Media fact checkers not only have a problem characterizing matters upon which reasonable people can disagree as questions of “fact,” they also have problems with facts. So, for instance, ABC’s fact checkers labeled indisputably true statements about energy production on federal lands as “not quite true.” Romney claimed that oil and gas production on federal land is down, even if overall domestic production is up. His statement was true. If ABC had sought to provide critical context for Romney’s remarks, it could have noted that marginal changes in domestic oil production have relatively little effect on retail gasoline prices, or that there’s little any President can do to lower gasoline prices in the short-to-medium term (other than, say, playing with the strategic petroleum reserve). Such commentary would have provided voters with information they could use to assess the relevance of Romney’s claims. Instead, ABC claimed Romney’s literally true statements were “not quite true.”
Another example of fact checkers having trouble with facts can be found in Politifact’s commentary on whether it was fair for President Obama to criticize Mitt Romney for failing to say whether he supported the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. In making its assessment Politifact totally bungled its description of the Supreme Court’s decision in Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., and in the process perpetuated a false claim about the decision oft repeated in political debate (including by Lilly Ledbetter herself).
In 2007, the Supreme Court had ruled in Ledbetter vs. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. that the 180-day statute of limitations started from the day an employer made the decision to discriminate — making it impossible for employees who learned of such discrimination later to get relief, such as back pay.
The problem is the last part of this sentence is false. In Ledbetter the Supreme Court did not hold that employees who learned of alleged discrimination more than 180 days after the alleged offenses were precluded from suing their employers. That question was not before the Court, and the majority opinion expressly noted (in footnote 10) that it was not answering this question. Ledbetter’s claim was not premised on a recent discovery of past discrimination. In fact, during the course of the litigation Ledbetter acknowledged that she first learned of the alleged discrimination more than 180 days before she filed suit. Indeed, as Hans Bader notes, Ledbetter admitted in a deposition that she learned of the pay disparities in 1992, but did not file suit until 1998. Whether or not this should have precluded her suit, and whether or not the subsequent legislation was wise, it is simply false to say that the Supreme Court’s decision would have precluded individuals from pursuing claims about prior discrimination even if they “learned of such discrimination later.” This “fact” asserted by Politifact is nothing of the sort. [I e-mailed Politifact about this on Wednesday evening. On Thursday I received an e-mail saying they were “reviewing” the claim. Although it would take no more than ten minutes to read the relevant portions of the Supreme Court’s decision, Politifact has yet to revise the article, or even note that the claim is disputed.]
The bottom line is that if we can’t trust fact checkers to get their own facts right, how can we trust them to judge anyone else’s?
UPDATE: On October 25 Politifact corrected its characterization of the Ledbetter decision.