Back in August, Mitt Romney's campaign set a controversial benchmark for accuracy, announcing that "we're not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers," and you could make the argument that since then they've hewed closely to that standard. The October 16 presidential debate presented a challenge not just to that fact-checkers-be-damned mentality, but to one of the Romney's campaign's central claims: that as president he would create 12 million new jobs.
This morning Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler wrote that the math underlying Romney's claim "doesn't add up," calling it a "bait-and-switch" that fudges with timelines, and quoted Glenn Hubbard, one of Romney's chief economic advisers, acknowledging as much. Again, this is one of Romney's key campaign arguments. He repeated it early on in tonight's debate.
There's been a great deal written lately about post-truth politics and journalism, in which corrections of blatant falsehoods have no discernible effect on the repetition of said falsehoods. This issue -- central as it is to the political campaign but also the economic recovery -- represents an opportunity to alter that dynamic.
But such change can happen only if the media step up and actually press the Romney campaign on this point. It's too important to let slide.
We've already seen numerous examples of the Washington Post printing the false "death panel" claim about health care reform without noting its falsity. The "death panels" lie, as you may remember, was so pernicious PolitiFact named it "Lie of the Year" for 2009. Unfortunately, that didn't stop the Post from frequently repeating the claim that health care reform would result in "death panels" -- and didn't inspire the Post to ensure that it always corrected the falsehood.
PolitiFact's 2010 "Lie of the Year" was the claim that health care reform constitutes a government takeover of heath care. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler notes: "This snappy talking point is used by Republicans repeatedly to bash Obama's crowing [sic] legislative achievement, but it is simply not true. In fact, PolitiFact.com labeled this claim the 2010 'lie of the year,' but that has not stopped lawmakers from making this claim."
Nor has it stopped Washington Post bloggers from making this claim. Here's Jay Sekulow, the Post's Religious Right Now blogger:
ObamaCare is bad for the economy. The federal government is taking control of what some have estimated to account for as much as 1/6 of the economy while simultaneously creating yet another entitlement program doomed to failure.
The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler rightly criticizes politicians for telling the "Lie of the Year." It would be nice if the Post would hold its own personnel to the same standard.
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 Politifacts.org. 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?
The Boston Globe and The Washington Post echoed the discredited accusation, advanced by conservative media figures, that Sen. Hillary Clinton did not condemn controversial comments by Suha Arafat during a 1999 trip to the West Bank, where Arafat, according to the Globe, "launched into an unscripted tirade accusing Israel of poisoning Palestinian children." In fact, Clinton reportedly "condemned Mrs. Arafat hours later, after receiving, she said, an official translation of her remarks."