Staying Sane in the Fact-Checking Lane

November 15th, 2012 · 2 Comments · Fact Check, journalism, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

During the just-completed campaign cycle that seemed like it would never end, a nationally syndicated editorial cartoon appeared in the Albuquerque Journal depicting two googley-eyed fact-checkers, bound in straight-jackets, sitting in a padded cell.

Even the most seasoned political reporters no doubt related to that cartoon image. For despite valiant effort, fact-checking what politicians are saying can feel like a losing game for journalists. No matter how straight a reporter plays it, zealots are bound to find fault, and accusations of media bias never seem to go away.

Syndicated fact-check reports that ran in the Journal this last election cycle actually appeared to go out of their way to “balance” the number of discrepancies they found, coming up with an equal number against each candidate– even when the falsehoods clearly were not equal in number. This was especially true in the presidential race, and likely an attempt to fend off complaints from candidate campaigns and zealously partisan constituents.

But in this post, I’d like to talk about how valiantly the Albuquerque Journal’s political reporters tried to wade through the vitriol and muck. This list is by no means complete, but I offer below a few examples of how reporters tried to point out stump speech falsehoods, how they maintained objectivity even when confronted with the most outrageous claims, and how a few stories stood out as respite from the usual “he said-but he said” narrative routine.

Reporter James Monteleone, in his first presidential election cycle for the Journal, is one of those who stepped up to the fact-check task. Notably, on Sept. 13, reporting on a candidate’s prepared statement after the Sept. 11 attack on the Libyan consulate, Monteleone’s story led with this:

Republican House candidate Janice Arnold-Jones on Wednesday blasted President Barack Obama’s administration for what she called a “current strategy of apology” after four Americans were killed in Libya.

However, no administration officials have issued a statement of apology regarding the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Libya and the U.S. Embassy in Egypt.

In the second paragraph Monteleone noted that no statement of apology had been issued, thus fact-checking the candidate.

In the third paragraph he went straight to the candidate’s statement, making it clear this is what the candidate had said. In the fourth graph he gave the candidate an opportunity to “clarify” the statement, quoting Arnold-Jones’ campaign manager as saying the candidate believes “we shouldn’t be apologizing for acts of violence.”

After a paragraph explaining that the attack had killed the U.S. ambassador and three others, Monteleone then gave two paragraphs to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s condemnation of the attacks, quoting Obama directly as saying, “The world must stand together to unequivocally reject these brutal acts.”

In the next paragraph, Monteleone provided context for Arnold-Jones’ statement:

Arnold-Jones’ attack on the Obama administration echoed remarks from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who said late Tuesday that Obama was “sympathizing” with protesters. His remarks have drawn criticism from both Republicans and Democrats.

He rounded out his story with Arnold-Jones’ opponent issuing no statement, the rest of the congressional delegation issuing condolences and condemnation of the attack from Senate candidates Martin Heinrich and Heather Wilson. It was a solid story, and credit is due also to editors who backed Monteleone in running it.

A couple of days later, Thom Cole wrote “Government Gave N.M. Businessman His Break,” an UpFront column expressing what a lot of viewers no doubt wondered: How Phil Archuletta – speaking at the GOP convention, themed “We Built It” to rebuke government help in the private sector — could bash the president and other Democrats for hurting his sign business – one centered on government contracts.

After laying out facts about Archuletta’s business, Cole summed up with the explanation Archuletta gave The Huffington Post:

“The government isn’t giving me anything,” Archuletta said. “They’re buying a product from me and the loans I got from them, I’m paying them back. They weren’t handouts.”

And Cole concluded:

He’s right. They weren’t handouts. They were a helping hand – extended by all of us in hopes of benefiting all of us.

The Journal also gave Archuletta the prominent “Executive’s Desk” slot at the top of Page 3 in Business Outlook that day to explain his convention comments (“Businessman answers critics of RNC talk”).

