Monday, July 9, 2012

Chinese Democracy: Will It Ever Be More Than a Guns n' Roses Album?

By J.J. Gould
Jul 2 2012, 10:27 PM ET 10 Minxin Pei, Eric Li, and James Fallows debate the legitimacy and resilience of the People's Repbublic

2009 Poster criticizing Hong Kong's then-chief executive, Donald Tsang (Edwin Lee/Flickr)

In time of wide-ranging political change initiated by new pro-democracy movements, across North Africa and the Middle East, and elsewhere around the world -- change that's taking place against a centuries-in-the-making historical backdrop where the language of democracy has become increasingly the language of political legitimacy itself -- there may be no non-democratic political model with a stronger claim to sustainable legitimacy than China's.

Notes from the Aspen Ideas Festival -- See full coverage
So how sustainable is it? At the Aspen Ideas Festival today, Minxin Pei, professor of government and the director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College, debated the question with Eric X. Li, founder and managing director of Chengwei Capital, a Chinese venture capital company. The exchange was moderated by Atlantic national correspondent, and author of China Airborne, James Fallows.

Pei's argument, one he's been developing for years, is that there are contradictions in the Chinese system that are straining that system and starting to manifest themselves more and more. Pei sees these contradictions on two levels: economic and political. In the economy, he says, we're seeing a slow-down that's become cyclical: The economy has been driven primarily by investments at home and exports to developed countries, which isn't sustainable. In the political sphere, we're seeing manifestations of a fundamental vulnerability of one-party systems globally: a tendency to drift into benefiting a relatively small, and ultimately predatory, elite at the expense of society generally, and the associated phenomena of high-level corruption and inequality.

Together, Pei claimed, these two domains of contradiction tend to impede the growth of China's economy and undermine the legitimacy of its government. You can see the last two decades as a story of the rise of the Chinese system, Pei said; but the next 10 to 15 years (no less than 10, no more than 15) will be one of the system's unraveling. And this is what the United States and the West generally need to worry about -- not China's strength but its weakness, because when the transition to a more democratic system comes, it will be very difficult to manage, particularly given the country's deep ethnic divisions, its disputed borders, and its complex integration with the global economy.

Li responded by conceding -- despite the populist idiom of the Chinese Communist Party and the "People's Republic" itself -- that if you understand democracy specifically around the idea of one person having one vote in a competitive multiparty system, China is indeed not a democratic system. But should it become one? "I'm a venture capitalist," Li said, "so I look at track records." In 1949, the country had been suffering from years of war and economic stagnation. The average life expectancy was 41; the literacy rate was 15 percent; GDP was nothing. Now life expectancy is 75; literacy is at 80 percent; and GDP is a multi-trillion-dollar number.

Yes, Li said, monumental mistakes have been made (he didn't specify what these were), but they've been dwarfed by China's achievements. Here Li referred back to his role as a venture capitalist and the priority he puts on track records: If I'm at a board meeting, and the proposition on the table is to take a company that's engineered an enormously successful turnaround and to fire that company's top executives, replace the entire management system, and do everything differently, that doesn't make sense. "The one-party system has taken China from 1949 to today. ... I think the answer is clear."

Track records may not contain all the information you need to place a good bet, Fallows pointed out: "The Wang computer company had a very strong track record -- until it didn't."

China's is in any case a complicated track record, Pei argued -- and one "with a lot of cliff-hanging moments." From the Great Leap Forward, through a period of mass famine, and all the initial stages of the Communist system's consolidation, the cost of that system's development is measurable in tens of millions of lives. "This was one of most violent episodes in Chinese history," Pei said. "The Mao regime outdid all other emperors" in bloodshed -- "and China's history is full of bloody emperors."

When you look at the future of this system, Pei said, the issue is: How does it compare with similar "companies"? And is it in a "sector" that shows future growth? To answer this, the most important issue is the ultimate collapse of similar one-party systems around the world. The longest-surviving among them ever was the Soviet Union, which didn't make it past 70 years. Chinese Communism has been in power for 63. So if you consider the Soviet lifespan, and the nature of what ultimately limited it, would you "invest" in the Chinese system's political future today?

It wasn't that long ago, Li responded, that they said Apple was going to flop, because all personal computing would all be open-system. The history of real democracy is in any event very short: In America, it generously speaking goes back only to the post-Civil War, less generously only to the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965, if you take the "one person, one vote" definition seriously.

Democracy has contributed to rise of West, Li said. But electoral politics is in disarray on both sides of Atlantic, and Western democracies are broadly incapable of dealing with the monumental challenges they're charged with. Comparing public-opinion polling in China with that in the United States, Li noted the happiness and trust in their institutions that Chinese people report relative to Americans. Asking China to democratize? "It's like asking Apple to turn itself into RIM."

Corruption in China is a big problem, Li concedes, but that needs to be understood in a proper context: In Transparency International's ranking, for example, all of the top-20 least-corrupt countries in the world, except four, are Western, and among that four, only Japan is democratic; the rest of the TI's top-20 that are not from the West are autocracies. The question, Li said, is whether corruption is inherent to the political system, or whether it's a byproduct of rapid development -- noting the portrayals of earlier times in the development of the United States portrayed in films like Gangs of New York or There Will Be Blood. "China should have at least as good a shot of correcting for corruption as any other system."

On the greater reported levels of support for government and public institutions reported among Chinese relative to Americans, Pei said, "popular opinion surveys are highly variable" -- and one of the factors that really tends to affect it is past experience. I.e., the Maoist era was terrible. But in any event, if you really want to test whether people accept the current system, rather than using popular-opinion polling as an indicator of legitimacy, "give them the real test -- give them the vote." In the United States, Pei said, citizens get angry, but they don't question the legitimacy of the system in a way that people do in power systems maintained by lies, cheating, and violence. The world today has 120 democracies; 80 have made transitions to electoral democracy in last ten 10 years. Yes, corruption exists everywhere, but the main thing to take away from the TI list is that the world's least-corrupt countries are almost all democracies. The exceptions are the autocracies. Democracies cannot, to be sure, eliminate corruption altogether; but autocracies have no hope combating it effectively. The three conditions any political system needs to check corruption, Pei said, are free media, the rule of law, and nongovernmental-organization / civil-society monitoring. None of these things are available in autocracies.

Fallows asked Li whether he saw the current system in China as being optimal in the long run, or whether he saw it more as the best system for now, pending future economic and social development.

"I am saying the former."

