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June 20, 2008

Filed under: journalism»investigation

Truthiness

Politifact, by way of CQ Politics, finds that the National Journal's ranking of Obama as "most liberal" might be, just maybe, a little suspect due to methodological error.

This is not news, frankly. The idea that Obama is definitely and objectively the "most liberal"--in a Senate that includes self-described socialist Bernie Sanders--is ridiculous. And after the magazine described John Kerry in 2004 as "most liberal," call me paranoid, but I suspect there's an editorial trend or narrative in play here.

But it is also amusing to me that this comes by way of Politifact, which is the CQ/St. Petersburg Times "truth squad" or factchecking team. In an election year, these things pop up like roaches in a dirty-bomb strike zone. They are big fun for journalists and editors--examine speeches and commercials for semantic slips and distortions, then trot out a few paragraphs of dry prose explaining exactly how and why that statement is or is not "spin." And perhaps, in this political era of Nixonian parsing, we need that.

But I hate truthsquadding, as it's called around the newsroom. It is the worst kind of gotcha journalism, and I think the industry can do better.

The basic idea of these fact-check columns, as far as I'm concerned, is flawed. It's flawed because it's redundant: our job, as journalists, should be to tell the truth and explain the obscure--to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as they say, and with emphasis on the latter. If reporters are doing their jobs, there should be no need for a "special" department devoted to catching inaccuracies, because it should already be happening in the regular coverage. The fact that such departments exist is a tacit admission that accuracy isn't a concern elsewhere. And since I happen to know that CQ and St. Pete both have hard-working and dedicated fact-checking and research teams that go over our coverage with a fine-toothed comb, I sometimes wonder why it is that we are acting like we don't.

But more importantly, truth-squadding is journalism that refuses to see the big picture. To some extent, on the left or the right, who cares if someone takes some liberties when bragging on themselves, or when denigrating their opponents? What would be more important would be to examine not the wording of their speeches, but the impacts and outcomes of their policies.

On the other hand, that would require a lot of work, and a lot of interviews with experts, and possibly passing the reporting work over to someone with relevant expertise instead of the house pundit. And if the op-ed pages are any indication, I'm not sure that the media as an industry is willing to take that step.

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