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Guest Host: Tom Gjelten
Political reporters on separating fact from fiction, and the challenge of providing fair and accurate coverage in a partisan world.
- Mark Hemingway online editor, The Weekly Standard.
- Glenn Kessler columnist, "The Fact Checker" for The Washington Post.
- Jim VandeHei executive editor, Politico.
- Jane Hall associate professor of journalism, American University.
MR. TOM GJELTENThanks for joining us. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR filling in for Diane Rehm. She's on vacation. Journalists and politicians are often at odds over the facts and how to present them, but every four years during a presidential race, as reporters review policy proposals, attack ads and stump speeches, the debate intensifies and the search for truth can become even murkier.
MR. TOM GJELTENTo discuss the coverage of this presidential campaign, I'm joined in the studio by Glenn Kessler. He's the fact checker at The Washington Post. Mark Hemingway, he's the online editor for The Weekly Standard, Jane Hall, professor of journalism and the media at American University and Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico.
MR. TOM GJELTENWe're going to have a lively conversation and we'll be opening the phones and reading emails so you can offer your own comments or raise questions. Our phone number here is 1-800-433-8850. You can email us at email@example.com or find us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning everyone.
MR. TOM GJELTENI myself am a journalist and I'd like to think the press has a role to play in keeping politicians honest so I have generally welcomed this new fact checking enterprise and this morning we have one of the best in the business with Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post.
MR. TOM GJELTENBut obviously, if this mission is to be accomplished, the news media have to have some credibility with the public so that our pronouncements are seen as valid and lately the media's trustworthiness has been called into question. I'm sure everyone on this panel is aware of a Gallup Poll that came out a couple of weeks ago reporting that 60 percent of Americans have little or no trust in the news media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.
MR. TOM GJELTENThat's the highest level of distrust ever and it comes just as voters are trying to make up their minds about what candidate to support. Jim VandeHei, you're a veteran political reporter yourself and you oversee election coverage at Politico. Do you feel that your political reporting this year by Politico, by your reporters, has been accepted by both sides?
MR. JIM VANDEHEII do. Obviously, I think Politico has a different audience than say The Washington Post or The Weekly Standard or most other publications. Most people who come to Politico, they tend to do this stuff compulsively. They tend to do it professionally.
MR. JIM VANDEHEIAnd I think both sides come to us and sort of trust that we've invested a heck of a lot of money to hire the best reporters, to try to get it as right as we possibly can. I think where we differ a little bit from The Post and others, is that our view is every reporter is a fact checker. We don't have a department for it.
MR. JIM VANDEHEIYou know, David Rogers did a great piece for us this morning really looking at the Ryan budget and some changes he had made at the last second on the Medicare side to be able to afford more tax cuts in it. And to me, that's the job of a budget reporter.
MR. JIM VANDEHEIJust like Josh Gerstein when he wrote a piece about President Obama and some of the discrepancies between what he was saying as far as the wind- down in Afghanistan and what the reality of it was. Just like that's his job as somebody who covers security issues for us for the White House.
MR. JIM VANDEHEIBut I feel, listen, no, what you see in those polls where you have nobody trusts the media, trust me, the bulk of my inbox is from people who say, you guys suck, you're too liberal, you're too conservative. We don't trust a word that you say.
MR. JIM VANDEHEII think that's probably true from the partisans on both sides. But I think there are a lot of people who spend a lot of time thinking about this election and do want to have some sort of fact-based conversation. I say I'm often delighted by the number of people I find that are much more educated on this stuff than myself and I get paid to be educated on this stuff. There are a lot of people out there who are hungry for information.
GJELTENWell, Glenn Kessler is the fact checker at The Washington Post. How has this campaign season been for you personally?
MR. GLENN KESSLERWell, there's a lot out there to check. I mean, I think what Jim was saying, it's, you know, the fact that every reporter is a fact checker, that is indeed also the case at The Washington Post. What I do is a supplement to the political reporting. It's not a replacement.
MR. GLENN KESSLERAnd in particular, what I do is I look at statements that the candidates make on the campaign trail or statements that are in their television ads. And in that case, what we're trying to do is respond to questions that a reader might have or a viewer where they hear it, you know, in the president's, you know, an acceptance speech or they see a new ad by Mitt Romney and they're wondering what's behind that.
MR. GLENN KESSLERThey may not be able to see the terrific piece that David Rogers did in Politico about the nuances of the Medicare budget that the Republicans put out, but, you know, they can then go to, you know, to my web page and they'll see this assertion made by the president and then I go through and assess the facts and decide how factual it is.
MR. GLENN KESSLERAnd that then is a resource that the political reporters at The Washington Post can continually link to or what have you, you know, and embed it as part of their political coverage.
GJELTENDo you feel that your -- is your website for you -- do you consider that the most important platform for your work?
KESSLERWell, I write it along with a colleague. We write five days a week for the web, Monday through Friday. Then I take one of those columns and make a summary of it that appears in the Sunday newspaper.
KESSLEROccasionally, some of those other columns will appear in the daily paper, but the web platform is definitely, you know, where most of the readers are.
