As a Matter of Fact

Eric Alterman illustrates how some fact-checking operations aren’t actually getting the facts straight.

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The Koch Industries Inc. headquarters in Wichita, Kansas. Koch Industries has lately been trying to separate itself from Big Oil, even though it is the largest oil-and-gas contributor in election cycles.
<br /> (AP/Larry W. Smith)
The Koch Industries Inc. headquarters in Wichita, Kansas. Koch Industries has lately been trying to separate itself from Big Oil, even though it is the largest oil-and-gas contributor in election cycles.
(AP/Larry W. Smith)

Is $100 billion “big” money? Maybe it is to you and me. I suspect it is even to Warren Buffett and Bill Gates. But the flacks at Koch Industries are trying to convince members of the media that a company with those kinds of revenues should not be saddled with the adjective “big”—as in Big Oil. They’ve even produced a video making this argument. According to “a Koch Industries representative who didn’t wish to be identified by name” and who was quoted in Politico, “when people think about quote-unquote Big Oil, they think about big, integrated oil companies.”

Exactly what “people think about” when they think about anything is a mystery to me, but presumably facts are facts. Nevertheless, both and The Washington Post’s fact-checker column—two allegedly nonpartisan, nonideological operations in the business of checking “facts”—have taken up the cause of the relative puniness of this $100 billion mom-and-pop oil company.

The argument appears to be based on the belief that because the massive Koch Industries comprises so much more than its oil interests, it’s not fair to use the word “big” followed by “oil.” Their evidence: the fact that other oil companies are larger than the parts of Koch Industries devoted to oil. For instance, ExxonMobil happens to be, by most measurements, the world’s largest global corporation, so when compared to the largest companies on the planet, $100 billion is mere chump change.

To these arguments, my friends at the Center for American Progress Action Fund’s ThinkProgress blog added some useful facts that might bear on this decision. Allow me to borrow just a few highlights:

  • The Koch Political Action Committee is the largest oil-and-gas contributor—donating more than even ExxonMobil and spending more than $1 million in each of the past two election cycles. This cycle, it has spent almost $750,000.
  • Koch Industries is the fourth-largest lobbyist in the oil and gas industry, spending $2.3 million so far in 2012 and more than $8 million in 2011.
  • Koch Industries emits more than 300 million tons of greenhouse gases per year. Much of its lobbying funds, to say nothing of the millions it spends funding “research” and “educational” efforts, is directed toward confusing the public with pseudoscientific arguments designed to weaken the world’s ability to combat the climate crisis that 97 percent of climatologists attribute to such emissions.
  • Flint Hills Resources, a Koch subsidiary, processes 300 million barrels of oil per year, which is responsible for up to 5 percent of the entire U.S. 7-gigaton carbon footprint.

Allow me to suggest that refusal to append the adjective “big” to the noun “oil” in these cases is being driven by far more than a simple rendering of the “facts.” The problem these fact-checking organizations face is that while they pride themselves on being nonideological and nonpartisan, they have been thrown into a world in which one side—that of conservatives—has simply given up on reality as a normative or empirical matter.

Whether the issue is climate science, economics, foreign policy, or teen sexual activity, the answer can almost always be found in conservative ideology rather than expert testimony or scientific study. The notion therefore that “reality has a liberal bias” explains something serious and significant about the conservative political world today—but it is something that groups describing themselves as nonideological and nonpartisan cannot admit.

What’s more, the age-old tactic of “working the refs” is really successful for such groups. As The Weekly Standard online editor Mark Hemingway complains, when such fact-checking organizations tend to find many more conservative lies than liberal ones, rather than respond that conservatives tell far more lies, the fact-checkers go looking for liberal fabrications and find them whether they exist or not. How else could the priests of false equivalence maintain their law that “both sides do it”—what I call “on-the-one-handism”—which has proven to be a fundamental tenet of Beltway faith?

The American Prospect’s Paul Waldman discerned this dynamic at work in 2011, when he bravely predicted that yet another of these fact-checking organizations, PolitiFact, would choose as its (gimmicky) lie of the year a “‘lie’ told by Democrats, even if the one it picks is far from the most egregious lie told this year, or even really a lie at all”—owing to the fact that the previous two years, Republicans had been caught fibbing. Three times in a row is enough to cry partisanship whether it exists or not, so Waldman was on pretty strong ground despite the damage that such a strategy might do to the organization’s reputation for intellectual integrity.

Waldman’s prediction proved correct. PolitiFact’s "lie of the year" in 2011—which was reported as front-page news in some places—turned out to be the claim that House Republicans, acting on House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) fiscal year 2012 budget proposal, wished to “kill” or “end” Medicare. Again, the accusation, as serious as it sounds, was entirely based on a semantic question whereby what the alleged fact-checkers deemed to be an exaggeration of sorts—and barely one at that—was deemed to be not merely a “lie” but the most offensive lie of the political year.

