The day after President Clinton's speech to the Democratic National Convention, the Associated Press produced a “fact-check” that could be best described as the perfect parody of the systemic flaws I described last week. Rather than offering a limited, measured evaluation of the factual claims in the speech, the AP treated its fact-check as an opportunity to conflate fact with conflicting opinions of Bill Clinton's legacy. As Talking Points Memo headlined its post on the article, “True, but also, Lewinsky!”
Such absurdities line up nicely with my critique of the fact-check status quo and it's useful as evidence in this “What About The Facts?” conversation we're finally having. But the problem with my proposed solution to our fact-checking problem is that my information-standards system doesn't offer any short-term options for the failure we're experiencing right now. Even if we were deploying the first semantic content-management systems in newsrooms today, the emergent features I described would still take years to develop.
So what could we do, right now, with only the resources news organizations have on hand?
1. Declare a meaningful perspective
Facts matter, but a fact without a context is gibberish. So like I said last time, before we measure anything, we have to drive a reference stake into the ground.
The underlying context of journalistic fact-checking is political. I don't mean that as an excuse for more View-From-Nowhere false-equivalency, but as a guide to problem-solving. We have to pick the right tool for the job, and I believe that job is to help citizens make informed political decisions.
The implication of those statements is that, no matter how seductive the idea sounds, we cannot use science as our model.
Here's why that's important. Value-neutral scientific objectivity works in part because science artificially limits the data it considers. The goal of science is the advancement of knowledge by thousands of tiny, controlled steps.
Our task is to offer citizens real-time distinction between political discussions that are serious, and political discussions that amount to nothing but distorted, empty narrative. Science wasn't designed to handle that task because science deals with chaos by placing artificial limits on it, while political campaigns routinely generate information chaos for tactical purposes.
So while scientists get results by declaring what they're not going to look at, political fact-checking is the act of finding patterns of meaningful order within a chaotic system. Different tools, different goals.
Accepting politics as our context cuts two ways and demands we make a positive statement of purpose. I'm going to save that positive statement for another day, but here's the double-edged issue. In a political context, all facts are not created equally, and the important/trivial scale isn't strictly based on some wonkish Platonic ideal. Images matter. Soundbites matter. So does timing, symbolism and coded language. Facts that are true or not true in “off-message” topics are less significant than those that candidates and their partisans emphasize in speeches and advertisements. And so on.
Our perspective – our positive statement of purpose – must explicitly declare not only these principles, but our policies for evaluating claims. That only sounds like an abstract idea. Try it, and your statement will rapidly become highly detailed and annoyingly specific.
2. Don't focus on 'lying'
What's a lie?
Is it a lie when the speaker doesn't know the truth? What if the speaker has a faith-based belief that doesn't square with rationally derived data? Is a politician lying when she takes a legitimate fact and presents it in a deliberately misleading context? If I pitch my idea by citing five facts that support it and never mention the 10 facts that would argue against it, is that good salesmanship, or a dishonest act of cynical manipulation?
If you've been involved in covering campaigns or governance for any length of time, you know first-hand that the simple answers to those questions are invariably short-sighted, if not outright stupid. These are fundamentally complex problems, because human beings are complex social creatures.
This is why I think the best way to conduct fact-checking programs is to focus on seriousness and consistency, not individual statements. This doesn't mean that a fact-checker can't point out when an individual claim is unsupported. It does mean that when a campaign or an interest group engages the public with messages that consistently obscure the dynamics of the actual policy decisions involved, fact-checkers should consistently evaluate such messages as “not serious.”
An element of this system would be the imperative requirement for fact-checkers to issue and update reports on policy issues. Not because such reports are fun to read, but because they establish a frame of reference. When new information moves the window of serious options, fact-checkers would be responsible for reflecting that information in their published standards.
This will anger some political parties and powerful, wealthy interests. Well, so what? If you're declaring a standard that is based on an intelligent understanding of the actual tradeoffs involved in real decisions, you are acting as a political referee on behalf of citizens. Own it. If you're doing it with serious rigor and offering a transparent standard based on best evidence, then you're revealing to all sides what you will consider serious, what you won't, and why. They can bitch, but they should never be surprised.
Let them counter with a fact-checking alternative. I'd welcome a public comparison between systems of knowledge. If you're serious about getting at the truth rather than promoting a partisan view, then such comparisons should improve your system over time, while exposing the flaws in competing systems with hidden agendas.
This will give us enormous responsibility, and it will require us to step outside of our traditional role of limited generalists. We must find and engage the mainstream experts, the hands-on practitioners and the credible dissenters within dozens of fields of study. We must become the experts at summarizing and presenting that information, not as “news” but as knowledge anyone can use. This is actually the core of the approach, and how we manage these choices will determine the limits of our public credibility.
This won't change the enduring dynamics of politics, but it will change the way campaigns and special interests relate to the press. It's not perfect, but it could be made to work.
3. Quit acting so damned cute
No more “Pinnochios.” No more “Pants on Fire.” Will someone please explain to me how a “fact-checking” system that employs the rhetoric of schoolyard taunts is somehow supposed to elevate political discourse in this country?
A fact-check must be a guarantee, with a system of transparency, feedback and verification that is the same for all observers. Observers may agree or disagree, but the test will be whether your standards, declarations and evaluations hold up over time. And you won't have a chance in hell of succeeding at that if your approach is based on cutesy quips and black-box news judgment.
Where does the cutesy-snarky tone come from? The idea that fact-checking journalism is still in the catchy headline business, not the credibility business. So long as modern media's business model is based on nothing more than renting people's attention to advertisers, political journalism will be long on sensation and short on substance. That's why we're forced to treat fact-checking as a separate discipline for now – a new feature of modern political journalism, not a replacement for it.
There's nothing wrong with writing that engages and entertains, and politics features undeniable show-business aspects. There's nothing inheriently wrong with political writing that adopts all sorts of attitudes and tones. But fact-checking isn't entertainment. We must hold the two separate until the larger paradigm shift occurs.
Eventually, our 21st century prosperity depends on changing our relationship to information and data, a revolution that will reshape our idea of the press and the conduct of our politics. But we simply can't wait for that day.
So this is where I'd start, and I'd try to be ready by the next midterm election cycle.