It is a universal maxim that one is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts—unless of course you are a “fact-checker” in the mainstream media! I know, I know. It’s sort of hackneyed to complain about media bias, but the spectacle that began last night deserves some comment.
It all began with Rep. Paul Ryan’s speech last night in which he accepted the Republican nomination for vice-president. The speech was well-delivered and effective. I was surprised, however, how quickly the talking-heads on MSNBC began to question Ryan’s truthfulness. Some of them even accused him of intentionally misleading the American people by blaming an auto-plant closure on President Obama.
I was a bit bewildered by this. How did all of these commentators already have so much information about an auto-plant in Janesville, Wisconsin that closed four years ago? How is it that all of them seemed to know obscure details and chronologies to expose the alleged “lie” that Rep. Ryan had just told? The only one who confessed not to know anything about the facts of the case was commentator and former RNC chairman Michael Steele. Everyone else was prepared to “fact-check” Ryan’s claims about the plant, except for the one Republican panelist. That seemed a little fishy to me.
Well, as it turns out, the so-called “fact-checkers” have proven to be wrong. The plant actually did close in 2009 (source). The plant even continued to produce some lines into April of 2009 after Obama was sworn-in as president (source). President Obama did promise to re-open shuttered plants like the one in Janesville (source), and he still hasn’t made good on that promise. In short, everything that Paul Ryan said about the plant was accurate (source). So what was going on with the “fact-checkers”?
You probably already know this, but sometimes it’s helpful to remind ourselves of something. Everyone has a bias in one direction or the other. That means that if you care about the facts, you cannot be a passive consumer of media reports—whether you are a progressive viewer of MSNBC or a conservative ogler of Fox News. Ryan got a pass from most of the Fox News commentators, but he was excoriated on MSNBC. I suspect the converse will be true after Democrats give their speeches in North Carolina next week. MSNBC will probably not be as zealous about fact-checking, while Fox News likely will be. What are we to make of all this?
There are facts. There is the interpretation of facts. And then there is the distortion of the facts. In some cases, “fact-checkers” actually do correct the record about facts. But all too often, the biases of the “fact-checkers” have more to do with alternate interpretations of facts than with the facts themselves. And sometimes—as we all just witnessed last night—the “fact-checkers” allow their biases to distort the facts. A discerning consumer of news will learn how to distinguish actual fact-checking from fact-interpretation and fact-distortion. The inability to distinguish those things makes you subject to the whims of the person with the loudest megaphone.
Beware of instant “fact-checking.” Chances are there is an agenda at play, and “fact-checkers” may want to influence you in favor of that agenda. That appears to be what was happening last night, and therein is the egregious bias of last night’s news reports.