Tag Archives: fact-checking

Intellectual Honesty and Facebook

The pitfalls of our new social media environments are widely discussed, if not quite as widely understood. A recent personal experience brought that point home to me rather vividly.

A couple of days ago, I posted an angry comment to Facebook about Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson, and their apparent willingness to kill health insurance reform. In Lieberman’s case, it’s hard to know what motivates him. Nelson, as I said much less elegantly in my comment, appeared quite willing to trade the lives of the thousands of people who die every year because they don’t have health insurance  for assurances that insurance wouldn’t pay for abortions. I suggested there was a special place in hell for people who would trade away the lives of living, breathing Americans who desperately need access to medical care in order to save an indeterminate number of fetuses.

Admittedly, the language of my comment was not an example of the civility I so often advocate, and criticism on that basis would have been entirely fair. 

Instead, a Facebook “friend” (since “unfriended”) blogged that I had posted a “hate-filled” diatribe about pro-life advocates. That blog post–the accuracy of which could not be verified by anyone not on my Friends list, even if someone were inclined to do so–has subsequently made its way to other venues, morphing along the way into an accusation that I had consigned all anti-choice  people to hell.

Was my original comment uncivil? Yes. Should I have counted to ten before posting it? Yes.  Should I have framed my criticism in a more constructive fashion? Yes. Did I suggest that all anti-choice advocates would rot in hell? Absolutely not.

The moral of this story (aside from the obvious one that I should practice what I preach!) is that people who are ideologically driven will hear what they think you really mean, rather than what you really say, and social networking sites that limit the ability of fair-minded folks to do some independent fact-checking are just one more reason our public divisions continue to grow.

Journalism’s Responsibility?

In a recent blog post at Political Animal, Steve Benen addressed the decision of the Washington Post to run an op-ed on climate change written (okay, probably ghost-written, since she’s given no hint that she’s familiar with the English language) by Sarah Palin.

The problem isn’t just that the paper published another right-wing piece from someone who’s obviously clueless — note, the WaPo published a similarly foolish Palin op-ed in July — it’s that the piece is factually wrong. The paper has a responsibility to publish content that informs its readers. Obviously, with “opinion” pieces, the standards are slightly different, but that does not give the editors license to run claims that are patently, demonstrably false.

Marc Ambinder had a very strong post, reviewing Palin’s claims, point by point, which is worth checking out. But also don’t miss Media Matters’ piece, which notes that the Palin op-ed even contradicts the Washington Post‘s own reporting.

This assertion raises an issue that is becoming increasingly important: what is the obligation of so-called “mainstream” journalists to fact-check what they print? On the one hand, as Benen acknowledges, this is an opinion piece, and clearly labeled as such. On the other hand, one of the concerns voiced about the imminent demise of newspapers is that readers will be deprived of genuine journalism, which is expensive to produce in large part because journalists are expected to engage in fact-checking and verification of claims they publish.

The Washington Post regularly runs columns by George Will–who clearly does not choose to believe the science of climate change–that contain demonstrably false factual claims. On rare occasion–VERY rare–they’ve later apologized. (Generally, only after the outcry from the scientific community was deafening.) 

I write op-eds, and I would be indignant if my editor (who virtually always disagrees with me about policy choices) changed my columns. On the other hand, I make strenuous efforts to ensure the accuracy of factual assertions, and to be clear about what parts of my columns are based on evidence and which parts are my opinions.

The fractured nature of our media environment makes it much too easy to dismiss ALL news sources as unreliable or biased. The most important argument for “real” journalism–i.e., not talk radio, not shock jocks, not panderers/water-carriers like Fox News and the rightwing/leftwing blogs–is that they are the best source of objective information. (Objectivity, by the way, is different from “balance.” If 99 percent of observers agree that the object before them is a cup, balance requires finding the one delusional individual who insists it is a plate. Objectivity requires the reporter to call it a cup.) If we can’t depend upon the mainstream media to fact-check what they print, what becomes of that argument?