Stenography and accountability



Kudos to ABC News for a great idea. Its Sunday morning chat show has hired some astute fact-checkers who will determine, week by week, whether the guest politicians are telling the truth or lying like Pinocchio.

The Washington press corps has long been restrained by its own "objectivity" standards, which too often allow politicians to dissemble without fear of being corrected. Under these traditional rules, journalists are simply supposed to report what is said, and leave it up to the readers and viewers to determine truth or falsity. Politicians have long appreciated this tradition, which has often reduced journalists to the status of stenographers - switching off their brains, out of concern that truth-squadding might be criticized as "bias."

Fortunately, the people at ABC's This Week have decided that the old rules are not sufficient, that true "objectivity" requires holding the politicians accountable by proactively comparing their words to the empirical record. Which is why they've tapped, a Pulitzer Prizewinning website based at The St. Peterburg Times, to scour the Sunday remarks for evidence of BS.

Seven hours after the show this past Sunday, the website concluded that Defense Secretary Robert Gates had uttered a half-truth about nuclear policy under George W. Bush, and that GOP Senator John Kyl had told the truth when he said that then-Senator Barack Obama once tried to filibuster a Bush high court nominee. All told, it was a quiet debut for the online watchdogs, who will undoubtedly have meatier fare in the months ahead.

This development is long overdue, given the plethora of unchallenged verbal bamboozlement, especially on the Sunday shows. To cite just one recent example: South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the Republican who famously said last year that breaking Obama on health care would be his "Waterloo," appeared on the ABC show this past January and insisted, "I did not want this to be the president's Waterloo" - and the host, Terry Moran, didn't challenge him.

On occasions too numerous to mention, back when the Bush administration was selling the Iraq war, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld would show up on Meet the Press and spin like tops, and not even Tim Russert could slow them down. And the print reporters were typically no better. During the summer of '06, Rumsfeld told a Senate commitee that, with respect to Iraq, "I've never painted a rosy picture...and you'd have a dickens of a time trying to find instances when I've been excessively optimistic" - yet even though this assertion was a lie easily refutable via 30 seconds on Google (among many examples, here's Rumsfeld, April 2003: "It could last six days, six weeks, I doubt six months"), The New York Times and Washington Post didn't even report his false assertion, much less challenge it. AP and the NBC Nightly News reported the assertion, but didn't challenge it.

We're not just talking about Republicans, of course. Bamboozlement has always been a bipartisan practice. I well remember an episode in September 2007, when Hillary Clinton was running for president. She was trying to fend off the embarrassing news that one of her major fundraising guys, businessman Norman Hsu, had been jailed as a felon. She had been forced to refund $850,000 to 260 donors - the largest chunk of money ever returned by a candidate - and she was asked on Meet the Press whether this scandal had undercut her bid to be the candidate of change.

She told Russert: "Well, I’m very much in favor of public financing, which is the only way to really change a lot of the problems that we have in our campaign finance system. You know, as soon as my campaign found out what I and dozens of other campaigns did not know, that he was a fugitive from justice, we took action. And out of an abundance of caution, we did return any contribution that we could in any way, no matter how indirect, link to him. And I believe that we’ve done what we needed to do based on the information as soon as it came to our attention....We have got to solve this (problem of big money in politics). It is not good for our political system. It is certainly not the way that most people I know who run for office and want to try to do something good for their constituents and their country want to be spending all of their time. And we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to address it, and there has to be a way that public financing becomes the law of the land."

Russert, who was famously tough on his guests, failed on this occasion to challenge the Clinton assertions that contradicted empirical fact. She had actually responded to the Hsu scandal with all the speed of a turtle trundling through molasses, and she was slow to return the Hsu money (if you're really interested, I said so at the time); more importantly, contrary to her claim on the show that she was "very much in favor of public financing," the truth was that as senator she had never expended time or energy on that issue, and that, indeed, she was the first-ever Democratic presidential candidate to skip the public financing rules and privatize her primary campaign. Yet Russert didn't bring up any of that.

Not to rattle on about ancient history, but this is why more fact-checking is essential, and why the ABC News experiment is so worthy. In defense of journalists, it's often difficult to challenge a whopper in real time, if only because it's nearly impossible to prepare in advance for every conceivable whopper. Still, when I think of the traditional objectivity standard, I harken back to the time when it was most egregiously abused, during the '50s heyday of red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy.

On slow news days, reporters would bug McCarthy for news, and he would happily oblige, by claiming that he had just uncovered 60 or 80 or 100 or whatever number of communists in the State Department or in the Army or wherever. The reporters would write up the latest charge as objective news, simply because a prominent senator had said it. Finally, as a lot of innocents' careers were bring wrecked, and some were being driven to suicide, a New York Times editorial sought to defend the traditional objectivity standard: "It is difficult, if not impossible, to ignore charges by Senator McCarthy...The remedy lies with the reader."

Actually, no. As the ABC News' hiring decision rightly demonstrates, the remedy lies with the journalists.