The system will certainly have to adapt, Li said, but the country today would be unrecognizable to the Chinese people 63 years ago, and that entire transformation has taken place under the same one-party system. Not only that: On a global axis, the breadth of change that this one-party state has been able to embrace and oversee has been unparalleled in any of the world's advance democracies.

Much has changed, Pei agreed, but the one thing that has not is the political system. If you look at footage of the National People's Congress, for example, there you see stasis. People have changed, society has changed, the economy has changed -- but one thing that has not changed is political system. There must, Pei emphasized, be meaningful compatibility among society, the economy, and the political system. But the political system doesn't want to change. More than that, it wants society to change slower than it's changing. "At some point, either the political system gives, or social system slows down."

Pei copped to regularly fantasizing about how China could become democratic. "Economic performance is the key," he said. If it stays as strong as it's been, that would mean one kind of transition; but if it falls off, the Communist party will face rising social discontent. The party will ultimately split, and one of the splinter groups will end up trying to tap into that social discontent to gain legitimacy. No democratic transition has ever occurred without support from elements of the ruling elite, Pei said, and China won't be an exception.

It's a fallacy to say the system hasn't changed, Li countered: There have been big changes the National People's Conference -- most conspicuously, its members are now younger, because of term limits and other reforms. There have been major changes to the composition of regional and municipal governments, as well. But these changes are not reported in the West, because, Li speculated, Western reporters aren't interested in this kind of story; they're interested in the dichotomy between dictatorship and democracy.

Fallows then asked Li about expatriation among the families of Chinese elites, noting the degree to which they've come to move their assets, or send their children to school, outside China. Li had little to say on this point, admitting that it was an issue, though insisting that it's highly overplayed. (Pei pointed out that the data on these matters are difficult to come by, but there are at least hundreds of cases of Chinese officials looking for American passports -- and you don't ever see American officials looking for Chinese passports.)

Li wanted to go instead to what he clearly sees as the bigger picture and the real comparative context for assessing the legitimacy and durability of the Chinese system: the weakness of American democracy, both in its ability to live up to its ideals and in its ultimate ability to justify them.

By the standards of democracy that he, Pei, and Fallows agreed to at the outset of the conversation, Li insisted, some of the greatest political leaders in American history were illegitimate. Washington was illegitimate; Lincoln was illegitimate; and if you take the 1965 Civil Rights Act as the beginning point for anything that could really be considered democracy by our own parameters for the idea -- as Li clearly would -- even Roosevelt was illegitimate.

In response to a question from the audience, Li also criticized the very ideas of political liberty and individual rights. Unless you think rights come from God, he insisted, you really have no theory of why any one view of political liberty any discrete set of individual rights should be sacrosanct at all. "If they're from men, they're not absolute; they can be negotiated." It was only too bad there wasn't time to discuss what "negotiated" means here.

"I want to break the spell of the so-called right to freedom of speech," he added later. "Speech is act. It has harmed from time immemorial."

Asked about the Chinese government's censorship of the Internet, and its potential for exacerbating social disaffection and economic deceleration, Li asserted that these would be negligible. Pei disagreed: Internet censorship, he said, is a massively futile and regressive thing: It's targeted toward very few people, but it inconveniences millions. Pei said that he didn't know if this practice has played any real part in slowing down the economy, but he's sure that it's had a social cost. Ask Chinese people which they'd rather have, faster internet connection or access to social media, Pei said, and they'd say the latter.

Earlier this week, here in Aspen, when The Atlantic's Jeffrey Goldberg spoke to Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt about technology and democracy, the conversation turned to a similar question:

Will The Online Campaign Kill The TV Ad?

Updated: 06/08/2012 4:53 pm


WASHINGTON -- The political consulting industry knows how to do one thing very, very well. Give a consultant a few million dollars and he or she will test a message, blanket the airwaves with it, run a poll and show you it has moved the numbers. But nearly a decade after Howard Dean's campaign for president introduced the Internet to the political world, that reliance on traditional media remains the dominant strategy.
As The Huffington Post reported Tuesday, political consultants have already had their hands on $466 million this election cycle, with the largest portion of it flowing through them -- with the requisite commission skimmed, of course -- to pay for television ads.
The consultants face a problem, however: Fewer people are kicking back on the couch to watch live TV, a long-term trend that shows no signs of reversing itself. Even as record amounts of money are being shoveled at local network affiliates lucky enough to have media markets in swing states, a new generation of consultants has its eye on the post-television era.
The top 150 consultants have so far grossed just over $214 million this election cycle, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The fourth biggest firm on the list is Bully Pulpit Interactive, a next-generation online consulting shop which runs the Obama campaign's online component. BPI has so far pulled in $18.5 million. (Disclosure: BPI advertises on
Online consultants in the top 150 have combined to gross more than $49 million, according to a HuffPost analysis. That figure likely covers some spending that wasn't purely targeted at online activity, though the amount would be marginal. In fact, because many traditional firms have minor online components as well, the overall online spending among the top firms is likely much higher.
All told, online spending accounts for about one dollar out of of every four spent this cycle.
Take the case of Ted Cruz. The Tea Party Texan surprised the Lone State establishment last week by forcing a runoff with Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, also a Republican, and the elite's preferred and very well financed candidate.
Cruz's campaign worked directly with Facebook to craft a strategy that focused heavily online, generating a following that far outpaced his rivals. (Facebook's bipartisan pair of political advisers make themselves available to candidates regardless of party. The Texas runoff for the U.S. Senate seat is at the end of July.)
"With people watching less television, there's a category of people you're not catching on TV, who don't have landlines [and so can't be reached by robocalls or pollsters]. But they are Internet users," said Taryn Rosenkranz, whose consulting firm New Blue Interactive works to build online support for progressive candidates. "The amount of minutes that people spend on the Internet has increased each year by double."
Across the political spectrum, but in particular for some Democrats and progressives, the Internet is increasingly seen as a high-growth potential strategy in the era of unlimited spending unleashed by five members of the Supreme Court in the Citizens United decision.

