Intermittent Fact-Checking Continues At Washington Post

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Last year, I wrote about some problems with the branded "fact-check" features several news organizations have been creating. Among them:

The other problem with the execution of these highly structured, branded "Fact Check" pieces is that fact-checking shouldn't be relegated to occasional, highly specialized pieces; it should be a basic part of everyday journalism. Checking the truthfulness of a politician's statements shouldn't be something a news organization saves for its "Fact Check" feature; it should be present in every news report that includes those statements. It isn't enough to occasionally debunk a false claim, as I've been saying over and over again.

What I'd like to see isn't another media organization with a branded, occasional "Fact Check" feature -- it's a news organization that commits to never reporting a politician's statement without placing that statement in factual context.

The Washington Post -- the poster child for occasionally debunking false claims -- recently revived its "Fact Checker" column, and in doing so reminds us how little the paper actually cares about checking facts. Here's today's "Fact Checker":

"A secretive government committee ('death panels') will be created to make end-of-life decisions about people on Medicare"

This claim, first made by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate, has been thoroughly debunked and was labeled "lie of the year" in 2009 by Yet it persists in the popular imagination. The September Kaiser poll found that 30 percent of seniors still believed this to be the case--and 22 percent were not sure, meaning fewer than half knew the claim was false.

Why might the false "death panels" claim "persist[] in the popular imagination"? Perhaps in part because the Washington Post routinely mentions the claim without pointing out its falsity. Just last week, the Post did this on consecutive days, in a January 13 article by Karen Tumulty and Peter Wallsten and a January 14 article by Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane. Both articles reported the allegation that health care reform contained "death panels," but neither so much as hinted that it was false. This has been a defining characteristic of the Post's treatment of the "death panels" claim (contrary to former Post media critic Howard Kurtz's praise for the paper's reporting on the topic.)

I can't imagine that there's anyone at the Post who doesn't know by now that "death panels" were a lie. And yet the paper routinely prints the lie without noting its falsity. The only conclusion you can draw from that is that the paper just doesn't think it has any responsibility to avoid passing falsehoods along as though they are true -- at least as long as those falsehoods come from right-wing political figures.

Let's say a stock broker tells a Washington Post business reporter "ACME Wireless, Inc. stock has increased in value each of the last four years, with no signs of slowing down. Investors should buy it immediately!" And let's say the reporter knows this to be false -- knows that, in fact, ACME's stock is in a free fall, with no end in sight, and that its entire leadership is under indictment. Would the Post print the false claim without noting its falsity? I doubt it would; I suspect the reporter or an editor would recognize that it has a responsibility not to pass along such dangerously false investment advice to its readers. Likewise, if Happy Fun Ball was conclusively shown to cause cancer in everyone who touches it, the Post wouldn't print Wacky Products Incorporated's claim that the toy is perfectly safe without noting that, in fact, it causes cancer. Nor would the paper quote Redskins owner Daniel Snyder bragging about his team's playoff victory last weekend without noting that in fact the team finished 6-10 and failed to make the playoffs.

So why does the Washington Post print Sarah Palin's lies without noting their falsity? Does the Post think its readers' ability to make informed political decisions is less important than their awareness of sporting events?

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