Why can't the press drop the pretenses and call people who lie liars?
On the Media co-host Bob Garfield, exasperation filling his voice, asked that late last month on his show. Garfield's prime example of a public figure deserving the label was Alberto Gonzales.
"In the major institutions of the media, hardly a soul has invoked the term that best describes [Gonzales'] failure to tell the truth," Garfield said. "The word is lying."
Garfield's guest, New York Times Public Editor Clark Hoyt, explained the media's traditional aversion. "It's such a loaded, judgmental word. It's certainly appropriate to use it if you're quoting someone, but adopting it yourself I think leaves you open to all kinds of accusations of partisanship," Hoyt said.
But the reluctance to use the L word appears to be eroding within the press, as the Washington Post and the St. Petersburg Times have launched "fact checking" features to assess the truth value of what's mouthed by political figures and institutions. These features were predated by FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania. Run by journalist Brooks Jackson, FactCheck.org has been policing the liar beat since December 2003.
The Post calls its feature "The Fact Checker," and started it yesterday (Sept. 19). The St. Pete Times has produced "PolitiFact" in conjunction with its corporate sibling Congressional Quarterly since the end of August.
Although newspapers have always reported the prevarications of politicians, the two new fact-checking columns hand out harsh grades to fabricators. The Fact Checker column, written by longtime Post reporter Michael Dobbs with the assistance of researcher Alice Crites, applies what it calls "the Pinocchio Test" to statements. Following a sliding scale, the column gives between one and four Pinocchios to untrue statements, with four Pinocchios reserved for "Whoppers." A "Geppetto Checkmark" goes to statements deemed absolutely true, and the feature reserves the right to withhold judgment on controversial statements until it can collect sufficient research.
PolitiFact, headed by St. Pete Times Washington Bureau Chief Bill Adair, draws on two dozen editors, researchers, and writers from the St. Pete Times and CQ to focus on presidential candidates. Many PolitiFact investigations end up in the St. Pete Times and CQ. The Truth-O-Meter at PolitiFact runs from True to Mostly True to Half-True to Barely True to False to Pants on Fire! So far in the presidential campaign, Bill Richardson, Mike Gravel, and Joe Biden have earned Pants on Fire! grades.
Over at FactCheck.org, about a dozen staffers scrutinize the speeches and interviews of major political players for factual accuracy. Befitting its academic and think tank roots, FactCheck.org doesn't award anything like a Pinocchio or a pair of burning pants to liars, but its assessments are as thorough and reliable as any to be found. Both Dobbs and Adair acknowledge their debt to FactCheck.org.
The fact-checking features do what journalism has always done—sort fact from fake. But too often, newspapers wait until the 17th paragraph of a he-said, she-said to announce their findings of fact. The design of these news features is to use a new form to "get to the truthfulness of the underlying issues," as Dobbs puts it, "to take a position more clearly."
"The information market place is more chaotic than ever, so it's important to sort it out for readers," says Adair, citing the accelerated news cycle and pressure of the Web and blogs. Adair says his newspaperknowingly published lots of false comments from candidates during the 2004 and 2006 campaigns, and that troubled him.
"We were trying so hard to be impartial we fell down on our responsibility to blow our whistle when they were saying something false," he says. There had to be a better way to prevent falsehoods from getting out there and sticking, he says. Hence PolitiFact.
Why do politicians lie? Adair has a simple theory: "Because politicians and candidates often feel they need a little more juice than they can get from the truth."
Politicians started losing the battle of facts with journalists in the early 1990s, as Nexis use became ubiquitous. Clinton adviser George Stephanopoulos famously complained about sea change in 1993 in a piece by the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman. "We have become hostage to Lexis-Nexis," he said, because it lets reporters locate every promise Clinton has ever made. Today, the playing field has become even more level as politicians and journalists find themselves second-guessed by the public, who rely on the poor man's Nexis—the Web—to similarly supercharge their research efforts.
George Washington University media professor Mark Feldstein sees the rise of political fact-checking departments as the next step in the battle of wits between the press and pols. "As the press has gotten more aggressive in its reporting, so the politicians have gotten more aggressive in their manipulations. It's like 'Spy vs. Spy' in Mad magazine."
Feldstein sees the features as an example of the press adapting to a more competitive environment, noting that "bloggers are not loath to call people liars." The fact-checking sites "offer more analytical and pointed coverage, because their old bland standard of objectivity doesn't cut it any longer," he says.
Like most journalists, Adair wants to avoid the word liar because, as he says, it's so "loaded." But by the time you bestow Pants on Fire! spankings to politicians, aren't you just relying on a euphemism for the L word?
Adair concedes the point, but adds, "Essentially, it's saying it without saying the word, but realize that so far we've defined Pants on Fire! in a light-hearted way to point out rhetorical excess."
It's all well and good to exterminate political lies, but can politics exist without lies?
Not as long as politicians need the juice.
"That's what will keep me in business for the rest of my career," says Adair.
As much as I admire FactCheck.org, I bristle every time I see its name in the proximity of its benefactor, the late, unlamented Walter Annenberg. Annenberg regarded political truth as a nuisance. From his grave, he battles with his millions to establish an undeserved reputation for himself as a defender of the press and protecter of the truth. For more of my malignant views on the "Ambassador," see my 2002 obituary, "Citizen Annenberg." Meanwhile, get off your duff and round up a passel of political lies for the magnifying glasses of the fact checkers. Their e-mail addresses are Editor@FactCheck.org, email@example.com, and firstname.lastname@example.org. Send the usual crap to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)