Fact Checking the 'Fact Checkers'

By Stanley Renshon and Stanley Renshon on October 26, 2011

As anyone who follows politics knows, the last few years have seen an explosion of web sites that purport to fact-check the claims that are ubiquitous features of American political life. Their standard operating procedure is to take a phrase or a political or policy claim and assess its validity. They all have rating scales of which the following is typical:

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there's nothing significant missing.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
HALF TRUE – The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
BARELY TRUE – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
FALSE – The statement is not accurate.
PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

At their best, such sites provide an important check on the more outrageous claims that often pass for facts in political debate. But more often, their efforts amount to tedious and tendentious rhetorical hairsplitting in which they demonstrate that the terms that have been used have more than one meaning.

Worse, a recent self-check on fact-check found that different fact-checking sites can sometimes come to different conclusions, often with the same "facts." Among the belated realizations of this self-check article were that: (1) It matters what specific statement fact-checkers choose to check, and (2) causal claims about complex social phenomena remain a fact-checking challenge.

Yes, that would seem about right and the second realization undercuts much of what such sites present themselves as doing. Alas, the truth is that fact check sites have no easy path to gaining traction on the truth and certainly no foolproof method for doing so.

Nor are they immune to the most basic, blatant, partisan slants. Case in point is from FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. In an entry entitled "Las Vegas Smackdown" this entry appeared:

*Romney relied on a disputed study from an anti-immigration group when he said "almost half" the jobs created under Perry were for illegal immigrants. Perry called that "an absolute falsehood." But more neutral estimates support the idea that some portion of the Texas job gains were due to illegal immigration.

The CIS study mentioned in the "fact-check" can be found here. My point here is not that others took issue with that study's methodology, or that the study's author, Steven Camarota, responded to the critics point by point. Both the criticisms and the response to it underscore the precariousness of the basic assumption underlying Fact Check efforts: that there are facts that plainly and clearly speak for themselves. But that's not my point in writing.

My point is that the Fact Check blithely, carelessly, and erroneously characterized the Center for Immigration Studies as "an anti-immigration group," which it is decidedly not. Like so many others, they confuse disagreement with some aspects of American immigration policy with being "anti-immigrant." To state the obvious: the two are not synonymous.

It is true from my experience with the Center, it does not support illegal immigration or the incentives that encourage it, although there is some sympathy for the plight of young children brought to this country by their parents.

It is true from my experience with the Center that it does support the enforcement of this country's immigration laws. That is an extremely centrist and hardly controversial position that is directly in line with the views of a large portion of the American public.

And it is true from my experience with the Center that it supports devoting more time, attention, and resources to helping new legal immigrants become part of the American national community. This too is entirely consistent with the vast majority of the American public's view in support of legal immigration.

I have often thought that the Center's descriptive tag line ought to be: Immigration in the Public Interest. This would have the virtue of being an accurate description of the basic stance of the Center while inviting a much-needed public discussion of what those public interests actually are.