According to journalism professor Jay Rosen, Sunday morning talk shows are broken. The guests are far too polarized and get away with distorting the truth. His fix — fact-check them and hold them accountable. This hour we [WHYY's Marty Moss Coane] talks to NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen and Politifact’s Bill Adair about truth and accuracy in the news media.
Marty Moss Coane: Bill, I'm just wondering in these divisive and partisan times, is it any harder or easier to fact-check what people in politics are saying?
Bill Adair: It's easier in the sense that so much of the information is a few clicks away. I was talking to one of our staffers about our "Obameter" feature, a feature where we're tracking Obama's campaign promises, and he was noting that there are just so many more things available to us now as journalists than there were even ten years ago. We're able to do things now that we weren't able to do ten years ago. So, in that sense it's easier, but I think the important part is that there is just so much information out there. It's critical now for "mainstream media, " a term that I think is a positive, to do this sort of fact-checking and be the honest broker in all of these wars of political rhetoric. There's just so much out there and people get their news from so many different news sources that it's important for the trusted media to come in and be something of a referee.
MMC: Are you saying that the mainstream media, as it's described or called, should be doing what you're doing?
BA: Absolutely! I think we should have been doing this all along. The key moment for me was back in 2004, listening to a speech at the Republican National Convention where Senator Zell Miller, a Democrat, said a lot of things critical of Senator John Kerry. And I remember sitting there in Madison Square Garden thinking, "Well, that's not true!" He was saying all these things about how Kerry didn't support defense, things like that. The reality was that Kerry had voted with his party on things against Republican proposals. And he'd voted with his party on their own defense proposals. But I didn't do anything about that. I didn't fact-check what Senator Miller said. The result was that our readers got a bunch of misinformation. And I just think it's our role now -- in what is really probably a dominant information age -- that the mainstream media sort out what is true and what's not. That's what we do every day on Politifact. Today we're launching our first state site, Politifact Texas, to do that with the Texas campaigns. I think everybody should do it. It shouldn't just be Politifact.
MMC: Why do you think the mainstream media doesn't do it? (And then I do want to get to your Obameter!)
BA: I think the mainstream media has shied away from fears that we would look biased. I think there's been so much criticism in the last decade or so -- you know, the media is biased one way or the other. So we have shied away from saying, "That's false!" When a politician makes a claim, we've shied away from saying it's false because we didn't want to look biased. I think that's not a logical argument. To say someone is wrong is not to say you favor them or not. On Politifact, we go after both parties equally and we have find lots of falsehoods on both sides. We just need to be the umpire. The other reason the media has not done much of this is that fact-check journalism is hard! It takes some time -- a typical Truth-O-Meter item for us takes a day. For a lot of media organizations, that's too long. You want your journalists cranking out more copy than that. The other thing is, I think it's hard personally for many journalists to make the leap from just writing a story to saying, "The president is wrong on that one." Or "Senator So-and-So is wrong on that one." That's hard for journalists who are trained in the traditional -- and easy -- "on the one hand, on the other hand" journalism.
MMC: I want to pick up on some of what you said when we get Jay Rosen in on the conversation. But I'm looking at your meter for the president and basically tracking the promises he made on the campaign trail. Promises kept: 91. Compromises: 32. Broken promises: 13. Stalled promises: 75. In the works: 261. Not yet rated: 34. So that's where the president stands today in terms of what he promised on the campaign trail?
