The Whole Truth – and Nothing but

The criterion, according to Politifact, seems to be that a fact isn’t a fact if it helps a Democratic narrative. In his State of the Union address on Jan. 24, President Obama said: “In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.”

Which is just true. Period. But Politifact initially rated it as only “half true” because he was “essentially taking credit for job growth.” He didn’t actually take credit — and even if he had, a fact is still a fact. I do not think that word means what Politifact thinks it means.

Finding the Truth

A commenter asks a good question: Where do you go to check whether a politician’s statement is actually true?

The answer, unfortunately, is that it depends on what the statement is about. Most economic numbers can be fact-checked by going to official data sources like the Bureau of Labor Statistics or the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and quite a few of these official numbers are readily available at the excellent F.R.E.D. database from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. But the broader answer is that you have to know where to look.

Now, the point of Politifact and other fact-check sites is supposed to be that they do this work for readers, so that you don’t have to learn your way around labor-force or trade or crime or whatever statistics every time you have doubts about a political claim.

Unfortunately, Politifact has lost sight of what it is supposed to be doing. Instead of simply saying whether a claim is true, it’s trying to act as some kind of referee of what it imagines to be fair play: even if a politician says something completely true, it gets ruled only partly true if Politifact feels that the fact is being used to gain an unfair political advantage.

In the case of Mr. Obama’s job statement, Politifact first called it only half true, then later upgraded that to mostly true, not because Mr. Obama said anything factually incorrect, but because Politifact perceived Mr. Obama as trying to imply that he was responsible for the gains.

This is deeply wrong on two levels. First, fact-checking should be about checking facts — not about trying to impose some sort of Marquess of Queensbury rules on how you’re allowed to use facts.

Aside from undermining the mission, this makes the whole thing subjective — notice that Politifact wasn’t even analyzing what Mr. Obama said; they were analyzing their impression about what he might have been trying to imply. Leave that for the talking heads!

Second, in practice this turns into a partisan affair. The simple fact is that in today’s American political scene, Republicans make a lot more factual howlers than Democrats. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

Yet Politifact wants to be seen as nonpartisan. If it just stuck to the facts, it could say look, we’re just reporting the facts. But having defined its role as something that goes beyond checking facts to saying whether the facts are being used in some “proper” way, it then finds itself under pressure to be “evenhanded,” which ends up meaning making excuses for Republican falsehoods and finding ways to criticize Democrats’ true statements.

It’s all very sad.

Truthout has licensed this content. It may not be reproduced by any other source and is not covered by our Creative Commons license.

Paul Krugman joined The New York Times in 1999 as a columnist on the Op-Ed page and continues as a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University. He was awarded the Nobel in economic science in 2008.

Mr Krugman is the author or editor of 20 books and more than 200 papers in professional journals and edited volumes, including “The Return of Depression Economics” (2008) and “The Conscience of a Liberal” (2007).

Copyright 2012 The New York Times.