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Rise of the farce checkers

The whole political "fact" checking industry has become something of a farce as it descends further and further into highly subjective opinion journalism.

(Image: Washington Post)

Whatever you think of Donald Trump–and I for one certainly have my doubts–it is absolutely clear that his campaign has driven the liberal mainstream media into an unhinged conniption fit.

If nothing else, this election cycle has exposed much of the media for the biased group they are.

In few places is this more obvious than the growing industry of "fact checkers." Now facts are, as John Adams rightly put, "stubborn things." But the intrepretion of facts is rather subjective. Yet most of these fact checking organizations have at least implicitly made the rather bold and completely unjustifiable claim that they can simply tell how much truth there is in a subjective and often nuanced argument (an argument they almost always boil down to one or two sentences).

Of course, if some politician says the U.S. spends $25 trillion a year on defense, that is simply wrong. But if, for example, Rand Paul states that the average federal worker makes $120,000 while the average private sector worker makes $60,000 a year, one could, as PolitiFact did, claim this is false because it is comparing total compensation instead of wages. Even though Paul compared the total compensation of each, he was deemed a liar based on a technicality that PolitiFact pulled out of it's PolitiA...

PolitiFact further claimed that federal jobs and private jobs are different and thereby difficult to compare. Oddly enough, the author of that piece forgot to note that the sky is blue and two plus two is equal to four.

(Image: Washington Post) (Image: Washington Post)

I will remind you that all this fact checker was checking on was one sentence by Rand Paul; "The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year."

I'm sure Paul could elaborate further on this, but nope, that one sentence is deemed false because of the context.

This is a critical point. Namely, many of these fact checkers are making decisions about the accuracy of any given statement based on their own determination of its context. If it were merely fact checking, PolitiFact would have said Paul's statement was true along with perhaps a note stating you should also consider X, Y and Z about the context. However, when given the ability to judge the context in which these statements are made, bias can easily come into play.

On the other side, for example, Michael Moore claimed in his film "Capitalism: A Love Story," that "A lot of people got rich — and they had to pay a top tax rate of 90 percent." PolitiFact ranked this as "Mostly True" only dissenting on the point that the 90 percent rate was a marginal tax rate.

Now this is true. Back in the 50's, the top marginal tax rate was 91 percent. However, context is important. And the context here is that nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, paid that rate. For a more detailed explanation, you can go here, but the long and short of it is the United States government didn't collect any more as a percentage of GDP back then than it does now and it collected hardly any more from the richest Americans due to the myriad of deductions that were available in the pre-1986 tax code.

So, had Moore's claim been subjected to the same criteria as Paul's, it would have been deemed false.

Thus it should be pretty obvious where this is going. If the fact checkers are allowed to make determinations based on context rather than simply "the facts", and those fact checkers lean in a certain direction politically, there will almost certainly be bias in that direction.

Given The New York Times, Politico and The Washington Post are notoriously left wing, it shouldn't be any surprise how much more often their fact checkers had out Pinocchios to Republicans. Here are a few highlights from such outlets regarding their "fact checking" courtesy of The Washington Times:

"New York Times

"(2) Trump quote/assertions: 'Mrs. Clinton destroyed 13 smartphones with a hammer while she was secretary of state.' (Speeches in Florida, Sept. 15 and Sept. 19)

"Fact-check: 'An aide told the FBI of only two occasions in which phones were destroyed by a hammer.'

"...Politico:

"(4) Trumpquote: 'We’re presiding over something the world has not seen. The level of evil is unbelievable.' (Sept. 19, Fort Myers, Florida, rally)

Fact-check: 'Judging one ‘level of evil’ against another is subjective, but other groups in recent history have without any question engaged in as widespread killing of civilians as ISIS.'”

Need I even comment?

With Trump especially, this is even worse since Trump speaks in grandiose statements that aren't meant to be taken literally. For example, Trump said the United States was the "most highly taxed nation in the world." Every fact checker rated that as false, of course, but did anyone listening to that think he literally meant the U.S. was the most taxed in the world and not just taxed too much?

(CNN holds the record on this by embarrassingly fact-checking Trump's claim that Hillary Clinton was the founder of Islamic State. Oddly enough, for some reason they didn't call him a liar when he said our trade deals were costing us an arm and a leg.)

Returning to the bias of the organizations at hand, it is quite easy to demonstrate just how banal it is to even distinguish their fact checking from their op-eds. Imagine if conservative outlets such as The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Caller and, of course, The Blaze garnered the zeal for fact checking that the left has. Would anyone be surprised if Republicans started getting better ratings?

Obviously then, the gold standard would be the "non-partisan" fact checkers, most notably PolitiFact which is the most famous fact checker out there. Yet it doesn't take much more than a Google search or two to uncover their bias.

PolitiFact is owned by The Tampa Bay Times, which, in its own words, has "...never recommended a Republican for governor or U.S. president..." So what difference is there between them and The Washington Post's fact checkers?

Indeed, a study by George Mason University Center for Media and Public Affairs concluded statements by Republicans were rated "False" or "Pants on Fire" three times as often as those of Democrats. Perhaps Republicans simply lie more than Democrats (although that's not what surveys say). But you don't have to read many posts on the PolitiFactBias blog to come to the conclusion that that is an embarrassingly simplistic way to look at it.

I could not find a breakdown of PolitiFact's fact checkers by political registration overall, but I did for PolitiFact Ohio in 2012, where 12 of the 15 fact checkers are Democrats. Somehow I suspect this is par for the course with PolitiFact and most of the other fact checkers as well.

If you think about it, what is the difference between a fact checker and any other political pundit? After all, these pundits are making an argument based on the evidence as they see it. Often times, they will call out politicians or other pundits for being wrong or dishonest. Effectively, these Fact Checkers are making the case that they are non-partisan, political pundits who will look at the evidence, but have absolutely no axe to grind whatsoever. Does anyone actually believe that?

Fortunately, not many. Most believe, quite accurately, that much of the "fact checking" business is little more than opinion journalism dressed up with the added arrogance of saying "my opinion is a fact." A recent Rasmussen poll found that only 29 percent of the public trusts these fact checkers. Yes, there is a place for fact checking. But there is no paragon of truth that will simply tell you "the facts" without any bias whatsoever. Outside of simple and mundane questions, the truth is simply more complicated and harder to ascertain than that.

TheBlaze contributor channel supports an open discourse on a range of views. The opinions expressed in this channel are solely those of each individual author.

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