BA: Yeah. This is also another whole new form of journalism that we've created here. We've decided that just as we rate the accuracy of something we should also rate the progress and fulfillment of President Obama on each campaign promise. We thought, well, there'd probably be a couple hundred of them and this wouldn't be too much work. Well! We found out -- it was a long campaign! -- there were 500 promises that he gave in incredible detail, obviously trying to appeal to very narrow constituencies. They're promises not just on broad things like foreign policy and taxes, but promises on autism and western wildfires where he was clearly trying to lay out an agenda to appeal to a very small constituency. So what we did was to track over the past year the progress on those promises. Then we researched them and then we rate them, the same way we rate the accuracy on the Truth-O-Meter. On the Obameter we rate by those levels you just read. What's fascinating about this is if you click around on our site and look at any individual item, you get a glimpse into Barack Obama's philosophy of government and what it should be doing. Each item to me is fascinating. But the collective is also very telling when you look at how he's made progress in different areas. A lot of those promises kept are ones that he could do purely through executive power -- just by issuing an executive order. Many of the ones we've rated "in the works" are ones where Congress has to change a law. But he also has a lot of stalled ones. In some cases, those are ones where the administration has cut a deal -- such as they have done with the pharmaceutical industry on the importation of prescription drugs from Canada. That's something the administration did to get the pharmaceutical industry to support the health care proposal. So it's fascinating. But again, it's something new and what we've tried to do on Politifact.com is harness the power of the web and create things with different levels so that people can dig in as they want to.
MMC: Well, and it also highlights the difference between campaigning for office and trying to govern -- and working with the Congress we have in Washington today.
BA: Absolutely! In fact, one of the promises broken that we have been focusing on in the last week is Obama's promise to hold the health care negotiations on CSpan. Which, of course, he has not done. We have that rated a "promise broken." If you go back to the origin of that, it was actually something he said during the campaign to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton who, of course, had led the health care reform effort in 1993 that was criticized for being secret. So Obama said, "Well, I'm going to do it differently! I'm going to open up this promise and I'm going to bring in cameras." Well, now that he's in Washington, he realizes that's not how things are done in Washington! What was a great soundbite during the campaign is not a realistic commitment in this whole process. So that's gone nowhere.
MMC: You also have this pants-on-fire critique. In certain ways that's the most interesting, only because the description seems right-on, the idea that someone's lies are so big that their pants are actually on fire! What have been some of the biggest whoppers coming out of Washington?
BA: The one we've gotten the most attention for, actually, was what we chose for our Politifacts first annual lie of the year. That was Sarah Palin's claim that the health care bill included death panels. We rated that one "pants-on-fire" because it was just ridiculously false and there was nothing in the bill that would do that. Now, there's been a little revisionism on her part since we gave her that honor. She's now saying that she meant that the health care bill includes rationing. But of course that's not the way it was framed back in August when she and others made it. So that's probably our most famous pants-on-fire. We also gave one recently to Rudy Giuliani when he claimed there were no domestic attacks under President Bush. We gave one to former vice president Cheney for claiming that President Obama doesn't want to admit we're at war. Our headline on that one is, "Except for all those times he said 'We're at war'!" Because, indeed, President Obama has said many times that the US is at war with terrorist organizations around the world. In that item, which I happened to write, I cited many examples where President Obama had said we're at war. So this is what we do, and the pants-on-fires keep us fired up -- no pun intended -- because there are just so many ridiculous claims in politics and it's nice to be able to call these guys on it now and then.
MMC: But do you think it shames politicians into either correcting what they say or making them be more careful the next time they're interviewed or making a speech somewhere?
BA: I think it depends on the politician. We hear from politicians on both sides that they're bothered if they get a "false" or "pants-on-fire," and sometimes they'll argue and try to make the case that they did not deserve that. My favorite argument is when they say, "Well, you should have at least given me a half-true!" As if that's something to strive for! The White House is interesting on this. I know that President Obama's staff does pay attention to our site and when we rate him false on something we have seen in a couple of cases he'll then change that line in future speeches. I thin they're very aware of their record. In some cases they'll try to get things right. In others, he'll keep repeating the falsehood. One, during the early part of his presidency, was his claim that there were no earmarks in the economic stimulus bill. We rated that "false" because there were some. There weren't a lot, and in fact the bill was praised for not having many. But there were some, and that was just false. He kept saying that, regardless of what we said. And then there was a case where we knocked him for claiming that under his health care bill if you like your health insurance plan, you can keep your health insurance plan. We rated that "half-true" because we said his plan would lead to some major changes in the market place so your plan might not exist next year. He then changed how he said that, and in his speech to Congress he got it right.
