive of fact-checking — ascertaining the truth of some verifiable piece of information.

To cite one segment in the show, clearly the part of Ryan's speech implicitly blaming Obama for the closing of that GM plant was a detail that needed verification, and it brought important perspective to an anecdote that, on the face of it, could offer an emotionally compelling narrative capable of swaying voters. That misrepresentation falls egregiously into the realm of propaganda and deception.

But the Sununu/Gladstone interview handles a different sort of issue. It doesn't strike me as entirely wrong for Sununu, in this instance, to have a problem with fact-checking, as it seems to reveal that sometimes the forest can be obscured by the trees.

Politics at it's essence is prone to slights of hand and almost-but-not-quite truths. So, is it hard to believe that one policy enacted by the Obama administration might work in just such as way as to have the practical effect of gutting another policy, while obscuring the true motive by failing to make it's intent obvious and explicit?

It is easy for me to see that the facts of the matter might not tell the entire story. A law on the books does not necessarily mean that law is enforced as written (see: illegal immigrant deportation non-enforcement policy).

(As an aside; it's hard to find the democracy in "The Democratic People's Republic of Korea.")

Likewise, offering a waiver that for some reason or another is unlikely to be refused by the states could have the effect of shifting the agency for that decision to the states, while absolving the federal government (or the Obama administration) even though the result was inevitable.

This is by no means a rare scenario. Just look at how votes and referrendum are put forward as expressions of "the will of the people" that allow political figures to claim either a mandate, or give them the cover of "my hands are tied."

In the end, I really don't know what is at the heart of this issue with Sununu. He certainly comes off as a jackass, but I could also imagine myself being very frustrated if I felt the person I was speaking with was not grasping a big picture that seemed so clear to me.

Perhaps this segment could have provided some real analysis of the issue he presented. Is it true that a waiver was provided that would effectively gut this requirement, and has it been taken up by any states? How likely is it that more states will choose this waiver? For what reason was it instituted in the first place?

If your fact-checking is no more than the equivalent of judicial originalism then fact-checking seems horribly flawed. Context and intent are also very important, and, harder — if not impossible — to ascertain.

Sep. 02 2012 10:50 PM

Several things very wrong with this segment. One, no balance, you only interviewed a Republican, Sununu, and a clip of Gingrich. No Democrats in your piece, I don't think Fallows qualified as that. So your claim to neutrality is bogus. You don't even accomplish what you claim is the kind of balanced, neutral non fact checking journalism you believe in. Second, your little glib remarks and trivialization of fact checking, and your endorsement of the failed strategies of the mainstream media not fact checking, but using he said she said journalism. Third, the abusive rant by Sununu, what was the point of airing that? I guess you showed what the Republican party is reduced to, but the interview just made a mockery of the whole piece. It's not shedding light, but providing darkness. Not one of your better segments. Had you approached this properly, it could have been informative, instead it was an unpleasant circus show. Makes me think you don't take your job seriously.

Sep. 02 2012 05:32 PM

I agree with Bob, CRichard, and Pamela below. But, sadly, I am not surprised by the interview with Sununu. NPR and OTM are either ill-equipped to deal with the likes of Sununu, or they do their usual bending over to appease conservatives.

Sep. 02 2012 05:28 PM
Don Jolly from Brooklyn, NY

John Sununu's segment on the latest show was incredibly disheartening. As a political liberal from Texas, and an atheist in the academic field of religion, I take it for granted that there are people with whom I disagree politically that are still intelligent, respectful and rational. John Sununu has made his reputation being a vicious attack dog - asking him to defend, in an intelligent way, the fabrications made by his candidate and party seems wrongheaded. Brooke's interview was fine, of course - with a more reasonable guest, it would have been informative. Sununu's anger and pointless vitriol ("you're going to lose in November") is nothing more or less than his political M.O.. Couldn't OTM have found one of the many, many fiscal and social conservatives out there who doesn't act like a lunatic?

Maybe the place for the rational right in the public sphere is shrinking - but is that because there are fewer right leaning people who are still capable of informed debate, or because personalities like Sununu make for snappier sound bites? I'm not accusing OTM of going after sensation in this particular instance - but, honestly, the second Brooke said "John Sununu," we all knew what to expect. He, and people like him, are not here for informed debate. They are the withered brainstem of American political life - its vestigial, reptilian core. Why do we listen to them at all?

Sep. 02 2012 05:05 PM
C. Richard

Sadly I have to agree with Bob's comment. Being courteous and professional when your adversary is ruthlessly lying and rude besides accomplishes nothing. Conceding him anything is a losing strategy. A wise man once told me that in a debate you're not talking to the opponent, you're talking to the audience, and what you want to say is that the opponent is ignorant at best and malicious most likely. That's what Sununu did, to Brooke and to the President.

Sep. 02 2012 02:54 PM
Michele from Pennsylvania

Dear Brooke - Congrats on your replies to John Sununu today!! I thought you did a great job of countering his remarks as he quickly transitioned from the rants of a white, middle-aged has-been with a strong racist bent into a personal attack on you. I actually felt sick in my stomach as he grew more vicious. Funny - I never realized that 'you had to be there' to understand the 'truth' of policymaking. These people are sad with their pathetic attempts to shout us into silence when we don't agree with their narratives.

Sep. 02 2012 01:20 PM

I love NPR, which has often opened the world to me. But I'm very unhappy with NPR's standard of political coverage, and it's getting worse.

Brooke Gladstone quotes Mit Romney, "I wish President Obama had succeeded because I want America to succeed," then comments, "I mean, who's to argue?"

I am, Ms Gladstone. Adding a lie ("I wish President Obama had succeeded") to a truth ("I want America to succeed") doesn't change the lie into the truth. In fact, Mr. Romney and most Republicans did *not* want President Obama to succeed. The Daily Show Friday even had a clip of Romney saying so 8 days after Obama took office. And whatever Mr. Romey's real "wishes" were, since when does he get to declare that President Obama did not succeed, without comment? Does providing healthcare to millions of Americans, preventing the Great Recession from turning into the second great depression, removing Osama Bin Laden, ending the war in Iraq, and improving automobile milage standards sound like failure to you?

Republicans blocked or voted against everything President Obama proposed, including broadly popular bills supported by voters from all parties, such as the Fair Pay Act (equal pay for women,) the Disclose Act, healthcare for 9/11 first responders, and removing the Bush tax cuts on the wealthy.

In an article on fact-checking election media, I wish you would practice what you preach.

Sep. 02 2012 04:22 AM

Your show today started out with a good bit poking fun at CNN for a useless "truth" crawl running under Paul Ryan's lie-filled speech. I'm sad to say, but Brooke's interview with John Sununu later in the same show just as badly needed a good truth crawl -- and just as sadly, got a poor one. While I admire Brooke, Sununu ate her for lunch in this interview. His comments, in addition to being insulting, were at least as much filled with lies as those in Ryan's speech. But Brooke was unable or ill-equipped to handle the lies.

Brooke inadvertently made the point of the piece - that the media isn't good at handling lies - by letting the aggressive Sununu's blizzard of lies stand. I'd expect better from you guys. If you're bringing the lion into the den, be able to handle him. I'm hoping OTM runs a "truth" piece next week to correct all the Sununu lies that Brooke failed to correct in real time for your listeners.

Sep. 01 2012 11:42 AM

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