On facticity, falsehoods and the rise of political fact checking

The quote is usually attributed (so far as I know, correctly) to former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

It’s brilliant, but not really true, depending on how hung up you get on the meaning of “entitled.” The sad reality is, if you want to believe something enough, you can find a fact or two to back it up, and then you can disregard the perhaps 10 or 100 facts that tend to rebut your preferred belief.

And even that analysis assumes that you can find a fact or two that actually deserves the name “fact,” in the sense of being objectively “true” or at least “accurate.” If you are sufficiently motivated to believe something that is flatly untrue, you can subscribe to some facty-seeming half-truths or even falsehoods. Polls suggest, for example, that a large portion of Republicans believe that President Obama is a Muslim, a belief for which there is no evidence worthy of the name “evidence.” 

I’m not recommending at all this system of believing whatever you want to believe. Whatever the opposite of recommending is what I’d like to do to that kind of “motivated reasoning” that allows you to come — factlessly if necessary — to some pre-ordained conclusion that makes you feel good. I’m just suggesting that there’s a lot of this going on.

The objectivity model

Journalism, in, let’s say, the glory days of  the “objectivity” model, was obsessed with facticity. I came up in the business in those days and we were taught that everything in the newspaper, except on the editorial page where opinions were allowed, should be a factitious fact. (Reporters were allowed to quote people giving their opinions, as long as it was a “fact” that the person quoted had said the words quoted.)

In retrospect, it was sort of a silly conceit that such boundaries could be enforced. And, for most of my life-in-newspaper decades, we were subjected to the argument by our critics that, since reporters were themselves mostly liberals (a fairly factitious fact, by the way), our choice of facts was itself a dishonest form of opinionizing (a less true, but not totally false view, in my mind).

Anyway, that model is pretty well broken, as is the near-stranglehold of professional reporters over what information reached the general public, since the advent of the World Wide Web and subsequent technologies, like Facebook and Twitter and even the blogosphere in which I peddle my wares. Personally, I can live with the end of the old model, in part because it didn’t really work, although I’m not sure the new model is, on balance, an improvement.

During the late days of the old model, a new wrinkle appeared, and I liked it: The fact checkers. The facticity of certain purported “facts” was, let’s say, overrated. Some purported facts were actually just false. But a much larger portion were half-true or three-quarters-true and a person who really wanted to understand which parts were which needs help sorting it out. This led to the creation of the fact checkers.

FactCheck and its copycats

As far as I know, the modern fact-checking industry started in late 2003 when esteemed journalist Brooks Jackson was recruited by my friend Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center to start FactCheck.org. Jackson had worked for a while at CNN doing fact-check-like pieces, mostly on campaign ads. FactCheck turned it into a year-round operation of separating the true from the half-true to the utterly false, although unlike subsequent operations, FactCheck doesn’t award ratings with cute names.

Lots of copycats have followed, notably PolitiFact and the fact checkers at the major newspapers, most of whom have rating systems for “facts” they check that run from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” (That’s PolitiFact). The Washington Post fact checker gives out one to four “Pinocchios.” Cute, eh?

Me, I don’t care for the ratings, which can certainly seem arbitrary, which is one reason FactCheck.org remains my favorite. It puts a statement under the microscope, highlights what’s known to be true and false about it and, generally, elevates your understanding of the entire matter under discussion.

I often learn more from a good fact check of an ad or a controversial statement than I do from the original coverage, although I think the fact-checking ethic has spread into a general awareness among reporters, especially political reporters. That ethic leads them more often to call out falsehoods and put out a better version of the truth.

Fact checking the first debate

During Monday night’s debate, Hillary Clinton announced early in the evening that her campaign would be live fact checking Donald Trump’s falsehoods on her campaign website and urged viewers to go there to get the truth. That’s fine, as a piece of political theater or propaganda. And I agree with the suggestion that Trump is a major liar. But you’d have to be pretty deep in the tank for Clinton to think that her campaign staff will be fair, reasonable or even honest about everything Trump says. And you have to be even deeper to think that anything of questionable truthfulness that Clinton says will get a tough but fair treatment on Hillary.org. 