Getting outspent many times over -- as happened to Democrats in Wisconsin's recall election -- means less if the money spent on TV ads doesn't translate into persuasion and votes. If, instead, voters connected by social networks can share information and encourage each other to vote, the playing field would be (at least slightly) leveled.
Because of Facebook's privacy policies, little academic work has been done to measure voting and political behavior on the social network. One study, however, has found promising results. For her dissertation at Georgia State University, Holly Teresi tested whether status updates from a friend could noticeably improve a person's knowledge of current electoral politics, or move people to head to the polls who might otherwise have sat at home.
The American people are notoriously stingy with their vote -- most other industrialized democracies have dramatically higher voting rates. Major get-out-the-vote campaigns in the U.S. are generally considered successful if they increase turnout by just a percentage point or two.
Teresi's findings blow the typical get-out-the-vote performance away. The study was completed in May 2012 and provided to HuffPost by Teresi, who now works for the New Organizing Institute. Data was collected from several different pools of voters that ranged between 100 and 700. Voters in her control group who were not given a message from a friend about voting on election day turned out at a 22 percent rate. Those who received messages encouraging them to vote and letting them know when election day was turned out at a rate of 30 percent. An eight point jump -- an increase of more than a third -- is the kind of thing that can turn an election.
Teresi also found that voters who were given some information about the election by a friend were better able to retain it. Meanwhile, Facebook ads, and even Facebook ads "liked" by a friend, had no discernible impact on voting patterns.
Absolutely blanketing voters with Facebook ads, however, has shown an ability to move the needle. The consulting firm Chong & Koster blasted some Florida voters with an average of five ads a day on Facebook, encouraging a no vote on a proposition that would have increased school class sizes. Voters exposed to the ads were more likely to vote no than a typical voter -- and more likely to oppose it than a typical Democrat.
Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, relied on Bully Pulpit Interactive to run a major campaign through Facebook, claiming to have reached 30 percent of all Emanuel voters online. (In 2010, 12 million people clicked "I Voted" on Facebook on election day, but the number is impossible to verify because the company won't allow researchers to compare its findings with voter files.)
In Ohio, The New Media Firm deeply engaged Facebook in the effort to beat back the anti-union measure SB 5. According to the firm, 50,000 people talked about the "We Are Ohio" campaign on Facebook, reaching 500,000 of their friends.
As long as TV can still move the numbers, however, the focus will remain there. But consultants interviewed for this story, whether rooted more in traditional or online campaigning, universally acknowledged that the focus is shifting.
"The Democratic Party's base wants it to go that way. There's a lot of push from big donors. There's a lot of Hollywood money [that] knows how much the media landscape is changing. Our big donors tend to be from those realms -- venture capital, social media -- that are a little more innovative," said one consultant, who requested anonymity because he did not wish to speak publicly about donors. "Even this election, I've noticed a difference in the last six to eight months in people's willingness to think about things differently."
Once they do start thinking differently, candidates find a wide range of new ways to reach voters. The consultant, for instance, described tracking users online and matching their IP and home address to the voter file to determine whether they're registered to vote, and if so, how. Doing so gives campaigns an unprecedented amount of information on a specific voter, allowing messages to be precisely tailored.
The Internet also allows candidates to slice the audience much more finely. Rather than advertising to everyone who is watching "Jeopardy," for example, candidates can have their ads appear only in front of users who have already been identified as, say, strong progressives, or arch conservatives.
Rosenkranz of New Blue Interactive warned candidates not to underestimate the power of social networks and peer-to-peer activism during her time as a top fundraiser for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Some politicians get nervous about the two-way nature of the online medium. But, she said, candidates need to trust their supporters to brawl for them in the seemingly limitless threads that come together to make up the online political debate.
"People used to be afraid of this consumer-driven conversation, but you put out a message and your activist supporters are going to defend you," she said. "They really become your message megaphone."
Paul Blumenthal and Aaron Bycoffe contributed to this report.
DCCC launches ad campaign against House Republicans over health care

DCCC launches ad campaign against House Republicans over health care


July 9th, 2012
09:17 AM ET
9 hours ago
(CNN) – The Democratic campaign arm for the U.S. House of Representatives released a series of new online ads Monday, attacking certain House Republicans over their opposition to the federal health care law.
The web videos come the same week the House is set to vote to repeal the law, which was passed in 2010 with Democratic support and ruled upheld by the Supreme Court last month.

Pushed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the ads target seven House Republicans the group considers "vulnerable" in November. Democrats are aggressively trying to pick up 25 House seats this fall in order to take the House majority.
"House Republicans are sending an unmistakable message to voters that Republicans want to cut benefits for middle class families and protect insurance companies instead," DCCC Chairman Steve Israel said in a statement. "The American people don't want more of these political stunts from Republicans to pander to special interests, they want action to strengthen the middle class and create jobs."
The ads urge viewers to contact their representatives and tell them not to vote to repeal the law. In the ad targeting Rep. Mary Bono Mack of California, for example, the narrator introduces a character named "Carla," who received a breast cancer screening that ultimately "saved her life."
"Carla doesn't know that her Congresswoman Bono Mack may vote to repeal the law that added preventative coverage to Medicare," the narrator says. "Your member of Congress may vote to repeal important health care benefits for everyday Americans. But she protected 'generous' health plans for Congress at taxpayer expense."
The ad concludes with a call to action: "Tell Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack: She shouldn't repeal our benefits if she wants to keep hers."
House Republicans, however, have long insisted they would press for a vote to repeal the law if the Supreme Court ruled in its favor.
Responding to the Supreme Court's decision, House Speaker John Boehner vowed to continue to work towards a full repeal. The House is scheduled to vote on the bill on Wednesday, a move it has taken multiple times since 2010 but Republicans have made no headway in their effort under the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"This has to be ripped out by its roots. This is government taking over the entire health insurance industry," Boehner said last week on CBS. "The American people do not want to go down this path. They do not want the government telling them what kind of insurance policy they have to buy, and how much they have to pay for it, and if you don't like it we're going to tax you. It has to be ripped out and we need to start over."
The DCCC's counterpart, the National Republican Congressional Committee, responded to the new ad roll-out on Monday.
“It’s refreshing that Democrats are doing our work for us this week by reiterating their support for ObamaCare and the massive middle-class tax increase that comes with it. Maybe next time they will actually spend money on ads that highlight the bill’s $500 billion in cuts to Medicare or its burdensome regulations that are preventing small business’ from hiring,” said Paul Lindsay, the group's communications director, in a statement.
In addition to Rep. Mack, the ads will target the following Republican lawmakers:
Rep. Dan Lungren of California's 7th District
Rep. Bob Dold of Illinois' 10th District
Rep. Judy Biggert of Illinois' 11th District
Rep. Bobby Schilling of Illinois' 17th District
Rep. Nan Hayworth of New York's 18th District
Rep. Chris Gibson of New York's 19th District

– CNN Political Editor Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.

