Verification in Reverse: case studies
The art of the on air fact check.
"The clip shows these elements in her style: If you interview people on television for a living, you and your team over-prepare. You anticipate points where a Peter King may feel entitled to his own facts. You know your material (and his) cold, so you aren’t worried about the interview spinning out of control. You smile more as the struggle heightens. You interrupt when a dubious claim is first introduced, and each time is it re-asserted. The tone you maintain is a plea for evidence. You have your mark-up of the documents with you. You have your pen. You wave them, which is theatrical. But you also read from them, and send through the lens an evidentiary calm.”
Read the rest at my blog, PressThink: The clash of absolutes and the on-air fact check.
The professional broadcasters at Fox News had a bright idea for a morning segment: interview with an Obama supporter in 2008 who was switching to Romney in 2012. But they simply assumed that the guy could step smoothly into their narrative of a country gone wrong under Obama, and that he already knew how the remote interview game works.
Watch what happens. In seconds, it all comes apart.
Via Dylan Byers at Politico.
You’ve heard the expression “feed the beast?” Read what happens when the beast is fed.
From: Desperately Seeking Mitt by Wells Tower in the August, 2012 issue of GQ comes this account of how a campaign “gaffe” is first spotted by a press pack hungry for fresh news. On the other side of the excerpt I’ll have a brief comment.
… Back at the bus, the massive news is that an AP reporter has dug up a wire story about Mitt’s visit that day to the racetrack at Daytona. The story, buried deep on the sports wire, contains the now infamous quote: “I have some great friends who are NASCAR-team owners.”
A sports journalist evidently got the quote down at the track. The AP reporter, whose name is Kasie, well aware of the shitstorm the quote potentially poses for Romney, tracks down the sportswriter’s number and calls him as he’s eating dinner somewhere to be sure the quote is solid, unedited, and national-press-bus-consumption-grade stuff.
When he e-mails her the audio file, Kasie calls out to the bus, “Asked if he follows NASCAR, [Romney] said, ‘Not as closely as some of the most ardent fans. But I have some great friends who are NASCAR-team owners.’ The quote is whole and altogether. No ellipses!”
"Wow," says Barbaro of The New York Times. "Can we use it?"
"You can use it," says Kasie.
Within seconds, everybody has gobbled it up: the Times, The Washington Post, NBC News, Good Morning America, some bloggers, NPR. Ari Shapiro is already recording a spot citing the quote for tomorrow morning’s broadcast, which he records under his jacket in the seat behind me: “…he may have done some damage by drawing attention to his wealth once again.”
Some television person is saying, “We definitely want to make sure that this gets into all the shows tomorrow.”
"Oh, my God! Oh, my God!" someone shouts.
Now what’s getting the reporters so excited is the amazingly good “fit” between what Romney just said about NASCAR owners and what they call “a narrative that’s out there…” which in this case is rich guy out of touch with ordinary Americans.
You’re not supposed to say stuff that confirms a damaging narrative like that, but here Romney just did! Bang: that’s a gaffe. And the reporters don’t have to trim or snip or wedge the quote into place to make it fit the pre-existing narrative. It’s perfect as is. Thus the excited cry: “No ellipses!” and the less articulate: “Oh, my God!”
The definitive clip on how the media should handle mass murderers.
At least it is in my opinion. Watch til the end for the payoff. (It’s only 2:48)
It’s true that these crimes have to be reported; we don’t want to be left in the dark. But it’s not true that they have to be pumped up into a big story or given wall-to-wall coverage on CNN. In Denver, it’s a huge story. But in the UK?
What bothers me most about the coverage of these things is the atmosphere of excitement that creeps in. The tone should be business-like, informational, the voice of someone resigned to the fact that crimes like this happen but determined to deny the killer any hint of glamour. An excess of sobriety to frustrate his craving for notoriety.
People who follow political coverage know about the tradition of the fact check. That’s when a political figure makes a dubious claim and pro journalists dig into it, trying to determine if it can be rated true, false, half true, etc.
But there’s also the fact chuck. Yes. That’s when a political figure makes a dubious claim and the journalists look at it, shrug, and find other people who claim the opposite is true. (Because that’s being fair, right?) Then they chuck the whole problem at us, as if to say: We have no idea who’s right, but here’s what they’re saying. We can’t figure it out, maybe you can!
Do I have an example to nail down the concept of the fact chuck? Well, of course. Yesterday the AP saw fit to report this story: Arpaio: Obama birth record ‘definitely fraudulent’. You know the drill:
Investigators for an Arizona sheriff’s volunteer posse have declared that President Barack Obama’s birth certificate is definitely fraudulent.