MMC: ... Joining us how is Jay Rosen who says that the format of [the Sunday talk shows] is broken. He's got a modest proposal on how to make them more accountable -- something called "fact checking"! Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University. He writes about new media and press reform on his blog, "PressThink." ... Jay Rosen, let me get to your critique Sunday morning TV talk shows. What's wrong with them?
JR: Well, the main thing that's wrong with the same cast of characters from the same Washington political culture that is itself broken, that brought us Iraq and brought us the financial mess and that can't really fix the nation's problems. It's curious to me that the producers and correspondents on these shows are aware that the partisan divide in Washington is worse than ever and that the two parties don't even seem to be living in the same world sometimes. But they nonetheless think that if they bring them together on Sunday and kind of ram them up against one another that somehow truce will emerge from that. And it doesn't. So those are the two problems: it's the same people that have essentially broken our systems for us talking each week -- no new blood, no new ideas, no people from outside the Beltway culture -- and, because they have developed this partisan war, they increasingly agree on nothing and strand views in a helpless state of misinformation. That's where I start my critique.
MMC: And let me do a quick follow-up here, then. You call for fact-checking. How would that change or perhaps even fix the problems that you just identified?
JR: I was looking for something the Sunday shows could do that wouldn't require a dramatic overhaul, that wouldn't cause them to have to reinvent what they're doing. Because I'm very cynical about their ability to do that! But [something that would] alter the dynamics to some degree. So my idea was, what if they simply fact-checked what their guest said on Sunday and ran it online Wednesday? What would happen is that some guests would be shown to be in error or maybe a "pants-on-fire" liar and some would not. It might discipline them the next time around. It might cause them to think twice about what they're saying. And it might also instruct the producers on who to have back.
MMC: Bill Adair, let me get you to weigh in on that. As someone who is the editor of Politifact, I can't imagine that you'd argue with that. Do you think that would be a fix for the problems that Jay Rosen defined on these Sunday morning TV talk shows?
BA: I think Jay's right. I think the Sunday shows are broken and I think this would help.It seems to me that what has happened in American politics is the Sunday shows like the debate on the floor of the House or Senate -- like just about anywhere these guys step before a microphone -- are all about the "talking point." No matter what you ask them, they reply with one of their talking points. And these talking points are decided on every day or every few days by the parties, and they issues these lists of talking points and the members go out and spout them. I think Jay's right. The Sunday shows aren't offering a lot new in the sense that really these guys are just regurgitating the talking points. We would love to do that for one show or more. We do some of this -- with our limited resources -- but we'd love to do more. I think, as we were talking about earlier, that with some officials it would discourage them from doing this more particularly if it was highlighted. A lot of times what can happen is ... it's difficult when George Stephanopolous, for example, is interviewing Rudy Giuliani, for him to say, "Wait, wait! That's wrong!" Because he may not know that's wrong or they may be out of time. Our friends at the Daily Show did a funny segment of how CNN, in particular, often doesn't follow up and says things like, "Well, we'll have to leave it there..." But I do think this would help. And I think the more we can get everyone fact-checking -- not just Politifacts but other news organizations -- the better journalism will be and I think the better politics will be.
MMC: Well, Jay, let me go back to you. This gets to the hosts and the kind of questioning, particularly the questioning of political people -- whether you think they do enough homework in order to interview someone in a live format and knowing, as Bill Adair just said, that there are these talking points. We probably know what Chuck Schumer or John McCain or Joe Lieberman [laughter] are going to say on Sunday mornings. They seem to appear a lot on all of these shows.
JR: Right! It's not that they don't do their homework. It's that they have no strategy for what to do when the talking points pour forth. And they aren't willing to halt the proceedings and embarrass the guest by demanding something different. And the guests know that the producers want a smoothly-flowing, sculpted conversation that doesn't have any awkward moments or confrontations. Because the guests know that, they use their own fluency against the journalists and correspondents on air. So it's not that they're not prepared or that they don't ask tough questions, it's the point that Jon Stewart made so effectively in his piece. They're willing to just leave it there. That's why I thought, well, given that, maybe if they come back a few days later and say, "You know, you used our air to put forward something that was really deceptive, and here's why... And you shouldn't do that..." That might interrupt the dynamic. That was my proposal. It's a modest proposal ... it's just an idea that would change it a little bit.
