The Cleveland Plain Dealer is the latest in a series of major newspapers around the country that have announced a partnership with a group called PolitiFact which will aid them in the innovative practice of letting readers know whether statements made by politicians are true or not. Here’s last Sunday’s front page announcement:
"Starting today, The Plain Dealer officially kicks off PolitiFact Ohio, a new way to examine the claims, ads and statements of players in the political world. Once distilled, the newspaper’s findings are posted on the fanciful Truth-O-Meter, whose ratings are True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True and False. There’s a special rating for claims that are downright ridiculous: Pants on Fire. You can see PolitiFact Ohio and all its Truth-O-Meter findings at http://www.politifact.com/ohio and two of the findings on Page A9 of today’s print editions. . . . Beneath the fun of the Truth-O-Meter is a serious undertaking. For every claim examined, PolitiFact Ohio will ask the person or campaign making it: How do you know that and what are your sources? The other side will be asked, too."
That there’s something novel about the idea of reporting on whether statements are true reveals a lot. Of course, ordinary people can’t get anything into letters to editors unless the letters page editor knows it to be beyond dispute. But elected officials are usually permitted to say whatever they like, as long as "balanced" and "objective" journalism includes a top political opponent’s concern that the first gentleman’s statement was a treasonous fabrication. This is far easier on reporters, and works especially well for what passes for reporters on television. But it’s harder on readers and viewers, who seem to be expected to conclude that the truth lies in the middle between two claims, or that the truth doesn’t really matter — what matters is the sport of watching two people disagree. So, I applaud the idea of inserting a bit of actual journalism into the he-said, he-said reporting.
But it is an insertion into a rotten and dying form of communication, not a fundamental rescue. Newspapers will not go out of business any less swiftly because of "the fanciful Truth-O-Meter." This is still reporting that’s driven by the statements of those in power; it simply adds fact-checking on a tiny number of those statements. This is not a move to report on the concerns of ordinary people or on investigative research that exposes and holds accountable those who abuse power. I’ve read a lot of articles by some of the Plain Dealer reporters involved in this new effort that I would characterize as "pants on fire" in their entirety — not particular bits of trivia, but the entire articles.
More decisive than the accuracy of individual facts in shaping how someone understands the world is the choice of topics, what types of information are included, and how the issues are framed. Issue debates in the Plain Dealer will still be arranged to exclude even the most popular approaches if neither of the two big political parties supports them. We’ll still learn about most legislation, if at all, only after it passes. We’ll still be told what the most corporate-friendly political candidates said at a campaign debate, and we’ll find no mention of other candidates even if they won the most applause. We could conceivably have a lie about weapons of mass destruction labeled a lie (though I wouldn’t hold your breath). But never ever will an article point out a deeper lie, such as the fact that a nation’s possession of weapons cannot legalize an attack on it.
Even though the legislative branch legislates, it will always be "Obama’s healthcare bill." Even though it would reach no more than 3 percent of us and be privately designed and run, there will be no other name allowed for "the public option." Accepted names for things and broad positions on policies will not be questionable. Instead, single sentences that have come out of the mouths of those in power will be reviewed.
And it won’t just be single-sentences, it will often be stupid single-sentences intended for infotainment value. When one political hack accuses another of living "like Louis XIV", the Ohio Truth Tribunal will "investigate" whether political hack #2′s house really has as many rooms as Versailles. (That’s a real example of a Truthometer reading they’ve already produced.)
The Truthometer allows for degrees of truth, which is helpful but doesn’t save the enterprise. Here’s an example of a statement from Congressman Dennis Kucinich that’s been truth checked: "The War in Afghanistan is officially the longest war Americans have ever been asked to endure." The Plain Dealer truthers judged this to be fully "True" and explained why. But the explanation includes this li(n)e: "The death toll in Afghanistan reached 1,000 at the end of May with the death of Cpl. Jacob C. Leicht, a Texas Marine serving his second overseas tour." Further sentences expand on the problem with this sentence, namely that the death toll for Americans is not equal to the death toll. In fact, most of the people who die in our wars are not Americans. Is the absence of the much larger number a falsehood? The Truthometer doesn’t say. And many Americans who die as a result of our wars are not included in the military’s official death count, because they die after returning home or from friendly fire or suicide, etc. How does the Truthometer inform us of this?
Here’s another example of a truth-checked statement: "Education Week rates Ohio schools in the top five in the nation." This was also judged fully "True." However, the explanation on the Truthometer explains that tops in the nation was still pretty weak according to Education Week. In addition, the explanation fails to draw its own conclusions of any sort as to the quality of Ohio schools, as opposed to reporting on what Education Week says about them. Nonetheless, the explanation blurs that distinction and suggests at times that the quality of Ohio’s schools is simply what is under discussion. This is laziness dressed up as an investigation.
I have my own Truthometer. It takes the form of subscription numbers and site visits. When people begin subscribing to newspapers in greater numbers, then I’ll check to see whether any truth has replaced all this truthiness.