Few things are more bothersome than that rare instance when fact checkers disagree. Our column last week, in which we awarded Three Pinocchios to Carney for citing a MarketWatch column on Obama’s spending patterns, stood in contrast to PolitiFact awarding a “Mostly True” to a Facebook post based on the MarketWatch column.
After that pompous throat-clearing, Kessler doesn’t change his mind, of course. The reason is the question of “Obama’s spending patterns” is as big as all outdoors, comprising hundreds of “facts” that can be checked, leading to an overall conclusion that depends on how you arrange those facts. Assigning some reductive measurement (like Pinnochios) to something that broad is impossible, as is clearly shown by the two leading fact checkers giving one statement about it essentially opposite ratings.
Some of you disagreed with my view that saying that birtherism was “long discredited” or “long debunked” isn’t good enough, but I think that’s a real symptom of one of the major issues in journalism that fact checking has done nothing to change. Being “discredited” or “debunked” are different ways of saying that a statement isn’t believed by the community, but it’s not a categorical statement that something is false. The statement “the sun rose in the west this morning” doesn’t need to be “debunked” or “discredited’–it’s plainly, verifiably false. If the fact checking movement in journalism were having any real impact, wouldn’t journalists just say that birtherism is, similarly, “false”? It’s a simple, discrete and verifiable fact that Barack Obama was born in Hawaii. Yet four years after the fact checkers called out the birthers, journalists just can’t say that Donald Trump made a false accusation about Obama’s place of birth. It’s a “long-discredited accusation” in the Times and a “long-debunked contention” in the Post. I don’t know where to look to find better examples of the total failure of the fact checking project.