Mitt Romney is not a flip-flopper

By Dean Obeidallah, Special to CNN
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Sat July 7, 2012
Dean Obeidallah says Mitt Romney passed a health care mandate identical to Obamacare's, but he wouldn't call it a tax.
Dean Obeidallah says Mitt Romney passed a health care mandate identical to Obamacare's, but he wouldn't call it a tax.

  • Dean Obeidallah: Is Mitt Romney truly a man "without a core"? No.
  • Obeidallah: Romney has a distinct core -- not one of a politician, but one of a CEO
  • He says a CEO is not shackled by ideology, but by how well he can sell a product
  • Obeidallah: Romney the businessman modifies his messages to get the customers
Editor's note: Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is a political comedian and frequent commentator on various TV networks including CNN. He is the editor of the politics blog "The Dean's Report" and co-director of the upcoming documentary, "The Muslims Are Coming!" Follow him on Twitter: @deanofcomedy
(CNN) --  
"This is a man without a core, a man without substance, a man that will say anything to become president of the United States."
Rudy Giuliani uttered these harsh words when describing Mitt Romney eight months ago. But then, four months later, Giuliani endorsed Romney.
Is Giuliani correct? Is Romney truly a man "without a core"? The simple answer: No. Romney has a distinct core -- not that of a politician, but of a CEO.

Dean Obeidallah
Dean Obeidallah
What do I mean? We have become accustomed in these highly partisan times to politicians who adhere rigidly to their ideological positions. They don't change their views to attract supporters. Rather, they want voters to agree with the positions they advocate.

In contrast, a CEO is not shackled by ideology. A CEO's success is measured by the bottom line, not by how many principles he or she sticks to.
To the CEO, if a product is not selling, you don't stick with it until the product destroys your business. Instead, you tweak it. You rebrand it. You try a new slogan or new packaging. And if people are still not buying it, like New Coke, you drop it. You regroup, come up with a new product and then start selling again.

Romney is first and foremost a businessman. In fact, Romney has repeatedly made this very point to us with statements like: "I spent my life in the private sector, not in government. I only spent four years as a governor. I didn't inhale. I'm a business guy."

I'm not defending Romney's acrobatic flips on issues. In fact, if Romney loses this election, he would make a great circus performer. I can see the ads: "The Amazing Romney -- he can change positions in midair." At times, I truly wonder if Mitt realizes we have Google and can look up his record on issues.
But Romney's "evolution" on certain key issues does not technically constitute a "flip-flop," which is defined by as, "A sudden or unexpected reversal as of direction, belief, attitude or policy."

Romney's changing views are neither sudden nor unexpected. Rather, they are astutely calculated by Romney the businessman to appeal to the customers he's targeting at that very moment. This is a man clearly driven by the adage: "The customer is always right."

For example, this week Romney declared that the individual mandate imposed by Obamacare is a tax. Yet when Romney was the governor of Massachusetts, he implemented an identical individual mandate but consistently denied it was a tax.

Romney has simply modified his "product line" to attract the most customers based on the current marketplace conditions. Even "Mad Men's" Don Draper would have to be in awe of Romney's business acumen.

This strategy is even more apparent when you contrast Romney's views from when he ran for office in Massachusetts with those he espoused when seeking the Republican presidential nomination. In Massachusetts, Romney fashioned a product that appealed to the left-leaning consumers who populate the state. But when seeking to sell his wares to the more conservative Republican primary market, he customized it accordingly.
For example, on abortion, Romney was unequivocally pro-choice in his run for the Senate in 1994 and for governor in 2002. In fact, during a 2002 gubernatorial debate, Romney stated, "I will preserve and protect a woman's right to choose and am devoted and dedicated to honoring my word in that regard."

But when Romney sought the Republican nomination, he tweaked his goods to appeal to these right-leaning buyers by saying, "I support the reversal of Roe v. Wade."

On gun control, Romney admitted during his 1994 Senate race that his views were, "... not going to make me the hero of the NRA." Indeed, as governor, Romney signed into law a ban on assault weapons, dubbing them "instruments of destruction with the sole purpose of hunting down and killing people."

Flash forward to 2012. During the Republican primaries, Romney again fine-tuned his merchandise to attract the more conservative gun owners. In April, he even addressed the NRA's national convention, explaining, "We need a president who will enforce current laws, not create new ones that only serve to burden lawful gun owners."

Romney not only revamped his product line, he also repackaged himself. 

During his 1994 Senate campaign, Romney told Massachusetts voters, "I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush." But when running for the Republican presidential nomination, he shrewdly rebranded himself as a self-described "Reagan Republican."

For many, a CEO-style president could be a good fit. Romney's track record indicates he will likely be a pragmatic leader, not rigidly beholden to ideology.

But for others like myself, Romney's CEO core and ever evolving product line lead to doubt about every word he says.

Obama Challenges China at WTO Over Auto Tariffs

By Devin Dwyer
Jul 5, 2012 1:18pm

As he embarked on a campaign swing across northern Ohio, President Obama announced new action against China in the World Trade Organization, challenging duties imposed last year on U.S. auto exports.
“Just this morning my administration took a new action to hold China accountable for unfair trade practices that harm American automakers,” Obama said during a campaign stop in Maumee, Ohio. “We’re going to make sure that competition is fair. That’s what I believe. That’s part of our vision for America.”
The tough line toward China coincides with Obama’s appeal to blue collar workers in Ohio, home to many U.S. auto manufacturers and suppliers.  The bus tour — themed “Betting on America” — will promote the 2009 Obama-backed bailout of GM and Chrysler and portray the president as a champion of American manufacturing.
Despite the optics of an administration mix of politics with trade policy, White House spokesman Jay Carney disputed that the timing of the announcement was anything other than coincidence.
“This is an action that has been in development for quite a long time. USTR [the U.S. Trade Representative] studies these issues and prepares actions with great deliberation to ensure their success at WTO. This one has been under development for many, many months,” Carney told reporters on Air Force One. “It can’t suddenly be a political action because it happens during the campaign.”
Carney noted that the new WTO complaint is the seventh the administration has filed against China and that the previous six have been “successful.”

