SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

October 25, 2012

Our view: Fact-checking the presidential fact checkers


The Salem News

---- — Who is checking the fact checkers?

The debates held over the past few weeks have demonstrated that our presidential candidates, vice presidential candidates, Senate candidates and so on are masters at presenting “facts” that often contradict one another. Who is telling the truth?

We’ve come to depend on “fact-check” organizations to offer the truth behind what the candidates tell us in elections. Indeed, the mainstream media has seen the public’s hunger for disseminating fact from fraud, and it is striving to feed it. These “fact checks” are arguably very powerful tools, as they can easily sway public opinion.

As all of us should know by now, “facts” often come in various shades of gray, easily misinterpreted or spun even by those who are supposed to be looking at them in an unbiased manner. As more and more media outlets climb onto the “fact check” bandwagon, it’s becoming obvious that fact checkers are susceptible to this, and the public needs to consider this when “facts” are presented as, well, facts.

A case in point was the issue of the attack on the American embassy in Libya. This has become an important campaign issue for President Barack Obama and GOP rival Mitt Romney, as the two men try to define when Obama’s administration officially declared the event to be a “terrorist attack.” Various “fact-checking” organizations have come to conclusions that don’t jibe, among them organizations that are generally considered neutral such as PolitiFact and FactCheck.org

The same basic set of “facts” is used to support each candidate’s argument.

It draws into question the wisdom of having unfettered reliance on anything that claims it is in the “fact-checking” business. As is so often the case, this is a case of buyer beware — readers are better off when they consider the source of information, and when they are informed about the general political slant that it may take.

Still, fact-checking is a far more valuable use of the media’s resources compared to the reports from the “spin room.” Most large-scale debates — such as races for governor, U.S. Senate, Congress and so on up the ladder — have an area near the debate hall designated as a “spin room” where the candidates’ supporters attempt to convince reporters why their candidate won the debate. The things said in these rooms are carefully prepared and practiced, for the most part just an extension of the candidates’ talking points. This is where a candidate’s message gets groomed into the mainstream media.

These days, the media seems to be mostly avoiding coverage of what gets said in the “spin room.” Instead, fact-checking is the new emphasis.

As much as viewers will see diametrically opposed interpretations of “unbiased coverage” from MSNBC and Fox News, the same can hold true with the fact checkers. So keep reading those black-and-white “fact checks” but not without some shades of gray.