Fact Checking And the False Equivalence Dilemma

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Justin Sullivan / Getty Images - Brooks Kraft / Corbis for Time

Last week I wrote a cover story for TIME about the factual deceptions of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Many readers, particularly Obama supporters, were outraged that the story did not clearly state that one of the candidates was misleading more than the other. Peter Hart, writing for the liberal Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, summed up many of the tweets I received. “The article kicks off with a hefty helping of false balance–the tendency to see all problems as coming more or less equally from both sides,” he wrote. “One of the most common problems with media factchecking is the need to always be balanced–no matter what is happening in reality.”

I don’t disagree with Hart’s underlying point. The role of the press in these situations is one of accountability. As a reporter, I should be calling out factual errors and deceptions of public officials, which TIME did in the magazine, both in my story and a sidebar by Alex Altman. That way, voters will be more informed about what is actually happening, which makes for an efficient democracy. It also could increase what political scientists sometimes call “reputational cost” for politicians who mislead. In a perfect world, the cost would be higher for the side that is deceiving more. It therefore follows that the press should try to figure out who is worse.

(PHOTOS: Political Pictures of the Week, Sept. 28 – Oct. 4)

I would love to be able to tell you that Mitt Romney is misleading more than Barack Obama or vice versa. (Aides to both campaigns have certainly made their cases to me.) The problem is that there is no existing mechanism for carrying this sacred duty out in real time. Furthermore, I feel I can say with confidence that the likelihood that someone believes they know who is misleading more is directly related to their own partisan feelings in this campaign. There are just too many subjective judgements that have to be made to come to any conclusion, and as I point out in my piece, we are predisposed to forgive those deceivers that share our worldviews and punish those who do not.

About a week before my piece came out, I attended a panel discussion at the National Press Club with the top fact checkers in journalism: Bill Adair of Politifact, Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post and Jim Drinkard of the Associated Press. I asked them all if they could make a judgement about which campaign was worse. All of them said they could not. (You can watch a C-Span video of this exchange here.)

“I don’t know of any objective way to measure that,” said Jackson. “Even if we could come up with a scholarly and factual way to say that one candidate is being more deceptive than another, I think we probably wouldn’t just because it would look like we were endorsing the other candidate.”

(MORE: If Obama Won’t Defend the Last Four Years, Why Would America Give Him Another Four?)

Drinkard elaborated. “It’s a real continuum,” he said. “There are a lot of misdemeanors as well as the felonies that go on. And how [do] you devise some kind of a rating system for that?” Kessler said his experience in Washington had taught him that there was no such thing as an honest candidate. “Politicians in both parties will stretch the truth if it is in their political interest,” he said. “There is no difference between the two on that score.”

Some have tried to count up the fact-checking ratings on these sites to determine which candidate is worse. But all the fact checkers agreed that this is a flawed methodology, since it pulls from a tainted sample compiled unevenly by the fact checkers themselves. In addition, not all deceptions are equally deceiving, and different people will reach different judgements about which is worse. Do you think it was worse for President Obama to claim that Romney supports outlawing abortion even in cases of rape and incest, when Romney does not? Or for Romney to claim that Obama plans to give welfare recipients a check without any work requirement, when he does not? I don’t know how to answer that question.

Even if we pretended that these ratings gave an objective view of the campaigns, and that the gradations made by fact checkers held some scientific consistency, the differences are not as stark as partisans assume. According to one site, of the 427 rulings on Obama campaign statements, Politifact has found 119–or 28%–to be mostly false, false or “pants on fire.” Of the 183 ratings on Romney campaign statements, Politifact has found 79–or 43%–to be mostly false, false or “pants on fire.” So maybe Romney has more deception per utterance? Or maybe Obama has more total deception? I can’t tell you from those numbers.