Here is Factcheck.org’s excellent fact check of the debate. (It starts off, by the way, with a falsehood by Clinton.)

I have the feeling you would learn more facts, more reliably if you just read that piece and skipped the debate — plus you would be spared all the visuals and histrionics that generally take over one’s impression of such an event.

In general, Trump has set back the quest for truth quite a bit, not only by engaging in a fairly epic level of lying, but by demonstrating (to my considerable surprise) that such a level of contempt for truth-telling — or even a minimum level respect for factuality after the lies have been pointed out — is not disqualifying in a candidate for president.

That word, “disqualifying,” is used in a hoity-toity way by the Smart Set, often about Trump, to describe his various boorish behaviors and also his lies as “disqualifying” him from the presidency. But he’s done a pretty good job of demonstrating that the only way he will be “disqualified” is if he loses the election, and that turns out to be a decision not entirely up to the Smart Set.

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Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/28/2016 - 10:26 am.

    Recall from a few years ago, the start of the journey down the rabbit hole of the “new truth”

    ….The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” … “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”…

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 09/28/2016 - 12:44 pm.

      Recall from Nineteen Eighty-Four

      “Your kind is extinct; we are the inheritors…you are outside history, you are non-existent.’’

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/29/2016 - 11:01 am.

      And the irony…

      Is that this traces back to Karl Rove and fits, much to Rove’s horror, exactly the rise and run of Trump.

      Karl Rove: The godfather of Trumpism

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/28/2016 - 05:24 pm.

    It is important to point out that there are, indeed, facts. We are, as a nation, in deep trouble when video clips of a candidate like Trump saying things are denied by him as things he said. He’s in a bubble of his own reality, which is what he says it is at any given moment.

    Incidentally, PBS’s “Frontline” program on Tuesday night, “The Choice,” a combined biography of each of the main presidential candidates, goes a long way to explaining the characters of these two. Particularly Hillary Clinton’s obsession for personal privacy and Donald Trump’s desperate need to constantly self-aggrandize and use put-downs of others as a means of making himself seem bigger, more important, a “winner.” The documentary pulls no punches in either case.

    “The Choice” proceeds chronologically (Trump and Clinton are about the same age), jumping from one to the other life experience. Fascinating!

  3. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/28/2016 - 08:05 pm.

    Really?

    I will say in advance that I take President Obama at his word about his faith; it’s not important to me. But I want to challenge Erik’s assertion that the belief that President Obama is a Muslim is “a belief for which there is no evidence worthy of the name “evidence.”

    In fact, president Obama’s father was a Muslim, and the President spent many of his formative years in a Muslim household in Indonesia. Perhaps for people who grow up with their parents’ religious beliefs that is evidence enough.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 09/29/2016 - 10:05 am.

      Yes, really

      the question is not what President Obama’s father’s or mother’s or half-sister’s or fifth cousin twice removed’s faith was or is, it is what *his* faith *is*. on that question, there is no evidence worth the name for the option, “Islam.”

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 10/05/2016 - 12:14 pm.

        Have Faith, Ye

        But Obama has probably met a lot of Muslims in his lifetime, ergo he could be one.

        As my wife says, just because someone uses if/then statements, it doesn’t mean they’re using logic.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 09/28/2016 - 09:55 pm.

    Constance, yes

    the frontline presentation on Tuesday eve. was very well put together, and non biased. It is too bad that it was not shown in place of to the millions who watched the so-called ‘debate’ on Monday evening.
    And Brian…..you cannot let go, can you. . I grew up in a very conservative, Republican household in my ‘formative’ years. I changed my political leanings upon gaining the maturity people experience when leaving one’s sheltered childhood.

    • Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/29/2016 - 08:41 am.

