If you’ve been paying attention to the election cycle this year, then you likely have come across a supposedly objective realm of political analysis called “fact checking.” Fact-checkers are everywhere, and they have largely self-appointed authority to stand above the fray and offer views about the truth or falsity of a candidate’s claims. And after Obama’s big DNC speech this week, the fact-checkers are out in force. Here, for instance, is one from Breitbart responding to Obama’s claim that:
unlike my opponent, I will not let oil companies write this country’s energy plan, or endanger our coastlines, or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare from our taxpayers.
This fact-checker argues that it is a “bogus” claim because it is myth that oil companies get subsidies, especially given that actual subsidies are given to companies like Solyndra. But this is not a dispute about facts, it is rather a dispute about what counts as a “subsidy” and about the evidence for whatever we decide a subsidy is. In this context, should we understand a tax-break as the same kind of thing as government grants and loans? What kind of tax breaks would count? These complicated questions have complicated answers, and self-appointed “fact checkers” cannot give us a simple way to work through them.
Think that Brietbart is too partisan to be a good example? ABC News fact-checkers responded to this from the President’s speech:
I’ll use the money we’re no longer spending on war to pay down our debt and put more people back to work, rebuilding roads and bridges, schools and runways. After two wars that have cost us thousands of lives and over a trillion dollars, it’s time to do some nation-building right here at home.
Calling the President’s logic “terribly flawed”, the fact-checker explains that this gives us the impression that any money saved from ending these wars is just “sitting in our back pocket” and that we need to be clear that the money the President is talking about “doesn’t exist unless it’s added, again, to the overall debt load.” But, once again, this is a matter of interpretation rather than merely pointing out “facts.” The President could reasonably argue that not paying for these wars means that we will not borrow money that otherwise would have been borrowed and thus it lowers our debt. He could also argue that putting people to work aids economic growth and this will raise tax revenues which also lowers our debt. This is another complicated, contested matter of interpretation and argument which simply cannot be resolves by “fact-checking.”
Last week, however, “fact-checkers” were like sharks in a feeding frenzy in tearing apart Paul Ryan’s speech. An incredulous Ezra Klein, who fact-checks for the Washington Post and MSNBC, said that his claims about Ryan’s lies were nevertheless made with hesitation and care:
I wanted us to bend over backward to be fair, to see it from Ryan’s perspective, to highlight its best arguments as well as its worst….So at about 1 a.m. Thursday, having read Ryan’s speech in an advance text and having watched it on television, I sat down to read it again, this time with the explicit purpose of finding claims we could add to the “true” category. And I did find one. He was right to say that the Obama administration has been unable to correct the housing crisis, though the force of that criticism is somewhat blunted by the fact that neither Ryan nor Mitt Romney have proposed an alternative housing policy. But I also came up with two more “false” claims. So I read the speech again. And I simply couldn’t find any other major claims or criticisms that were true.
The idea that Paul Ryan cannot tell the truth is not new narrative from those who (like Klein) strongly disagree with his positions, but this “Ryan is a liar” narrative was coming from the fact-checkers so fast and so furiously that in many circles it is simply accepted as obvious. One of the most cited “lies” we are told Ryan choose to tell during the biggest moment of his life involved this part of his speech:
A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008. Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day. And that’s how it is in so many towns today, where the recovery that was promised is nowhere in sight.
Of this, Klein said:
The decision to close the plant was made in June 2008, when George W. Bush was president. Ryan says that Janesville was “about to” lose the factory at the time of the election, and Obama failed to prevent this. This is false, as Ryan knew in 2008 when he issued a statement bemoaning the plant’s impending closing.
But as we saw with the “fact-checkers” criticizing Obama’s speech, the matter under dispute is certainly open to interpretation–especially what is meant by “decision” and “close.” What decision was made, exactly? We know the the plant was in operation well into the Obama presidency, and was actually closed in 2009. But as the New York Times’ Ross Douthat pointed out in a series of tweets on August 29th, it isn’t even clear that a decision was made to “close” the plant (in the sense that Klein means) at all. He numbered his tweets in the order they appeared:
9) At most, it’s a convenient narrative frame around a more complicated story.
