When New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane asked whether Times reporters should challenge the ‘facts’ asserted by the newsmakers they write about a large majority of readers responded: "yes, you moron, The Times should check facts and print the truth." That’s pretty much how John Quiggin responded too. But it’s actually a more difficult question than it seems.
Fact-checking is all the rage in the US media. In December Polifact (a fact-checking project of the Tampa Bay Times) announced that the claim Republicans voted to end Medicare was its ‘Lie of the Year 2011‘.
Polifact’s Truth-O-Meter evaluates claims according to their truth or falsity. According to their web site, "truth is not black and white", especially in politics. So the Truth-O-Meter looks at whether claims are accurate, complete and whether they require clarification.
At the Economist Erica Grieder wonders how an inaccurate claim can be lie if the person who made it actually believes that it’s true. And then there’s the arguments about how Medicare is defined and what it means to end or kill something. At the New Republic, Jonathan Chait thinks it’s more a matter of opinion than something that can be fact-checked::
At some point, a change is dramatic enough that it is clearly ending the program. If you proposed to replace Medicare with a plan to give everybody two free aspirin on their 65th birthday, I would hope Politfact would concede that this would be “ending Medicare,” even if you call the free aspirin “Medicare.” On the other hand, small tweaks could not accurately be called “ending Medicare.” Between those two extremes, you have gray areas where you can’t really say with certainty whether a change is radical enough to constitute ending Medicare.
At Press Think, Jay Rosen writes: "Politfact took an arguable point and tried to turn into a lie." At the Columbia Journalism Review, Greg Marx argues that by "acting as if journalistic methods can resolve the argument, the fact-checkers weaken the morally freighted language that’s designed to give their work power".
According to Marx, "the fact-checkers have set their sights on identifying not only which statements are true, but which are legitimate." And that’s probably a more interesting issue than truth. After all, most of the demonstrably untrue statements uttered by politicians are likely to be not all that interesting.