Empty Chair at the Fact-Check/All-Facts Desk

by Martin Harris

Until the ideological turmoil of the ‘60’s, America’s media –both the traditional print newspapers and the then-fairly-new electronic newsprograms—found it critical to their professional credibility to correct substantial factual errors or omissions spoken, written, or carefully omitted, by newsworthy public figures. Thus, the ancient slogan of the Grey Lady of (then) 43rd Street, the venerable New York Times, still declares, daily, its objective of offering readers “All the News that’s Fit to Print”, a formula which implies serious fact-checking and-inclusion, not to mention quality control. Back then, brief corrections of incorrect or incomplete assertions could be found after the offending quote in the news column or after the offending comment in the Letters column, either by means of a fact-checker-instructed reporter seeking out a corrective contrast-source quote for the next news graf or an “editor’s note” at the end of the LttE. The AtN slogan still gets top-corner front-page space, but apparently the fact-check desk in-box is as empty as the editor chair; the once-standard practice seems to have “almost” vanished; not only from such major regionals as the Boston Globe or Washington Post, but from such smaller locals as the Middlebury (VT) Independent and the Johnson City (TN) Press.

The choice of adverb above comes from the sources and methods whereby old-fashioned all-the-news fact-checking is still practiced, mostly in parts of the new (electronic) media with their talking-heads discussion groups where, mostly, for a given subject, all the points that should be made, are (sometimes with unpleasant interruptions) ; and in the old (print) media where one ancient publication still enlarges its newspieces with charts and graphs showing both the up- and down- lines for a given economic issue, and still identifies some LttE-writers with a brief sub-script showing connections and associations possibly shaping the commentary. That’s The Wall Street Journal. Local papers in Vermont don’t do so any more: as an editor replied to your Humble Scribe’s question re a news piece on school-over-crowding with no mention of enrollment or capacity numbers, “we don’t have the staff to do investigative reporting.” Nationwide print syndicator Associated Press still sends its publishing membership occasional “feature” pieces, for example the recent “War On Coal” piece on coal-industry decline, discussing both government-regulatory and resource-depletion causes. It implies that mine-exhaustion (ever-less Eastern hard coal) is somehow to blame for usage declines in even the abundant and cheaper-to-extract alternate (ever-more Western soft coal) for nationwide power generation, not EPA regulation. Passes the find-the-bias test, but not the find-the-logic test. One Vermont example best illustrates the unwillingness of in-State papers to staff the fact-check desk: it’s the decade-long practice of reporting K-12 achievement scores, not as measured by the annual Federal tests dating back to 1969, but as seemingly shown by the State-purchased tests in use since the 2001 Federal adoption of No Child Left Behind, which requires States to report Annual Yearly Progress toward a near-100% Proficiency in Math and Reading by 2014. Vermont, like most other States, responded by authorizing a new substitute test producing higher P-scores: first New Standards Reference Exam, now New England Common Assessment Program, and soon, Common Core Smarter Balance, in the ongoing search for “tests” to deliver higher P-scores. Not once, to Humble Scribe knowledge, has a Vermont newspaper chosen to show both the Federal NAEP and the currently-used-test scores, even though the distressing contrast (in most States, like VT, a “Proficient” equates more closely to a Federal Basic) is the subject of on-going Federal investigations. Maybe, with (even a spare-time) researcher in the fact-check seat, full reporting would happen, and readers would see how 1/3 of students Proficient, Federal-wise, magically becomes 2/3 of student “Proficient”, State-wise.

* * * * *

Unlike news pieces, where the once-standard fact-checking and all-facts-included practice (think the Grey Lady’s “All the News” pledge) once insured reliable reportage, the print media have historically deployed both similar and different means to keep their Letters columns worthy of reader attention. The former consisted (haven’t seen an instance for the last decade or more) of a brief Editor’s note under the Letter, citing a particularly important fact or reference which the LttE writer omitted, presumably to strengthen his argument. The latter consisted then, and still exists now at the national-publication level, of selecting multiple contrasting LttE’s for the same date-of-issue, to ensure that all aspects of an argument have been simultaneously presented. It doesn’t exist now at the Vermont level, as this example illustrates:

Opining in a weekly published in a once-New-York-owned county with a “milk-and-honey” slogan, the fairly-frequent LttE writer charges that “…weak economies have been further weakened by Republican policies…[which]…made the real-estate market go boom…” and so on. He’s referring (without specifically referring) to the 2008 deflation of the housing-price bubble which, there’s general professional and amateur economist agreement, led to big-bank failures and rescue (think Lehman and Goldman), recession, under-water mortgages, recession-and-unemployment, stimulus borrow-and-spend, and became, until the just-revealed ambassador-security revelations, probably the critical issue of the present political cycle. Omitted from his argument (for persuasiveness) are such elements as the role of the Community Reinvestment Act, a 1977 law reversing previous requirements that lenders, either banks or Government-Supported-Enterprises like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, not lend to unworthy borrowers; the role of Congress in increasing the required percentage of GSE sub-prime loans from 12% in 1996 to 22% in 2005; the role of Federal regulators in allowing lenders to package and sell off the doubtful loans as “collateralized mortgage obligations”, or the subsequent role of government (using taxpayer money) in everything from Keynesian “stimulus” spending to solar-panel “investment”. Could the LttE-page editor not have found writers proffering insight into these directly-related subjects? Naaah. Not in the Green Mountain State; but yes for The Wall Street Journal, which does just so for most LttE pages in most issues, which perhaps explains why the WSJ is growing its print circulation while Vermont papers (think Burlington Free Press) are decreasing theirs. As the Grey Lady might (once) have observed, even the LttE page, if fit-to-print, deserves fact-check and all-facts-inclusion.