In news, the details matter. Just look at NBC’s Brian Williams, and maybe even Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. Williams, who was in the actual war zone of Iraq, has been suspended for six months for his harrowing account of a helicopter trip that wasn’t all that harrowing. O’Reilly, who was not in a war zone but at least left the impression that he might have been, wove as chilling a yarn as he could about covering riots in Argentina after the Falklands War. O’Reilly hasn’t been suspended but he’s been on air a lot to defend his reputation.
What both Williams and O’Reilly face is that they live under the shadow of the public’s shorthand rule when it comes to trust: Have you been straight with us?
The public senses a continuous effort to manipulate them and trust is in short supply. It’s no accident that as trust in public figures of all kinds has fallen, fact-checking has grown in importance. I’ve toiled in the PolitiFact vineyards for a couple of years and in that time, I’ve come to see that my colleagues and I occupy a peculiar niche in the media ecosystem, and not necessarily one that is well understood.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t a popular image of us.
I still smile when I think about an editorial cartoon on Halloween right before the 2012 election. It showed Mitt Romney, hair standing on end in shock, opening the door to a diminutive trick-or-treater in thick glasses, holding a notebook and saying, “I’m a fact-checker.”
I get it. We are easily stereotyped as this pack of Lilliputians who live to set upon giants and tie them down with a hundred ropes.
But beyond the stereotype, I would say without reservation that this is the best job I’ve ever had in about 25 years of journalism. It’s plain ordinary fun, and you can understand why once you see it from the inside.
I would never argue that we are better than those who practice daily reporting, investigative or enterprise journalism. I do believe however that compared to those strains of reporting, fact-checking delivers a unique take on politicians and public events.
People in power like their rhetoric. They use big themes to generate a storyline that carries them forward and daily reporters play a clear role in this process. The reporters are obligated to convey the speaker’s core message and words, and every politician worth his or her salt knows it. Good reporters, which is most of them, will add contrary information and context, but they must first cover the basics and repeat some of those well-honed phrases. In contrast, fact-checkers set the talking points aside.
Rather than focus on a politician’s or pundit’s efforts to inspire, we drill down on the claims they marshal to buttress their big ideas. Our job is to determine whether their facts and their conclusions live in the happy harmony they would have us believe.
For example: President Barack Obama said the national mortgage settlement forced the big banks to pay back $50 billion. In reality, they off-loaded about a quarter of that on other investors. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, said 30 percent of the people released from Guantanamo returned to the “fight.” The actual number is closer to 15 percent, and most of those were let out before Obama took office.
Daily reporters would be remiss if they failed to make the soaring language their lead, but we are free to breeze by it. At those moments, to be a fact-checker is like driving a convertible with the top down on a warm sunny day, and unless you hunger for every nastygram about the other party that comes from the RNC or the DNC, you too can skip past the puffery and get into the meat. Assuming there is any.
Speaking of hunger, there’s a craving inside newsrooms for a shot at doing the “big story.” This kind of coverage wins prizes, and who knows, sometimes even leads to change. I know that hunger as well as anybody, but this is not on the fact-checking menu. And I’m rather surprised that not only do I not miss it, I’m happier without it.
Instead, fact-checking is a modest act. I don’t begin the day hoping or expecting to reveal some underlying trend that shapes the prevailing issue of the day. I aim to resolve the accuracy of a single point, and I plug away knowing that researching any individual claim is like pulling on the loose bit of yarn hanging off the cuff of a sweater. Each check reveals the connections that hold our image of the world together or, as the case may be, unravels those connections.
Do I often see how a small fact-check tells a bigger story? Absolutely. There’s something to be said for seeing the universe in a grain of sand. But on top of that, I think this bite-size daily vetting of accuracy is in sync with the steady flow of events that wash over our readers.
Some people might say that this granular approach limits us to playing small-ball, but I buy that line by Clint Eastwood in Magnum Force, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” For me, the limits of fact-checking are its strength. Our prime limitation is we only check claims that are susceptible to objective data. We check what is, or what was, but not what ifs.
This shapes what I do before I make my first phone call or look at a single chart. The world is full of ambiguity. For me, fact-checking steers me toward questions where there is solid, dependable information. We can never be caught in the trap of he-said-she-said, or of false equivalency where you plug in a contrary voice simply because that’s what objective journalism seems to demand. Whenever we can, we aim to let the numbers speak for themselves.
Many questions can’t be quantified and that’s fine. Historical facts, legal precedents, and rigorous studies by independent researchers work just as well. When necessary, we rely on the preponderance of evidence and acknowledge the limits of what is known.
But nothing beats a crisp spreadsheet from the Census Bureau or a table from the Energy Information Administration to give you that good feeling in your gut that what you have knit together will stand up to any scrutiny, and political ideology is irrelevant.
I think it’s satisfying to issue a verdict on the accuracy of someone’s statement. On matters of fact, most reporters know where they feel the truth lies but they can’t come out and say that. We can and that feels honest.
If all we did was hard policy, I’d grow weary but thankfully, every statement is fair game. Beyond politicians and pundits, we’ve checked comic strips, crazy stuff being passed around on Facebook, comedians, zealots and has-been rockers. People get their information in all kinds of ways and when a claim takes hold, we are free to give it the fact-check treatment no matter where it came from.
Not only does it spice up my daily life to deal with influence peddlers far beyond the Beltway, but this basic openness drops me into the places where more people hang out. The action that shapes our politics isn’t contained in the A-section of our newspapers. It can take place on late-night television or videos passed around on Twitter. We all know this.