by Quin Hillyer
Conservative opinion outlets have been on fire in recent weeks complaining about perceived liberal bias
in the world of media “fact checkers” – but even if bias is a problem, a bigger problem is that many journalists these days don’t really know what a “fact” is anymore.
A “fact,” by definition, is something incontrovertibly accurate. It is something whose meaning or importance might be debatable, but whose existence itself is not open to disagreement. (For example: To say a particular thermometer measures the temperature of a tub of water as 100 degrees is an observable fact; to say that the water is “hot,” as oppose to, say, “very warm,” is a matter of opinion or interpretation.)
Media fact-checkers, however, have exerted copious effort in the past year pronouncing various political assertions either “fact” or “fiction” based on nothing other than the fact-checkers’ own weighing of a particular argument’s merits. No matter whether political bias is involved, and no matter how fair-minded the fact-checker might be, these sorts of determinations amount to a journalistic sin against the very idea of a “fact.”
People who make this mistake seem not to understand the following: First, something can be “accurate” or “factual” while being misleading or while being used dishonestly. Second, a statement can be inaccurate without being a “lie.” Third, a statement may be open to interpretation without being inaccurate. Fourth, an interpretation of a statement or event can be “balanced” but still untruthful – or, vice versa, might be truthful while being utterly unbalanced. Fifth, failure to live up to an aspirational promise is not necessarily a lie, or even dishonest (unless the one making the promise never intended to live up to it).
Let’s take these one by one.
Example of situation one: It is “accurate” to say that “every time a space shuttle has blown up in the air, a Republican was president.” If, however, you are using that incontrovertible fact to insinuate that Republicans cause shuttles to explode, you are being dishonest. You could likewise say that whenever the Detroit Tigers win a World Series in a presidential election year, Republicans win: It’s accurate, but one has nothing to do with the other. Correlation is not necessarily causation.
Situation two: President George W. Bush was inaccurate when he said Saddam Hussein still had an active program of “weapons of mass destruction” when the United States began its liberation of Iraq – but he didn’t lie. A lie by definition involves deliberate intent to deceive; but every single bit of evidence shows that Bush and every other major political figure of both parties believed Saddam was hiding numerous WMDs. (As a matter of fact, Iraq still did possess WMDs, but only in small amounts
.) It is a fact that Saddam once had many such weapons, that he tried to manufacture and/or acquire more of them, that he had used them in the past, that he even fooled his own senior Iraqi military officials into believing he still had them, and that he never showed proof that he had disposed of them. If Bush believed Saddam still had WMD, then he wasn’t lying. Period. He was just mistaken.
Example three: If a politician says an incumbent president “caused” an economic downturn, the only thing verifiable about the statement is whether indeed there has been a downturn. A fact checker can disagree until the cows come home about who is to blame for the downturn, but he can’t say the politician was “inaccurate.” The very nature of the statement in question is a judgment call, and therefore its level of “factualness” is not reviewable at all.
Situation four: If a politician accuses another one of, say, being a tax cheat, it is “balanced” reporting in one sense to write that politician A says one thing and politician B denies it. But it is not in the slightest bit accurate or truthful to leave it at that, without reporting whether any evidence actually exists to support the charge. An assertion like that is not a mere matter of opinion; it is either factual or not, and it is not fair to merely report the allegation if real facts show or even indicate otherwise. (Vice-versa, it would not be truthful for a journalist to report the denial without context if actual facts show the allegation is correct.)
Situation five: Obama administration officials “projected” that unemployment would never rise above 8 percent if Congress passed the $800+ billion stimulus bill in 2009. Instead, it has never fallen below 8 percent. But their projection was not a lie, and they did not “break” a promise. A “broken” promise involves not doing something entirely in one’s control, such as not eating broccoli every day after promising to do so. But if somebody says that eating broccoli every day will ensure that he runs a four-minute mile, and then he does eat broccoli but still fails to break the four-minute mark, then he hasn’t broken a promise, (much less “lie”), but merely failed to meet his aspirations. At issue then is not his honesty, but his judgment or his competence.
The proper understanding of "facts" and "lies" is important not just for politics, but in everyday life. Few things are more toxic than a false accusation of "lying." A good civic life requires civil discourse -- and just as lies poison civil discourse, so do falsehoods about who is actually lying.