      Misunderstanding

      In my formative years, an aunt we were trying to mislead said “all lies are based on a small truth.” My point In noting the president’s upbringing is in that spirit. For people who are otherwise inclined to oppose Obama, the barest evidence will be necessary to reach a negative conclusion, despite significant evidence to the contrary. The same is true for Sec Clinton, people inclined to oppose her don’t seem to spend much time verifying the facts that conflict with a negative view. I daresay the opponents of Trump likely fall into that trap as well. Speaking for myself, my view of the man is low enough that if he managed to string together a paragraph of coherent thought, I’d likely assume an imposter was making the statement.

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/04/2016 - 10:56 am.

    It’s not about facts, it about intellectual integrity

    Whoever said the opinion vs. fact thing was correct. One may be able to assemble some facts to support a false premise or opinion, but it’s dishonest to do so. It’s the difference between debate gaming and legitimate reason.

    Furthermore, truth and reality aren’t established by “fact” tallies, that’s simply not how facts work. Reality and truth are based on the quality and reliability of facts, not the numbers of facts. One irrefutable fact cannot be negated by a million other facts and anyone who claims to work with facts for a living should know that. You can find dozens of facts, satellite photos, aluminum tubes invoices, stuff that some people say, etc. etc…. all for naught when confronted by a single irrefutable fact that that are no weapons of mass destruction. Truth isn’t based on a scorecard of “facts. Again, there’s a difference between legitimate reasoning and debate gaming. It’s important to understand what a “fact” actually is and how they inform knowledge.

    Furthermore, I hate to say it but I think Mr. Black may be revealing some decades long confusion of his own. I’ve always assumed that the phrase: “You are entitled to your own opinions but not your own facts” referred to practice of manufacturing facts to support opinion, manufactured “facts” are not actually “facts, they are lies… real lies. It’s may be simply be ironic that journalists who claim to be preoccupied with facts have had sooooo much difficulty finding the difference between facts and manufactured facts or lies, but it’s also the product of a good many journalist who are not nearly as adept at recognizing facts as they think they are. Examples of such failures are legion hence decades of unreliable reporting on everything from missile gaps to WMDs.

    The problem with “facticious” or “Objective” journalism is that it struggles but never succeeds in escaping grandiose pretense. The idea that journalist are the arbiters of “reality” is simply grandiose and sometimes dangerous. The truth is that the pretense of “facticiousness” as often obscures facts than reveals them. The illusion of objectivity and fact is a screen behind which many journalist and/or their editors hide when they don’t want to challenge power or otherwise take risks. So the “fact” that Iraq has a WMD program get reported by fact crazy major newspapers who later refuse to report the “fact” that they were lied to. The “fact” that someone said something obscures the fact that what they said was a lie. And so it goes. There’s nothing “objective” or “factual” about a process like that.

    As for fact checking, in and of itself its not a bad idea, and it can certainly be helpful, but one has to understand the function of facts and the context they inform. The problem with those ratings we see on Politifact and elsewhere is that they are statistically unreliable. For instance at one point Politifact rated Clinton as more “Honest” than Sanders but it was obvious that they produced that rating with a screwed sample selection. In other words they got that rating by selecting which and how many facts to check. They may have gotten the individual facts checks right, but the ratings are statistical garbage. So it is a fact that Politifact issued a rating, but it is not a fact that Clinton is more honest than Sanders.

    In the meantime we as a society have to get our heads around the fact that there is such a thing as a publicly verifiable fact, and such facts inform knowledge via appropriate context. Manufactured facts are not facts and decontextualized facts servicing false claims are lies. So no, you cannot produce facts that prove your “opinon” that Obama is a Muslim, the proposition is simply false. Yes, we have these facts: Obama is a black man, Obama’s dad is from Kenya, Obama’s name is: “Obama”, etc. etc. etc. ALL obliterated the single irrefutable fact that Obama is a Christian. That’s how it works, it’s not a matter of stacking up facts and saying my pile is bigger than yours. You either have an irrefutable fact that proves Obama is a Muslim or you don’t and since Obama is a Christian no such fact can exist.

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