GJELTENSo Mark Hemingway, The Weekly Standard, you're probably the top critic of this new, relatively new, fact checking enterprise. Do you object in principle? And I hope you don't mind me characterizing you as a critic of this enterprise.
MR. MARK HEMINGWAYNo, not at all.
GJELTENDo you object in principle to fact checking as an exercise or do you just find fault in its execution?
HEMINGWAYWell I don't think anybody is you know, against checking facts. I'm not against checking facts. What I am against is these fact-checking enterprises as they operate. Now it's one thing to have a politician utter a number and you know for somebody to count up, you know, the statistics or figures that lead to that number and say this number doesn't add up.
HEMINGWAYBut that's not what happens. Very often, these fact checkers bring on all sorts of, you know, context they've (word?) that is totally irrelevant and then call that politician false or pants-on-fire liar or something like that because of this additional context they brought to the debate which is, you know, well, debatable.
HEMINGWAYThe example I'd like to throw out here of this context going awry here is about a year or two ago, Senator Rand Paul, a Republican senator from Kentucky, was on ABC's morning news show and he was talking about the growth of the federal government and this is something that concerns him.
HEMINGWAYAnd as proof of his, you know, of the fact that government is getting out of control, he cited this stat that the average federal worker makes $135,000 a year. Now, according to Bureau of Labor statistics data, the average federal worker makes $135,000 a year.
HEMINGWAYPolitiFact, one of the largest fact checking enterprises out there, called Senator Rand Paul false for having said this. And the reason why is because they said the average viewer, having heard Paul's remarks regardless of the fact that it was literally true, would ascertain from what he said that he was referring to their salary and not their total compensation, including salary and benefits.
HEMINGWAYWell, let's break it down. The average salary of a federal worker is $20,000 more than the average private sector worker and you arrive at that $135,000 figure because the average federal worker gets a benefits package that is four times the average private sector worker.
HEMINGWAYNow do you feel better about the growth of the federal government now that you know the facts behind it? And yet somehow, PolitiFact totally undercut Paul's, you know, point and ruled him false.
GJELTENWell, I want to give you another example and this was raised by Michael Dobbs who is Glenn's predecessor at The Washington Post in a paper he wrote on fact checking. Rudy Giuliani made a statement that he was glad that his prostate cancer was being treated in the United States as opposed to London, England, because the survival rates for prostate cancer were half what they were in the United States.
GJELTENMichael Dobbs challenged that and said it was factually wrong and Rudy Giuliani's press aides came back and said, it's not up to you to decide what's right and what's wrong. You have to report what I say, report what Mayor Giuliani says and then you can report whatever else, but it's not up to you, as a journalist, to say that's wrong. Would you quarrel with that or is that actually your opinion?
HEMINGWAYOh, of course, I would quarrel with that. I mean, I don't think you have to take a politician at his word. I mean, for crying out loud. I don't think anybody believes that.
GJELTENNo, but is it your right as a journalist to say that's wrong?
HEMINGWAYYes, absolutely and I do it all the time.
GJELTENOkay, Jane Hall?
MS. JANE HALLYou know, I think, I sort of look at this more and more since I'm no longer covering the media day to day as a reporter, more as a critic and as a representative of the public. I think that it's regrettable that we are in such tremendously partisan times that facts, even numbers, are, people say, you know, that number is not correct and then they cite a whole lot of things that the politician said that may or may not be the exact statistic.
MS. JANE HALLI think it's regrettable that we don't have as many beat reporters. No offense, but we don't have as many people talking about welfare, talking about the issues. That's part of the issue and for us to be refereeing politicians, I think this comes from going all the way back to the search for weapons of mass destruction.
MS. JANE HALLOfficialdom has been cited a lot in the past and reporters have been reluctant to say in a news story he or she is not telling the truth. But right now we've got politicians throwing mud at each other and we've got wonderful people like Glenn Kessler refereeing and trying to find out if it's true or not.
MS. JANE HALLI'm not sure that that's so good. We should maybe be blaming the politicians for the public's confusion more than we're blaming the media.
GJELTENDo you see the media's role as arbiter here in jeopardy?
HALLI think so because I think we've gotten -- I mean, there are not always two sides to a story and the old cult of objectivity as you go to the Democrat and you go to the Republican and you've done your job. I think we should be verifiers not stenographers and I think it's darn hard from both political reporters I've talked to.
HALLThe minute one of these guys says something on the air, they're accused of bias and I think that's a real problem.
GJELTENJim VandeHei, is that a real problem?
VANDEHEIWe get -- everybody at this table probably gets accused multiple times a week of being biased or being partisan and there's no doubt that there's a huge segment of society that doesn't really want to deal with the facts. I guess what alarms me is how many people I know who are smart, passionate, but they don't really want to have a factual discussion.
VANDEHEIThey'd like to go into a happy, little cul-de-sac on Fox or MSNBC and just hear people say the same thing that really is soothing to them, but might not be fact-based. And are we still the arbiters? Like, sure, but the world's a different place now. Information used to come at you from five directions, the three networks and two big newspapers, now it comes at you from a thousand directions.
