Continued Double Standard
That enduring double standard -- to be tougher on a Democrat than any Republican -- persists to this day, as "fact-checkers" go softer on GOP falsehoods than on Democratic distortions. In the face of outright lies by Republicans and questionable comments from Democrats, the media's frame is that both sides are about equally at fault.
Thus, even as the Republican presidential campaign was littered with prevarications and made-up facts, major "fact-checking" operations sought to protect their own "credibility" by balancing any criticism of Republicans with examples of supposed Democratic "lies."
For instance, PolitiFact turned the accurate Democratic claim that the Republicans were seeking to "end Medicare as we know it" into the 2011 "lie of the year." But the fact is that the Republican House plan would have transformed Medicare from a fee-for-service program into a voucher system in which the elderly would be given subsidies for private health insurance.
Though that, indeed, would "end Medicare as we know it," PolitiFact burnished its "non-partisan" image by making a truth into "the lie of the year." Apparently, the fact that Republicans were keeping the name "Medicare" for the revamped program was enough for PolitiFact.
Similarly, the Washington Post's fact-checker Glenn Kessler got argumentative on Sunday, giving two "Pinocchios" to President Obama's statement that "the majority of millionaires support" the Buffett Rule, a change in the tax law which would require people earning $1 million or more to pay a rate at least equal to middle-income Americans.
To support Obama's comment, the White House cited an article in the Wall Street Journal, which, in turn, cited a survey of millionaires undertaken by the Spectrem Group, which does market research on the affluent. Spectrem's survey found that 68 percent of responding millionaires backed the idea of the Buffett Rule.
Yet, in attacking Obama's comment, Kessler noted that the Spectrem group surveyed people with $1 million or more in investments. Kessler made a big deal out of the fact that the Buffett Rule would apply to people making more than $1 million a year, not people holding $1 million or more in net worth.
"So Obama -- and the Wall Street Journal -- are mixing up two different types of millionaires," Kessler wrote.
But Obama and the Wall Street Journal were not "mixing up" the millionaires. They were simply reporting that a survey of wealthy people, worth more than $1 million, favored the Buffett Rule, which is named after investor Warren Buffett who does make many millions of dollars a year and says it's unfair to charge him a lower tax rate than his secretary.
In the "two-Pinocchio" condemnation of Obama, Kessler went on to make some technical arguments against Spectrem's methodology and faulted Obama for not including caveats about the survey in his brief reference to it in his speech.
But is this fair "fact-checking," when a politician accurately cites a survey by a credible research organization? Or is just another example of mainstream journalists trying to show phony "balance," that is, to avoid accusations of the old "liberal bias" canard?
Beyond the question of fairness, the trouble with this style of "journalism" is that it indirectly benefits the politician who tells the most egregious lies. After all if you're going to get nailed for saying something that's actually true or just slightly off the mark -- when PolitiFact or Glenn Kessler is trying to show off some artificial "objectivity" -- you might as well lie through your teeth.
You might even get some grudging respect, as Romney did from Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, for being a persuasive liar.
"Among the attributes I most envy in a public man (or woman) is the ability to lie," Cohen wrote. "If that ability is coupled with no sense of humor, you have the sort of man who can be a successful football coach, a CEO or, when you come right down to it, a presidential candidate. Such a man is Mitt Romney."