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.
In other words, until a media company rejects the "fair and balanced view from nowhere" that we called "journalistic objectivity," it simply can't independently evaluate anything. Just as surveyors must establish a reference point before they begin measuring property lines, so too must journalists find and announce a meaningful perspective before they attempt to measure truth.
Journalistic fact-checkers needed to drive a stake in the ground first. That's how all measurement works. But our media leaders simply refused to do so.
Eventually, my quest led me so far outside the mainstream that I found myself conversing with the void. Even the new-media upstarts of 2005 (who quickly became part of our current establishment) consider me a novelty. At best.
But here's the thing, and it's as true today as when I first wrote about this topic seven years ago: What we call "fact checking" is simply traditional journalism dressed up in a modern gimmick. Poli-Fact and Glenn Kessler at the Washington Post aren't doing anything that couldn't be done in news stories. That we now place "fact" in a separate category from standard political reporting is a testament to a broken system, yet it doesn't change the system. Today's fact-checkers operate within the same dysfunctional constraints that bedeviled me in the 1990s and 2000s, and no amount of tweaking and rationalization will save them.
You just can't look fair if you're disproportionately coming down on one side, and people won't listen to you if they think you're not fair. So to have public credibiltiy, you can't judge fact the way a scientist would.
You have to judge it as a political actor. Which kinda defeats the purpose of political fact-checking.
I believe that the ultimate solution to this problem lies is a system that applies universal standards to the ways we use, store, retrieve and publish information. I believe such a system ultimately will replace our 20th century media model, with its view-from-nowhere junk information, because such a system will create information value that is independent of advertising value. The tools to create such a system exist today, but the industry is profoundly not interested.
In the end, fact-checkers fail because when Kessler calls Romney a liar, all Romney has to do is call Kessler a liar. There is no independent perspective that can resolve both claims for all observers. And so liars prosper and the people lose their belief in even the possibility of truth.
I believe the solution lies in creating rewards for those who treat information with independently verifiably concern for credibility and accuracy.
But we're not having that discussion today.
SEPT. 6 UPDATE: As if to provide an unintentionally hilarious illustration of some of my points from this essay, the Associated Press published this "Fact Check" of Bill Clinton's speech at the Democratic National Convention. This risible piece of post-modern journalism inspired my favorite headline of the week: "True, But Also Lewinsky."