VANDEHEIAnd there are great things about that. I think our access to information is better than ever, but there are bad things about that. Our access to really bad information is better than ever and it puts a huge burden on the consumer of news to really be discerning. Is this good news? Is this not good news? Can I trust it or not trust it?
VANDEHEIAnd I think that burden falls on the individual. Like, people can choose to be dumb. That's been true before technology and it'll be true to the end of days. They can choose to not engage in fact-based discussions.
GJELTENJim VandeHei is executive editor of Politico, the online news operation and we're talking here about the future of political journalism and the future of fact-checking. Stay tuned.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten of NPR, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And we're talking about the coverage of this year's presidential campaign and the role that fact checking enterprises play in it. Fact checking is this relatively new phenomenon in journalism. Many news organizations have their own fact checkers. Glenn Kessler is the fact checker for the Washington Post. But, Glenn, as we've been talking about, your fact checking conclusions and the conclusions of other fact checkers are often challenged.
GJELTENYou know, when we hear this line that the fact checkers have to be fact checked. Do you welcome that kind of attention? Do you think that it sort of strengthens your journalism, to have people second guessing your own fact checking or is that an annoyance?
KESSLERNot at all. I welcome it. And I don't pretend to have, like, you know, a monopoly on, you know, judgment or truth. I do, at the end of my column, I do come up with what I call Pinocchio rating where I rate the politician's statement anywhere from, you know, truthful to what is the worst, four Pinocchios. And, you know, that is a -- that is certainly a judgment call. And some people might say it's entirely subjective on my part.
KESSLERBut what I try to do, what I really try to do when I write these columns is I try to inform readers and try to layout, you know, to explain the complexities of the federal budget or the health care system or other very difficult complex issues. I try to provide links to documents, other factual information so that readers can make their own judgment. They can sit there and say, god, Kessler called that four Pinocchios, I think that's really like a two.
KESSLERThat's fine. I think that that's -- I welcome it and sometimes I have adjusted ratings based on information that readers have sent me and said, you know, you actually missed something here. You said the president didn't say this, but I found something where he says that. And it's a part of a, you know, a process.
GJELTENWell, how important are the metrics to you? I mean, why do you need to -- I mean, doesn't -- I think one of the criticism of fact checking is that using these metrics -- one, two, three or four Pinocchios -- suggests that it's almost scientific on your part.
KESSLERRight. Well, and I will readily admit that the Pinocchios are a bit of a marketing gimmick.
KESSLERI mean, I'm not going to pretend there. But it's an easy way for people to understand these things. I mean, it's like a -- and frankly, I find that it makes me be much more consistent because I will go back and I will look, well, god, that thing I gave two Pinocchios, you know, that was to say Obama and so I'm going to, you know, for the sake of consistency, you know, this thing by Romney is also really two Pinocchios. So, I think it forces me in a bit of consistency. It's a bit like a movie review or restaurant review and, you know...
GJELTENThumps up, thumbs down, whatever.
KESSLERThat sort of thing. You know, why is that -- I think it's just a simple, easy way for me to say to readers, this one was really bad or this one is okay.
GJELTENBut Michael, who's a listener, writes: How can a phrase like Republicans have been the party of obstructionists be fact checked? And I think this is an important...
KESSLERI wouldn't fact check that. I mean, I really try not to fact check philosophies. For instance, you know, Republicans believe that generally tax cuts will lead to greater economic growth. There's just no way I can fact check that. I mean, that's -- I can fact check maybe numbers and assertions that people use to defend their philosophy but that's not what I do.
GJELTENMark, this is a point you made earlier that some statements are more amenable to fact checking, more empirical and others are more subjective and really should not be even addressed by fact checking.
HEMINGWAYYeah. I'm constantly irritated by this by fact checkers. I mean, just yesterday there was a panel discussion at the Press Club. And Jim Drinkard fact check editor said something about, you know, fact checking Romney accusing Obama of apologizing for America to the Middle East. Now this is rhetorical. No, Obama has not literally said I'm sorry to the Middle East but he's, you know, looking at what Obama's done and adding up, you know, what he thinks the message being sent is.
HEMINGWAYAnd then he's, you know, countering with this idea that he thinks that Obama is apologizing to the Middle East. Similarly, you get, you know, all kinds of assertions in this department where I can remember AP once fact checked Tim Pawlenty for saying that Obamacare was unconstitutional. I mean, this is clearly, you know, the realm of opinion.
GJELTENIt's not the Supreme Court, yeah.
KESSLERWell, just to -- I mean, the apologize for America...
GJELTENYou gave it four Pinocchios.
KESSLERI gave it four Pinocchios. But what I looked at was the evidence that people that said Obama had apologized, what were they citing and how did they cite it. Because it actually started with a column that Karl Rove wrote. And so I went and then looked at the speeches and looked at the context in which way Obama said these things. Now, again, this is maybe, you know, Mark will say, well, that's just my subjective judgment. But I felt that the examples that were given to support the notion of Obama apologizing didn't add up to an apology.
