Fact-checking and Egregious Media Bias

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.

14 Responses to Fact-checking and Egregious Media Bias

  1. Paul Abella August 30, 2012 at 4:48 pm #

    oh, you deleted my comment…tsk, tsk, tsk. Anyway, here’s the Fox News article —

    http://www.foxnews.com/opinion/2012/08/30/paul-ryans-speech-in-three-words/#ixzz251rvLkSe

    Even those on the right know he’s full of hot air. And while the plant closed under Obama’s watch, that plan was made under Bush’s watch in October of ’08. The only reason it was kept open as long as it was to fulfill an order for Isuzu trucks. In order to make Paul Ryan happy, GM would have had to keep making vehicles that nobody asked for.

    • Denny Burk August 30, 2012 at 8:59 pm #

      I was talking about the broadcast coverage.

    • Ryan Szrama August 30, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

      Op-eds come in all shapes and sizes, and they come from both sides of the aisle as well (regardless of who publishes them). A quick search on the linked contributor will tell you all you need to know about her biases, whose existence was basically the point of Denny’s post, no?

      (Hint: she’s not shooting friendly fire from “the right.”)

  2. Paula Bolyard (@pbolyard) August 30, 2012 at 5:37 pm #

    One of the most egregious examples I’ve seen here in Ohio (the all important swing state) is an organization called PolitiFact Ohio, which publishes (allegedly) unbiased fact-checking articles in Ohio’s largest newspaper. It turns out that the group’s “fact checker” is actually a registered Democrat andan enthusiastic Obama supporter who has described conservatives as ‘yahoos’ and ‘wingnuts.’ Explains why the conservative candidates have a much higher rate of “Pants on Fire” ratings in pieces that are more often nitpicky opinion pieces than fact-based reporting. The even stated that although a statement by senate candidate Josh Mandel was factually true, they were rating it “Pants on Fire,” mostly because they didn’t agree with it. Unfortunately, because it is in a “reputable” newspaper, many people believe this is coming from some sort of independent, unbiased fact-checking organization (Ohio isn’t the only place this is happening). Many older people, who still rely on newspapers and the mainstream media for their news, are especially susceptible to this opinion-as-fact bait and switch.

  3. Dave Miller August 30, 2012 at 5:39 pm #

    I appreciate this. Didn’t watch the speech, but did read an article today that asserted unequivocally that Ryan lied. Glad to hear the facts.

  4. Megan Dawson August 30, 2012 at 8:22 pm #

    This is lazy, Denny, and I think you know that. As has already been pointed out, even Fox News blew the whistle on Ryan’s habit of prevarication. And while the Janesville plant has attracted the most attention, it’s low-hanging fruit for both sides. I notice you don’t touch deeper, policy-related fibs like him blaming Obams for the failure of Simpson-Bowles when Ryan voted against it every chance he got. Or his earlier criticisms of the stimulus while he was dipping his own hands into that giant pile of money…a fact which he initially denied outright and was forced to walk back after being confronted with the truth.

    Look, we all get that politics these days is all about least worst. If you want Paul Ryan, you can still have him. You can say, “Despite his frequent attacks of truthiness, he’s still better than the other guy.” But shooting the messenger, as you are doing here, is about the laziest defense you could make.

  5. Richard Lions August 30, 2012 at 8:45 pm #

    James Downie posted a pretty good response to all the focus on Janesville, in particular (although the focus on this one item really just seems to be a smokescreen to avoid attention on the other more blatant lies).

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/post-partisan/post/five-ways-paul-ryans-gm-attack-was-dishonest/2012/08/30/6b9f04ca-f2c3-11e1-adc6-87dfa8eff430_blog.html

    I find this quote from Obama in Oct. of 08 particularly interesting:

    “Reports that the GM plant I visited in Janesville may shut down sooner than expected are a painful reminder of the tough economic times facing working families across this country.
    This news is also a reminder that Washington needs to finally live up to its promise to help our automakers compete in our global economy. As president, I will lead an effort to retool plants like the GM facility in Janesville so we can build the fuel-efficient cars of tomorrow and create good-paying jobs in Wisconsin and all across America.”

  6. James Stanton August 30, 2012 at 9:00 pm #

    Well, I have a few comments on this. I”ll say up front that Paul Ryan is/was my local Congressman and I’ve long considered his reputation to be suspect based on his terrible voting record.

