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?
Shouldn't an article about Republican pledges to reduce the budget deficit that mentions in its lede the GOP's desire to repeal last year's health care reform legislation mention that doing so would increase the deficit?
Of course it should. The real question: Is anyone awake at the Washington Post?
In the past week, the Post has run at least seven articles mentioning the House GOP's plan to vote to repeal health care reform without mentioning that doing so would increase the deficit. Here's a particularly egregious example:
One urgent concern for lawmakers in both parties is the country's bleak fiscal outlook, stemming from heavy government spending and ballooning retirement costs. House Republican leaders said that immediately after the health-care vote they will debate spending cuts, targeting specific programs such as public television.
Immediately after asserting that Republicans are urgently concerned about the nation's bleak fiscal outlook, the Post notes that Republicans are trying to repeal health care reform -- but doesn't mention that doing so would worsen the nation's fiscal outlook. Incredible. (Note also that the Post asserts that the bleak fiscal outlook stems "from heavy government spending" -- no mention of the revenue side of the equation. The Post's framing plays along with the false conservative claims that only spending counts towards deficits, and only spending reductions should be considered to reduce them.)
In my column last week, I wrote (again) about the need for reporters -- who have spent the whole year telling us that cloture is the health care vote that matters -- to start telling us how Senators will vote on cloture. I wrote that a major news organization like the Washington Post should simply contact every Senator's office and ask if they'll filibuster a health care reform bill that contains a strong public option.
During an online Q&A today, Washington Post reporter Paul Kane was asked which Senators would filibuster such a bill:
Helena, Montana: When Max Baucus said that he supported the public option but he didn't think there were 60 votes for it - who does he think will join the Republicans in filibustering it? Democratic members of his committee? Can Reid hold the caucus together for cloture, even if some will vote against the bill?
Paul Kane: This is the insider's insider's question right now, the one that not even my friends at Politico and my alma mater Roll Call are writing.
Will the Ben Nelson/Landrieu/Lieberman crowd vote 'no' on cloture (the filibuster vote)? Will they vote yes on cloture, then vote however they want on final passage?
Activists on both sides are exploring this issue, trust me. I think that's where this whole debate is headed.
My gut: I don't know the answer. Sorry, I don't.
So ... Maybe that's something the Washington Post should start working on?
(I assume Paul Kane isn't responsible for making such decisions about resource allocation, but maybe he should mention the idea to an editor?)
UPDATE: Later in the Q&A:
Ask the question, maybe?: Given how much reporters write about the need for 60 votes to break a filibuster, it's pretty stunning that you never get around to asking Senators whether they'll vote to sustain or end a filibuster. Isn't it long-past time for reporters to start asking Senators if they will filibuster the public option -- not just whether they support it, or think it has enough votes: Will they filibuster it? Has the Post reported on this and I've just missed it?
Paul Kane: Most folks like Nelson and company just dodge the question, when asked, telling us it's way too soon to deal with questions like that.
Which raises a rather obvious question: Why don't news organizations report that "folks like Nelson and company" refuse to say they'll filibuster? All year, they've been reporting that cloture is the vote that matters. And whenever "Nelson and company" make so much as a grunt indicating unhappiness with a public option, journalists rush to report it. So why won't they report the fact that when it comes to the vote that matters, "Nelson and company" are unwilling to commit to filibuster? That would certainly paint a less pessimistic picture of the prospects for health care reform.
The media was not only obsessing over the sideshow, forgoing yet another opportunity to actually inform the public about health care and the efforts to reform the insurance system. Even worse, they were all but ignoring the substance behind Wilson's claim, taking a pass on the question of whether Wilson was correct or not. (He wasn't.)
The media was not only allowing Wilson's outburst to divert the entire health care debate to a discussion of the relatively small matter of how, if at all, health care reform would treat people who are in the country illegally, they were repeating his false claim over and over without indicating its falsity.
That behavior has continued. And, incredibly, reporters actually praise news reports that fail to examine the question of whether Wilson was telling the truth. Take this Washington Post news report today: 1,300 words, not one of them indicating whether Wilson was right or wrong. 1,300 words, and it omits a central -- perhaps the central -- fact of the controversy: Wilson was wrong. And Politco's Jonathan Martin praises it as a "good story."
This will not end well.
Here's Washington Post reporter Paul Kane:
Biden and Kennedy have had their share of mishaps over the last 30 years, drawing plenty of criticism from conservatives.
During the 2006 hearings for Justice Samuel Alito, Kennedy forced the proceedings to stop in a long-shot effort to turn up evidence that the nominee was part of a secretive alumni club at Princeton University that was engaged in insensitive behavior, a charge that was never borne out.
Uh ... what?
The evidence that Alito was part of Concerned Alumni of Princeton (CAP) is pretty strong. After all, Alito bragged about his membership in CAP when he was applying for a job in the Reagan administration.
And the evidence that CAP "engaged in insensitive behavior" is pretty strong, too. CAP did, after all, try to limit the number of women and minorities allowed at Princeton.
There is no doubt that Alito belonged to CAP. None. Alito himself said he did. There is no doubt that CAP engaged in insensitive behavior. None. What on earth is Paul Kane talking about?
A Washington Post article reported that "Republicans have seized on the AIG issue in the belief that it has the potential to link Obama more closely to the widely unpopular $700 billion bailout legislation for the financial sector -- legislation that was crafted in the Bush administration." But the article did not note that a Bush-appointed special inspector general for TARP stated in congressional testimony that the Bush administration Treasury Department knew about the AIG bonus contracts and did not insist on their abrogation as a condition of AIG's receiving bailout money.
In reporting on former Justice Department lawyer Hans von Spakovsky's decision to withdraw from consideration as a nominee to the FEC, The Washington Post's Paul Kane wrote that "Senate Democrats had refused for a year to confirm von Spakovsky, torpedoing the nominations of three other nominees." But later in the same article, Kane contradicted his own suggestion that Democrats were responsible for "torpedoing" the other nominations, reporting that Republican Mitch McConnell "had demanded that the entire slate of bipartisan nominees be considered at once or that they be voted on in bipartisan packages of two nominations."
The Washington Post's Paul Kane claimed that Sen. John McCain is "using his blanket opposition to earmarked spending as a regular line of attack" against Sen. Hillary Clinton. But in the same article, Kane contradicted his claim that McCain has a policy of "blanket opposition to earmarked spending," reporting: "McCain, who has helped lead efforts to strip some earmarks from Senate bills, has not focused on the money headed to his home state. Other Arizona lawmakers secured more than $214 million in pet projects in fiscal 2008 spending bills."