Administration officials say the duties, which target Ohio-made cars like the Jeep Wrangler, affect $3.3 billion in exports, hampering prices and potentially imperiling jobs.
“The Chinese duties in question cover more than 80 percent of U.S. auto exports to China, including cars manufactured in Toledo and Marysville, Ohio, and Detroit and Lansing, Michigan,” said Carney. “The duties disproportionately fall on General Motors and Chrysler products because of the actions that President Obama took, as you know, to support the auto industry during the financial crisis.”
China cites Obama’s 2009 taxpayer-funded bailout of U.S. automakers GM and Chrysler to claim that the companies received an unfair advantage in the global marketplace, akin to subsidies that are forbidden by WTO rules.

Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Fact Checking’

Political Fact-Checking Under Fire

Read Mark Hemingway's article in The Weekly Standard and Glenn Kessler's response in The Washington Post.

January 10, 2012
Sites like PolitiFact and are designed to verify political claims and hold politicians accountable. But critics say fact-checking entities are themselves biased. The Weekly Standard's Mark Hemingway and Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post discuss fact-checking in American politics.

Copyright © 2012 National Public Radio. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Over the past few years, several news organizations established fact-checkers as impartial arbiters to gauge the accuracy of politicians. The best known is probably PolitiFact, which won a Pulitzer Prize for what was then the St. Petersburg Times.
That column uses a truth-o-meter and labels the biggest howlers with a Pants on Fire. A year ago, the Washington Post inaugurated the Fact Checker, which issues one to four Pinocchios.
Now, some critics question the accuracy and purpose of the fact-checkers themselves for alleged bias or for trying to apply absolute terms like true or false to debatable claims.
If you read these fact-checker columns, do you find them useful? Is so, how so? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Later in the program, Robert Redford joins us on the upcoming Sundance Festival and how documentaries changed change. But first: fact-checkers. Among the critics, Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard who joins us here in Studio 3A. Nice to have you.
MARK HEMINGWAY: Hey, thanks for having me.
CONAN: Also with us here in the studio, longtime political reporter Glenn Kessler, who now writes the Fact Checker in the Washington Post, and thanks very much for coming in.
GLENN KESSLER: You're welcome.
CONAN: Mark Hemingway, in a piece titled "Lies, Damned Lies and Fact Checking," you concluded that the fact-checker is less often a referee than a fan with a rooting interest. How did you arrive at that?
HEMINGWAY: Well, there's a number of reasons why I arrived at that conclusion. One of the facts I pointed out in the piece was that the University of Minnesota School of Public Affairs had actually done a survey of PolitiFact, and they evaluated all 500 statements that PolitiFact had rated from January of 2010 to January of 2011.
And they found that of the 98 statements that PolitiFact had rated false, 74 of them were by Republicans. Now, I can think of a number of reasons why you might cite one party over the other more, in terms of, you know, who was telling the truth and who wasn't. But doing that at a rate of three to one strikes me as awfully suspicious, particularly when, if you delve into the specifics of the statements that they cited, there's all kinds of problematic things contained there, whereas they are, you know, like you're mentioned, they're often fact-checking opinions and providing counter-arguments to, you know, stated opinions.
CONAN: All right, let's bring Glenn Kessler into the conversation. You did an annual review after your first year as a column, and it turned out - you can't speak for PolitiFact, I don't think, but Fact Checker for the Washington Post, I think the number of comments were just about even.
KESSLER: That's right. We - while I do this, I don't really focus on whether they're Republican or Democrat or what have you. I simply look at the statements. But at the end of the year, I did add it all up, and it was about - exactly half were Republican that - statements I vetted, half were Democratic statements.
CONAN: And the number of Pinocchios per party was just about the same, too.
KESSLER: It was just about the same, as well. I mean, in fact there was a slight higher average Pinocchio for Republicans, which I attributed to the fact that there is a Republican presidential primary going on these days, and there were a few Republican candidates that had very high Pinocchio ratings.
CONAN: There have been others, including Mark Hemingway, but other stories about fact checkers in the past few weeks that have come to the conclusion that, well, among other things, it's hard to find absolute assertions of facts by politicians, at least enough to fill up the column and that inevitably you're going to wind up checking assertions and opinions and debatable points.
KESSLER: Well, frankly, I try not to do that. I mean, there may be instances where people will say I failed in that endeavor. There's nothing more gratifying than being confronted with a number that some politician says, like Mitt Romney, I created 100,000 jobs, and then trying to break...
CONAN: Or Barack Obama, to be fair, there's the largest middle-class tax cut in history.
KESSLER: Right, which is another debatable fact. And so in being able to break that down and demonstrate whether that is true or not true. Now, you know, I have this gradation where you get one to four Pinocchios, and you have - or you can get the prized Geppetto checkmark, and, you know, that's a reflection of the fact that there's a gradation there.
You know, there are facts that are vaguely true but are taken out of context, or there are facts that are not very illustrative of the point you're trying to make. And so - and I actually don't make a decision as to whether or not someone is purposely lying. I mean, PolitiFact has its lie of the year. I never really speak about lies or not. I don't try to get to the motivations of people but simply say whether or not what they said was a misstatement.
CONAN: Mark Hemingway, checking matters of fact would seem to be a useful exercise.
HEMINGWAY: Absolutely, and I don't think anybody's against checking the actual fact. It's just that it comes down to, you know, like what you mentioned before, where you have situations where, you know, you have debates that are far too nuanced to say this is, you know, correct or this is incorrect.
And it just becomes this thing where, you know, one person's presenting an opinion, but because you have this pseudo-scientific marketing gimmick, where you're saying it's false, or you're assuming someone's intent or, you know, no disrespect to Glenn, you know, the Pinocchio itself does sort of imply lying and intent and other things like that.
But the reality is that people like to be told that this is right and this is wrong because it simplifies things for them, and it's a very attractive thing for the reader, and it makes these things very popular.
CONAN: Let's get some of our callers involved in the conversation, 800-989-8255. Email is If you read fact-checker columns, do you find them useful? Our guests again, Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard and Glenn Kessler, who created and writes the Fact Checker column for the Washington Post. And we'll start with Brian(ph), Brian with us from Boise.
BRIAN: Yeah, hi, how are you?
CONAN: Well, thank you.
BRIAN: Good. You know, I just wanted to say that I have always been a big reader of all the fact-checkers, and I really, really strongly support what they do when it comes to precise numbers. And my example of that is I believe it was John Cornyn who said that Planned Parenthood, 90 percent of what they did was abortions. And that was very measurably, you know, incorrect.