GJELTENJane Hall, as a professor of journalism, would you prefer to see fact checkers like Glenn stick to the more empirical statements and stay away from the more subjective judgments? And would you prefer that they not use these gimmicky little metrics?
HALLWell, you know, I wouldn't want to -- he's getting a million hits and he's doing something admirable. So if he wants to get it with Pinocchios, I like that better than pants of fire. I think that journalists and fact checkers should be allowed to check something more. I mean, we can't even agree over the 716 million that was in Paul Ryan's speech. We can't even agree over facts. I think we can fact check evidence.
HALLAnd one thing that I want to say that I have noticed in studying the health care debate, politicians are using phrases like government takeover, which a guy, you know, Karl Rove or Frank Luntz or somebody puts out something, the media then get in to charges and countercharges in the debate. Government takeover, death panels, people know that those -- death panels has been over and over said not to be true but it still gets into news stories, which is I think a real problem.
GJELTENJim VandeHei, one of the interesting things that I've seen is that the fact checking pronouncements get incorporated into the campaign narratives so that one or the other candidate starts citing fact checkers to sort of attack the candidate. Have you seen that?
VANDEHEIWell, actually I was just looking at my Blackberry and we just posted a story that shows a huge victory for the Glenn movement. Mitt Romney says his strategy in the upcoming debate is that he's going to fact check Barack Obama. So, he's pro-fact checkers. And also you hear -- you often hear politicians say, and he got three Pinocchios, like the average voter would necessarily know what they're talking about and be like, no, I thought there's only one Pinocchio. How could that actually happen?
VANDEHEII'll tell you what the campaigns think. I was struck. I went to Boston and I went to Chicago, talked to both, just about a month ago just to get their -- sort of their feelings about the landscape of the campaign, what's different about this campaign than previous campaigns. And both of them used the exact same language. Both sides laugh at the media's obsession with fact checks. They're like, they think it is so silly. There's like, number one, voters don't really care about facts.
VANDEHEIAnd two, even if they did, they don't trust the media. And even if they did trust the media, they say the media attention span is about 60 seconds. So people will just move on from it. So I don't think -- the campaigns try to claim that they don't think facts matter. And if you look at the ads, I mean, that's what ads have always been about, is trying to, like, take the facts and push them as far as you can to one edge, to be able to make the most powerful argument you can to get people to feel negatively, more often than positively, about somebody in the race.
GJELTENMark, Karl Rove -- I don't know if you saw Karl Rove's column in the Wall Street Journal this morning. He talks about -- the title is "Obama's Biggest Opponent is the Truth." And he cites an Obama ad that says to pay for huge new tax breaks for millionaires like him, Romney would have to raise taxes on the middle class. That claim, Karl Rove writes, has been thoroughly discredited, including by Politifact Virginia. So, this fact checking are helpful when they support your side.
HEMINGWAYAnd I've written this. I mean that fact -- I think that campaigns in particular should, you know, citing these things because I frankly don't want all these organizations to have as much influence as they do. Part of the problem I have here is that -- I think, you know, Jim's right. The average voter doesn't know three Pinocchios, this or that. But the problem is that political reporters and other things like that are very attuned to what fact checkers say.
HEMINGWAYLike a classic example is this debate we've been having for almost two months now about Romney's, quote-unquote, "dishonest Welfare Reform Act." Well, it turns out that welfare reform is surprisingly complex. I spent a week reporting on this, wrote 4,000 words about it. And from what I can tell, what the administration has done to the work requirements in the original 1996 Welfare Reform Law is extremely dubious.
HEMINGWAYAnd fact checkers, you know, rushed on the scene unanimously and, you know, pushed, you know, some very credulous things out there without looking at how the administration handled that and who in the administration was handling welfare policy, in particular because there were top welfare policy people in the Department of Health Human Services that had long been on record as being opposed to the work requirements and welfare reform.
HEMINGWAYAnd just, you know, completely bought the Obama hook, line and sinker. So then it became a campaign story. The political reporters didn't do their own policy reporting. They cited the fact checkers and then spent the next six weeks sticking a microphone in Romney campaign saying, why are you lying about welfare reform. And the reality is much more complex. And even Glenn recently came around and, you know, acknowledged, well, gosh, this welfare reform debate is much more complicated than fact checkers originally made it out to be.
GJELTENI'm going to throw something out here, kind of as a devil's advocate. So Glenn writes this column saying that this is an inaccurate claim. You write this lengthy well-argued article, really taking that apart. People read both of these and, you know, to me, what I think is that voters are going to know as a result of this whole exercise, they're going to sort of figure out, this is a very complex issue.
GJELTENAnd this may just motivate them to really get into the nuts of bolts of this issue and decide whether this is factual or whether it's not. Does that -- are the question, Jane Hall?
HALLOh, I love that idea.
GJELTENOr is that naive?
HALLI love telling people be a good consumer. I do think that people are hungry for information. And I do think, you know, I read a whole thing on the Annenberg site with a long piece about what they called me meta-scare tactics, where they took apart what Obama has been saying. I mean, I would love to think people will seek that out. But I'm afraid what people think is both sides do it, they all lie. I don't know where this goes. And then they sort of end depressed. I'm not sure.