MMC: But don't these shows want the kind of confrontation that could lead to a headline somewhere or get other news organizations talking?
JR: Actually they don't want confrontation. What they want is somebody to say something that the New York Times can make a news story out of Monday. They want that. They don't want actual confrontations that would make viewers uncomfortable.
MMC: Or their guests uncomfortable either?
JR: Yes. Right. ...
BA: I think Jay's exactly right. I think there is a goal of the shows to sort of be where the news is made. This is where David Axelrod admitted blank. Or where Mitch McConnell made news about whatever. I think we all seek that from an interview. But it seems to me, getting to Jay's point that the shows are broken, seems like the shows are broken because they are just places where these guys recite their talking points but they don't really talk to each other. If you had asked a Republican to say anything nice about the economic stimulus bill or the health care bill, you're overwhelmingly like to get an answer, "Oh, there's nothing good in this bill, David!" You just don't see conversation. You don't see them really kicking things around. What they're doing is reciting their talking points.
JR: Another problem is that the ideas about balance and representation that the shows are working with are antiquated. So, for example, "Meet the Press" doesn't care about having a balance between Tea Party conservatives and establishment conservatives. That tension is very important right now in politics and within the Republican party. They are so locked into the notion of balancing the parties and the contestants within the Washington power games that they haven't expanded their view of politics to take in beltway-versus-margin, or outsiders-versus-insiders. Even though it would enliven their shows. The producers and the hosts and the congressmen and the senators are really, in a sense, part of a club and this is their clubhouse.
MMC: Bill, let me get back to you as someone who does fact-checking. Why can't ... I'm thinking about the crawl at the bottom of the TV screen. Is it possible, in today's Google environment, to basically fact-check people in real time?
BA: It's difficult. This reminds me of being on "Morning Joe" once on MSNBC and Mike Barnacle suggested that, during debates when a candidate got something wrong, I would walk on stage and slap them across the face. That's sort of the high-tech equivalent of that. But you know, one thing we've tried to do with Politifact is make it very solid journalism. I like Jay's proposal of recognizing that it can't be done instantly, that the shows might do this and then post it a day or two later. Thats' realistic. The risk of instant fact-checking -- and we all get into a kind of arms race and try to do that during a debate -- is that the immediate Google search that you do may not be reflective of the truth and you run some risks doing that. So I'd hesitate to do that because I think one of the things that distinguishes Politifact is that we take a little time. As I said, it takes a typical day to get these things done.
MMC: Jay, I'm curious whether you got any response from "Meet the Press" or any of the other Sunday morning talk shows?
JR: [laughing] I didn't! I addressed David Gregory's producer directly on Twitter with my idea. That's how I launched it. I gave it to her directly, Twitter-feed. And she never talks to me, never says anything to me. But Michael Calderone, the political reporter for Politico, decided to do a story on this because this idea got picked up quite a bit around the political blogosphere and on Twitter. And he asked David Gregory about it. They said, "It's a good idea and we're considering it." Howard Kurtz, on his "Reliable Sources" show on CNN, went back to it twice -- two weeks in a row -- and actually endorsed it. I think it's one of the only times Kurtz has actually endorsed one of my ideas!
MMC: That's news, right?
JR: Yeah! For me it's news, at least! So there is some interest in it. It doesn't require all that much. NBC's producers can get on the phone with Bill tomorrow and say, "Hey, do you want to collaborate with us?" I'm sure he'd be very interested in doing this. It's something that could be done almost overnight in the sense of setting it up to start employing it. So there's some interest in it, but I'm actually quite skeptical that they will do it. And the reason is that they basically want to keep this club house going. They like the club. This is what they know how to do. They're in what they call a competitive situation. In journalism, competition means everybody does the same thing.