8) In other words, given that Janesville could have reopened w/faster growth, it’s not a “lie” for Ryan to cite that as an Obama failure.
7) Oh, right: That all his public-private partnerships haven’t delivered anything close to sustained economic growth.
6) “But the economy is recovering more slowly than people anticipated.” And what is the Romney-Ryan critique of Obama again?
5) “If we get back to any kind of a reasonable market, with 15- or 16 million sales, then … that’s going to require Janesville as well.”
4) … because overall economic growth wasn’t strong enough to drive the sales required to justify reopening it: http://bit.ly/rs0K4J
3) The auto bailout happened, but did not lead to Janesville plant reopening …
2) Plant then closed amid auto industry collapse in 2008, but w/possibility of reopening.
1) Obama said that with right public-private partnership, Janesville plant “will be here for another hundred years.”
Now, one could certainly challenge Ryan and Douthat on the narrative that Obama should be held responsible slow economic growth (especially given that Republicans have blocked his attempts to revive our economy), but how can “fact-checkers” claim so strongly and clearly that Ryan was not truthful when so much of what is being cited as evidence of his dishonesty is open to reasonably-different interpretations of a complex situation?
At least in the most important matters debated by serious players in our public discourse, their disputes cannot be understood as those who have the “facts” vs. those who have have the “lies.” Instead, these debates involve complex matters of definition and interpretation about which reasonable people can disagree and argue. Theologians know better than most that there is no “view from nowhere” and we are generally suspicious when anyone claims to stand above the fray, unbound by context, interpretation and narrative. All the more reason, then, that we should add our voices to the growing chorus of those questioning the absurdly central place of fact-checkers in our public discourse.
Whatever one thinks of Ryan and his views, the fact is that his presence in this race offers us the chance to have much-needed debate about our long term health care debt which, to this point at least, our culture has refused to take seriously. This debate involves contested matters of interpretation, first principles, and complex, long-term prognostications. But when “fact-checkers” try to take the easy way out by presenting us with the lazy binary narrative of those with “the truth” vs. “the liars”, we slouch toward a public discourse which–instead of engaging arguments about ideas–focuses on finding fault with the person offering them. To the extent we take the “fact-checker” approach of calling Ryan and Obama dishonest, rather than allowing ourselves to sit in the complex gray area of interpretation and argument, we allow a focus on personal attacks to endanger the very real chance we have to engage an enormously important national conversation.
Let me close this already-too-long post by citing this amazing piece by former Daily Show producer Michael Rubens. He was responsible for helping set up the interviews in the field, and this meant he “spent a lot of time with people whose causes or philosophies I found blecchy — the sort of folks who would fit nicely in the overlap of a Venn diagram whose circles included Bachmann supporters, fans of Rush Limbaugh, and people who wear tricorn hats and exercise their Second Amendment rights at Tea Party rallies. You know – assholes.” But the thing was–once he got to know them personally–he found to his surprise the experience of meeting them complicated his simple “asshole” narrative, and he actually ended up liking many of them:
So yes, I love to loathe people, but my “Daily Show” experience complicated all that and sort of spoiled my fun. When I’m exposed to views that I dislike, I try to remind myself of the human being behind those views and to cut that person some slack. I hope that they would do the same. I think we should all fight hard for what we believe in, but I’d like to put in a request for some general slack cutting – especially as we move deeper into what is sure to be a very heated campaign season.
Rubens (aside from putting most Christians to shame given that, as a secular Jew, he blows most of us away in the “loving your enemies” department) has the antidote for the fact-checking focus on personal attacks: take time to get the know your political opponent, refusing to reduce your disagreement with them to them being a bad person, and even be open to liking them personally. Be willing to see their views and statements in a charitable, slack-cutting light that–rather than dismissing them as ignorant liars–acknowledges the complexity of the difficult problems people of many different point of view are working hard to analyze and address.