December 21, 2011

PolitiFact vs. political speech

Attack of the blue noses

Until PolitiFact.com went all Orwellian on Medicare, I confess I’d never bothered to follow the site. The kind of political “fact-checking” carried out by PolitiFact and FactCheck.org seemed like a harmless but Sisyphean endeavor. After all, many are the boulders—political speech, always a closer cousin to literature than to science, feels less constrained than ever to facts. And high is the mountain—recent research on what’s known as confirmation bias shows that attempting to correct people’s factual misconceptions frequently fails to do so or even increases them.

But now that I’ve had reason to look at PolitiFact’s work, I’m less impressed by its futility than its intellectual shoddiness.

Small lies for small minds

To understand why, first take a look at the list of ten finalists PolitiFact offers up for “the most significant falsehood of 2011.” In a year of controversy over Arab Spring, Libya, and the killing of bin Laden, over credit downgrades and threatened national default, over sky-high unemployment and millions of foreclosures, a year when fibs and fabrications and fictions poured forth daily, these are the best they could come up with?

What, you may wonder, is the “significance” attached to President Obama’s boast, at a press conference, that his is the first administration to conduct a comprehensive review of federal regulations? Puffed-up claims of novelty and invention fall from the lips of politicians whenever they open their mouths.

Why should we stoop to notice Gov. Rick Perry’s skeptical take on climate science? Perry said nothing more than what other Republicans say every day, and have been saying for years. How does it rise to “significance” if it no longer even rises to being news?

In a world flooded with information, readers look to professional journalists to sift out what’s important. PolitiFact’s list doesn’t come close.

Checking facts that aren’t facts

The second thing that leaps out in the PolitiFact list is that some of supposed “lies” aren’t about facts at all, but about what meaning to assign to facts.

By definition, a fact is a thing not subject to dispute. You can check whether previous presidents conducted reviews of federal regulation, and the answer is going to be yes or no. Obama’s words were either true or, in this case, false.

Compare the Obama example, though, to another PolitiFact nominee, a statement by Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee. She charged that Republicans pushing voting restrictions “want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws and literally – and very transparently – block access to the polls to voters who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates than Republican candidates.”

Anybody even remotely familiar with politics understands Wasseman Schultz’s words for what they are: not a neutral statement of fact but figurative speech designed to assign meaning to facts and motives to the actions of others.

Like much political language, it “is calculated to excite political action by evoking palpable threats and naming enemies,” as political theorist Nancy Rosenblum puts it.

Like much political language, it is metaphorical. The power and meaning of metaphor comes from connecting dissimilar things. Whether a metaphor “works” is always open to dispute—a matter of taste, context, experience, and ideology. But it is not subject to fact checking. Except at PolitiFact.

Block that speech

Imagine PolitiFact had been around in 1775 to hear Patrick Henry ask his fellow Virginian legislators (if in fact he asked) whether “life [is] so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery?” His listeners did not suppose Henry to mean that, if they did not take up arms against the British, King George’s men would clamp them in leg irons and drag them down to the slave quarters. They owned slaves and knew well the difference between being a real slave and being a disgruntled British subject.

But they also believed that what Henry said was, in some fundamental sense, true. Most Americans still do today. But not PolitiFact, if you judge by the method it used to conjure up this year’s nominated “lies.”

Patrick Henry

Had it been around in 1775, PolitiFact would have quoted a royal lackey saying that the king had no designs on American liberties. It would have rustled up a scholar to point out that the American colonists, for all their griping, enjoyed a level of political rights and legal protections equaled nowhere else in the New World and most of the Old. It would have found a Quaker Tory to explain the grotesquerie of slaveholding gentry like Washington and Jefferson comparing their political position to the plight of those they held under the lash.

And then would have come the conclusion. Lie of the Year 1775: Patrick Henry, pants on fire.

PolitiFact doesn’t just want to ferret out error. It has set itself up to be an arbiter of permissible political speech, the way the Hays Code or Catholic Index passed judgment on whether movies or books were fit for tender eyes.

If done, ’twere best done well

There’s nothing wrong with journalists’ challenging how well political statements describe the world. Some of the best journalism engages in that kind of analysis and criticism. But it doesn’t hide that it comes from a point of view. And it earns your attention by being smart and knowledgable.

PolitiFact fails on both scores. Read its critique of the so-called Medicare “Lie of the Year” and you find yourself in the company of anti-partisan zealots who wield dull, bureaucratic prose against figurative political speech the way Carrie Nation swung her hatchet against whiskey sellers.

Carrie Nation

They are blue noses who believe that, to avoid being branded a liar, you must respond to your opponents’ action by saying that “Republicans have just voted for a non-binding resolution that might dramatically change Medicare as we know it (but only for people currently under 55) should Republicans in the future ever, at the same time, elect a president and dominate both houses of Congress.”

People don’t talk that way, and democratic politics doesn’t work—it can’t work—that way. And for PolitiFact to pretend otherwise hurts democracy and misinforms its readers.

—Mark Paul