MMC: Hmm! I noticed that, as you channel-surf, they're all talking about basically the same thing in the same kind of way. But to you, Jay Rosen, this format that we're talking about -- and as someone who follows "new media," as it's called -- do you see this format as a kind of dinosaur format that eventually with just go the way of the dinosaur?
JR: I think they will run it into the ground. Yes.
MMC: Because what? Because like dinosaurs, they don't how to adapt?
JR: Essentially, yes. This is their knowledge and they want to protect the validity and relevance of their knowledge. If they were to break out of it, they would have to do so on their own, while their competitors remained where they were. The dynamic within the fraternal competition among them is such that they wouldn't do it. They're not really looking at the relationship between themselves as makers of political television, viewers, and citizens, they're look across at the guy across the street doing the ABC version of their show. That is what they are focused on, along with the political club that they try and invite people from. So they're not really focused on us. I'm very pessimistic that they'll be able to reinvent the form.
MMC: Bill Adair, let me put to you why, then, can a show like the Daily Show expose the lies and hypocrisy of political people and journalists and do it so well -- and frankly to have such an impact? I realize it's a comedy show but nonetheless I think it's a comedy show that has exposed so many of the fissures and hypocrisies within politics and within journalism itself...
BA: They do it marvelously. They had a segment the other night where they shows snippets of coverage by the cable news channels of the retirement decisions of Senators Byron Dorgan and Chris Dodd, both Democrats, in which the cable news networks cast this as a huge, potentially crippling blow to the Democrats. Jon Stewart pointed out that, in terms of the number of retirements and potentially at-risk seats that affect the Republicans who are more in trouble in 2010 than the Democrats, even with these two. And it was a wonderful, funny segment that made a very powerful point -- that the media is hyping something that doesn't deserve to be hyped. I think the Daily Show has found a wonderful blend between commentary and comedy. I think they're able to do it because they have some very talented people and they're not... I think so much of American journalism is bound by old rules, old conventions, old limitations -- well, you know, "just the news.." There's news and then there's commentary. I think there are walls. The people in American journalism today see walls where there really aren't any. Particularly in the new media landscape. The Daily Show doesn't see walls, you know? They realize they can use comedy, edit video in incredibly creative ways, and make powerful political points.
MMC: ... I'm going to introduce another element and actually play a comment Brit Hume made on Fox News' "Sunday Morning Show" where he advised Tiger Woods -- and what he should do about his numerous affairs.
Brit Hume: Tiger Woods will recover as a golfer. Whether he can recover as a person I think is a very open question. It's a tragic situation with him. I think he's lost his family. It's not clear to me whether he'll have a relationship with his children. But the Tiger Wood that emerges once the news value has died out of this scandal -- the extent to which he can recover -- seems to me to depend on his faith. He's said to be a Buddhist. I don't think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, "Tiger, turn your faith... turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world!"
MMC: Jay Rosen, are you comfortable with that advice from Brit Hume?
JR: [laughter] No! Neither was Bill Kristol, his partner on the show at the time, by the way. Hume violated what academics call "the civil religion" of the US. The civil religion says that we bracket religion and we put it in the private sphere because we know that we don't have an official religion in the US, so we can't assume the prominence or superiority of one faith over another. He's been on television -- he's been in journalism -- a long time. He knows that. I'm not sure why he busted that convention but it wasn't a very wise thing to do.
BA: I regret that we didn't fact-check that! Embedded in that was a factual claim about Buddhism. Unfortunately, because of our staff -- we have a pretty small staff and they've been working long hours to update our Obameter database of campaign promises that I was talking about earlier -- so unfortunately we didn't have the staff to fact-check that. But I wanted to know if Buddhism was indeed the way that Hume described it. Of course, we didn't do that... I don't know...
MMC: But does it also get to this sort of weird interplay, Bill Adair -- and not always weird -- between being a pundit and being a commentator, a journalist, a host, and all those job descriptions get tumbled up in today's media...
