The biggest Pinocchios of 2011
Fact checkers are under assault!
Before we present our list of the biggest Pinocchios of the year, we would like to address the torrent of criticism addressed at fact checkers (primarily PolitiFact, Factcheck.org and The Fact Checker) in recent weeks. The Weekly Standard last week had a cover story denouncing fact checkers as a liberal plot to control the political discourse. This week, PolitiFact’s decision to award its “Lie of the Year” trophy to Democratic claims that the GOP “killed” Medicare has earned it and its fact checking brethren additional scorn from the left.
As a writer at Gawker put it: “Politifact is dangerous. Stop reading it. Stop reading the ‘four Pinocchios’ guy too. Stop using some huckster company's stupid little phrases or codes or number systems when it's convenient, and read the actual arguments instead. You're building a monster.”
My colleague Ezra Klein even opined that “the ‘fact checker’ model is probably unsustainable,” based on the questionable belief that “half of the public leans towards one party and about half of the public leans toward the other” and thus will tune out commentary with which they disagree. That’s a pretty depressing commentary on the state of our politics. Thankfully, it bears little relationship to the reality we experience every day at The Fact Checker.
Yes, there are always partisans who, day after day, accuse us of either being left-wing hacks or right-wing crazies. But there are also many people who, every day, write notes of thanks--for explaining a difficult subject, opening their eyes to a new idea or providing the facts to a claim that had confused them. Many Americans are asking for more information, not less, and we are happy to help fill the void.
Some people are always going to be partisan. That fine, but that’s not the role of a reporter. We value the many comments we have received from our readers, the words of encouragement and also the criticism. Every day, we seek to live up to your expectations of a true, impartial seeker of the truth.
In fact, there is this strange myth out there that fact checkers aspire to be “referees” and strain to achieve a balance between the two parties. Not so. At The Fact Checker, we take a holistic approach to every fact we check. After more than 30 years of writing about Washington institutions, we truly find there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of twisting the facts and being misleading when it suits their political purposes.
The main difference between the two parties seems to be that the right assumes the media is out to get them (i.e., see The Weekly Standard) and the left seems to take it as a personal affront when you call them out (see the reaction to PolitiFact.) Maybe Democrats really believe that tale about the left-wing media bias? In any case, this month’s ruckus about fact checkers simply affirms what we’ve learned in our long experience in Washington.
There is one other enduring myth about fact checkers–that they are somehow a replacement for good reporting. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of our role in journalism.
Fact checking is a complement, not a replacement. Good beat reporters obviously are well placed to analyze issues and spot falsehoods, and that’s an essential part of their jobs. But, especially in a political season, it is difficult to analyze every claim and counterclaim while also writing day-to-day stories about the news. Fact checkers, by contrast, can dig deeply into an issue or even a single statement. We can help explain, at length, how a politician justifies his or her assertion and whether there is much of a factual basis for it.
In other words, the information we provide adds to the rich menu of choices that readers of The Washington Post find when they come to our Web site, in addition to sustained political coverage, beat reporting and various blogs. Sometimes you may choke on the meal we serve, but each day the food (for thought) will be different.
The biggest Pinocchios of 2011
In compiling this list, we primarily focused on claims that had earned Four Pinocchios during the year. If we have one quibble with PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year,” it’s that we have trouble selecting one statement as head and shoulders above the others. In fact, during the year, we repeatedly gave Pinocchios to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and other Republicans for mischaracterizing their Medicare and budget plans. (See, for example, here and here.) Both sides are adept at playing games with the facts.
To keep it simple, we have shortened the quotes in the headlines. Click on the headlines to read the original column. Live Q&A at 1 p.m. ET Thursday with Glenn Kessler. Ask a question now.
earned him Three Pinocchios--but this comment really took the prize.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made an absurd claim in the heat of the budget debate. First her staff said she meant meals, not seniors—though she said seniors three times—but then it turned out the number was invented out of thin air as well. Moreover, the administration, not Republicans, had already cut 36 million meals. As we put it: “In a city with overheated rhetoric, Pelosi’s statement ranks high on this year’s list of bloviated bluster.”
Factcheck.org on this one. As we noted at the time, “there’s certainly a worthwhile debate about whether the Medicare changes proposed by Ryan would help or hurt Medicare, and whether too much of a burden would be shifted to beneficiaries.” But that does not mean “killing” Medicare.
(Note: Some Democrats have pointed to a Wall Street Journal article as justification for the claim that the GOP would “end” Medicare, but that passage was referring to ending Medicare’s role in directly paying medical bills. The first paragraph of the article said Ryan’s plan would “transform the Medicare health program”--a phrasing that is not in dispute.)
