11.01.08

The Week in Fact-Checking

The best in truth-seeking from around the world. Today: godless Senate candidates, phony war heroes, and lying children.

Fact-checking appears to be the only industry in America that isn’t tanking. The presidential election has produced an avalanche of fact-checking from journalists, political campaigns, and venerable sites like FactCheck.org. It seems like a fine time to round up the best of the week. And as it turns out, when you start looking at context and chronology and semantics, fact-checking is far less definitive than its highly confident name suggests.

Retroactive fact-checking has become as common in this election as American flag lapel pins. But the Cleveland Plain Dealer took it one step further this week during Sen. Obama’s 30-minute campaign commercial. They injected real-time fact-checking into their live blogging. Typical example: At the 8:35 mark, the reporters noted: “If the plan Obama presented to create a 90-day halt to foreclosures sounds familiar, it's because Senator Hillary Clinton had a similar notion in December 2007.”

If you try fact-checking a child, you might be in for a surprise. They lie all the time..

Veracity is also under attack locally. Take North Carolina, where the incumbent Elizabeth Dole is fighting off a challenge from Kay Hagan. Dole launched a TV commercial claiming that Hagan accepted money from a group with the subtle name of “Godless Americans.” According to Newschannel 36, the ad bleats, “A leader of the Godless Americans PAC recently held a secret fundraiser in Kay Hagan's honor.” Newschannel 36 responded: “Here are the facts. Sen. Hagan attended a fundraiser at the home of Wendy Kaminer and Woody Kaplan. Kaplan is an advisory board member of Godless Americans. Newschannel 36 found that he donated $2,300 to the Hagan campaign. The group, ‘Godless Americans’ did not donate to the campaign. Hagan is an elder in her church and a lifelong Christian.”

Can you fact-check conventional wisdom? According to “three scholars associated with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis,” you most certainly can. Reason.com recently featured their study “Facts and Myths about the Financial Crisis of 2008.” The scholars decided to test the "widely held claims about the nature of the [financial] crisis and the associated spillovers.” Their analysis purports to prove that liquidity has not dried up, while questioning the very argument that “banks play a large role in channeling funds from savers to borrowers.”

Oliver Stone’s presidential biopic has been a magnet for fact-checkers. A shout-out to the UC Santa Cruz’s student run newspaper, which pulled together a bunch of reportorial strands to conclude: “While there is truth behind W., Stone took many liberties with the character, painting him as more of a caricature of the man still in office—perhaps exaggerated to fit the picture that many Americans have of him.” Nice to see the objectivity of promising undergraduates has not been harmed by the last eight years.

Great fact-check in The Chicago Tribune: the paper found that “scores of Americans, from clergymen to lawyers to CEOs, are claiming medals of valor they never earned.” Using “Who’s Who” as their source, they found a stunning level of serial exaggeration. “Of the 333 people whose profiles state they earned one of the nation's most esteemed military medals, fully a third cannot be supported by military records.” Death continues the charade. The paper examined 273 obituaries and found that “in more than four of five cases, official records didn't support decorations for bravery.” And in at least two military cemeteries there are “bogus decorations” of Medals of Honor. The Tribune contacted some of the reputation forgers. Michael Roshkind, a former senior executive at Motown Records, said he had awarded himself the Navy Cross “to make myself a hero to my wife, or something like that. I'm not proud of that, but it's history." Yeah, and like most of history, no one bothers to check.

Lastly, a word about our innocent youth. If you try fact-checking a child, you might be in for a surprise. They lie all the time. According to a story on MSN, young children don’t know the difference between fact and fiction. And if you’re one of those aggressive, success-mad parents, you might be rooting for prevarication. "Preschoolers with higher IQ scores are more likely to lie," says Angela Crossman, associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, who researched the subject. “Early lying proficiency may also be linked with good social skills in adolescence.”

Adam Hanft is a decoder of the consumer culture and our branded planet. He blogs for The Huffington Post and FastCompany.com, and has been published extensively, including in The Wall Street Journal, Slate, Civilization, Radar, and the back-page column for Inc. He has appeared on CNN, the Today show and many other media outlets. He is also the co-author of Dictionary of the Future. Adam also decodes the culture as founder and CEO of the marketing and branding firm Hanft Raboy.