BA: Absolutely. We see with Sarah Palin joining the Fox News Channel that it's a thin line indeed. And one of the other things we've done starting this year on Politifact is that we are fact-checking the pundits, something that we didn't do during the 2008 campaign but many readers asked us to do. And then in March -- I guess shortly after the White House made the statement that Rush Limbaugh was the de facto leader of the Republican party -- I realized that we had a false construct. We saw this wall between pundits and talk show hosts and the elected officials that really wasn't there. So we began checking the talk show hosts and the pundits and have done many, many items -- more than any other news organization -- just fact-checking Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow and Bill O'Reilly. You can go to our site and click on our "pundit" tab and see how these guys are doing. It probably won't surprise you: not very well!
MMC: Jay Rosen, are you surprised that Sarah Palin is now a pundit for Fox?
JR: Well... yes and no! I'm not surprised because she comes from the Fox world. Her constituency and Fox's constituency overlap immensely. I am surprised in one respect. Fox, despite its reputation for recklessness and Glenn Beck, is duly concerned with its own legitimacy. Sarah Palin, I believe, has lived her political life at wider variance from established fact than any major politician in living memory.
MMC: Can you translate that for us? What are you saying there?
JR: I'm saying that the nature of her political appeal and her political style is built on departing from established fact more completely than any politician that I remember in my living memory.
MMC: Are you calling her a liar?
JR: Yes! She's a liar. But it's not just that she's a liar. It's unusual in that many politicians, when caught in a lie, try to repair the damage. They try to suggest that's not what they really meant or, as Bill said, maybe could say is a half-truth. What she does is she takes the very charge, "Palin, you're lying!" or "That's not true!" and she uses it as fuel for the culture war that powers her own political ship. So when she's called out -- when she's criticized by the press -- this is actually an advantage to her. She uses the fact that the "elite liberals" are beating up on her again as fuel for her culture war. It's not just that she says things that are untrue, she is like a force for untruth in politics! That is the meaning of her perpetual candidacy, as it were. For Fox News to do that is basically admitting that they are the forum in which that kind of politics can be practiced. That's an amazing statement!MMC: It is an amazing statement, but isn't that going to bring them ratings? She's got such a huge following in this country.
JR: Sure! And if we want to be cynical, we can just say it's about the ratings. But, as I said, there's a slightly more complicated dance going on with Fox as well. They are trying to prosper and they're trying to profit, but they're also acutely concerned with their legitimacy. This completely undermines their legitimacy.
MMC: What do you think about that, Bill? (Then we'll get to our callers.)BA: I think Sarah Palin has made a wise political decision. Reaching the Fox audience is going to appeal to her base. As for Fox, I'm interested to see how much of a commitment they're willing to make about holding their guests accountable for things. I don't think I've seen much of an effort here. Glenn Beck in particular. The items we've looked at -- I don't think Glenn Beck has ever earned anything higher than a half-truth for any of the things we've looked at. And I haven't seen the Fox officials express any concern about that. I was at a conference here in Washington a few weeks ago where Rupert Murdoch got shouted at by a protester who was trying to get him to speak out about Glenn Beck's comments on President Obama. I think Fox still has to deal with that. But in the meantime we are. We going to fact-check the Fox hosts as well as the MSNBC hosts which represent definitely, these days, the other end of the spectrum. People can look there and decide.
MMC: ...Let's get to our callers.
Dan: I think your bringing up Sarah Palin as a pundit on Fox reminds me of Frank Zappa saying that rock journalism is "people who can't write interviewing people who can't talk for people for who can't read"! [laughter]
MMC: I love Frank Zappa, Dan, I have to say. [laughter] You said the magic words for me!Dan: Talking points are things that politicians want to do. Do they care that you called them out on it? I'm not saying anyone is a Nazi. But ...Joseph Goebbels, propagandist for the Nazis, said, "Things just have to be credible. You have to say them over and over. They have to be credible but they don't have to be true." So these guys are following their script and there's very few journalistic organizations that call them out on it. One guy who did was Koppel. He would ask three times and then say, "I see I'm not going to get an answer." The BBC has a much more aggressive style than American journalists do -- sometimes overly aggressive, it seems. So I don't know whether these guys are going to be swayed by what you say. When a guy like Stephanopolous doesn't call out someone like Giuliani, or someone doesn't call out Dana Perino or Dick Cheney, they look uninformed. This is not Fox, this is more legitimate networks and it really robs them of credibility.