CONAN: John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas.
BRIAN: Exactly, yeah, and so that's an issue where that really stands out as a value to me. But when I started rethinking the fact-checking model was the PolitiFact Lie of the Year of 2011 about, you know, Republicans voting to end Medicare. And that was an issue where there was so much gray area, and it was so opinion-based that for them to call that the lie of the year as an absolute statement just absolutely shot their credibility with me.
CONAN: Glenn Kessler, I know you've written about this. It was not your lie of the year, as you say you don't use the word lie, for example, but it was among your biggest misstatements of the year.
KESSLER: That's right, that's right. And I think the case of the - you know, what the issue at hand was the Democrats saying that the Republicans were planning to kill Medicare, which they then illustrated with television ads that included literally tossing granny over the cliff.
CONAN: AARP ad there.
KESSLER: Well, I don't know if it was AARP, but it was one of those organizations. And, you know, when you get down to it, you can have an argument about whether or not what the House Republicans want to do with Medicare was a radical change or not, but it was not killing the program.
And, you know, there were different ways of financing it and different ways of delivering care, but particularly for people over the age of 55 currently, they wouldn't really see a change.
CONAN: Would it have been more accurate or accurate enough to say kill Medicare as we know it?
KESSLER: Well, again, the word kill is really - I think that was where it gets very problematic. And, you know, so you say end Medicare as we know it, well then again, you start introducing what I call weasel words. Those are, you know, it's simplified political rhetoric, and it's not very factual.
CONAN: And just a correction, it was Jon Kyl I think who said abortion services were over 90 percent, so forgive us for that. And turning to you, Mark Hemingway, is that a useful conversation to be having?
HEMINGWAY: Well, I think this PolitiFact Lie of the Year thing actually is a very useful conversation because it illustrates in a very good way where the fact-checking things can really muck up the debate.
Now, for instance I think the president's health care plans thus far have been catastrophically stupid, and I like a lot of what I see about the Ryan plan. That said, I think that PolitiFact was fairly egregious when they pronounced this the Lie of the Year.
Now the reality is that Medicare has $30 trillion in unfunded liabilities. Now, any plan that is going to address those problems is going to alter the problem significantly because Medicare as it is, is the problem.
So yes, I mean, yes, Paul Ryan is, you know, maybe killing is too strong and unhelpful, but it's also not helpful to say that he's not changing the fundamental nature of the program either.
KESSLER: Well, and I agree completely with that, and in fact I also rated very poorly some of the ways that Republicans would attack Democrats over Medicare. I mean, the fact of the matter is, as you say, Medicare on its current course is not sustainable. So whatever you're going to do, you're going to have to make changes.
And so to sit there in a vacuum and say, well, this plan is going to kill Medicare or kill it as we know it when frankly no matter what we do, Medicare will have to change, and so that I think is part of thinking as why it was called Lie of the Year.
HEMINGWAY: I would also point out that just two years ago, PolitiFact's Lie of the Year was Sarah Palin referring to death panels, which refers to something, the Independent Payment Advisory Board, which is the part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act that deals with Medicare. And they declared that the Lie of the Year.
And, you know, personally I think it was obvious that Sarah Palin was indulging in a bit of rhetorical hyperbole, and, you know, I don't recall a lot of people, you know, complaining that, you know, PolitiFact was, you know, fact-checking what was, you know, an obvious bit of rhetoric back then.
So, you know, I think it just - it goes both ways, and it's just an example of how these fact-checking organizations can wade into a debate and muck up something that involves a lot of subtle and complex details. I mean, if I want to go into, you know, how the Independent Payment Advisory Board works, you know, we're going to be here all day.
HEMINGWAY: And you decide whether that's positive or not, but...
CONAN: Somebody else's show, if you will.
CONAN: Here's an email from Madonna - and thanks very much for the call, Brian. Madonna in St. Louis: How can a regular person tell if a fact-checking organization is partisan? They don't publish their financial statements, so we can't see where the money is coming from. Glenn Kessler, you work for the Washington Post.
KESSLER: That's right.
CONAN: And PolitiFact, as far as I know, is a creature, to use a pejorative word, of what used to be the St. Pete's Times, now the Tampa Times.
KESSLER: That's right.
CONAN: And I think that's true of most of these organizations.
KESSLER: Right, I mean, you do have organizations on the left and the right, since there's Media Matters, which kind of fact-checks things from the left.
CONAN: But other people do it from the right, as well.
KESSLER: Exactly.
CONAN: And so in that case, they're openly partisan, but we're talking about the people who describe themselves as nonpartisan fact-checkers. If you read them, do you find their criticisms and comments and useful? How many Pinocchios does it take? 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. The campaign season keeps fact-checkers busy, poring over political ads, digging into the soundbites from countless debates and combing through official biographies for inaccuracy and the truth stretched.
All the while, they've got to keep their eyes on the ball, the sitting president who should not get a pass just because his re-nomination is virtually locked up. Critics argue that fact-checkers hide behind a mantle of impartiality while handing out judgments that are anything but impartial.
If you read the fact-checker columns like those in the Washington Post or on PolitiFact, do you find them useful? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Glenn Kessler is with us, he writes the Fact Checker for the Washington Post. Also Mark Hemingway is here in Studio 3A. He took the trade to task in a piece he wrote for the Weekly Standard. Let's get another caller on the line, and this is Jim(ph), and Jim's calling from Fort Collins in Colorado.
JIM: Yes, hi, thank you for taking my call.
CONAN: Sure.
JIM: Prior to the break, I kind of felt like we were getting into too much of an issue with regard to one agency trying to justify their position with regard to what is or is not a fact. And some of that's OK, but I think the bigger picture in my perspective is that given the very partisan rhetoric that we hear today, especially at this particular time of the year, along with the hyperbole from each side, that these fact-checking organizations are at least a place to go to get some kind of a reference point from which further information can be garnered in order to make a more informed decision.
They perform a very good service, in my opinion.
CONAN: Not to get into the weeds, but might you point to an example, Tim?
JIM: Might I point to an example? Well, yeah, I guess some of this health care stuff is important, too. I don't remember an exact example, but the doing away with Medicare and changing Medicare so significantly, for example the Medicare Advantage program.
People that I have talked to say oh, well, they're trying to change Medicare so completely that we get rid of some of our - the benefits that we pay for. And if you look into that more deeply, Medicare Advantage might change but it's certainly not going to go away. And at least that's something that people don't think about too deeply, perhaps.
