Can You Trust The Facts?

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This week the ABC announced that Fairfax journalist Russell Skelton would head its just-established fact check unit. That comes after the launch of a local franchise of PolitiFact.com, which itself follows Crikey’s regular feature, Get Fact. 

These outfits both replicate an American trend: a growing preoccupation with the independent verification of political claims.

The movement grew out of the Bush era and the media’s spectacular misfires over the administration’s more egregious dishonesties, particularly prior the Iraq war.

FactCheck.org was launched at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003; in 2007 the Washington Post established its Fact Checker and the St Petersburg Times started PolitiFact, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009. The Post now even has its own news app, Truth Teller, which claims to offer real time verification of political speeches.

The Australian PolitiFact explains its project thus:

“Our staffers research political statements and rate their accuracy on the Truth-O-Meter, from True to False. The most ridiculous falsehoods receive the lowest rating, Pants on Fire. […]

“PolitiFact relies on on-the-record interviews and publishes a list of sources with every Truth-O-Meter item. When possible, the list includes links to sources that are freely available, although some sources rely on paid subscriptions. The goal is to help readers judge for themselves whether they agree with the ruling.”

Expressed like that, the venture seems entirely admirable. As Greg Jericho argues, “Fact checking isn't perfect but it aspires to provide voters with a better debate and clearer information, which can also be used by journalists when questioning politicians. Surely that is a good thing.”

But why the preoccupation with fact checking just now? What does this “Just the facts, ma’am” orientation tell us about politics and about the media?

The new enthusiasm for fact checking emerged as a response to the crisis of the mainstream media.

In 2003, the New York Times not only failed to expose Bushite lies about Iraqi WMDs but actually served to disseminate them, particularly through the reporting of its one-time star, Judith Miller. The traditional media was denounced for being too close to power, for acting like a mouthpiece for political and corporate interests.

Fact checking allows big media organisations to restore a measure of the gravitas that they once possessed and to reassert their status against the blogosphere that displaced them. The digital environment might have destroyed the old perception of a newspaper as innately authoritative but a fact checking unit allows a media outlet to lay some claim to the old objectivity – they are, after all, presenting a truth that has been professionally assessed by experts. 

More generally, the enthusiasm for fact checking should be understood alongside a certain liberal dismay at the polarisation of politics. The establishment of an adjudication process for empirical claims claims accords with the now widespread calls for a restoration of civility and consensus. Denouncing the current partisan environment, many progressive pundits espouse a model of polite engagement over shared values – along the lines of the “New Paradigm” supposed to emerge from the current parliament.

Yet that reference to the entirely fanciful hopes invested in the minority government illustrates the limits on fact checking as a political project.

Most obviously, the changes that have taken place in politics and the media in the last few decades cannot be so easily reversed. In particular, across the world we have seen the decline of public accountability. Even if a politician’s lies are spectacularly exposed, what happens then? As David Corn notes in a Mother Jones piece on the limitations of fact checking during the US election: “With the news cycle moving at Twitter speed, a candidate snared in a lie only has to wait a few moments for the media to move on. The sting fades quickly.”

Think about Iraq. The claims that sent Australia to war have been thoroughly discredited. But what have been the consequences? Hundreds of thousand of people lost their lives – and there have been almost no repercussions for the politicians responsible. We all know the facts about WMDs now. But the truth, in and of itself, doesn’t make much difference.

In Australia, of course, there are other issues at play.

Over the last decades, conservatives have relentlessly targeted the ABC, usually presenting their hostility in terms of the alleged liberal bias of public broadcasting. This week, for instance, we learned the Liberals in Victoria want to privatise both SBS and the ABC, policies long advocated by the influential Institute for Public Affairs.

As a result, an increasingly defensive ABC managegment has become preoccupied with an objectivity expressed in mathematical terms. Think of the figures about audience attitudes at the beginning of QandA, or the obsessive inclusion of IPA mouthpieces to provide “balance” in every discussion. In that context, an ABC fact checking unit serves a certain defensive ideological function – what could be more objective than a body documenting facts?

In reality, though, the ABC’s critics won’t be disarmed in that way. If anything, the more the public broadcaster signals its sensitivity, the more conservative calls for its abolition will grow. As Keith Windschuttle explained in his excellent 1984 book on the media (written in the days before he entirely reversed his political views), the attacks on the ABC pertain less to its content and more to the ideological antipathy of rightwing governments to publicly owned services – even (indeed, especially) when those public institutions function well.  

That in itself is an illustration of the fundamental problem: most contentious issues do not neatly resolve into the true/false dichotomy. It might be possible to check claims as to the extent of the budget deficit (though your findings would depend greatly on the assumptions you make) but that does not answer the more fundamental question as to whether deficits are a problem or not.

To put it another way, facts become meaningful because of the theories that frame them. You can assess how many refugee boats have arrived in the last year. But the exercise only seems worth performing because of a whole series of assumptions about immigration, borders and ethnicity, assumptions that an emphasis on facts alone can obscure.

Indeed, we might go so far as to see the liberal preoccupation with facticity as symptomatic of a general demoralisation.

At the zenith of the Bush era, the journalist Ron Suskind wrote about an unnamed presidential aide (widely identified as Karl Rove):

“The aide said that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ … ‘That's not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.’”

The assertion was widely taken as evidence of neocon derangement, extensively mocked by liberals who took the nature of reality to be entirely self-evident.

Yet in retrospect, the aide’s argument is much less ridiculous than it seemed at the time. For, indeed, on a whole series of issues, the Bush government genuinely did create a new reality, one in which we are now all condemned to live. Take, for instance, the rule of law. Prior to the war on terror almost everyone in public life would have accepted as a fact the incompatibility of liberal democracy with indefinite detention without trial. But so successfully did Bush, Cheney and Rove shift the landscape that, today, it’s those who demand due process in Guantanamo (or, indeed, in Australian detention centres) who seem out of touch with political reality.

After decades of defeat, there’s a widespread desire on the liberal Left to retreat into a more technocratic version of politics, a model where good policies get formed behind the scenes by wonks and experts. It’s an approach in which facts are sacred, and where the best decisions are mapped out by plugging figures into Excel sheets.

The Right, by contrast, has been far more ambitious. In Rove’s terms, conservatives have not been content with studying facts. Rather, they have rather devoted themselves to changing them. And you can see their success.

A decade ago, the notion that a Labor government would excise the entire Australian continent from the migration zone would have seemed the most extravagant fantasy. But here we are in 2013 – and the reality has been fundamentally changed.

Of course, facts matter. Of course, the Left needs to study the world, to acknowledge what is, so as to shape what might be. Yet understanding the status quo is only part of the task. We need a politics dedicated to shaping the world, not simply accepting its current contours as inviolable. In his History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky says, with admirable clarity: “Whoever worships the accomplished fact is incapable of preparing the future.”

The Right gets that. The Left needs to, as well.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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