The Biggest Pinocchio Ads of 2011
Some of the most misleading claims are made in political advertisements. We can barely keep up with them, but these ads especially stuck with us for their sheer gall.
The venerable over-50 organization blew it by suggesting that minor programs that cost peanuts could help balance the budget.
The National Republican Campaign Committee, reeling from the Democratic success with “Mediscare” ads, decided to fight back with its own misleading version.
Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama group, decided to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Mitt Romney. This ad indicates it will be a rough campaign year, especially because of such mysterious “Super PACs.”
Crossroads GPS’s anti-Warren ad
Unfortunately we never found the time to write a column on this ad (Factcheck.org did) but it strikes us as one of the silliest ads of the year. Consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, who is running for Senate in Massachusetts, as a tool of the big banks? Please.
About the Fact Checker
-- C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, 1921
About the Fact Checker
In an award-winning journalism career spanning nearly three decades, Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street. He was The Washington Post’s chief State Department reporter for nine years, traveling around the world with three different Secretaries of State. Before that, he covered tax and budget policy for The Washington Post and also served as the newspaper’s national business editor.
Kessler has long specialized in digging beyond the conventional wisdom, such as when he earned a “laurel” from the Columbia Journalism Review* for obtaining Federal Aviation Administration records that showed that then President Bill Clinton had not delayed any scheduled flights when he had a controversial haircut on an airport tarmac. Kessler helped pioneer the fact-checking of candidates’ statements during the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, when he was chief political correspondent for Newsday, and continued to do it during the last three presidential campaigns for The Post.
In 2007, St. Martins Press published Kessler’s widely acclaimed book on Condoleezza Rice, The Confidante. Kessler appears frequently on television and has lectured widely on U.S. foreign policy.
Our GoalThis column first appeared during the 2008 campaign and The Washington Post revived it as a permanent feature at the start of 2011.
We will not be bound by the antics of the presidential campaign season, but will focus on any statements by political figures and government officials--in the United States and abroad--that cry out for fact-checking. It’s a big world out there, and so we will rely on readers to ask questions and point out statements that need to be checked.
The purpose of this website, and an accompanying column in the Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local. As the 2012 presidential election approaches, we will increasingly focus on statements made in the heat of the presidential contest. But we will not be limited to political charges or countercharges. We will seek to explain difficult issues, provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various “code words” used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or shade the truth.
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C-Span InterviewOn January 15, 2012, C-Span aired a one-hour interview with Glenn Kessler about the Fact Checker column and his life and career.
A transcript of the interview is also available.
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- · This is a fact-checking operation, not an opinion-checking operation. We are interested only in verifiable facts, though on occasion we may examine the roots of political rhetoric.
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The Pinocchio Test
Where possible, we will adopt the following standard in fact-checking the claims of a politician, political candidate, diplomat or interest group.
Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.
Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.
Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.
The Geppetto CheckmarkStatements and claims that contain “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” will be recognized with our prized Geppetto checkmark.
An Upside-Down PinocchioA statement that represents a clear but unacknowledged “flip-flop” from a previously-held position.
Withholding JudgmentThere will be many occasions when it is impossible to render a snap judgment because the issue is very complex or there are good arguments on both sides. In this case, we will withhold our judgment until we can gather more facts. We will use this website to shed as much light as possible on factual controversies that are not easily resolved.
All judgments are subject to debate and criticism from our readers and interested parties, and can be revised if fresh evidence emerges. We invite you to join the discussion on these pages and contact the Fact Checker directly with tips, suggestions, and complaints. If you feel that we are being too harsh on one candidate and too soft on another, there is a simple remedy: let us know about misstatements and factual errors we may have overlooked.
Columbia Journalism Review, May 1993:
* “LAUREL to New York Newsday, and to staff writer Glenn Kessler, for a record-breaking solo flight. With most of the nation’s news media zooming in on the president’s $ 200 haircut on the Los Angeles Airport runway and roaring about the disruptions his hirsutic hubris caused, Kessler took off in a different direction -- and landed on some hard, concrete facts. His analysis of Federal Aviation Administration records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that, contrary to stories of circling planes, jammed-up runways, and inconvenienced passengers (and contrary, too, to the apology the White House felt pressured to make), only one (unscheduled) air taxi reported an actual (two-minute) delay. Unfortunately, most of the nation’s news media, in usual near-perfect formation, found neither time nor space to correct a story that had been wildly off course.”