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PBS Ombudsman

The Mailbag: Fact-Checking and Checking the Fact Checker

I'm a big fan of fact-checking, especially during political campaigns when so much is at stake and examples can be found on all sides of claims that are either false or not quite accurate. In today's high-speed, information-overload environment — when political speeches or attack advertising constantly repeat charges that may not be correct — the fact-checking role by independent news and public service organizations is especially important.

If I were king, I'd make fact-checker columns on important issues regular front-page features in major newspapers and on their websites, and advocate for much more near real-time efforts on television news programs than we get now.

There are several organizations that do a good job of this, such as FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. There are links to some of their recent postings in this mailbag. Among newspaper fact checkers, one of my favorites is The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler.

Kessler appeared on the Jan. 25 edition of the PBS NewsHour in a segment with senior correspondent Gwen Ifill that was aimed at fact-checking President Obama's State of the Union speech the night before. That's the right thing to do, but it didn't go well in the opinion of several viewers who wrote to me. Some of their letters are posted below. I didn't think it went particularly well either, so there are some comments by me in a couple of cases.

Earlier this month, I wrote about the continuing reaction of many viewers to what they see as the relentless domination of the evening news for months now by Republican primary politics. That, of course, is indeed news and needs to be covered. But it also presents special challenges, in my opinion, to editors and producers to deal with the impact of such an imbalance.

So, for example, in the Jan. 25 broadcast about the president's speech, there was no fact-checking of the Republican response by Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels. Nor was there any fact-checking earlier, for another example, about Newt Gingrich's widely and often repeated charge that "more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history."

FactCheck.org offered critiques of the president's speech, of the Republican response and, earlier this month, the Gingrich claims about the "food stamp president."

Here Are the Letters

What has happened to PBS? I watched Gwen Ifill this evening [Jan. 25]. Commentators, critiquing Obama's SOTU, sat there and not only espoused biased opinions but also blatantly lied about issues discussed — several times — and were never challenged with their veracity by Ifill. Just one example: GM and Ford bailouts. Ford refused bailout money. This was a specific; others were perceptions and opinions. Again, unchallenged. I used to respect PBS — and thought Gwen Ifill should have been picked instead of David Gregory for Meet the Press. Not any more.

Pat A., Royal Palm Beach, FL

(Ombudsman's Note: Several viewers mentioned that Ford did not take any federal funding. Kessler, in answer to a question from Ifill, made the mistake of saying that the Treasury gave assistance "to General Motors and Ford." But about a minute or so later, Ifill interjected that she wanted to correct what had been said and pointed out that it was Chrysler, not Ford, that got bailout money, along with GM.)

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There was a lot of president bashing tonight, Wednesday, January 25, on the NewsHour. It seemed very unbalanced. Gwen's interview included a tough talking man and a wimpy woman who did not adequately defend the president's positions. Previous to this, the reporter from the Washington paper could criticize, but couldn't recall, what Obama had accomplished. Overall, weak guests!

I watch daily and am frequently impressed with the depth of content and additional perspectives. I love Shields and Brooks, but there are many others like the guys who were on earlier this week talking with Margaret about Syria who are very interesting. Margaret is fantastic, great interviews. You really did Obama dirt tonite, but I bet you can fix it.

Cheryl Quinn, Falmouth, MA

(Ombudsman's Note: Not a good night on television for, in my opinion, the normally very astute and fair Kessler. When Ifill asked for examples of what Kessler said were many things that Obama had proposed in last year's speech that never made it into law, Kessler went blank. I can sympathize with print reporters hit by a surprise question on national television, but it didn't help the cause of fact-checking.)

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Tell Gwen that it was GM & Chrysler, not Ford that were bailed out. It's also that [billionaire investor Warren] Buffett & other capital-gains people pay less % in taxes, not less $.

Santa Fe, NM

Equal Opportunity Bashing

What has happened to the NewsHour? Tonight you had an expert talking with Gwen and together they cut Obama's speech to death and discussed the truth and mistruth of the speech. But I watched patiently because it was the NewsHour, and I fully expected you to follow it up with a similar dissection of the Republican rebuttals. But you didn't! Thus, you made the president look bad without making his opponents look just as bad. Is there no place left to get an unbiased news perspective? If you cut down the president, then please give equal time to cutting down his opponents!

Nancy H., Austin, TX

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I am a long time significant financial supporter of PBS and a regular viewer of the NewsHour, which under Jim Lehrer had a history of fairness. I am increasingly irritated at the tilt to the right that is occurring on the NewsHour, especially on the part of Gwen Ifill. Last night's two Ifill pieces about the President were great examples. In the first piece she said she would be fact-checking the President's speech. She then brought on Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, who was not a fact checker but rather a commentator critical of the President. His criticism was echoed by Ms. Ifill, and there was no rebuttal. Then in her second piece she introduced Douglas Holtz-Eakin as an economist, but he presented as a right-wing ideologue weakly countered by an ineffective second guest.

Lloyd Milliken, Indianapolis, IN

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In assessing the truthfulness of the statements made the night of the state of the union address, I think it would be only fair to have also discussed the remarks of [Republican responder] Mitch Daniels. One item of note that I'm sure to be false is the great number of jobs that the U.S. can attribute to Apple.

Furthermore, Glenn Kessler seems awfully biased. He seemed to suggest that President Obama left Iraq simply to keep a campaign promise; as I understand it many Republicans say that we left as we did, because the Iraqi government would not agree to providing immunity from prosecution to the U.S. troops and a particularly powerful faction apparently wished for us to leave and used this issue to accomplish that.

I also think that he's being obtuse to suggest that providing support to the auto industry necessitates a bailout of its stockholders. The government could do that with any other industry that can be considered of value to the economy, the same thing that the FDIC does with failing banks and what we should have done with all the financial institutions that we did bail out: it can and should take an equity position in a given company, rehabilitate it to what extent possible by the government and see that it is sold to another party to continue operations in a manner agreeable to the long-term interest of the workers and the nation.

He also appears evasive with regard to the comment on Obama's phrase "phony financial profits." Much of the bailout money did go toward payment of bonuses and wasn't used as intended to loosen lending and assist homeowners.

I think that someone could stand to do some fact-checking on his comments regarding the Buffett Rule. He seems to have taken a narrow view of what is to be classified as income when computing the taxes paid by millionaires. I imagine that he excluded capital gains, focused exclusively on ordinary income and probably turned a blind eye to the river of money that finds its way to tax shelters such as the Cayman Islands and Switzerland. When addressing the "Buffett Rule" he should be discussing it within the context of how it has been defined by Warren Buffett. Of course, in this spirit not only income taxes but also payroll taxes should be included in the comparison. You may also note the loophole exploited by Newt Gingrich among others to avoid payment of a significant portion of Medicare portion of FICA through use of an S-Corp in connection with this.

Chicago, IL

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