BRENDA LOOPER: Matter of facts

Side effects

I could easily do a column on the idea that illegal aliens are trying to cross the border to take advantage of DACA (which they can't--DACA recipients have to have lived in the U.S. since June 15, 2007, been under 16 when they came here, and under 31 as of June 15, 2012), but I won't.

I could write something (again) on the idea that the national debt did not triple during Ronald Reagan's administration (it did; gross national debt was $848 billion when Reagan was inaugurated, and $2.7 trillion when he left office), but frankly, economic discussions bore me most days. Besides, the onus for the debt also falls on Congress, and very few presidential administrations actually reduced our debt (those of Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were the last to do so).

Or I could just talk about the people who make it possible for me to give you those facts with confidence: fact-checkers.

Yeah, I can hear some of you grumbling that fact-checkers are all liberal (they're not, but keep believing that if it makes you feel better). But the more reliable of them are nonpartisan, independently funded, and include links to sources so that readers can judge for themselves how reliable that fact-check is.

Besides, facts don't have a side; there are not separate facts for conservatives and liberals (maybe "facts," but not facts). Interpretation of those facts can be biased, but the facts themselves are not. Everyone, say it with me and the ghost of sociologist and senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: Every person is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.

The Codex blog's Kevin Wright examined fact-checking last January, noting the need for it, as "it seems that we're much more likely to fall prey to an instance of fake news if it aligns with our pre-existing beliefs. This confirmation bias has always been a part of media-audience dynamics. It's at the heart of today's so-called post-truth politics, referring to a political discourse that relies less on verifiable facts and more on an appeal to the emotions and longstanding biases of the public at large--or as we say here on the Internet, 'feels over reals.' High-profile orators need only say things that cater to what their constituencies want to hear, even if it's nowhere near the truth, with very few repercussions."

I'm trying very hard to ignore that "feels over reals" bit ...

Of fact-checkers, Wright states: "Any media that asserts itself as an authority on absolute truth, however empirically sound, is subject to its own critique. After all, there isn't a successful outlet out there that doesn't claim to report honestly, so what makes these fact-checkers any different?"

Well, what distinguishes the best fact-checkers, as well as the more reliable members of the media, is that they are willing to admit their mistakes, correct them quickly, and will even reconsider past rulings when new information comes in. That and those source links make me trust PolitiFact and FactCheck.org the most. These services don't really care what party someone identifies with; what's important is whether what they've said is true or false.

PolitiFact, for example, recently published a fact-check on a statement by Giffords, the 501(c)(4) advocacy group named for former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who survived a shooting in Tucson that killed six others. The group claimed in an online ad that House Speaker Paul Ryan "has blocked all action to strengthen our gun laws," which PolitiFact found to be "mostly false." As is often the problem with blanket statements, details can derail a claim, and saying he blocked "all" actions, especially without providing evidence, is just asking to be debunked.

And yes, PolitiFact has found some of the president's statements to be true, such as China and Singapore imposing the death penalty on drug dealers (sure, only 170 of 541 claims checked as of Monday were found to be at least half true, but if it were truly liberal ...). But yeah, it's evil.

Fact-checkers are valuable in this climate, and political leanings should have no impact on rulings. That's one of the reasons I'm not a fan of "liberal" or "conservative" fact-checkers, and a big reason some media organizations had a problem with the Weekly Standard's fact-checker joining Facebook's fake-news fighters (a project that itself has a lot of problems).

On the basis of the unfriendliness of the Standard's website alone, I'm inclined to agree. Then there's its explicitly partisan bent, whereas the other groups are nonpartisan; add in that large portions of its published fact-checks were attacks on other fact-checkers for perceived liberal bias, or were opinion columns. That's also seen on other sites like Zebra Fact Check and PolitiFact Bias, both of which class themselves as watchdogs of fact-checkers, as well as the blatantly liberal Media Matters for America. Perhaps if there were more original fact-checks across the political spectrum with linked sources rather than diatribes about other services, I might be more trusting.

But I guess it's the schoolyard sniping that's the attraction. However, facts are much better weapons than silly insults and purple nurples. A lot less fun to say, but still ...


Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com. Email her at blooper@arkansasonline.com.

Editorial on 04/11/2018