If you’ve ever found yourself engaged in a futile, one-sided argument with a politician on your TV screen, you’re hardly alone in your frustration. However, if you’re inclined to jot down such intemperate outbursts, and have the chutzpah to charge people for your services—you might have what it takes to join the ranks of one of journalism’s most popular and elite new breeds.
They call themselves “fact checkers,” and with the name comes a veneer of objectivity doubling as a license to go after any remark by a public figure they find disagreeable for any reason. Just look at the Associated Press to understand how the scheme works. The venerable wire service’s recent “fact check” of statements made at the November 12 GOP presidential candidates’ foreign policy debate was a doozy. Throwing no less than seven reporters at the effort, the piece came up with some unusual examples of what it means to correct verifiable truths.
On Iran, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney suggested that the U.S. government should make it “very clear that the United States of America is willing, in the final analysis, if necessary, to take military action to keep Iran from having a nuclear weapon.”
Little did Romney realize that the AP is the final arbiter of America’s tactical military capabilities and can say with certainty that a military attack on Iran’s nuclear program should not be attempted. “The U.S. certainly has military force readily at hand to destroy Iran’s known nuclear development sites in short order. This is highly unlikely, however, because of the strategic calculation that an attack would be counterproductive and ultimately ineffective, spawning retaliation against U.S. allies and forces in the region, and merely delaying eventual nuclear weapons development.”
Also fortunate for the savvy news consumer, the AP apparently has a better grasp of what America’s intelligence agencies do and do not know than Newt Gingrich, a man who used to be third in line for the presidency and has received countless classified intelligence briefings.
At the debate, Gingrich suggested that there was room for improvement at America’s intelligence agencies, and noted in particular that we don’t have a reliable intelligence operation in Pakistan. The AP sprang to the defense of the CIA:
“The U.S. killing of a succession of al Qaeda figures in Pakistan, none more prized by America than Osama bin Laden, demonstrates that the United States indeed gets vital and reliable intelligence out of Pakistan. While it may have been true when Gingrich left government in 1999 that the CIA’s spy network was limited, since 2001 the agency has dramatically expanded its on-the-ground operations worldwide,” the AP “fact check” concluded.
The fact that bin Laden, the most wanted man on the planet, was living in a compound in Pakistan possibly for years may seem like a sign that our intelligence sources in the country leave something to be desired—but guess again, Newt.
If these examples are laughably transparent attempts by the AP to weigh in with its own opinions against the opinions of the GOP candidates—thinly disguised as “fact checking”—they’re not unusual. And the rare occasions where fact checkers deign to deal with actual facts and figures inspire little more confidence.
Media fact checking endeavors have never been more popular and influential than they are now, largely thanks to the success of the St. Petersburg Times feature called “PolitiFact.” Launched in 2007, PolitiFact purports to judge the factual accuracy of statements from politicians and other prominent national figures.
A statement is presented in bold type at the top of the page, usually accompanied by a picture of the speaker. Off to the side is a “Truth-O-Meter” graphic depicting an old-school instrument gauge. The Truth-O-Meter displays a red, yellow, or green light depending on whether the statement is rated “true,” “mostly true,” “half true,” “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire!” (To drive the point home, on the website the “pants on fire!” rating is accompanied by animated flames.) Below the Truth-O-Meter is a short explanation from PolitiFact’s editors justifying their rating.
The feature quickly gained popularity, and in 2009 the St. Petersburg Times won a Pulitzer Prize for PolitiFact, endowing the innovation with a great deal of credibility. “According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact . . . ” has now become a kind of Beltway Tourette syndrome, a phrase sputtered by journalists and politicians alike in an attempt to buttress their arguments.
If the stated goal seems simple enough—providing an impartial referee to help readers sort out acrimonious and hyperbolic political disputes—in practice PolitiFact does nothing of the sort.
Here’s a not-atypical case study. On November 7, 2010, newly elected Senator Rand Paul appeared on ABC’s This Week with Christiane Amanpour. One of the topics of discussion was pay for federal workers. “The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year,” Paul said. “The average private employee makes $60,000 a year.”
Given that the news these days often boils down to debates over byzantine policy details, Paul’s statement is about as close to an empirically verifiable fact as you’re likely to hear a politician utter.
And the numbers are reasonably clear. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis—yes, that’s a government agency—federal workers earned average pay and benefits of $123,049 in 2009 while private workers made on average $61,051 in total compensation. What’s more, the pay gap between the federal and private sectors has been growing substantially. A decade ago, average pay and benefits for federal workers was $76,187—federal civil servants have seen a 62 percent increase in their compensation since then, more than double the 30.5 percent increase in the private sector.
So federal workers are paid twice as much and their income has been rising over twice as fast. If that’s not out- rageous enough, from December 2007 to June 2009, the federal workforce saw a 46 percent increase in the number of employees with salaries over $100,000, a 119 percent increase in the number of those making over $150,000, and a 93 percent increase in the number of federal civil servants making over $170,000. Note that these figures do not include benefits, overtime, or bonuses.