The Fact-Checkers’ Conceit

Ramesh Ponnuru on media “fact-checkers”:

The conceit of the fact-checkers is that their claims are objectively true: A politician has said X, the truth is Y, and the size of the difference is the magnitude of the lie. Every stage of the fact-checking process, however, involves the exercise of judgment. The fact-checker must decide which claims to scrutinize and how harshly a misstatement should be treated. The media’s fact-checkers have also taken it upon themselves to interpret the intended impression a factually true statement is meant to leave, so as to grade the accuracy of that impression. Where judgment is necessary, bias is possible — and all the more likely when the fact-checker believes he is merely stating the objective truth, and when most of his colleagues perceive the truth the same way he does.

Political commentary does a public service when it explains how competing claims represent contrasting policy assumptions and premises and provides context so voters can evaluate competing claims. It’s quite a disservice, however, to pretend that differences of opinion on, say, whether the Independent Payment Advisory Board is an “unaccountable” agency or whether cutting $700 billion from the growth of Medicare payments to service providers will adversely affect beneficiaries are simple questions of “fact.” Indeed, in those areas in which I am most familiar, I have been quite appalled for what passes as “fact-checking” in many media outlets.