CONAN: All right, Jim, thanks very much for the call, appreciate it.
JIM: All right.
CONAN: One of the criticisms, Mark Hemingway, that's been raised is that in fact fact-checkers undermine their own organizations, and elsewhere in the newspaper, aren't those reporters supposed to be checking facts, too?
HEMINGWAY: Yeah, and I think this is a big problem here is what we have is the major media outlets have so given themselves over to analysis and other things like that that what happens is that now...
CONAN: As a result of the changing news business.
HEMINGWAY: Yes, as a result of the changing news business, a lot of factors, have so given themselves over to analysis that people read newspapers anymore, and they're like, well, where's the basic information that I want? So then when we get into these complex matters or disputes, along come the fact-checkers to answer these questions because it wasn't resolved in the initial, you know, reporting.
So they turn to the fact-checkers, and then the fact-checkers are then providing analysis but then pretending it's the impartial sorting out of what's going on. And so you're creating this feedback loop of just analysis on top of analysis, and people, you know, aren't really getting through the din.
Now that said, I think that, you know, fact-checking is - can be done right. You know, Glenn is a very able political reporter, I've been reading him for years, and the best fact-checking is, you know, something that is, you know, just straight-up good reporting that with this pseudo-scientific marketing gimmick tacked on. And so it can be done right. It's just, it's frequently done very poorly.
CONAN: And, you know, Glenn, you wrote a piece that said wait a minute, we're not supposed to be replacing journalism, we're complimentary.
KESSLER: That's right, I view it as a supplement, and in fact when I was a political reporter, I was often frustrated that I would be covering the day-to-day statements of the candidates and never really had an opportunity to step back and really examine what the truth was behind that statement.
And what I try to do with these columns is not only focus on a particular statement but also give resources for readers to go do their own research. I provide links to all my documentation, to all the reports that I've looked at to reach my conclusions, and so I view it as in part, you know, an education process for everyone involved.
CONAN: Let's go next to Matt(ph), Matt with us from Pueblo, Colorado.
MATT: Thanks for taking my call. Well, I am a liberal, green Democrat, whatever, who's kind of coming around to Ron Paul's position on some things. And I don't know if it was Mr. Kessler or one of the other so-called fact-checkers wrote something kind of quibbling with his statement that America was bankrupt and gave it a mostly false or three Pinocchios or whatever.
And I just - and I found it totally unhelpful. It's kind of what you were talking about. You're just quibbling about definitions. I think anybody who is following the economic situation would say that we're in dire trouble, and so to say that - you know, and also Ron Paul's been very clear what he means by bankrupt.
So if you wanted to talk about that, you could look into exactly what he means. He's been talking about it for 30 years. But rather than deal with that, it's just this, sort of, well, bankrupt means, you know, you're in receivership and we're not, so three Pinocchios.
CONAN: I don't know if that was you, Glenn.
KESSLER: I plead guilty.
CONAN: And bankrupt, I think the argument, if you use the term bankrupt, you should say what you mean.
KESSLER: Exactly. I mean, that's a very strong term. And the fact of the matter is, you know, U.S. Treasury bonds are the gold standard around the world, and you can say the United States is in economic distress or is headed towards bankruptcy or something like that, but to make a flat declaration that the United States is bankrupt I think is incorrect.
Now, I happen to think that Mark disagrees on this point. I think he criticized that particular column, which, you know, I'm - I get thousands of letters every day from readers loving or hating what I write, and I actually learn a lot from some of those readers who make very thoughtful responses to what I've written, and it informs my thinking.
CONAN: Tell us a little bit about your process, if you would - and Matt, thanks very much for the call. Do you get assigned a quote or an attribution from an editor? Do you look at debates yourself and say oh, better check into that? Or do you get tips from readers?
KESSLER: No, I don't get assigned anything from an editor. It's all on my own initiative. I scan transcripts. I watch debates. I read speeches, listen to speeches whenever the president makes a speech. I get lots of tips from readers. Occasionally I will be pointed to something by - it's strange how it happens, but a Democrat might say, hey, look at what that Republican said, or a Republican might say God, can you believe what that Democrat said, and I will look into it.
HEMINGWAY: I was just going to say that I'm glad this person called on this specific example. Glenn and I were discussing this before we came into the studio because I had written a blog post talking about this specific piece. This is another example I think where fact-checking is just really not unhelpful.
I mean, does any American not know what Ron Paul means when he says America's bankrupt? I mean, the national debt has increased $4 trillion, about 40 percent in three years. We have, you know, things like $30 trillion unfunded Medicare liabilities. We have no money.
Yes, in the specific sense, there is no extra-national legal court that we can go to and file something, you know, Chapter 11 with the United Nations or something like that. But everyone knows we're out of money, and everyone knows what Ron Paul means, and to go in and sort of nitpick that just isn't helpful to the political dialogue, I think.
CONAN: Again, an exaggerated metaphor that is of use in the political discourse, a matter of opinion then.
HEMINGWAY: Well, yeah, but the other thing is I never say this because, you know, I'm inherently suspicious of politicians; I think all Americans should be. But you also have to give these guys a break. I mean, they're trying to communicate to a mass audience, you know, by talking confidently, which is why they make so many mistakes, which is why they give Glenn plenty of fodder on one hand.
But on the other hand, I mean, you know, cut them some slack. I mean, they're trying to push a message here, and every American knows what Ron Paul means when he says America's bankrupt.
KESSLER: Well, and I will say that I do try to make it - you asked about my process, I make a distinction between statements that are made in prepared speeches versus things that might be said off-the-cuff. I mean, I think if someone thought about it, and they decided to put a particular fact in a speech, I'm going to look at that a little more harshly than something that might have been off-the-cuff.
And a lot of times, I will simply say well, look, he obviously misspoke. It's not worth, you know, dinging him for that.
CONAN: Let's go next to Julie(ph), Julie with us from Bowling Green in Ohio.
JULIE: Hi, thanks for taking my call. I have a question, and I wanted to follow it up by a brief comment, and then I'll take my response off the air. The - I think it's Mr. Hemingway quoted that PolitiFact and other fact-checkers are heavily skewed towards giving Republicans lies or, you know, lie of the year or whatever.
And I was wondering if that was just, like, official, or does that include pundits and commentators? Does it include everybody? And then I just wanted to also comment that I think political fact-checkers are very important because up in rural northwest Ohio, you know, most of the people that I'm around, you know, watch a lot of these commentators, and they take what they say as fact.
