That’s not a factcheck!

How punditry undermines the mission of journalistic watchdogs

What, exactly, is a “serious” plan to resolve the budget impasse in Congress? It’s not clear how to define adjectives like this, but that didn’t stop Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, from weighing in with a column on Monday arguing that President Obama’s budget is “not really a plan” because Obama hasn’t offered “a sustained presidential commitment” to it, including challenging his own party and “[making] the case for overhauling entitlement programs to the American people.”

Unfortunately, Kessler’s argument is semantic, not factual, and based in his own centrist ideology—a mistake that he and other factcheckers make too frequently. Factchecking is an inherently subjective enterprise; the divide between fact and opinion is often messy and difficult to parse. As CJR’s Greg Marx argued, it is therefore essential that factcheckers like Kessler only invoke the authority of facts when assessing claims that can be resolved on evidentiary grounds, rather than straying into subjective judgments about the political process or semantic debates over terminology.

What’s especially surprising about Kessler’s column (which, in fairness, is labeled “A guide” and does not assign an accuracy rating) is that it begins with him justifying his decision to avoid rendering judgment on a more directly misleading claim by House Speaker John Boehner that Obama had “no plan” at all:

Some readers have asked why we did not offer a fact check of House Speaker John Boehner’s statement on NBC’s Meet the Press that “even today, there’s no plan from Senate Democrats or the White House to replace the sequester.” Our colleagues at PolitiFact gave that statement a “Pants on Fire” rating, and readers were looking for some Pinocchios as well…

In isolation, Boehner’s statement seems pretty far-fetched. But we chose to pass on a fact check because the host, David Gregory, immediately challenged Boehner’s comment as “not true” and described what the president has proposed. Gregory and Boehner then got into a definitional argument over what constitutes a plan, which in Boehner’s mind seemed to be a bill that had passed the Senate so negotiations could begin with the House.

Indeed, immediately after Boehner’s appearance, White House aide Gene Sperling appeared on the program to describe the president’s proposals. “This is a summary,” he said. “It’s on the White House Web site.”

We try not to fact check opinions, and that seemed to be the core of the debate between Boehner and Sperling about what constitutes a “plan.”

However, Kessler then pivots to a subjective distinction between “real plans and faux plans” and tells readers that his column is “a guide to when a ‘plan’ is serious, based on The Fact Checker’s three decades of watching and reporting on Washington sausage-making.” The problem is that there are two competing definitions of plans, only one of which can be directly assessed using facts. The first is whether each side has created a specific budget proposal that includes enough new revenue and/or budget cuts to avoid sequestration. The second is whether each side has acted in good faith to create and promote a compromise proposal that has a realistic chance of becoming law. (See the political scientist Jonathan Bernstein for a more detailed parsing of this issue.)

Kessler wants to define “plan” using the second, more subjective definition above. In particular, he defines Obama’s plan, bizarrely, as “not really a plan” because it appears on the White House website but Obama has, to his mind, failed to make sufficient efforts to promote it:

By the same token, just having “a plan” on a Web site is not really a plan either. The White House’s proposal contains a mix of tax increases and modest reductions in entitlement and other spending programs, allowing the White House to claim it has made such proposals. In effect, however, this is another talking-point plan…

What is needed to break through the party’s respective echo chambers? The answer, in almost all cases, is sustained presidential commitment.

Obama has made passing reference to some of these spending-cut proposals in news conferences, but he has never made them the centerpiece of a high-profile speech. By contrast, he repeatedly—and very publicly—has stressed his interest in raising taxes on the wealthy. That’s why his ideas on entitlements remain a mystery to many Republicans—but they all know he wants to raise revenues.

The president’s outreach to Republican rank-and-file in the past week is a sign of seriousness, in that he is beginning to explain his ideas directly to the opposition.

However, the president has not directly taken on members of his own party; he also has not made the case for overhauling entitlement programs to the American people.

The idea that Obama could resolve the impasse if only he tried harder is a common fallacy of centrist commentary in Washington, but it’s especially perverse when offered as a factcheck. The problem, once again, is a lack of discipline in selecting targets for factchecks and a tendency to make subjective pronouncements about language and process. As Marx notes, claims like these are “ultimately political, not journalistic, in nature. By insisting otherwise, and acting as if journalistic methods can resolve the argument, the factcheckers weaken the morally freighted language that’s designed to give their work power.”

Kessler is a distinguished reporter and journalist, so why not give him a separate column for punditry and preserve The Fact Checker column for, well, facts?

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Brendan Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth College. He blogs at and tweets @BrendanNyhan. Tags: , , ,