My interest in fact-checking grew out of years of running political coverage in the Carolinas, in places where facts were often far less important than the nameless angers that animate our Southern culture. Doing that job is, in fact, a political act, though not a partisan one.
A political editor walks the line between trying to find the truth and trying to publish the truth, and must constantly compromise the latter in the service of the former. That's because when the balance of truth favors one party over the other, presenting it that way destroys the journalistic fiction that Jay Rosen dubbed "The View From Nowhere." Media companies like that view because, in theory at least, it allows them to sell their newspapers (or TV programs) to the entire electorate.
In other words, if the Republican Party produces 10 fact-mangling whoppers to every arcane Democratic stat-fudger, you've got a serious problem as a journalist. You simply can't present that ratio as-is without looking like a liberal hack.
So here's what we did -- what I did -- and what others have certainly done as well: I downplayed Republican dishonesty while judging Democratic failings with an unfairly harsh bias. I applied this to assignments, to the tone and presentation of stories, and to the various gimmicks we invented to try to evaluate claims. The results didn't reflect the true scale of the dishonesty gap, but they at least demonstrated that a gap existed. At least, they had the potential to demonstrate the gap, but only to very careful readers with a knack for drawing subtle inference. Because we could never come out and tell you what we all knew in the newsroom: Yes, "all politicians lie" (a cynical dodge if ever there was one), but the modern Republican Party is based on a set of counter-factual and faith-based beliefs, and has been for years. Not only has that foundation consistently put the party on the wrong side of fact-checkers, it has led us to where we stand today, with Mitt Romney running a campaign that has abandoned even the pretense of fact.
That dynamic is why, when I saw the rise of new media in the mid-2000s, one of my first thoughts was that journalists might be able to use technology to improve the way we cover and evaluate political issues. I studied it. I experimented with it. And eventually I came to an unhappy conclusion:
All attempts at systematic fact-checking of political statements will ultimately fail until the organization conducting them embraces an indepedent and verifiable claim to authority. Anything less is just rearranging deck chairs.