    “Facts” are a tricky thing. People use them to tell whichever story they want to tell. How are we to believe what is correct? We are inclined to trust certain sources and distrust others.

    http://i47.tinypic.com/2jg2olt.jpg

    http://content.usatoday.com/communities/onpolitics/post/2012/08/fact-checking-ryans-claim-on-obama-gm-/1#.UEAEU5a5xut

    It seems the plant shut down on all production on GM vehicles around December 23, 2008 but kept 100 or so workers on to complete outstanding orders on Izuzu trucks.

    http://www.jsonline.com/news/wisconsin/43254027.html?ipad=y

    I haven’t looked at the transcipt of Ryan’s speech on this issue so I’m not going to say he lied about anything related to the auto plant.

    I do know Ryan’s been running around criticizing Obama for cutting $716 billion from Medicare when his own infamous budget proposals contain those same cuts. That’s dishonest.

    Ryan also criticized Obama for not acting on the Bowles-Simpson report. He left out that he himself voted against the plan.

    Ryan rails against Obama’s role in piling on debt while leaving out his part in adding trillions to our debt. Dishonest? Not quite. Hypocritical? Absolutely.

    All in all he’s a typical politician who uses language to dance around the truth or on the edge of it. Just like Romney and Obama.

    Romney/Ryan and Obama/Biden are running dishonest campaigns. It offends some when this is pointed out because it must indicate bias to point out that someone isn’t telling the truth.

    Another factor is that for many it is ok to lie in the service of the greater good. The idea that winning is the important thing and it doesn’t matter how you do it. The two big things Romney/Ryan have been running on for the past month is “you didn’t build that” and “Obama is gutting welfare reform”. Both are ideas that have been decontextualized or twisted and in the case of welfare reform a blatant lie. This kind of thing is par for the course in our elections.

    Why should we be surprised? We’ve seen a collapse of morality in so many areas of society. We should be surprised when politicians tell the truth.

  7. Don Johnson August 31, 2012 at 12:40 pm #

    The basic “power of the press” (media in these times) is the power to decide what is and what is not “news”. A newspaper or other media outlet must make choices on what is printed or discussed and what is not. And every media outlet will have a worldview, it cannot be helped, it is a part of being human and seeing some things as important and others as less important.

    So what can a media consumer like us do, realizing this reality. We can CHOOSE to get our information from multiple sources. When I lived abroad for a year, I was amazed at how the news differed from ALL of the news sources in the USA.

    So I highly recommend NOT just listening to those media sources that one expects to agree with, they will just reinforce your existing worldview. Listen to both those on the political left and right in the USA and listen to news sources in Europe and other parts of the world. I can promise you will hear perspectives that you simply cannot hear any other way.

    • Paula Bolyard (@pbolyard) August 31, 2012 at 9:43 pm #

      Good point, Don. I also recommend going directly to the source, especially on important issues. It’s time consuming to read legislation and legal briefs, but unfortunately, sometimes it’s the only way to get to the truth. As an alternative, there are excellent public policy groups that do this heavy lifting. If you can find one in your state that you agree with on most issues, they can be a great resource to help navigate the spin. And if you’re able, send them a donation. Many of these are small operations with a few people on staff, a tiny budget and a lot of volunteers.

      • Don Johnson September 1, 2012 at 11:04 am #

        Yes, the ideal is to get the info from the horse’s mouth when at all possible. The children’s game of telephone tells you what can happen to even simple messages as they go thru different people.

  8. Kevin Thompson September 1, 2012 at 10:50 pm #

    I used to live just miles away from the GM Plant in Janesville (I lived just south in Beloit, WI) I knew several workers there. The Christian School I teach at took a huge hit when the plant shut down. The plant was indeed open in early 2009 while Obama was President. In fact, right up till the point it closed, people had hope of a last minute miracle because politicians were working hard to figure out some sort of deal. Paul Ryan was in no way misleading in this regard. However, as you pointed out, liberal pundits who had never heard of Janesville a month ago don’t really care about the plant as much as they do about pushing their agenda.

    • Denny Burk September 1, 2012 at 11:02 pm #

      Thanks, Kevin. Let’s see if the media breathlessly “fact-checks” speeches at the DNC like they did for the RNC. I’m not holding my breath.

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