A Note on Fact Checking, Equivocation, and the American Press

House Rules Committee Chairman Pete Sessions, R-Texas, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, May 7, 2014. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo)

“Sometimes a lawmaker will wander on the floor of the House or Senate and begin speaking without any notes. That’s a big mistake, especially for someone like Sessions — who is chairman of the House Rules Committee and was speaking about the federal budget.”

Glenn Kessler

The American political discourse is a strange brew of curious and even counterintuitive histories. There are the politicians, as a general classification, and if everything that can be said about them has been, it still isn’t enough. Voters are viciously demanding, and often contradictory unto themselves, both generally as a classification and particularly as individuals. The press is a business proposition―not the Fourth Estate―that has discovered better profits pretending that all things are equal.

Perhaps we might recall John Kerry’s run for president in 2004. The former U.S. Senator and current Secretary of State encountered a familiar problem along the way, a group of right-wing scandalmongers that had dogged him with their complaints for decades. He did what he always did, what people in Massachusetts were accustomed to, which was try to ignore them.

In the end, that didn’t work, because the press didn’t just treat the Swiftboat controversy as a shiny object, but as a shiny new thing. The American mainstream press is a business proposition, not the Fourth Estate. Due diligence in American journalism is simply enough explained: If somebody says something about somebody else, ask that other person. If there is a history defining the original claim as false, that is not of any useful concern to the press.

For Kerry, the fix was essentially in. Addressing the fake scandal was to stoop; ignoring the fake scandal was bad politics. That these people were lying and always had been was not of any useful concern to the press, despite the dishonesty being apparent from the outset.

In the end, Kerry was vindicated when a Newsweek reporter tracked down the third person who received medals for his actions on the day in question, and even the official paperwork showed Larry Thurlow to be a liar. The press’ response? To complain about John Kerry.

Voters? Hell, most can’t even be bothered to read the state voters’ guides. They need the press to tell them what’s in it, except most years the press doesn’t bother, either.

The response over the years has become a specialized cottage industry within journalism: fact checking. And it needs to be a specialty, because, well, you know, even by allegedly respectable standards, facts have nothing to do with being a reporter.α

In the 2012 cycle, reporter Matt Appuzzo deliberately tanked a fact check, an act of journalistic activism the Associated Press defended as appropriate. And in a certain sense, one can argue it really was: The fact check would have been unkind to one candidate, which is a problem for a press in which equivocation is a professional standard, so poor Matt Apuzzo had no choice but to invoke irrelevant history in order to throw Romney a bone.

All of which leads us up to a consideration of “why lawmakers should not speak without notes”:

A 'pinnocchio', as awarded by Glenn Kessler, fact-checker for The Washington Post.Sometimes a lawmaker will wander on the floor of the House or Senate and begin speaking without any notes. That’s a big mistake, especially for someone like Sessions — who is chairman of the House Rules Committee and was speaking about the federal budget.

Kessler and the WaPo team awarded “four pinnocchios”, and advised that, “Senior lawmakers should not be uttering nonsense math on the House floor”. But this analysis falsely adheres to the notion of “all things being equal”, when in fact they are not.

It is true that nobody should be uttering nonsense math on the House floor. But accuracy is not the point. Kessler and the fact checkers need to at least acknowledge that accuracy was not Rep. Sessions’ point. The congressman from Texas 32 spoke a gross falsehood, one that will be turning up in emails and social media spam from our tinfoil relatives and wingnut neighbors for months, or even years. The point isn’t to be accurate, but to get supporters generating buzz about “five million dollars per person”. And as Steve Benen notes―

About a year ago, for example, Sessions seemed to forget what a “witch hunt” is. The year before, Sessions said he believes it’s “immoral” to extend jobless aid to “long-term unemployments [sic].” Around the same time, the congressman said the House should stop worrying about governing and focus exclusively on “messaging.”msnbc

Earlier this month, the Texas Republican said he holds President Obama “personally accountable” for murders committed by undocumented immigrants, pointing to imaginary evidence.

Yesterday, Sessions added a mathematical error to his list of greatest hits.

“the six-term congressman and former chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee just doesn’t seem overly interested in substantive details”. That is to say, there is history to account for. You know, the sort of thing that is only relevant to the political discourse if one is desperately seeking a bone to throw for the sake of equivocation.

The point isn’t to make a proper argument, but to throw red meat. The next time one encounters the five million dollar claim, they ought to email it off to Mr. Kessler with the note, “This is the point!”

Because “all things being equal” is a false presumption.

Kessler is not wrong that it is dangerous to speak without notes or that bogus math is a bad idea. But this wasn’t an accident; as Kessler considered, “This sounds suspiciously like the bogus Daily Mail claim that the law would cost $50,000 per insured individual, which our friends at PunditFact debunked a few months ago”.

Mr. Sessions and his staff most likely knew the number he was offering was wrong. Mr. Kessler would prefer his readers kindly write this off as a mistake, because Sessions’ history of irresponsible rhetoric is absolutely irrelevant, and thus the grotesquely exaggerated numbers can only be an accident.

The thing about fact checking is that it should not be a specialized sector of reportage; regardless of what excuses Jim Lehrer made for himself, truth is a fundamental component of reporting.

Then again, that such deliberate maneuvering tends to favor one set of political arguments is not surprising; those are the arguments that need the most assistance in pretending to have a point. And by that standard, Mr. Kessler probably deserves an award.

____________________

α And we have that from none other than Jim Lehrer, so it’s not just a joke Rob Corddry pulled off in response to the Swiftboat controversy.

Kessler, Glenn. “Here’s why lawmakers should not speak without notes”. The Washington Post. 25 March 2015.

Rudman, Chelsea. “AP Fact-Checks Accurate Clinton Comment By Invoking Monica Lewinsky”. Media Matters for America. 6 September 2012.

Benen, Steve. “Sessions stumbles on ‘simple multiplication'”. msnbc. 25 March 2015.

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