And when Michele Bachmann makes comments like, you know, vaccines are dangerous, you know, they don't care about anything but what just came out of Michele Bachmann's mouth, and I think that...
CONAN: Michele Bachmann was a candidate, is a member of Congress and is a candidate, therefore her statements are perfectly, imminently qualified for review by fact checkers, I think, by their own definition. But pundits, Glenn Kessler, would you review pundits?
KESSLER: You know, I don't do that. I'm just myself and an assistant. PolitiFact has a, you know, vast and growing army of fact checkers around the country because they've partnered with a number of different newspapers. They do take on pundits, you know, and maybe that's an area that's ripe for investigation. But at the moment...
CONAN: But they're busy elsewhere in the middle of the day.
KESSLER: Right, exactly.
CONAN: Here's an email from Noreen(ph). I don't understand that the - that since - excuse me. I don't understand the idea that since PolitiFact demonstrates that Republicans lie three times as often as Democrats mean it's biased. Maybe Republicans actually do lie that much more. The idea that you have to have an even number of lies reported for Democrats and Republicans in order to be considered not biased is ridiculous. One side could lie way more than the other. And by trying to make them even, you are distorting fact. Is simple numerical balance an indication of nonpartisanship?
KESSLER: No. I don't look at them that way, and, as I said, I don't really keep track of, you know, how many Democrats or how many Republicans I'm looking at until, you know, at the end of the year, I count it up. My own experience from 30 years covering Washington and international diplomacy and that sort of thing is there's - both Democrats and Republicans will twist the truth as they wish if it somehow will further their aims. I mean, no one is pure as a driven snow here. And I've often joked that if I ever write an autobiography, I'm going to title it "Waiting for People to Lie to Me."
CONAN: That's something reporters do a lot. Mark Hemingway?
HEMINGWAY: Why - I think I said when I even brought this up. I mean, you know, I don't think that, you know, that, you know, numerical selection is indicative of, you know, bias per se. I just think that it's highly suspicious. When it's three to one, you know, if it were 60-40, you know, whatever, yeah, sure, you know? But when it's three to one, you start getting things where, you know, you start wondering about, you know, why the selection bias.
And then, second of all, the other issue is it's not just that they're choosing, you know, saying Republicans are lying three times more than Democrats, it's the rationales they choose when they say that they're lying. And I've gone through this a number of times where, you know, I'm banging my head against the desk because I read some rationale for some statement they've rated false when it's just clearly unfair. So it's not just that they're selecting it three to one, it's just the rationales that they use when they select it are often really shaky.
CONAN: Mark Hemingway is the online editor of The Weekly Standard, wrote the piece "Lies, Damned Lies, and Fact Checkers." Glenn Kessler created and writes The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And Jonathan is on the line. Jonathan with us from Lebanon, in New Hampshire.
JONATHAN: Hi. This sort of follows up on what your guests just said. Although I do usually read the PolitiFact column that runs in our local paper, the Valley News, I usually don't find it all that helpful because, you know, just like the guest said, I sort of expect that politicians, especially in a very, you know, rough race, will exaggerate greatly and throw in a few, you know, complete just untruths. You know, I'm not totally cynical about politics. I believe, you know, I think that the political system is still, you know, working more or less, but I'm cynical enough to not trust, you know, the things that the politicians are saying. And I, you know, I tend to rely on my other reading to have some sense of whether or not what they say is true or not to begin with. So that, for me, the fact checking is only moderately useful.
CONAN: It sounds like a sensible approach. Can you tell us, did you vote today?
JONATHAN: No. I actually - I'm calling from Lebanon, New Hampshire, but I live right across the border in Vermont.
CONAN: Oh, not eligible.
JONATHAN: Not eligible, exactly.
CONAN: Not this time around, anyway. Jonathan, thanks very much for the call. I was hoping we could get a preview...
CONAN: ...a sample poll, in any case. I wanted to get into why it is that - and you wrote about this, and it's been written about in the Columbia Journalism Review as well. Why it is you think that these fact checker columns have become - they're popular because people enjoy them, but why - an attempt to control the political discourse?
HEMINGWAY: I think that, you know, when you get into situations where the PolitiFact you have, you know, things three to one, in terms of citing one party over the other...
CONAN: Not just - I just have to say you were very critical of The Associated Press as well...
HEMINGWAY: (unintelligible) The Associated Press, I mean, the other fact (unintelligible)...
CONAN: And I have to say less critical of Glenn but...
HEMINGWAY: Well, part of the thing here is that it gets in this other issue where a lot of the fact checking is about narratives, like The AP has run fact checks on, for instance, people were comparing Obama's handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill to the Katrina disaster in the Bush administration. So they run a fact check saying this is why this comparison makes no sense. Well, I mean, come on? I mean, it's a very broad comparison. They're both in the same general area. In both cases, the public, you know, perceived that the president responded to the crisis poorly. There's all kinds of very broad things. You can see where people would be connecting the two.
But it's not necessarily the news organization's job to come in and say, oh, well, you know, if people are talking about this, they shouldn't talk about it, you know? And that's kind of what happens, you know, and particularly because the media is so responsible this day and age for creating those narratives in the first place.
CONAN: And, Glenn Kessler, when you come in with terms like true or false, we're not going into lies, but degrees of truth, isn't - are those absolutes? Don't they stifle discussion?
KESSLER: Correct. And I don't mean - I guess, if I label something four Pinocchios, I'm saying it is...
CONAN: It's pretty false.
KESSLER:'s pretty false. But there are - and that's why I have to scale. I mean - and, you know, it's - maybe it is pseudoscientific or a marketing gimmick, but it does help me actually as a writer and an evaluator to keep straight in my own mind, you know, the severity of the misstatement. If it's really just a one Pinocchio thing, or if it's something that really ranks up to three Pinocchios, it forces me to kind of think about it in a very consistent, disciplined way.
CONAN: You've also mentioned it is inevitably arbitrary. You pick some things and not others. You can't get to everything.
KESSLER: I can't get to everything, and I obviously, you know, I would - actually, I would like to be able to give more Geppetto checkmarks out, but I find myself always being drawn to those statements that, you know, readers will say, well, what did this mean when they said that? And then I look into it and it's not correct.
CONAN: Glenn Kessler, thank you very much for your time today. We appreciate it. Glenn Kessler - oh - who's the creator and writer of The Fact Checker column for The Washington Post. Mark Hemingway, appreciate your coming in. Mark Hemingway is the online editor of The Weekly Standard. Both of them joined us here in Studio 3A.
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