If you are a regular reader of these pages you may have noticed that almost every time I quote Factcheck.org, I mention their liberal bias. When they actually support a claim by Republican ticket I seem stunned. There is a reason for that….I am. Factcheck.org and the other Fact Cheking groups tend to ignore the message and look for ways to trip up a republican candidate (something they don’t do with Obama). For example Palin’s speech about Ayers:
“Verdict: False,” wrote CNN’s fact-checking unit. “There is no indication that Ayers and Obama are now ‘palling around,’ or that they have had an ongoing relationship in the past three years. Also, there is nothing to suggest that Ayers is now involved in terrorist activity or that other Obama associates are.”
WELL LA-DE-FREAKING-DA. They did and he did, so the statement is true. But this isn’t the only case or the only fact checker. Read on for more:
By Byron York
This has been the campaign of the fact-checker. After presidential debates, campaign commercials, or even off-hand statements from the candidates, newspapers, networks, and websites come out with seemingly objective analyses of the specific claims involved. Putting analysis under the heading of “fact-checking” sends the message that it has an added measure of accuracy, that what readers and viewers are about to read or see is no spin, just facts.
It’s fair to say that John McCain has taken more heat from the fact-checkers than has Barack Obama, so much so that one prominent analyst has declared that “lies are more central” to McCain’s campaign than to Obama’s.
But if you look at the factchecking of some of the McCain campaign’s most prominent claims, you’ll see that the objections raised are often matters of degree — that McCain claimed that Obama did this or that X number of times, when in fact Obama did it Y number of times — or of tone, or of verb tense. Which leads to the question: What if McCain adjusted his campaign claims to conform to the fact-checkers’ objections? In a number of cases he could easily satisfy their criticisms and still have a devastating attack against Obama. Would they then pronounce those claims accurate?
Start with one example that’s been around for much of the campaign and appeared again in the debate between Sarah Palin and Joseph Biden. Palin said that Barack Obama “had 94 opportunities to side on the people’s side and reduce taxes and 94 times he voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction.” Biden immediately objected, saying, “That charge is absolutely not true” and “It’s a bogus standard.”
As soon as the words came out of Palin’s mouth, the factcheckers were on the story. USA Today quoted the nonpartisan FactCheck.org calling Palin’s claim “inflated and misleading.” The FactCheck website itself had analyzed the claim months before, when it was made by the McCain campaign and the Republican National Committee. “We find that their count is padded,” FactCheck wrote. “By repeating their inflated 94-vote figure, the McCain campaign and the GOP falsely imply that Obama has pushed indiscriminately to raise taxes for nearly everybody.”
What were the actual figures? After going through all the claims, FactCheck wrote that “in the end, we listed votes on 54 measures under the ‘for higher taxes’ category (and another seven votes in favor of lowering some taxes and increasing others).”
Let’s assume that FactCheck’s analysis is correct. Why shouldn’t McCain and Palin use the new, supposedly more accurate, numbers? When Palin said in St. Louis last week that Obama “had 94 opportunities to side on the people’s side and reduce taxes and 94 times he voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction” — well, why not change it to “had 54 opportunities to side on the people’s side and reduce taxes and 54 times he voted to increase taxes or not support a tax reduction”? Wouldn’t that still be a damning critique of Obama’s stance on taxes?
Another example, this one from Palin’s new stump speech, is her claim that Barack Obama “is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he’s palling around with terrorists who would target their own country.” That, of course, is a reference to William Ayers, the former Weather Underground radical who in the 1960s and 1970s took part in bombing the Capitol, the Pentagon, and several other targets with the goal of overthrowing the U.S. government. Obama has attempted to downplay his relationship with Ayers — Obama once called Ayers a “guy who lives in my neighborhood” — but there is no doubt that the two knew each other, that Ayers supported Obama and Obama accepted Ayers’ support, and that they worked on projects together as recently as a few years ago.
Nevertheless, the factcheckers have been all over Palin’s statement. “Verdict: False,” wrote CNN’s fact-checking unit. “There is no indication that Ayers and Obama are now ‘palling around,’ or that they have had an ongoing relationship in the past three years. Also, there is nothing to suggest that Ayers is now involved in terrorist activity or that other Obama associates are.”
It would be pretty easy for McCain and Palin to satisfy those objections. Barack Obama, they could say, “is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect that he has worked with — has even accepted the support of — a radical who bombed the Capitol and the Pentagon, who wanted to overthrow the U.S. government, and who to this day has no regrets about it.” That would certainly satisfy the fact-checkers’ objections and would still be a tough hit on Obama.
Would that work? Would the fact-checkers withdraw their complaints if McCain and Palin satisfied the objections they have raised? Not likely.
In fact, McCain has already tried the tactic. Back in July, the McCain campaign released an ad accusing Obama of having “voted to raise taxes on folks earning as little as $32,000.” FactCheck declared the claim “false,” nothing that “The resolution Obama voted for would not have increased taxes on any single taxpayer making less than $41,500 per year in total income…The $32,000 figure is approximately the taxable income of a single person making $41,500 per year, after all deductions and exclusions.”
In response to that and other criticism, the McCain campaign changed its figure from $32,000 to $42,000. In the Palin-Biden debate, Palin said that Obama “even supported increasing taxes as late as last year for those families making only $42,000 a year.” FactCheck objected. Under the heading “Palin’s False Tax Claims,” FactCheck wrote that Obama “did not in fact vote to increase taxes on ‘families’ making as little as $42,000 per year. What Obama actually voted for was a budget resolution that called for returning the 25 percent tax bracket to its pre-Bush tax cut level of 28 percent. That could have affected an individual with no children making as little as $42,000.”
It seems clear that Palin shouldn’t have used the word “families.” So what if, in the future, she and McCain claim that Obama voted to raise taxes on “folks making as little as $42,000”? That would satisfy FactCheck’s objections, right? Maybe not. FactCheck might still say that the vote really didn’t mean anything and that Obama has no such plans to raise those taxes today. If McCain tailored his ads to meet the fact-checkers’ objections, the factcheckers would probably come up with new objections.
In fact, they promise to. Back in July, FactCheck.org wrote that even if McCain and the Republicans accused Obama of voting to raise taxes 54 times — instead of 94 times — FactCheck would still “have plenty to say about it. As we mentioned, most of those were measures to tax the rich or corporations; many aimed to fund government programs; and most didn’t actually raise taxes in and of themselves.” Well, is 54 — FactCheck’s number, not McCain’s — correct or not? Is it, in the end, a fact?
The point of all this is that factchecking reports begin with an analysis of details but end with the factchecker’s opinion of what an ad or speech “implies” or what “impression” it leaves. And that takes the fact-checkers away from the realm of fact.