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Ex Post Facto

From spinning the debates to Rathergate, fact checking is finally getting its due. But one research editor wonders if our fixation on facts will ever get us anything besides bragging rights.

By Lionel Beehner - October 20, 2004

Thanks to Rathergate and a debate season riddled with inaccurate statements, everyone seems to want my job. Amateur or salaried, fact checkers are everywhere lately, alerting us like polygraph buzzers to the mistruths and fictions swirling about this presidential campaign. Even Vice President Dick Cheney's mid-debate plug for a fact-checking site was itself fact-checked in an instance of meta-meticulousness and later proved to be false.

Not since Michael J. Fox partied his way off the masthead in Bright Lights, Big City has fact checking garnered this much attention. From newspaper headlines to the evening news to blogs, the profession that has traditionally landed somewhere between copy boy and printer repairman on the editorial totem pole is finally getting some good press.

All of the major news networks devoted a chunk of their post-debate analysis to fact checks. Each segment was roughly identical in style—an anchorman ticked off lists of inaccuracies as a banner with some form of the phrase "Fact Check" splashed across the screen. ABC had a Joe Friday-esque "Just the Facts" round-up while NBC rolled out its "Truth Squad." For its "Political Unit," CNN assembled a crack team of "reporters, producers, and researchers." Not to be outdone, The New York Times and other major newspapers began running a column plainly titled: "Fact Check." And there's been a proliferation of new websites devoted to journalistic parsing, like Regrettheerror.com.

Why the sudden surge of interest in fact checking? Are news organizations being held to a higher standard than in previous election years? Or is it all fallout from Rathergate, when bloggers masquerading as fact checkers broke the news that CBS's National Guard memos were fakes? Indeed, Rathergate was perhaps fact-checking's finest hour (unless, that is, you work in the research department at CBS News). No doubt networks are now feeling pressure not only to get the news first, but also to get the fact check first.

It seems the phrase "fact check" has become the journalistic equivalent of a USDA seal of approval—nothing can be trusted without it, as if news was a slab of beef with dubious origins. The fact checkers think of themselves as this election's Eliot Spitzer, its behind-the-scenes hero, whose watchdog role in the news-telling process could cost people, and perhaps a U.S. president, their careers.

As a research editor (the fancy-sounding title some publications give fact checkers), I welcome the attention being paid to my profession, normally a thankless task. In the space of a few weeks, we've gone from entry-level, slack-jawed jobholders—or "Googling monkeys," as Mark Halperin of ABC's "The Note" prefers to call us—to noble guardians of the truth.

But why is our profession, which has been around for years, only now being celebrated? Hasn't it always been the duty of news organizations to fact check what's said instead of simply regurgitating all the bunk and spin put out by the campaigns? Or are the candidates, egged on by the babble of 527s, misleading us more this year, necessitating the need for more rigorous fact checking?

"People are hungry for some neutral adjudication on what's coming out of the mouths of politicians," says Brooks Jackson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center's Factcheck.Org. "You're hearing confusing rhetoric and a blizzard of factual claims. You hear candidates contradicting each other. Voters are left wondering if they're true or not and are looking for honest brokers to help sort it out for them."

Luckily, fact checkers are in heavy supply these days. With technology what it is, anyone with a computer and a password to Lexis-Nexis can crank out facts faster than George Will. When Dick Cheney says he's never met John Edwards before the debate, a five-minute Google search will bring up a picture of the two breaking bread together three years ago. When Dan Rather flashes memos with funny-looking fonts on them, you don't need a calligraphist handy to call him out on it.

But has all this fact checking really had any effect on the current election? Do candidates discontinue their dishonesty when the facts come to light? Not a bit. "You've heard lots of the same stuff from the campaign trail that's wrong and it's still wrong and they're still undeterred," a network news producer told me. Kerry still talks about a $200 billion price tag for the war in Iraq (the number's a projection); Bush continues to call Kerry the "most liberal senator" (the charge is based on a National Journal survey from 2003).

And what about voters? The race to chase facts doesn't seem to influence their opinions either. Ever since Gerald Ford mistook Poland for a free nation in 1976, most people have known that debates are full of falsehoods. Voters realize the race is for the presidency, not the Pulitzer. What matters more is whether a sound bite sticks, not if it's later proven wrong. After all, when buzz works, nobody remembers the facts that surface the following day. Because in the end, most Americans don't care if every statement uttered by the candidates checks out or not, or whether John Kerry proposed five bills or 56 bills during his years as a senator. What they want are pointed exchanges, memorable lines, issues addressed, history made. Fact is, this is an electorate that's more likely to be swayed by a fake newscast that claims it's "more wrong than ever" than by a segment on fact checking.

Unfortunately, the onslaught of after-the-fact fact checking has become just another part of the chaos and clutter of post-debate analysis. It's the correction buried in the next-day newspaper that nobody reads. What's more, it's selective: Why fact-check the candidates but not the candidates' minions? And then there's the danger, as every fact checker knows, that fact checks are not always simple black-and-white items devoid of bias or spin, which prompts the obvious question: Who's going to fact-check the fact checkers?

Perhaps the legacy of my job title's brief moment of glory is that fact checks, like the news crawl, will become an embedded segment of the nightly news. Shortly after the vice presidential debate of 2000, Bernard Kalb floated an interesting suggestion on CNN's "Reliable Sources." He offered that "[w]e introduce a fourth person in the set, on the screen, who does instantaneous fact checks rather than subsequent fact checks. We have somebody there nodding yes, that's right, no, that's wrong." That notion, farfetched at the time, is no longer a stretch to imagine.

Lionel Beehner is the research editor of the New York Press. He writes about media, comedy, and cultural affairs in New York City.



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