The argument, according to PolitiFact, derived from the fact that Democrats and their allies ran advertisements featuring old people, while the new law would apply only to people younger than 56. Medicare, the organization argued, would remain for people older than that. As The New Republic’s health care expert Jonathan Cohn notes:

In 2022, were the House Republican plan to become law, new retirees would no longer have the option of enrolling in the traditional government-run insurance program. Instead, retirees would get a voucher, which they could use to pay for a private insurance policy within a regulated marketplace. The voucher’s value would depend on a formula pegged to the general inflation rate. If it were not enough to pay for a health policy – and most experts, including the Congressional Budget Office, believe it would not be – seniors would have to make up the difference on their own.

One likely consequence is that insurers would begin offering cheaper, but skimpier, benefit plans: Seniors might still be “insured” but they would no longer have comprehensive benefits. Many would simply not be able to pay for their medical care, much as seniors did routinely before 1965, when Medicare came into existence.

Moreover, ThinkProgress’s Health Care and LGBT Editor Igor Volsky noted:

Capping costs to beneficiaries, closing the traditional fee-for-service program, and forcing seniors to enroll in new private coverage, ends Medicare by eliminating everything that has defined the program for the last 46 years.

Do these changes spell a certain “end” to Medicare? Well, we won’t know until that day is upon us. But calling it the “lie of the year”? The claim is intellectually (and therefore morally) indefensible.

We saw this very same dynamic at work yet again in a much-noted kerfuffle between The Daily Show host Jon Stewart and Fox News. Appearing on “Fox News Sunday” with host Chris Wallace, Stewart asked, "Who are the most consistently misinformed media viewers? The most consistently misinformed? Fox. Fox viewers. Consistently. Every poll." PolitiFact rated Stewart’s claim “false.”

It did so, its staff said, on the basis of three studies by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press that:

[S]uperficially rank Fox viewers low on the well-informed list, but in several of the surveys, Fox isn’t the lowest, and other general-interest media outlets—such as network news shows, network morning shows and even the other cable news networks—often score similarly low. Meanwhile, particular Fox shows—such as The O’Reilly Factor and Sean Hannity’s show—actually score consistently well, occasionally even outpacing Stewart’s own audience.

They found other polls demonstrating the same kinds of results and therefore concluded, “It’s simply not true that ‘every poll’ shows that [Fox viewers were consistently misinformed]. So we rate his claim False.”

This judgment was naturally trumpeted by Fox News and its right-wing allies, but again it was hard to credit. As Firedoglake’s Jane Hamsher argued in great detail, the polls PolitiFact cited were irrelevant to Stewart’s claim. The polls measured “how informed viewers are.” Such measurements do not even belong to the same discussion as Stewart’s point. Questions such as, "Do you know who the Secretary of State is?" or "What is the name of the Vice President?" cannot measure the effect of the kinds of lies to which viewers were routinely subject on Fox News. “By Politifact’s own measure,” Hamsher found, “Stewart was right when he claimed that ‘every study’ has found Fox viewers to be consistently the most misinformed—because every study they cite which surveys ‘misinformation’ draws that conclusion.”

Steven Kull, the director of World Public Opinion, weighed in on the question as well:

We analyzed the effect of increased exposure to news outlets. We found that with all other outlets, increased exposure generally resulted in less misinformation. However, for Fox viewers, on nine points of information, increased exposure correlated with increased misinformation. This was true of only one point of information for public broadcasting and MSNBC viewers, and two points of information for network news. This effect was found in the 2003 study as well. Fox viewers were the only group for whom increased exposure resulted in greater misinformation."

Just to make the case as clear as possible, Media Matters amassed a collection of examples whereby Fox viewers were misinformed about key political issues—issues upon which conservative ideology demands that citizens be misinformed lest they not continue to spout their beliefs that conflict with reality. Among these were:

  • Frequent viewers of Fox News are less likely to accept scientists’ views of global warming.
  • Fox viewers are more likely to be misinformed on health care reform.
  • Fox News was cited as a major source of misinformation during the 2010 election.
  • Fox repeatedly misinforms about unions, often smearing them as solely responsible for states’ budget problems.
  • Fox routinely misinforms about taxes, often while cheerleading tax cuts for the wealthy.
  • Fox regularly misinforms about jobs, often while attacking President Barack Obama’s stimulus plan.
  • Fox regularly misinforms about budget issues, often while promoting and advocating GOP fiscal policies.
  • Fox regularly misinforms about housing, often while attacking affordable housing policies or blaming them for the housing crisis.
  • Fox routinely misinforms about Social Security, often attacking it as a "Ponzi scheme" or misleading its audience about the program’s solvency.
  • Fox routinely misinforms about Medicare, often while parroting Republican talking points, advocating for their proposals.
  • Fox repeatedly misinforms about reproductive choice issues, often while attacking Planned Parenthood.
  • Fox regularly misinforms about immigration reform, often while promoting controversial anti-immigration laws.

Such a list could continue indefinitely. But what is most significant about the three above examples involving three separate organizations devoted to checking “facts” in our political debate is that by exploiting the punditocracy’s addition to notions of false equivalence—again, “on-the-one-handism”—the right-wing attack on Americans’ understanding of reality is approaching a point where it can claim its most important victim: the very idea of “facts” themselves. And that’s a fact.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. This column won the 2011 Mirror Award for Best Digital Commentary. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Eric Alterman

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