What media organizations refer to as “fact-checking” is shifting, in this election season, from a useful exercise in monitoring to a questionable form of editorializing. Egregious examples have lately emanated from CNN and the Associated Press, usually sources of straightforward reporting, in reaction to speeches at the Democratic National Convention this week.
This tendentious tendency first appeared in response to former President Bill Clinton’s boffo nominating speech. Referring to a Republican consultant who had said the Romney campaign would not be constrained from (falsely) criticizing the welfare policies of the Obama administration by “fact-checkers,” Clinton chortled: “Now that is true. I couldn’t have said it better myself — I just hope you remember that every time you see the [welfare] ad.”
To AP reporters Tom Raum and Calvin Woodward, Clinton’s remark became the occasion to dredge up the Monica Lewinsky affair to show that the former president “has had his own uncomfortable moments over telling the truth.” Comparing the effort to conceal a personal sexual indiscretion with the racially-tinged Republican attempt to smear Obama on welfare policy struck many observers as idiocy – and they said so.
The AP editor’s feeble defense of this stupidity didn’t help. “The reference was not about that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” he said. “It was about facts. Clinton challenged the Republicans for their attitude toward facts. We were simply pointing out that as president, Clinton had his own challenges in this area.”
But the AP “fact-check” of Clinton’s speech fell short in other ways as well, though none quite as glaring. Raum and Woodward complained that Clinton shouldn’t have credited Obamacare for the reduction in the rise of health-care costs, because experts supposedly believe that drop to have been caused by economic uncertainty. There is no logic to that claim – since costs rose during earlier periods of uncertainty – and the AP cited no experts to confirm it. (Bloomberg News found no material errors in Clinton’s speech, incidentally.)
The AP continued the same approach with Thursday evening’s speeches by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. The most egregious complaint is headlined “Obama and the phantom peace dividend,” and the story claims that because the United States borrows money to pay its bills, money currently spent on war cannot be applied to other purposes such as rebuilding infrastructure — as the president said he plans to do.
But Obama didn’t use the phrase “peace dividend” at all and the observations under the headline were ridiculous anyway. Borrowing money for warfare, which creates huge additional costs in lost and wounded soldiers and destroyed ordnance, is very different from borrowing to rebuild infrastructure, which creates wealth and is considered sound budgetary policy by every sane economist. It is especially sound during a period – such as now – when the government can borrow money at historically low interest rates.
Other criticisms of Obama in the AP “fact-check” depended on what the reporters consider “likely” to occur in future Congressional budget negotiations or what the Obama White House “floated” in earlier budget discussions. But journalists’ opinions about what may happen in the future or what happened in the past don’t qualify as facts. And then, as with CNN’s fact-checkers, the AP argued over the number of jobs that should be credited to Obama. He and other Democrats claimed 4.5 million private sector jobs created since the recession ended in mid-2009; the fact-checkers said that jobs lost in the first six months after he took office, before any of his policies could take effect, should diminish that perfectly accurate number. But that seems silly and, in any case, the basis for the Democratic claim was clear. Again this was argumentation, not fact-checking.
Some observers have suggested that the AP went after Democrats to disprove cries of “liberal bias” from the Republican right, following the wire service’s critique of Paul Ryan’s convention speech in Tampa.
But if the nitpicking of Democrats was meant to demonstrate that the AP is “fair and balanced,” they did the Republicans no favor. Insulting Clinton and arguing with Obama only highlights the contrast with Ryan – who was caught in multiple substantive falsehoods.