At the most basic level, the media's new 'fact checkers' remain obdurately unwilling to let opinions simply be opinions. —Mark Hemingway
Following his Thursday night Republican National Convention speech, Mitt Romney earned "false" ratings from fact-checkers for a line in the remarks when he said President Barack Obama began his presidency with an apology tour.
However, a look at the fact-checker explanations suggests that the ratings are based on the fact-checker's definition of what constitutes an "apology," while those accusing the president of apologizing are also assigning their own definition to the word. Pundits and members of the media have previously cautioned readers about fact-checking organizations that assign "true" or "false" ratings to opinions, while the latest round of rankings have sparked additional warnings.
Claims that the president had embarked on an "apology tour" emerged after Obama traveled overseas in early 2009. In a Wall Street Journal op-ed, Karl Rove cited instances that could be considered apologies in his eyes. These included:
Strasbourg, France, April 2009: "In America, there's a failure to appreciate Europe's leading role in the world. Instead of celebrating your dynamic union and seeking to partner with you to meet common challenges, there have been times where America has shown arrogance and been dismissive, even derisive."
Obama went on to say, "But in Europe, there is an anti-Americanism that is at once causal but can also be insidious. Instead of recognizing the good that America so often does in the world, there have been times where Europeans choose to blame America for much of what's bad. On both sides of the Atlantic, these attitudes have become all too common. They are not wise. They do not represent the truth."
Prague, Czech Republic, April 2009: "And as nuclear power — as a nuclear power, as the only nuclear power to have used a nuclear weapon, the United States has a moral responsibility to (create a world without nuclear weapons). We cannot succeed in this endeavor alone, but we can lead it, we can start it."
News conference, London, April 2009: "I just think in a world that is as complex as it is, that it is very important for us to be able to forge partnerships as opposed to simply dictating solutions. Just a — just to try to crystallize the example, there's been a lot of comparison here about Bretton Woods. 'Oh, well, last time you saw the entire international architecture being remade.' Well, if there's just Roosevelt and Churchill sitting in a room with a brandy, that's a — that's an easier negotiation. But that's not the world we live in, and it shouldn't be the world that we live in."
Op-ed in Spanish, English and Portuguese, April 2009: "Too often, the United States has not pursued and sustained engagement with our neighbors. We have been too easily distracted by other priorities, and have failed to see that our own progress is tied directly to progress throughout the Americas."
After a speech at the 5th Summit of the Americas in April 2009, President Obama responded to an anti-American speech by Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega by saying, "I'm grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old."
Prague, April, 2009: "I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism."
The Heritage Foundation labeled additional statements as apologies, including:
Washington, D.C., May 2009: "There is also no question that Guantanamo set back the moral authority that is America's strongest currency in the world. Instead of building a durable framework for the struggle against al Qaeda that drew upon our deeply held values and traditions, our government was defending positions that undermined the rule of law. In fact, part of the rationale for establishing Guantanamo in the first place was the misplaced notion that a prison there would be beyond the law — a proposition that the Supreme Court soundly rejected. Meanwhile, instead of serving as a tool to counter terrorism, Guantanamo became a symbol that helped al Qaeda recruit terrorists to its cause. Indeed, the existence of Guantanamo likely created more terrorists around the world than it ever detained."
CIA Headquarters, Langley, Va., April 2009: "So don't be discouraged by what's happened in the last few weeks. Don't be discouraged that we have to acknowledge potentially we've made some mistakes. That's how we learn. But the fact that we are willing to acknowledge them and then move forward, that is precisely why I am proud to be President of the United States, and that's why you should be proud to be members of the CIA."
Turkey, April 2009: "The United States is still working through some of our own darker periods in our history. Facing the Washington Monument that I spoke of is a memorial of Abraham Lincoln, the man who freed those who were enslaved even after Washington led our Revolution. Our country still struggles with the legacies of slavery and segregation, the past treatment of Native Americans."
Strasbourg, France, April 2009: "In dealing with terrorism, we can't lose sight of our values and who we are. That's why I closed Guantanamo. That's why I made very clear that we will not engage in certain interrogation practices. I don't believe that there is a contradiction between our security and our values. And when you start sacrificing your values, when you lose yourself, then over the long term that will make you less secure. When we saw what happened in Abu Ghraib, that wasn't good for our security — that was a recruitment tool for terrorism. Humiliating people is never a good strategy to battle terrorism."
Washington, D.C., 2009: "After 9/11, we knew that we had entered a new era — that enemies who did not abide by any law of war would present new challenges to our application of the law; that our government would need new tools to protect the American people, and that these tools would have to allow us to prevent attacks instead of simply prosecuting those who try to carry them out.
Unfortunately, faced with an uncertain threat, our government made a series of hasty decisions. I believe that many of these decisions were motivated by a sincere desire to protect the American people. But I also believe that all too often our government made decisions based on fear rather than foresight; that all too often our government trimmed facts and evidence to fit ideological predispositions. Instead of strategically applying our power and our principles, too often we set those principles aside as luxuries that we could no longer afford. And during this season of fear, too many of us — Democrats and Republicans, politicians, journalists, and citizens — fell silent."