(MORE: Lessons Learned from Watching the Presidential Debate–On Mute)

Kessler at the Washington Post has what he calls the Pinocchio tracker, which gives you the average number of Pinocchio’s for a given politician for the statements he has reviewed. Obama gets an average of 2.04 Pinocchios out of 4, while Romney gets an average of 2.35 Pinocchios out of 4. Romney has had 10 statements that received the maximum of 10 Pinocchios, compared to six statements for Obama that received the maximum. Does this mean anything? According to Kessler, not really.

In my reporting for the story, the closest I came to a system of determining worse and better on the candidate level came from Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, who has pioneered much of the academic work on deception in presidential campaigns. She said what you really wanted to measure was consequential deceptions, meaning the level of deception that moved voters. One way of doing this would be to score every campaign ad that runs in a cycle for deception, and then weight the ads by the number of people who see them. It’s a fine idea, but difficult to do in real time, when the reputational cost is the highest for the campaigns.

In the end, my story did not make a judgement about which campaign was worse. It focused instead on the dynamics that allow politicians to get away with hypocrisy: Expressing outrage at an opponent’s deception while continuing to deceive on their own. But that doesn’t mean others can’t succeed where I came up short. If anyone has an idea for how to do this, please do drop a line. There is a good chance a working system could improve the quality of our political debates.

MORE: Obama, Romney Twist Two Crucial Issues in First Debate

135 comments
xochitl.cuicatl
xochitl.cuicatl

“Even if we could [accurately] say that one candidate is being more deceptive than another, I think we probably wouldn’t just because it would look like we were endorsing the other candidate.”

--Brooks Jackson of FactCheck.org, quoted above

Q.E.D.: So-called factcheckers are, in practice, insidious enablers of deception. Perhaps they started with the best of intentions; it doesn't matter. Let's wake up to the reality that professional manipulators of opinion--e.g. campaigns--are far more sophisticated, and pay far more attention to their own effects, than are any of the factchecking organizations. Brooks Jackson and his colleagues have become compliant tools: Diogenes wandering aimlessly *without* a lamp, and in the dark instead of the daylight.

Hilary Browning
Hilary Browning

I think the outcry on Scherer's article has been interesting in and of itself. As I take it the majority of Time readers seem to be liberal, and I imagine it must have ruffled a few feathers to hear about some of the President's lies. I didn't know about a lot of them although I follow Romney's grimly. It didn't change who I'll vote for, I still think one side is being a lot more disgusting than the other, but I thought it was a very thoughtful article and response by Scherer. The conclusion of his original article (that politicians will continue with these increasingly outrageous lies until we protest) left me wondering exactly what we could do though. I certainly don't feel like I have much of a voice, and my vote can only go to one of two hideous choices.

alwaysavailable
alwaysavailable

Your article Blue Truth/Red Truth has been bugging me all week.  Mr Scherer presents this article as if both candidates lie just as much as the other.  Although you have to read carefully to see that he does say Obama does more "subtle distortion" which makes his "lies" more effective because they are closer to the truth.  WTF!!!!  Obama and his campaign are nowhere on the playing field with Romney and his campaign when it comes to lying.  I disagree with the Obama fact checks #2, 4, 5, 6, and 9.  Mr. Sherer, whose choice was it to say "gimmickry" on Obama's fact check #5?   And Romney's fact check # 6, 7, and 10 should be labeled false, not misleading.

alwaysavailable
alwaysavailable

Now, we have to think deeply and re-assess what we think is lying?  Why?  Because the "New" Republicans, as Jon Stewart would say, live on BS mountain in an alternate universe?  I am sick of catering to the republicans bs, in hopes of them finally seeing the light, which is that their party has gone off the deep end.  I can respect a Republican perspective about limited government, states' right vs. federalism.  But I am starting to feel as though reaching out to them and giving them any credibility is going to backfire. And this argument is a perfect example; we are all racking our brains trying to define a lie, a degree of a lie, and doubting our own ability to recognize the difference.

northumberland
northumberland

Your articles were fair.   The unheralded star of election coverage is the double standard.   Pundits eviscerate the opposing candidate, usually Romney, for some infraction.  The next day, the same pundits are outraged by the suggestion that their candidate has done much the same.  As an Independent, I see this in friends and colleagues:  all black or all white.   No human being. let alone a political party, is right all of the time.   Hang in there.   You must be doing something right.