My question is: how can you get your point across to people who watch Fox? They're not going to run Politifact, and fact-check, and say, "What's going on?"
MMC: Let me take a couple of your questions. I'll put the first part to you, Jay Rosen. In a sense he's talking about propaganda and the idea that if something just sounds credible and you say it over and over again, that somehow becomes what people believe. Is that a fair description of some of what's going on in today's political news environment?
JR: I think it is. One of the fascinating problems here is what if the methods of propaganda aren't evenly distributed? That is, it seems to me that it's possible -- possible -- that politics could evolve in such a way that one party could have a far great reliance on essentially a propagandistic appeal than another party. Not to say that either one is an angel. All politicians are trying to win. They're willing to distort. They selectively remember things. That's undoubtedly the case on both sides. But part of the reason journalists don't fact-check more -- part of the reason they don't push more -- is that they're afraid if they really did try and do this, what would result is an asymmetry between Republicans and Democrats. And they don't want that. So if you keep things superficial and if you don't challenge too much, it's much easier to keep them artificially balanced.
MMC: What do you think about that, Bill Adair? We did touch on this earlier...
BA: Jay makes an interesting point about the asymmetry that can emerge. Anybody is free to go to Politifact and look at the records for any of the people we've checked. Everyone we check has a page that summarized how many true and half-true, false or pants-on-fire they've had. As I mentioned, somebody like Glenn Beck has nothing higher than a half-true. What we don't do is tally how the parties are doing, like are Democrats lying more than Republicans this week? I think Jay hits on a very sensitive point for us. The way we approach it is we think of ourselves like the umpire. If you ask a major league umpire who's out at home more often -- the Red Sox or the Yankees -- he would tell you, I don't know, I call 'em as I see 'em each time. That's what we do at Politifact. We look at each statement individually rather than saying, "Man! Keith Olbermann's had some falses lately. Let's see if this one's better..." We try to avoid those sort of contextual things and just look at each claim, first saying, "Is this something people would wonder about?" If it is, and we do it -- research it and make the call on the play at the plate -- he's out or he's safe. We call it on its merits.
MMC: Let me go back to you, Jay Rosen, and pick up on something Dan was referring to in his call. It seems that we live in such segmented and even segregated news world. People go to their sites. They go to their shows, looking for people to tell them what they already believe. I think that's called "confirmation bias." You seek out information that makes you believe you're correct about something. How much do you think this figures into trying to figure out what's true and what isn't true?
JR: I think there is such a thing as confirmation bias. I think the echo chamber effect is there. The fact that there are so many more sites now, so many more sources, makes that more possible. That's all very plausible. But I think it's naive to assume that this is evenly distributed. I bet if you totaled up the fact checks on Fox vs. MSNBC, you wouldn't find them equivalent, even though it's easy to say, "Well, there's Fox on the right and there's MSNBC on the left." I think this false equivalence and assumption of symmetry in our politics is not only naive but a distorting assumption that works for journalists. It allows them to play a more innocent role but actually doesn't tell us what's going on. It's definitely possible for one party, for example, to invest more in denial than the other. I think we're in a situation like that in our country right now. But I don't expect the political class to tell you about it.
MMC: Sounds like you're saying, Jay, that when you look at the two parties or the left and the right conservatives and liberals, you see more exaggeration,distortions, even lies coming from the right.JR: I think the right is less reality-based than the left, and there are specific historical and political reasons for that. Yes.
MMC: And is there a thirty-second description about why that is?
JR: Because political leadership on the right has decided to make itself profitable that way. It has proven to work in the narrow sense that politics like that work. It's been a collective decision by leadership on the right to do that. But this is also fracturing the Republican coalition. There is a deep divide between reality-based conservatives and the other kind led by Palin. I think that's one of the most interesting political stories around right now.