KESSLERWell, I don't -- I hope that's not the case. And I do think that -- what I try to do is explain how complex these issues are. I mean, the welfare reform one is really an excellent example and maybe it's beyond the realm of fact checking. I originally wrote about the Romney ad which, you know, the Romney ad takes a rather extreme interpretation of what the Obama administration did. But when I wrote about that ad, because I was fact checking that ad, but I also fact checked the Obama administration's counter spin, which I found was a three Pinocchio level of dubiousness.
KESSLERAnd I said in that article that something is something fishy is going on here with the welfare law and how the Obama administration has tinkered with it. And then I came back to it, as Mark mentioned, and fact checked, you know, Bill Clinton's assertion about welfare in the convention speech which, again, was very complex and pretty misleading. I gave him two Pinocchios for that. What I try to do is I look at these things on a very microlevel.
KESSLERThis is what they say or this is what the ad asserts. And so, you know, maybe it's too complex for readers, but Romney's assertion in that ad, I do not believe was correct. However, the Obama administration's moves on welfare reform is crying out for big investigative piece in a major newspaper. And believe me, I've tried to get the Washington Post to do that because there's something very strange going on there and it's not all kosher.
GJELTENGlenn Kessler is the fact checker for the Washington Post. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And we're going to be going to the phones in a little. Our number is 800-433-8850, our email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Glenn, I wanted to mention something about that welfare ad, in particular Ben Smith of Buzz Feed wrote this about it: The Romney ad contains heated rhetoric. And he's reacting to this notion that the Obama reform amounted to gutting welfare, which he said was overhyping.
GJELTENHe says the Romney ad contains rhetoric, but what's wrong with heated rhetoric? Do the fact checkers now also carry thermometers? There's always going to be hyping, there's always going to be exaggeration, there was always going to be overstatement. Some of that stuff you just have to ignore, don't you?
KESSLERWell, right, right. And -- but I do think it is worth going through that and particularly for -- and these ads in particular can often be very insidious because they drive home messages that people, even if they're not quite paying attention, can have a real impact on the race. And I have written ten columns about Mitt Romney's record at Bain. Generally, tearing apart the message that the Obama campaign has tried to deliver about what kind of businessman Mitt Romney was.
KESSLERYou know, because they really, really stretched the truth in those ads. And yet, those ads are effective because you can see that one reason why Mitt Romney is not doing very well in the polls is because people view him as a cold-eyed businessman.
GJELTENI'm going to quote something from one of your columns, Glenn, just to reassure anyone who thinks he's slanted to one side or the other. This is in response to one of your fact checking columns on the Obama ad about Romney's record at Bain. And this is the ad where they suggest that Bain Capital is responsible for the death of steel worker's wife because she lost her health insurance.
GJELTENAnd you conclude: "On just every level, this ad stretches, stretches the bounds of common sense and decency." And you gave it, in fact, four Pinocchios. Jim VandeHei, there's a sort of a -- kind of an opposite issue here which is that some reporters, some political reporters seem almost unconcerned with the accuracy of what politicians say, instead cover the campaigns as though they were sporting events, who is scoring points, who is not scoring points, what works, what doesn't.
GJELTENIt's like, to me, it suggests almost a kind of a cynical approach to political reporting, where you really don't pay attention to issues or accuracy, it's just who's up, who's down.
VANDEHEIWell, I mean, if you read Politico, then you'd have to say we're quite cynical because we do a tremendous amount of coverage of the horse race and proudly do it, love it. I think it's really important. I think any good news organization, any good reporter, you have to do both. You have to understand the personalities. You have to understand the politics to understand the policy, to understand the motivations, to understand the rhetoric.
VANDEHEISo what good -- what great journalism does is it combines all of those things, rich reporting both on the policies, the fact checking side, but also, like, why are these people doing the things that they do. What animates them? Why -- where are they having success? What techniques are working? And, again, it's really important whenever I talk about Politico, we don't pretend to be the New York Times. We're not out there trying to serve a broad-based audience.
VANDEHEIWe're proud that we have a broad-based audience. But our audience tends to be, our core audience extremely sophisticated about politics and have a very high level of expectations for our expertise on politics, on governance and on policy. So, that's the audience that we're speaking to. But I think most political writers at different publications, they do get into the horse race. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that.
VANDEHEIThere is a dimension to governance and politics, obviously the bulk of it is serious. I think it's fun. I think it's interesting. I think it's important. And I think I get really nervous when I hear the monks of journalisms say, well, we should just cover the facts and just cover, like, the most serious policy issues. Like...
GJELTEN(unintelligible) by you, Jane.
VANDEHEIYou're going to have nine...
HALLI'd have to be called a nun at least.
VANDEHEIYou're going to have nine readers. Like, people want -- there is life behind everything that happens in Washington. And if you don't understand the full dimension of life, you don't understand how governments operate.
GJELTENJim VandeHei is executive editor of Politico. We're talking about the state of political journalism in this campaign season and whether news organizations should be doing fact checking or not. We're going to take a short break and then we'll be right back.