Terry Clifton
Terry Clifton

The biggest lie of all belongs to Obama.. Calling Romney's tax plan a "tax cut for the wealthiest of wealthiest", when in fact it's not a tax cut, actually it's the same as Obama's, because Obama could have easily stopped the Bush Era Tax Cuts, he's not that stupid, because then you loons, couldn't blame Bush for the disaster that would have and will happen when he plays the "class warfare nuclear option card".  Also, if you loons would ever listen, Obama spells out his lie right in front of  you. "I'm going to keep the tax rates the same for middle income Americans (note: he said, tax rates, not tax cuts) but I'm going to have the richest pay a little more..Now class, how is he going to do that? Is he going to raise their taxes, of course, because those who earn over $250,000 will pay the higher rate before the BETC's lowered them. And that 's the end of our economy as we know it now, which is like a sick duck flapping it's wings trying not to drown. When he raises those rates, those top earners will adjust, and that means no new hiring, layoffs, and the economy sinks like a rock, under the weight of Obama's own stupidity. When you are laid off, except you government workers, as if, remember my words, write them down, and they will come back to haunt you..Obama will finish off the economy, and if he's elected for another 4 years, the welfare rolls will double again, the real, (not the phony one just released)unemployment rate will be between 16%-%25%, and our debt will balloon to over 20-22 trillion dollars in the next 4 years. Then what? Is it still Bush's fault or yours?

Donny Nordwick
Donny Nordwick

Its amazing how he states in his article that the people who commented on his previous article are trying to make a point that the other is more deceptive than the other. Its like trying to prove which fast food is healthier, in the end they are both bad for you. Honestly with a larger and larger amount of voters identifying themselves as independents its time to bring third parties into the process. This system perpetuates a two party system that flip flops because the previous president is horrible.

arjun
arjun

The fact of the matter is that this world loves cooked up stories and has a strong distaste for truth. The world also loves to see one guy proved wrong and the other guy  right. This seems to excite people and they are misled. The President needs to be as mercurial as Mitt so that he minimizes  what Mitt targets, and at the same time highlight the  real achievements of his presidency clearly.These are no mean achievements! The impression should be given, -hey people, I employed the best team of experts in the world to solve our very difficult problems and here is a list of my accomplishments because of this. For more details visit my web-site and seek any clarification.

John Fenz
John Fenz like.author.displayName 1 Like

Here's what Romney said when asked at the CNN debate 11/28/07:

"If hypothetically Roe versus Wade was overturned, and the Congress passed a

federal ban on all abortion, and it came to your desk, would you sign

it? Yes or no?"

Romney: I agree with Senator (Fred) Thompson, which

is we should overturn Roe v. Wade and return these issues to the states.

I would welcome a circumstance where there was such a consensus in this

country that we said, *we don’t want to have abortion in this country at

all, period. That would be wonderful. I’d be delighted*.

CNN’s Anderson Cooper: The question is: Would you sign that bill?

Romney: *Let me say it. I’d be delighted to sign that bill.*

----------------

Does Romney support the idea of outlawing all abortions, even in cases of rape and incest? Yes, he does.

If he could sign a law that outlawed all abortions, including in cases of rape or incest, he would.

This, dear "Fact Checkers", is a fact.

annie55441
annie55441

John, you are so right. This waffling by the media that they can't tell which is the worst lie is downright cowardly. Then they use a blatant example of Romeny lying and say the President is wrong to use it in an ad. In addition to your example, he had a choice when he chose his VP candidate and chose a virulently vocal opponent of abortion in all situations and finally, he's running as a Republican. The Republican platform has a plank which clearly does not support exceptions to the ban on abortion. So who's lying? The media needs to dig deeper and not just refer to the last two or three statements made by a candidate.