Members of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s posse said in March that there was probable cause that Obama’s long-form birth certificate released by the White House in April 2011 was a computer-generated forgery.
Now, Arpaio says investigators are positive it’s fraudulent.
So that happened. Then the AP found people who are equally positive that the “fraudulent!” charges are fraudulent:
"President Obama was born in Honolulu and his birth certificate is valid," Joshua A. Wisch, a special assistant to Hawaii’s attorney general, said in a statement. "Regarding the latest allegations from a sheriff in Arizona, they are untrue, misinformed, and misconstrue Hawaii law."
Wisch also said that “not only are Hawaii’s vital records some of the best managed, but they also have some of the strongest restrictions on access to prevent identity theft and fraud.”
See? We’re nice and balanced. So it’s time for the chuck!
Obama released a copy of his long-form birth certificate in an attempt to quell citizenship questions.
Courts have rebuffed lawsuits over the issue.
Now that you have seen the fact chuck demonstrated, won’t you bring other examples to my attention? Much obliged.
Hat tip, Lars Olsson.
This is a fun clip. Watch what happens when Luke Russert, a legacy admit at NBC News (his father was Tim Russert) is asked by MSNBC host Martin Bashir to reflect not on what politicians in Washington have said but what he, Luke Russert, actually thinks is true.
That simple demand causes his systems to start shutting down. Luke begins smiling wildly, as if someone had just cracked a very good joke. Then his uncontrolled smiling turns to frat house laughter as he tries to fight off the internal shut down and form some sort of coherent reply.
What he probably wants to say is… I don’t get paid to think like this, Martin. I just ask the questions, repeat the talking points, and explain the political maneuvering. And you’re aware of that, so what is this shit?…. But he can’t. He does manage to get on firmer ground with the sort of observation he’s permitted to share: “It’s a very effective talking point.” That’s an assessment he can confidently make.
Now it’s true that the MSNBC host came at him with a hotly contentious claim (aren’t the Republicans admitting that they are the party of the two percent?) and tried to put him on the spot. Here’s the New York Times struggling to adjudicate the same claim: A Fuller Picture in the Small-Business Tug of War. Complicated!
My point is not that Luke should be able to improvise a fact check like this on live TV. Or that he is somehow in the pocket of the Republicans. No. Luke Russert here shows how unbearably thin his knowledge is— I mean his knowledge of anything beyond warring talking points. For in Luke’s mind, the reality of the situation is like a bizarre intrusion into the politics of it. Asked to cut through the talking points to what’s true, he recommends inviting House Speaker John Boehner on the show. As if that would help.
Like I said: fun clip!
If Mitt Romney were running a “post-truth” campaign, would the political press even report it?
Link: Boston Globe, Mitt Romney stayed at Bain 3 years longer than he stated. ”Firm’s 2002 filings identify him as CEO, though he said he left in 1999.” (Fallout.)
Suppose a major party candidate for president believed we were in a “post-truth” era and actually campaigned that way: Would political reporters in the mainstream press figure it out and tell us?
I say no. They would not tell us. Instead, they would do what the Globe did here: try to nail the candidate on specific misstatements that can be documented. Which is good and necessary and difficult and contentious and honorable. So go, Boston Globe! And don’t forget to credit others who have done similar work.
But what of a strategy that incorporates…
1.) The lessons of the climate change debate, which is that you can run a political campaign against verifiable facts, and thereby weaken those facts in the public’s mind?
2.) The Palin method, which is that you can invent stuff and stick to it when it is shown to be false because culture war politics feeds off the noise and friction when fictional claims are fact-checked by the mainstream media?
3.) David Frum’s observation: “Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics.”
4. Plain old-fashioned secrecy, as in: don’t release information, don’t explain.
I think there’s ample evidence that the Romney forces have figured much of this out. And so even though we have a political press that believes itself to be a savvy judge of campaign strategy, here is one strategy that will go unnamed and un-described because (and this may be the cleverest part of the strategy!…) a post-truth campaign for president falls into the category of too big to tell.
Meaning: It feels too partisan. It exposes the press to too much criticism. It messes with the “both sides do it” narrative that political journalists have mastered: and deeply believe in. And so Romney will be fact checked, his campaign will push back from time to time, the fact checkers will argue among themselves, and the post-truth premise will sneak into common practice without penalty or recognition, even though there is nothing covert about it.