GJELTENWelcome back. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in today for Diane Rehm. And our topic this hour is the state of political journalism and the role fact checkers should be playing during this campaign season. My guests are Glenn Kessler who's the Washington Post's fact checker, Mark Hemingway who's the fact checker's fact checker at The Weekly Standard (word?), Mark?
GJELTENJane Hall, professor of journalism and media at the American University and Jim VandeHei, executive editor of Politico. Our phone lines are jammed and I have a huge stack of emails here, which I'm going to start working my way through. First of all, Glenn, you don't have to say anything. This bullet has some advice. He says, "I find it troubling that fact checkers have a bias. They seem to take a what-he-meant approach to conservatives and what he literally said approach to liberals. They need to have a clear set of standards for their own work and stick to it." Unsolicited advice from board, well, solicited, actually, because they might have been (word?) in.
GJELTENA lot of -- several emails about the presidential debates coming up. You know that Vicki Meyer who's the organizer of a petition drive to have the Commission on Presidential Debates have fact checkers on hand to review statements made during the debates. She says, "A democracy cannot work if political leaders can lie to the public without fear of being challenged."
GJELTENAnd Andrea wrote on Facebook, "Will you please ask your guests to comment on the idea of having fact checkers at the presidential and vice presidential debates?" Jane Hall, you seem to be convinced that fact checking is a good thing. Would you like to see fact checkers at the debates? I don't know quite how this would work.
HALLWell, it reminds me -- remember that old ad -- I think it was -- may I -- I won't say the car that had, you know, the guy talking really fast and had -- he's lying underneath it. I -- you know, we might as well hook people up and, you know, do galvanic skin detectors. I don't think you can do it that quickly. I think it's good to do it right after. I mean, you know, we've had spin alley for years, which journalists have tried to fight again where the -- everybody's campaign says he did great or she did great. I think soon after, but I'm not sure live scrolling is going to be that helpful.
GJELTENWell, I think news organizations are doing that anyway, right?
KESSLERI believe ABC News or one of the organizations that hosted some republican primary debates did this. But I am with -- is it Jane?
KESSLERI'm with Jane on this. I mean the idea of, like, for instance, when I reported -- I wrote 4,000 words on what the Obama Administration did to welfare reform policy.
HEMINGWAYI spent, you know, a week reporting this out, talking to several different people. I mean, it's really complex stuff. Yet part of the problem, I think the reason why fact checkers got the issue so badly wrong, in my view, was, you know, an ad came out. And they had something up the next day on something that was extremely complicated where they hadn't done their homework.
HEMINGWAYSimilarly in something I wrote, I singled out an AP fact checking response to the republican debate where -- I mean, again, it's something that appears, like, 12 hours later and, you know, they fact check a host of assertions and, you know, it's really hard to do that on complicated matters in such a short time. And I found that this AP fact check was extremely wanting.
KESSLERWell, if I could just respond.
KESSLERFirst of all, on debates or speeches or what have you, I do a round up. I don't reward Pinocchios in those roundups because it is, you know, at the moment...
GJELTENYou don't always -- you don't always even pronounce something -- I mean, you did a timeline on statements about the Benghazi attack that didn't even come to a conclusion. It just laid out the facts.
KESSLERRight, exactly. So there are different ways to do it. And I think that -- but on the other hand with debates and conventions and those sorts of things these are often things they've said before. So I can go back and say well, I've already checked that, you know. I can immediately tell you in a summary what I had said about it before. I think in terms of the debates, and the image of fact checkers at the debates, it makes me think of, like, judges at a gymnastics event where they hold up how many Pinnochios after the statement.
KESSLERWhat I would personally like to see is if the moderator would try to drill down with these contenders what -- Mr. President you have said that 90 percent of the deficit is because of George Bush. A number of people have looked at that and said that's not accurate.
KESSLERIncluding me, including Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post. Yes, they could say that. You know, how do you explain that? I mean, can you tell us - take us through on why you believe that? And really challenge them on some of their -- as part of the debate their factual assertions.
HALLI think that's a wonderful idea because one of the problems, and I think one of the reasons that people are doing fact checking, is you get President Obama or you get Romney and you're so lucky to have the access that they -- you get them on a morning show. And they don't get challenged or they don't give access to people except The View sometimes. And you need to challenge them in real time as to whether -- what they're saying is true.
GJELTENJim, did you have a comment on that?
VANDEHEIWell, it goes to Glenn's comment. That I think fact checking is fine during the debates. I think as far as public perception it's kind of meaningless. What matters is can the moderator of a debate hold the candidates accountable on stage. Not just in the question, but when they say something that is misleading, sort of, have a fearlessness to no, like, that is just -- it is patently false what you just said. Why do you continue to say that?
VANDEHEII mean those, to me, are the moments where fact checking, which would be based on all the work that Glenn and others have done, can be most powerful because it forces those politicians into an improvisational moment where they have to confront the fact that they might be saying something that's not true.
GJELTENWell, and, in fact, one of the most famous moments in the presidential debates is the Gerald Ford debate where he made a misstatement about Soviet Domination in Eastern Europe and Max Frankel followed up and said did you really mean to say that? And then Ford said yes, which, you know, there went the election.
