That’s just, like, your opinion, man.

I think PolitiFact is a great idea, well executed. And boy, do we need it. But then, I am not a politician. Because if I were a politician, I would be impolitic. (Of course I would.) Politicians hate PolitiFact. They apparently can’t get behind the idea of telling the truth. So they’re not very happy about the expansion of PolitiFact. Judging by the comments on this NPR story, they’re not the only ones having trouble with the distinction between fact and fiction or truth and opinion. (I keep thinking of the Dude in “The Big Lebowski.” Warning: There is profanity in this clip.)

Some journalists say they would be uncomfortable declaring a politician’s assertion an outright lie. How about you?

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6 Responses to That’s just, like, your opinion, man.

  1. leeannelias says:

    Any assertion that goes to extremes – saying something in unequivocally true or unequivocally false – seems to be equally dangerous on either end of the spectrum. I would guess that the general public would be equally upset if we made denouncing everything that is a lie outright our top priority. Plus, stakeholders on any side of the particular issue being discussed could use this as ammunition to call the press biased in one way or another.

    Instead, I think we can use the tools we have (research, archives, interview with experts, etc) to provide context and past evidence to illustrate when a statement seems to be terribly wrong.

  2. sjsyb9 says:

    Fact-checking political statements is great, but I would go one better and fact-check news organizations themselves. Let’s face it, journalists nationwide have a reputation for screwing up things like science news, economics, and reporting the results of just about any survey or study. One of my favorite bloggers is an economist who simply points out all of the false, misleading, or ignorant statements made in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal.

    • reedkath says:

      Steven, it would be great if you could create a log-in that was your actual name so people know who’s speaking. Thanks.

  3. krystin says:

    I agree with Leeann – I would be really uncomfortable denouncing what someone has said as 100% falsehood. To me (and her, now that I read her comment!), that’s as dangerous as declaring something a politician said as the gospel truth.
    Like all good journalists, it comes down to the old adage, “show, don’t tell.” What business do we have to declare something a total lie when we don’t really know what’s going on in that person’s head. This is where interviewing experts for what network news calls “analysis” can get dicey. If instead we do as Leeann and others suggest, and use secondary and tertiary sources of information to show the audience where there were falsehoods in Politician X’s statement, and the sources are impeccably legitimate and credible, we can guide the audience and show them the truth.

  4. Tracy says:

    Ol’ Mark Twain was pretty darned smart – and clever again by way more than half – when he opined about ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’.

    Public policy making is seldom about one ‘fact’, but rather a continuum of circumstances, the intended and unintended consequences of previous decisions and a boatload of opinion. It’s an inherently subjective process – and one ‘truth’ doesn’t necessarily provide the obvious direction for policy decisions, nor predict their consequences.

    Example, the recent brouhaha over breast cancer screening. It’s the ‘truths’ that population-based screenings mean that literally hundreds of thousands of women will be unnecessarily subjected to painful and risky procedures (TRUTH!!!) to find a handful of women who would have otherwise died (TRUTH!!!) if the whole lot of them had not been screened. So, who’s TRUTH prevails? Is the politician supporting taking millions of dollars out of population-based breast cancer screening telling the truth or lying when he says we over-screen and we shouldn’t subject women to expensive, unnecessary procedures? Well, He’s both totally right and totally wrong. I’m guessing if you’re the woman whose cancer is missed, you’d think him a big, fat lying son of a gun.

    Opinions only qualify as ‘lies’ when they are irrefutable. Policy is, by definition, the accommodation of opinions, and thus, never, wholly irrefutable.

    We can all think of politicians from both sides of the aisle who have capital ‘L’ lied. Whether it’s ‘that woman’, making promises and taking contributions and then denying it, or denying (rather than rationalizing, which precludes lying – though runs the risk of having peeps disagree w/ you) acts of abuse that are widely held to be beyond the scope of decent, humane behavior.

    But a politician picking and choosing a ‘truth’ – be it a statistic or anecdote – to bolster his agenda…

    How is that any different than everything we choose to put in, as well as not to put in, a news story?

    He who is without sin, yada yada.


  5. Tracy says:

    Just as caveat, I should have said up front that I like PolitiFact (though the name is an oxymoron). I think it does a reasonably good job, probably as good as is possible, of trying to address political/policy nuance, though it still chooses to address nuance in the context of ‘truth’ and ‘lies’, pretty loaded terms…

    There’s a purely practical reason for journos not to call politicos out-and-out liars. It derails your reporting. It shifts the story from whatever issue is of dispute to the story of a journo calling out a politico as a liar. It’s a gift to politicians/policy makers who may very well be trying to dissemble or bald-face lie.

    One of most insidious and disheartening consequences of this period of faux-news, advocacy-dressed up-as-reporting is that so many ‘journalists’ imagine they’re part of the story. This is a distraction and we need to quit doing it.

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