Maria
Maria

And  who are you  Mr. President?

Search :  ---------

Obama admit he is not an american

__________

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic like.author.displayName 1 Like

He's an American, and he's your President.

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

It's good to know, the future is in the end of liberal thinkers.

Finally America has managed to push aside bigotry. and in November it will settled once and for all, that the GOP is no longer a political entity in the US.

LegalBagel
LegalBagel

Despite all of the protests to the contrary in these comments, Michael is absolutely correct:  There is no way to create an objective ratings scale with respect to the measuring of lies, distortions and suspect spins....  Indeed, Michael is identifying one of the biggest problems that "social scientists" face (and usually fail at) on a regular basis -- trying to turn subjective judgments into objective data. 

georgiamd
georgiamd

Obama..."I will reduce the deficit by one half during my first term"

Instead, he ADDS over 5 trillion to an already staggering total!

His solution....just print more money.

If Obama  happens to  win reelection on November 6, remember that hyperinflation just happens to be the inescapable  consequence of

printing trillions of dollars to cover  massive government  deficits. 

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

it's not the President who decides about printing Money ..  the Feds are independent form the President or the Congress.

Without the Feds we would be in a huge depression by now

Go back to school and learn civics

Terry Clifton
Terry Clifton

That's not true, Timothy Geithner get his orders from Barack Obama. The Fed is independent from Congress oversight, which needs to change. The Fed is the reason our credit rating got whacked..They are printing money, and that is a disaster waiting for future generations.

Put down the kool-aid..

AshtonBran
AshtonBran

Oh Terry.... avg gas prices July 12 2008 - $4.16

Terry Clifton
Terry Clifton

The economy is not recovering!! Let's get that straight. Gas prices have doubled and in some parts tripled since 2008, and that has driven the cost of every thing with it. Our national and personal debt has never been higher. There is more people on public assistance and disability than ever before. And what is Obama's, Geithner's, and Bernake's solution? To spend our way out of the hole..It has never worked before, and it's retarded to think it's going to ever work.

You can continue to blame Bush all the way to the poor house, and that's not going to bring back the economy. 

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

The credit rating got reduced because of the political block in Washington, that is what the rating company said. The disaster for the next generation has been started by  the people, when they voted for Bush Cheney who said they didn't care about running a deficit .. under Bush, when the economy was growing, despite having received a surplus  from Clinton. This lead to  a large debt at the moment the crisis hit, which is when a gov usually does run a deficit to shorten the crisis. Because of previous GOP abuse of the economy, the deficit was already large and limited the ability of the gov and of the Fed to act.

Despite it the economy is recovering, albeit slower than it would be desirable.

You brought this on yourselves by voting Bush 12 tears ago ... and are still stupid enough to want more of it . You won't get it this time and now say thank you to the guys who saved your retirement plan (Obama and Bernanke) from the guys you voted for.

You know all of this is true ,... you just can get yourself to say it in public. That has a name, it's called being in a declining culture.

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

No President nor any of the legislative branches  have any say about the decision made by the Bernanke, the head of the central bank, Geithner does not have the power to print money, Bernanke does. Both are appointed by the Congress, under recommendation of the President.

Bernanke has a mandate that is behind political control 

You know it so stop your BS

Mark Devlin
Mark Devlin

We simply can't trust Politifact or the other fact checkers. They are simply regurgitating bias under the cloak of authority. Check http://wecheck.org/wiki/Fact_C... 

which just today includes Politifact doing its best to mislead readers on the claim that companies get tax breaks for shipping jobs overseas. Bonus: Politifact cites an adviser who it neglects to tell the reader is part of Obama's tax team.The only way to stop bias is to take fact checking out of the hands of these corrupt charlatans and put it in the hands of the people: Join us at http://wecheck.org and lets keep polititcians AND the media honest.

superlogi
superlogi

Obama has a track record of lies and Scherer has a track record of backing what he's said.  TIME will have to take responsibility for both.  Frankly, both are not doing themselves much good with anything they print.