GJELTENOne more email and then we're going to go to the calls. Chaz says, "How do your panelists feel about "The Daily Show"? That's where I get my TV critical news. I don't really care what the candidates say." Mark, do you watch "The Daily Show?"
HEMINGWAYI do. Look, "The Daily Show" has a -- definitely a point of view. I mean, I think they try to be fair, but I don't think anybody's under any impression "The Daily Show" is somehow center left. And Jon Stewart, himself, he likes to play the sort of clown nose on, clown nose off game. Where, you know, he wants to be taken seriously, but whenever he's pressed about how he handles certain troublesome aspects of political journalism, he says, well, I'm just a comedian. So I mean, you know, my impression of "The Daily Show" is just, you know, it's a funny show, but caveat enter.
GJELTENLet's go now to Michael who's on the line from Dallas, Texas, good morning, Michael.
MICHAELGood morning. I have two quick points. And I'll take my answer off the air. First of all, you know, I think journalists go so far as to try to create a balanced viewpoint when they, like, respond to a fact or something. So, for example, you know, during the -- Obama kept talking about how often he reached out to republicans to try to get help on the healthcare reform. And despite that we all saw very plain there the republican slammed the door in his face, you know, many, many times.
MICHAELThey would often come back and said, but, you know, Obama did this and Obama did that. And so they've completely diluted the point. So after a while you begin to wonder what is -- what's going on here. Can't they see what we're all seeing? That, you know, these people are not being fair. That's one issue.
MICHAELThe other point to -- and this is a little unusual. It's made me feel a little bit off in the left channel here. Being a person of color, often people look at me and they'll say, okay, you're for Obama because you are a person of color. I am at the point where, you'll look at and listen to a lot of the commentators online which are -- not all, but it's been particularly it's a lot of white males who are doing all of the commentary.
MICHAELAnd the automatic assumptions given the data suggest that white males are pretty much leaning more to the right in their decisions. You're often trying to sort out what they are. Are these people really trying to, you know, provide really balanced information here or are we getting biased information? And I'll take...
GJELTENWell, listen my -- I got a question for you, Michael. Why is it important to you that a reporter or a news organization sort of label somebody as right or wrong? Why can't you just make up your own mind about that?
MICHAELI should make up my own mind about it. But my point is what happens is the reporter dilutes the message. And rather than give the facts and talk about exactly what's really going on and say here's what's happened. You know, for example, the temperature today was 75 degrees or 80 degrees. Rather than, well, it was 75 degrees, but if you add in the humidity and the temperature, it's really 36. You know, the listener is going...
MICHAEL...well, what temperature is it?
GJELTENAll right, thanks very much, Michael. And I think what you have done is made an argument for the kind of fact checking that Glenn Kessler does. And rather than put that point to the panel I'd like to actually go to another call. Kevin is on the line from Washington, D.C., good morning, Kevin.
KEVINYeah, hi, thanks for having me on. I just wanted to make the point it seems that everyone these days has their own statistics and their own scientists and their own information and their own facts. And the issue that we're talking about here today really speaks to the larger issue of what is a fact? You know, what is truth? If you have fact checkers from one side of the camp and you have fact checkers on the other side of the camp both pointing to their own star witnesses and both pointing to their own statistics and their own information, who's right? And do you need to fact the fact checking -- fact checkers? Like, you know, how far does this go?
GJELTENWell, you know, there's an interesting point here. And I'm going to put this to, Glenn. It's not just news organizations that have fact checkers anymore. I know that from, you know, covering these events in the past you -- there are Republican Party affiliated sites and Democratic Party affiliated sites that do live fact checking from very much from their own partisan point of view. Do you see those people as, sort of, jeopardizing the integrity of what you're trying to do? You know, partisan organizations that have taken on for themselves the fact checking mission?
KESSLERI don't see it as diluting. I mean, it's, you know, it's just another resource for people. You know, I mean, you could -- I hope that most people they're not just going to go get their facts from, say, a website like Media Matters, which certainly looks at it from the left point of view. Or, I guess, on the right side, there might be -- I think there's...
KESSLERNewsBusters, exactly. So, you know, and actually I look at both of those sites very closely because it helps inform my thinking in terms of, you know, you know, what a partisan might be looking at and how they're looking at the facts because I really try to be as nonpartisan as I can. But certainly by looking at those partisan sites, it informs my thinking as to, you know, how people look at those facts.
HALLYou know, I think those sites, Media Matters and Media Research Center, can be valuable. I mean, I've been taken out of context by both of them. And, you know, you know that going in. They can be valuable. I think the caller raises an even bigger point, which is -- I mean, if you're scientists, we can't even -- you know, there have to be certain agreed upon facts. And climate change and global warming, you know, what it's called -- creationism shall we be teaching, you know, what is even settled science has been so politicized by people very aggressively pushing their facts. And, you know, if 90 percent of people say something is true, you can still be attacked for saying it's true.