London, April 2009: "During the campaign I did not say that some of that loss of authority was inevitable. I said it was traced to very specific decisions that the previous administration had made that I believed had lowered our standing in the world. And that wasn't simply my opinion; that was, it turns out, the opinion of many people around the world. I would like to think that with my election and the early decisions that we've made, that you're starting to see some restoration of America's standing in the world. And although, as you know, I always mistrust polls, international polls seem to indicate that you're seeing people more hopeful about America's leadership."
Trinidad and Tobago, April 2009: "I know that promises of partnership have gone unfulfilled in the past, and that trust has to be earned over time. While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership . . . The United States will be willing to acknowledge past errors where those errors have been made."
Interview on Al Arabiya TV, January 2009: "My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there's no reason why we can't restore that."
Other instances that have been cited as "apologies" include the "reset button" Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave to Russia and scrapping the missile defense agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic. President Obama has also been criticized for bowing to foreign leaders.
The Washington Post gave the "apology tour" claim a false rating in 2011 because "in none of these cases does Obama actually use a word at all similar to 'apologize.'"
"In the early months of his presidency, Obama had a way of backing into his answers, starting off with a humble tone (just as I suspect the Brits . . . ) that some supporters of American power may have found grating. But snippets of his answers do not do justice to his complete remarks," Glenn Kessler wrote. "The claim that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context. Obama often was trying to draw a rhetorical distinction between his policies and that of President Bush, a common practice when the presidency changed parties."
Kessler repeated his "four Pinocchios" rating after Romney's speech Thursday.
The Washington Post uses a Pinocchio rating, from one to four. It also includes the "Geppetto checkmark" for statements ranked as "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," an upside-down Pinocchio for "a statement that represents a clear but unacknowledged 'flip-flop' from a previously-held position" and the "withholding judgment" evaluation.
In 2010, PolitiFact rated a chapter in Romney's book as "false" for saying, "In his first nine months in office, President Obama has issued apologies and criticisms of America in speeches in France, England, Turkey, and Cairo; at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the United Nations in New York City. He has apologized for what he deems to be American arrogance, dismissiveness, and derision; for dictating solutions, for acting unilaterally, and for acting without regard for others; for treating other countries as mere proxies, for unjustly interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, and for feeding anti-Muslim sentiments; for committing torture, for dragging our feet on global warming and for selectively promoting democracy."
PolitiFact uses a grading system of true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false and "pants on fire."
PolitiFact re-rated the "apology tour" claim after Romney's speech Thursday, saying the same claim was even more false than before and giving it a "pants on fire" rating.
After Romney accused Obama of "gutting" welfare reform — a claim The Washington Post gave four Pinocchios and welfare expert Robert Rector said is true — Romney told The Hill that fact-checkers on both sides of the aisle will look at issues in a way they think is most consistent with their own views.
While fact-checkers have been hitting Romney, others have been hitting the fact-checkers.
Investor's Business Daily accused the "mainstream press" of abusing the fact-check label, saying it was being used to "more aggressively push a liberal agenda without feeling the need to provide any balance whatsoever."
"The new journalistic subgenre of 'fact-checking' and the criticism it engenders are a microcosm of a decades-long trend in journalism away from objectivity and back to the historic trend of opinion journalism," economic sociologist Gabriel Rossman wrote for National Review.
Gabriel Malor at the New York Daily News wrote that he understands why media fact-checking is so popular now, but that fact-checking organizations are "merely writing op-eds by another name."
"Assigning truth values to the silly things elected officials say is entertaining and, often, enlightening," Malor wrote. "But as fact-checking becomes less about checking fact and more about checking opinions, attention will fade."
Bryan White, who co-founded PolitiFactBias, compiled a tally showing PolitiFact had assigned 119 "pants on fire" ratings for Republicans and conservatives, as opposed to only 13 for liberal or Democratic claims.
"In considering all rulings where a claim is found untrue (False and Pants on Fire rulings combined), two things are obvious: First, that PolitiFact thinks Republicans are wrong far more often than Democrats and, second, when Republicans are wrong, they're often said to be lying, while Democrats are just mistaken," Jon Cassidy wrote in a lengthy analysis at Human Events.
In one rating, PolitiFact rated whether Romney was right to say, "Our navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. Our air force is smaller and older than any time since 1947." PolitiFact conceded the claim was true but gave Romney a "pants on fire" rating because the claim was "meaningless," "glib" and "preposterous."
"You can believe that Republicans lie more than three times as often as Democrats. Or you can believe that, at a minimum, PolitiFact is engaging in a great deal of selection bias, to say nothing of pushing tendentious arguments of its own," Mark Hemingway posited at The Weekly Standard in 2011. "At the most basic level, the media's new 'fact-checkers' remain obdurately unwilling to let opinions simply be opinions."
The Atlantic's Clive Crook also criticized fact-checkers in 2011, saying, "whether they realize it or not, PolitiFact and other fact-checking outfits rarely confine themselves to checking facts. They're judging claims purportedly based on facts or interpretation of facts. Not the same."
"The giveaway is their grading system," Crook wrote. "You check a fact by asking whether it is true or false. If true or false is not good enough to assess the thing you are checking, then the thing you are checking is not a fact. PolitiFact has a six-point grading system: true, mostly true, half true, mostly false, false, and pants on fire. These are grades you might apply to bundles of facts or claims based (with more or less validity) on bundles of facts, but not to facts."