If you’ve been paying attention to the on-going saga of print media, you’ll have noticed that there’s been a bit of a fad recently for “fact-checking” anything and everything. Obviously, there’s a point to this – when politicians or other public officials make inaccurate statements they need to be held accountable. But the potential use of this seems undermined by the various flaws in our existing media and political status quo, namely the increasing reliance on wired news stories provided by centralized news content creators (like the Associated Press), the extremes of media consolidation, the expectations of cooperation between major media sources in creating compatible narratives, and the demonstrably untrue mantra of “both sides do it”.
As a result of the last issue especially, we end up with articles like this one from the Sacramento Bee last week, which seems to want to copy the fact-checking frenzy following Paul Ryan’s and Mitt Romney’s acceptance speeches at the Republican National Convention. It hilarious contains arguments like the following:
“Biden: ‘After the worst job loss since the Great Depression, we’ve created 4.5 million private sector jobs in the past 29 months.’
The facts: This seems to be a favorite statistic, because many speakers at the convention cited it. But it’s misleading – a figure that counts jobs from when the recession reached its trough and employment began to grow again. It excludes jobs lost earlier in Obama’s term, and masks the fact that joblessness overall has risen over Obama’s term so far.“
It should be obvious, the trough that the article discusses is the same job losses that Biden discussed. They’re in perfect agreement. The article could have fact-checked him, in some sense, by contesting that his choice of those specific metrics is a problem, but it didn’t, and instead we have the article faulting him for not walking back his claim, in exactly the way he did.
I was actually so surprised by the overall detachment from reality of the article that I wanted to get some sense of the actual source’s credibility – was this written by some one known to be misleading (if blatantly so) or had a trusted reporter just given up or given in to the expectations for the media? The Sacramento Bee helpfully labeled the beginning of this article as simply being from the Associated Press and the end from the Tribune Washington Bureau – with the dividing line ostensibly being where the article suddenly turns towards discussing Clinton’s speech, rather than Obama’s and Biden’s.
The first portion of the Bee’s article (which included the delightful bit about Biden) can eventually be traced back to this article, from the New Tribune, which it credits to Tom Raum and Calvin Woodward (yes, it apparently required two writers to string together quotes from Obama’s and Biden’s speeches and then immediately afterwards spout sometimes nonsensical “fact-checking” rebuttals). Once you actually have the names of the authors, it becomes much easier to gauge the credibility of this argument. I might forgive the Bee for printing Tom Raum, since the only issue I can find is that he often editorializes supposedly factual reporting, and when inserting his opinion, doesn’t seem too concerned that it’s terribly logical. For instance, while he claimed that a jobs bill that Obama pushed didn’t do enough, he didn’t suggest a larger bill, but inaction – how no policy change is better than inadequate policy change is left as an exercise for the readers.
I do insist on faulting them for reprinting the other author, Calvin Woodward, as he’s been taken to task by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR) multiple times. One of his more notable articles actually argued something rather similar to the News Tribune article’s intriguing claim against Biden. In this case, he instead “fact-checked” Obama’s complaint that he inherited a deficit, insisting that as a former Senator, Obama is responsible for that debt, but likewise as current President, he’s responsible for any gains on the debt. The Associated Press also published that story, in spite of the clear contradiction in its own logic.
Faulting the Sacramento Bee for making the poor choice of reprinting these authors admittedly assumes that either the wire story credited them (which it may not have) or that the Bee bothered to find out about the source if they managed to find out the authors’ names. It’s impossible to determine whether the Sacramento Bee agreed with the transparent effort at “balance” by printing a “fact-checking” of certain speeches at the DNC just as harsh as those following the RNC or if the Bee simply didn’t concern itself with finding out who wrote this article and if they were credible. Of course, it’s quite possible, and even quite likely that both are true – the Bee published a condensed form of the original article because it thought it would make for more “even-handed” coverage and the Bee didn’t know and didn’t both to find out the background of its authors. So the Bee’s purported “fact-check” was more concerned with how it appeared than the actual facts and didn’t follow basic journalism protocols.
But going back to the still comical faulting of Biden for not saying what he said, here the Bee’s failures are even more readily apparent. The original article is much longer than what they printed, and was clearly edited to make those reductions less apparent. Looking over the New Tribune article, and the Los Angeles Times article that provided the section on Clinton’s speech, we find that an enormous portion of both were cut for space:
(The first article has a slightly darker background and ends at the double lines. From both articles the red text was deleted, the blue text was inserted or modified, and the black text was retained.)
Somehow, the Sacramento Bee cut out the majority of both articles, spliced them together, editing certain areas where the cuts had made the text less clear, but missed that one of the quotes in their article pretty clearly agreed with the “fact-checking” of it? The original authors of the News Tribune story are culpable for writing this inane “fact-checking”, but the Associated Press decided that it was sufficiently accurate and well-written to include in their network and the Sacramento Bee decided during extensive editing, that this specific point was well-written and sensible enough to include while so many others were not.
This is what a media in crisis – lacking legitimacy, culpability, or responsibility – looks like. It’s a media that needs to be fact checked itself.