The Art Of Telling The Truth

Getting political journalism to focus on fact checking is appealing in principle. It is disappointing – even futile – in practice.

You can understand why people find fact checking seductive. Our politicians pander to prejudices, fudge policy details, vilify their opponents, and exaggerate their own virtues for votes.

But as good democrats we put the winners of this squalid electoral contest in charge of the levers of government. So it would be nice to know which politician lies least.

And there’s clearly frustration with journalism as it is practiced today: why not make its new duty to judge political untruths?

Fact checking was a feature of the 2012 Presidential campaign. One frustrated Mitt Romney advisor said he wouldn’t “let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers”.

But, in a column over the weekend, Australia’s Laurie Oakes unintentionally demonstrated how faddish and illusory the fact checking idea really is.

Writing that he expected fact checking to become a central part of Australian journalism, Oakes identified two recent falsehoods: Julia Gillard’s “there will be no carbon tax under a government I lead”, and Tony Abbott’s claims about the future economic cost of that tax.

If only it were so clear.

Did Julia Gillard lie about the carbon tax on 16 August 2010? Well, yes. And no.

She probably thought she wouldn’t introduce a “carbon tax” in the next term of government. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t introduce an emissions trading scheme. And what we call a carbon tax in 2012 is actually the latter with an initial fixed price.

Yet free market economists have long insisted that, contrary to popular wisdom, there’s not a big conceptual difference between a tax and a trading scheme. They both price carbon. A tax could be described as a “market mechanism” too.

The point is these are terms of art, not science.

The idea that a journalist – or scientist, or economist, or philosopher – would be able to provide anything near a definitive statement of whether Julia Gillard was being factually accurate is nonsense.

Anyway, how on earth could the press gallery fact check a prediction? Tony Abbott’s claims about the carbon tax’s economic impact are almost entirely rhetorical. Yes, he understates how much of recent electricity price rises have been due to the changes in the energy industry – an understatement which is regularly pointed out in parliament and the press. But as to the carbon tax’s real cost?

Models of future economic costs merely reflect the assumptions they’re built upon. We don’t know how much a policy hurts until long afterwards. Even then it’s still quite hard to tell. Fact checking of such predictions is just arguing the toss.

This problem is clearly illustrated in the latest piece on The Washington Post’s Fact Checkerblog. Run by a veteran correspondent, Glenn Kessler, Fact Checker is apparently the gold standard in the field.

The story goes like this. Republicans have been citing an Ernst & Young study saying tax increases on the rich would “destroy nearly 700,000 jobs”.

Kessler notes that a) the jobs are lost over a decade or more, b) 700,000 jobs is only a tiny fraction of total employment, c) the study ignores the benefits of reducing the deficit, and d) there’s a different study that says otherwise.

For their “misleading” analysis, he awarded the Republicans three out of four Pinocchios.

But who is being misleading here? The Republicans aren’t wrong. At best they are guilty of an ungenerous presentation of the evidence. The Ernst & Young study says 700,000 jobs will be lost – just not immediately. You can’t refute rhetorical excess.

What Kessler isn’t doing isn’t fact checking, really. It’s just more argument. Which is fine, but let’s not pretend that more argument is a journalism revolution. And it’s definitely not new.
Even apparently clear falsehoods – for instance, Mitt Romney’s ad saying Barack Obama “sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China” – are more subtle than they’ve been presented. In a confusingly worded Bloomberg article, Chrysler was reported to be considering exactly that.

Kessler gave Romney four Pinnochios for his Chrysler ad, but his actual conclusion was more modest.

The ad was “a series of statements that individually might be factually defensible, but the overall impression is misleading”.

In the hands of partisans this has become a classic Romney ‘lie’.

Certainly, Romney had confused the Chrysler issue in an earlier speech in Ohio. But senior politicians are usually very clever with their words. They don’t lie. They dissemble.
Kessler to his credit is relatively even-handed. He goes after both left and right.

Such non-discrimination is unusual. Fact checking is more common as a political attack than journalistic technique. Hacks of all sides push their own fact checkers. It’s just another weapon in the partisan’s armoury. Smugly purporting to be on the side of ‘reality’ is a fashionable way to hit your opponent.

There’s a more critical problem with the fact checking fad. Political journalism is a business of generalists not experts. The best reporters know a little about a lot, not a lot about a little.

That, indeed, is why the ‘he-said, she-said’ model of journalism was developed. He-said, she-said has a bad reputation these days – it is often used unthinkingly – but it exists for a reason. It reflects a modesty that generalists cannot rule definitively on all issues. Sometimes you need to call a specialist. If something is controversial, you may need to call two.

Political rhetoric is rarely true or false. When an issue is simple, politicians will fudge it. When an issue is complicated, it requires experts to unpack.

Either way, self-conscious and self-satisfied ‘fact checking’ is no magic bullet.