GJELTENYou know, I thought about getting into climate change and creationism and I decided to not to. I thought that's a subject for whole different show. But you are raising an interesting -- an important point about, you know, what -- and it goes back to what the first caller said. What's a fact? What's not a fact? Jim, you had a point to make.
VANDEHEIYeah, I mean, the caller talking about reporters just focusing on the facts and be able to call it a truth. People need to understand about debate. Debate, in the context of governance, is largely a combination of philosophy, of politics and economics given that most of these are domestic issues. None of those are precise sciences. Most debates are philosophical. They're theoretical. And a lot of those things that are being talked about, particularly at a presidential debate or on the campaign trail, they aren't provable or disprovable.
VANDEHEIThere are certainly some things, like, a specific number might not be true. But -- and I think the one thing you can walk away from this campaign, or any campaign, is you might not -- you might be able to quibble with the individual facts about welfare or Medicare. You can't quibble with the bigger, directional things that the candidates are talking about. And that's the stuff you can take that to the bank. You know that Mitt Romney is going to govern in a much different way than Barack Obama.
VANDEHEIYou could safely assume you're going to have much bigger government under Barack Obama than Mitt Romney. And you could safely assume that there is going to be a private option, at least introduced into Medicare, if Mitt Romney is elected and Barack Obama's not. And so those things are true. And those are things you can grab hold of.
GJELTENJim VandeHei is executive editor of Politico. I'm Tom Gjelten. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." And let's go now to Regina who is on the line from Cincinnati, Ohio, good morning, Regina. Thanks for waiting so long to get on the air.
REGINAHi, thank you for listening to my opinion. I feel like so many people I've spoken are just so tired of the campaign and the way things are done. And so much money is spent on the campaign. And the last presidential election, it was outrageous. And I don't know the numbers this time, but I know it's even more.
REGINAI don't see why we can't simplify the whole process and have a cross section of the United States with each population represented to submit questions for each candidate to answer and publish this in a newspaper across the country. And those who have trouble with vision or comprehending the public library could have meetings and read it and discuss it. And we could have an informed population that's making -- votes on what has been written in print and we can have that to look at and see if they are actually following up on what they have claimed they wanted to do for this country.
GJELTENOkay, Regina. That's an interesting point. It might be a little idealistic, Jane Hall?
HALLI think there was a science fiction story once where two people decided who was president. You know, that's not a bad idea. I wanted to -- I was thinking about two things. One, we could shorten the campaign. We could, you know, maybe if we weren't so focused on these ads and the counter charges. You know, I agree with Jim that there's certain things that are true.
HALLBut whether Romney is or is not going to create jobs and whether that is or is not what venture capitalists do is something people are voting on. And I don't think anybody understands the difference. I just want to say one thing I was thinking. When citizens, average people, get to ask a question in these debates, which they're going to get to ask, I have to say they're often a lot more policy driven than what we journos are asking.
GJELTENBecause we think we need to ask...
HALLBecause we think we need to ask that gotcha question.
GJELTENI have a quick question. And I don't know that everyone will have a chance to weigh in on it. But, Mark, let's start with you. Do you feel, by and large, that the issues in this election are more clearly laid out for the voters or less clearly laid out for the voters than they have been in past elections?
HEMINGWAYWell, that involves a subjective judgment. I would say that the ideological contrasts between the candidates are, you know, fairly sharp and in a lot of ways. At the same time, though, I have been incredibly dissatisfied with the probity of the media, in terms of asking for specifics on both sides. And, you know, I mean, Howard Fineman, who is not known as a fire breathing conservative, just recently wrote a column in The Huffington Post about gee, is anybody going to ask Obama some specific questions, you know, recently.
HEMINGWAYSo but I mean -- and I know the democrats feel the same way about Mitt Romney and tax loopholes and stuff. I think part of that is the campaigns are doing their darnedest to keep their distance from those kinds of questions and that's a problem.
VANDEHEIRight, and that's where you got to be careful about blaming the -- the people that are delivering the message as opposed to the messenger themselves. Listen, the president of the United States and Mitt Romney have given very little detail, both of them, on what they would actually do as president to govern the country. And, like, that's where voters should be speaking up.
VANDEHEII mean, the media can press them for details at every single press conference. But if they decide they're not going to articulate with any specificity how they would govern our country, there's very little that we can do about that. We can't force them to suddenly have concrete ideas for what they're going to do for Medicare or Social Security, the budget deficit, taxes. We just have to sort of deal with the characters who are part of the campaign.
GJELTENOne sentence response, Jim -- Glenn.
KESSLERWell, I'm not disagreeing with what either have just said. All I can say if people have questions they just should contact me and I'll try to fact check them.
GJELTENThere you go. Glenn Kessler is the fact checker at The Washington Post. I've also been joined by Mark Hemingway from The Weekly Standard, Jane Hall from American University and Jim VandeHei from Politico. I'm Tom Gjelten sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Denise Couture, Susan Nabors, Rebecca Kaufman, Lisa Dunn and Megan Merritt. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our email address is email@example.com and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program is a production of WAMU 88.5 from American University in Washington, D.C. This is NPR.
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