October 10, 2008

A Mendacious Hack Identifies a Threat to His Job

In an opinion piece in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, James Taranto lashes out at what he calls the "fact checking fad," labeling it "opinion journalism thinly disguised as straight reporting." Although it would certainly be more credible coming from a source other than Mr. Taranto, who has made a good portion of his living parsing words, taking statements from those of whom he disapproves out of context, and sometimes just plain lying - in this modern age of political spin and institutionalized propaganda, it's an interesting premise.

Actually digging into this proposition, however, reveals that Mr. Taranto is operating true to form. As but one example, he cites as an instance of poor fact-checking an article in the New York Times that contains the following passage:
There is no way, of course, that Senator Barack Obama would ever nominate three controversial figures from his past to serve on the United States Supreme Court: the convicted felon Antoin Rezko; the former Weather Underground radical Bill Ayers; or Mr. Obama's former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright, Jr.

Yet the names and faces of the three men appear in a new television advertisement - running in Michigan and Ohio this week and nationally on Fox News on Monday, at a total cost of $500,000 - arguing that Mr. Obama's judgment about his associates shows that he cannot be trusted to pick justices for the Supreme Court.
Unfortunately for Mr. Taranto, this article is not a fact check. Instead, it focuses on efforts by Senator John McCain to shift the focus of the presidential campaign to judicial nominees, not whether Senator Obama would nominate any of the men described in the commercial.

While there are legitimate questions about the role of this particular passage in the article - it is not central to the main theme and injects the author's judgment into the piece - calling it a fact check is a deliberate misidentification. This obfuscation is, in turn, an effort to undermine a useful tool for vetting the statements of political figures, and is clearly a product of the frustration Mr. Taranto and other McCain supporters must be feeling about the fact that the Republican ticket is suffering badly because the press (for a change) is holding Senator McCain and Governor Palin accountable for their repeated lies, reversals and all-out negative attack ad strategy.

Mr. Taranto later goes on to claim, "If a politician makes a statement that is flatly false, it does not need to be 'fact checked.' The facts themselves are sufficient." Ideally, this would be true, but in the real world, where politicians successfully misrepresent the truth by relying on public ignorance, and the press furthers falsehoods in the name of "balance" or drops the ball altogether, it is clearly not the case. To see the unquestionable need for fact checking, one need only observe that 13% of the populace still believes Barack Obama is a muslim after 2 years of campaigning and a significant controversy over his Christian pastor, or remember that, in the run-up to the Iraq War, fully 70% of Americans thought Saddam Hussein was personally involved in the 9/11 attacks.

While there is no doubt that reportage can be improved, and that even fact checks will not be 100% accurate, James Taranto's hope that the fact checking "fad" will "soon go the way of streaking and Mexican jumping beans," is just as doubtlessly rooted in self-interest. While he postures as an advocate for a world in which educated voters are served by a vigilant and honest press that covers candidates who feel shame or suffer consequences when they are revealed as liars, were such a world actually to come to pass, he would quickly need to find another line of work.

1 comment:

lokywoky said...

I recently read an article by Glenn Greenwald at Salon regarding the issue of lying in our society. It has gotten so bad that no one even thinks about it anymore, it is just expected. Not just from politicians, but from everyone. And this nutball is exhibit #1 - with his 'fact-checking is a fad'.

Our society as a whole has been so harmed by the constant barrage of lying (political, advertising - which covers so many areas) and cheating (performance drugs, test cheats, etc) that it is no wonder everyone is so cynical that no one participates in their community life. That participation is absolutely necessary for this republic to operate, and without it we will be relegated to the dustbin of history as one more failed, fascist state.

I fear for this country. Nutbags like this guy are helping it down the road to oblivion.