Maria
Maria

And  who are you  Mr. President?

Search :  ---------

Obama admit he is not an american__________

Terry Clifton
Terry Clifton

Nah, they will tell bigger lies to cover the previous lies. 

Joe Brandimore
Joe Brandimore

The problem is many of the "lies" are not "lies" but differences in ones point of view.

A good example - the unelected board set up by Obamacare. It does exist and is unelected and will have power to decide treatments in Medicare.

However, because congress COULD overrule their decisions, some fact checkers rated the claim "false" when to me the point is the board exists and it has the power Romney said it did.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

@Joe Brandimore The panel makes recommendations for best practices, nothing more. For example, it might recommend pulling the plug on the brain dead before spending millions on keeping them alive. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Joe Brandimore
Joe Brandimore

On the other hand, Obama has been on record as favoring infancticide of infants that survive abortion. Yet, I have seen fact checkers rate that claim as false because even though he sponsored legislation in Illinois (and he did) because he didn't introduce such legislation as the POTUS that he no longer supports that policy.

So which is right?

Benevolent Lawyer
Benevolent Lawyer

Also, after Ryan was selected for the Veep position, there was nothing in the press that provided information about Ryan's brothers relationship with Romney. Neither did they discuss the issues of conflict of interest, which involved Ryan's brother, that arose while Romney was governor.

Anyhow, in the Veep debate, one can safely assume that it is more likely than not that Ryan will adopt the Romney debate style. Consequently, expect that Ryan will co-opt his opponents centrist positions, refuse to accept his well documented Far Right and extreme positions, he will attack his opponents positions, and LIE with enthusiasm and impunity AGAINST THEM.  Biden should be UNLEASHED to go at Ryan.

I hope the Obama folks are not asking Biden to act presidential. He needs to reveal Ryan, the fake so called policy wonk whose numbers NEVER add up.

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

there is no such thing as a benevolent lawyer, that said, you are right about RYan

Benevolent Lawyer
Benevolent Lawyer

I do not know why I bother reading Scherer's articles. He always drives me nuts with his partisan pieces. I came here to complain that once again, the media is not getting sufficient information on Romney's Town Hall performance. Why are they reducing expectations when any good journalist, who has done ANY research, should know that ROMNEY DOES WELL IN DEBATES, INCLUDING TOWN HALL DEBATES. That is what his PAST history has shown.

As I was saying on this forum, before Romney's first debate with Obama, Romney is a good debater. He TAKES his opponents positions (the one's that poll well with the public), assumes a centrist role while supporting Far Right policies, and he then he ATTACKS with lies.

Romney does well in Town Hall formats, at least in his debate with O'Brien and in other Town Halls, he acts as though he has been tutored by a drama teacher. He tries to act like Clinton. I am not kidding. Romney is a GOOD performer. So why is the press not carrying this fact????

kbanginmotown
kbanginmotown

Is this the real BL?

Benevolent Lawyer
Benevolent Lawyer

I have not seen the Impostor today. I alerted the moderators that he was back yesterday. I hope he has taken his madness elsewhere. Thanks for asking.

Benevolent Lawyer
Benevolent Lawyer

Yes, it is me. You can tell by the caps, the caps I am often accused of over using in comments. :)

PaoloBernasconi
PaoloBernasconi

See, if one has common sense, he/she knows when the candidate lies or not .. problem is with the level of ignorance displayed by the public on a variety of topics, politicians get away with a lot of BS.

True democracy can be seen when the politician can lie in the face of the people, and despite having no centralized propaganda, he/she  still can make the people believe a load of crap.

Note, not having centralized propaganda, does not mean there is no propaganda, .. there is indeed, see Fox News GOP fake news outlet, just as an example, it only means it's not one side propaganda only.

Welcome to the Unites States of America, where you are free to be who you want to be, the most idlot you can be or the smartest you can be. Which will you be?  If you ever voted GOP or plan to vote GOP, chances are you are in the former group.  My condolences to you.