Immediately after the convention, Journal Washington correspondent Michael Coleman beat both to the punch in an Aug. 29  news story covering Archuletta’s speech, which gave the Obama campaign room to challenge GOP assertions that his administration had hurt small businesses like that of Archuletta.

A couple of other Cole pieces stood out as respite from the usual: “Remembering Barry Commoner ” (Oct. 13) looked back on the 1980 Reagan vs. Carter campaign, when Commoner and New Mexican LaDonna Harris ran as running mates representing the Citizens Party. As Cole pointed out, in that same election Libertarian Ed Clark ran for president with his running mate none other than billionaire oilman David Koch, “who has since become a Republican and one of the nation’s major financiers of conservative causes.”

Using 20-year Senate Democrat Shannon Robinson’s switch to the GOP as his entree, Cole also came up with an entertaining (and educational) column, “Pop Quiz for a Party Switcher” (Oct. 6), which challenged not only Robinson’s (and readers’) knowledge of GOP trivia, but Democrat vs. Republican misconceptions as well.

However, the award for maintaining objectivity while being confronted with the most outrageous of claims goes to columnist Leslie Linthicum. In her travels around the state to ask New Mexico voters, “What’s on your mind?” she somehow managed to keep a reporters’ poker face talking to those in “Mayhill, Melrose and Points in Between.”

The essence of that resulting piece was distilled in its headline: “View From Southeast New Mexico: ‘He’s Really a Communist, Honey’ .”

In it, Linthicum related her conversation with a member of Roswell’s Narrow Way church, Adam Romero, who said he votes “according to the Bible,” that we need a Christian in the White House, and that Obama is a Muslim. Linthicum then pointed out that Obama attends a Christian church in Chicago. From her story:

“People are not Christian because they go to a church,” Romero said. “If you’re in a garage,” he asked me, “does that make you a car?”

In Melrose, Linthicum talked to a 24-year-old college student who said he didn’t like Obama’s immigration policy and felt the president was suspiciously hesitant about explaining his birthplace. From her report:

“Why hesitate?” he said. “It makes me suspicious — whether it’s true or not.”

Ah, the voter who admits truth isn’t the point.

Then there’s the woman who inspired the column’s headline. Linthicum “sat on a front porch in Elida (population 204) with Roberta Crosby Burkstaller, the 91-year-old daughter of famous rodeo cowboy Bob Crosby, and got an earful when I asked her what was on her mind.”

(Burkstaller) put down the romance novel she was reading and said, “We’d impeach Obama if I had my way.”

“I’m so sick of hearing speeches by President Obama that I could just cry,” she went on. “The young people don’t know anything about history and that he’s a Muslim.”

I told her I believed the president was Christian.

“He just does all that to show the Americans that he wants to be president, that’s all,” she said. “He lies all the time. Don’t listen to him. He acts so sweet on the TV to the young people, but he’s really a communist, honey. He wants to get rid of all of us.”

Get rid of us?

“He wants to cut the initiative away from people so they can’t get jobs. He wants to destroy the middle class ’cause they’re the workers,” she said. “He wants to get rid of all the Anglos and bring all the Muslims over here. He spends all of his time destroying us, doing things that keep us from working.”

Despite all that, Linthicum managed to add a cheerful coda to her story, saying after touring all four quadrants of the state in two weeks, she found the exercise “fun and fascinating” and was willing to hear more by email or phone. True to her word, she followed up with a final election column that closed with a cynical view from a Farmington reader who wrote:

A flaw with democracy is that if the populace to be represented is composed of a plurality of idiots, idiots will be elected to office. If our collective character is low, we will elect low characters to high office. If they win, who wins? Democracy states that the majority rules. Election Day is coming. Prepare to choose your loser.

Fine work.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • gillian

    This is THE most thought provoking piece I’ve read about the election. Wish you would publish it on A1.

  • James D. Robertson

    “if you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him”
    Cardinal Richelieu – French Minister and Cardinal 1585 – 1642

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