Are Pinocchio's pants on fire? Fact checkers and the definition of lies

by John MacBeath Watkins

Glenn Kessler at the Washington posts gives four Pinocchios to Harry Reid for his claim that a Bain investor in the know told him that Mitt Romney didn't pay taxes for ten years.

Politifact gives Reid's statement a "Pants on fire" rating.

Neither claims to have spoken to Reid's source and learned that he said no such thing. This has led to the charge that Kessler and Politifact do not in fact know if Reid is lying.

Is this good journalism? In my misspent years as a journalist, I was careful to not call anyone a liar unless I could prove it. Quoting someone calling someone a liar offers some protection. Should those journalists who have quoted Republicans calling Reid a "dirty liar" later learn that he wasn't lying, they can in fact point to the fact that they didn't themselves call Reid a liar. They quoted someone who did say this, and they can prove that their source did say this, so their report is true.

Sometimes, they quote an anonymous source, and if that source proves not to be right, they still avail themselves of the defense that the source did actually say that, so their report was true.

It helps that libel law provides some protection when you write about a public figure. They can only sue for libel if they can demonstrate "actual malice," which in the wonderfully precise yet idiosyncratic world of legal parlance means "a reckless disregard for the truth."

Now, journalists are often derided for adopting a "he said, she said" approach to controversies, rather than trying to determine what is actually true, but the reason for this is that they can prove what people have said. It's much harder to prove what is actually true.

But doing so is the power fact-checkers have arrogated to themselves. The need seems obvious, because in a world where journalism has abandoned the empirical  approach and gone for "balance" instead, the system rewards persistent liars.

But calling someone a liar is a heavy responsibility, and anyone who wishes to be the arbiter of such a matter must, one would think, have thought long and hard about what truth is, and what constitutes a lie.

I'm not sure our fact checkers have done this. In some cases, we find that they have simply not done their research, as we explored in this post and this post.

In some cases, fact checkers have rushed to judgment with results that make them look quite foolish. Follow that link, and you'll find this in the Huffington Post article:

So, I am left to speculate how this sausage got made in the first place. Let's note that in the original post, Politifact took pains to track down the relevant data that underpinned the claim. For the bulk of the post, they seem authentically concerned with that data. And, on that score, we have this ruling: "Obama is correct on both counts when using private-sector job numbers." What Politifact seems to object to, literally, is that Obama included this statistic in the State Of The Union at all. That's where we get the second, more costly part of the ruling: "But he went too far when he implicitly credited his administration policies."

Here's where we fall in a strange hole. As critics of this post point out, Obama explicitly credited "businesses" for this job growth. But subjectively speaking, by including it in the State Of The Union, it was, indeed, implied that the Obama administration had something to do with it.
 Emphasis added.

Of course, at the time, Republicans had begun to argue that President Obama's policies had made the recession worse. Politifact chose to rule that in trying to defend himself from this charge, the president said something that was "half true," even after conceding that what he said was "correct."

In both the Obama and Reid cases, fact checkers have taken on the task of saying what is appropriate to say, rather than what is true. A Bain investor may have told Reid exactly what Reid claims he said. We have no way of knowing that, but repeating such an unsubstantiated claim seems irresponsible. It seems unlikely the claim was true, but then, if a journalist reports that Richard Nixon said "I am not a crook," do we then decide the reporter is a liar because it turns out Nixon was a crook?

It seems to me that the problem is that the fact-checkers have boxed themselves in. They claim to do nothing but check the facts, yet they wish to decide what is appropriate to say in the public sphere beyond what is simply true or false. A little humility might be in order, or perhaps a new tool. What if, instead of deciding that they can only say if a thing is true or false, they might examine their consciences and decide that there is another category they need. a new category. Perhaps four jumping frogs instead of four Pinocchios for a story where the truth seems unlikely, but the checker is unable to know for certain.

Here's the conclusion to Kessler's piece on Reid:

We use a reasonable person standard here. Without seeing Romney’s taxes, we cannot definitively prove Reid  incorrect. But tax experts say his claim is highly improbable. Reid also has made no effort to explain why his unnamed source would be credible. So, in the absence of more information, it appears he has no basis to make his incendiary claim.

 Moreover, Reid holds a position of great authority in the U.S. Congress.  He should hold himself to a high standard of accuracy when making claims about political opponents.

There are a couple problems here. First, seeing Romney's taxes will tell us whether Reid's source was correct, not whether Reid accurately quoted his source, which is the test that journalism applies to itself (remember the New York Times' justifications for the misleading Judith Miller stories that helped steer this country into the Iraq war?) Second, Reid has said why his source should be considered credible: The source is claimed to be a Romney business associate. Whether Reid has a "basis for making his incendiary claim" is precisely what we do not know.

The last paragraph is the tip-off. Kessler is holding Reid to a higher standard they he would hold, for example, Glenn Kessler. He has defined as a lie a thing that he cannot know is a lie, because Reid is a politician, and therefore should be expected to always hold himself to a higher standard of accuracy than ordinary citizens. Read that again, if you can stop laughing.

This is highly ironic, given that Reid's statement relates to Mitt Romney, who has set an new standard for political mendacity.