It’s no secret that trust in the news media is suffering these days, which is why some advocates for accountable journalism see independent fact checkers as necessary evils, or even as potential beacons of hope in the fight to repair the widening credibility rift between those who produce the news and those who consume it.
But what happens when the credibility of fact-checking organizations themselves become damaged? Or, to put it another way, who fact-checks the fact-checkers?
It’s a question one might pose to PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning initiative run by the Tampa Bay Times. The organization, known for its purportedly unbiased “Truth-O-Meter” and dreaded “Pants on Fire” ratings (which is awarded to the worst offenders of misleading or inaccurate reporting), is facing a barrage of criticism Wednesday after an angry Rachel Maddow called out one of its recent reports.
It all started on Sunday when Martina Navratilova, a retired tennis player who later came out as gay, appeared on CBS’s “Face the Nation” to comment on the state of gay rights in light of NBA player Jason Collins’ coming out last week. Navratilova’s assessment was a mixed bag: Equal rights for gays have come a long way, she said, but the country still has more of a way to go, particularly when we consider that 29 states still do not have laws that ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
Navratilova put it this way:
“[I]n 29 states in this country you can still get fired for not just being gay but if your employer thinks that you're gay, you can still get fired.”
In a lengthy fact-checking report published on Tuesday, PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson determined that Navratilova’s statement was only “Half-True.” While the state laws in 29 states do lack protections for people who are fired based on their sexual orientation, many local laws within those states do provide those protections. In Philadelphia, for instance, employers are banned from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation, even if Pennsylvania state law has no such ban.
“If you frame this statement in the context of blanket protections by states, [Navratilova is] correct,” Jacobson wrote. “Still, even in those 29 states, many gay and lesbian employees do have protections, either because they work for the government, because they live in a city that bars such discrimination, or because they work for a company that has pledged not to discriminate based on sexual orientation.”
But Maddow, as she made clear on her MSNBC program Tuesday, thought the “half-true” determination was unfair, particularly as Navratilova’s statement about state laws was technically correct, even by PolitiFact’s own admission.
Here’s how Maddow put it in a direct address to PolitiFact:
“The statement you were fact checking is true. Until somebody figures out how to sue you to retrieve the meaning of the word ‘fact’ from the dark and airless hole you stuffed it into, then it is not okay to make this stuff up. You are truly terrible. Fact-checking has to count for something and PolitiFact, you are ruining it for everyone.”
Since Maddow’s rant hit the airways, PolitiFact has come under intense fire on Twitter, with many users quick to take Maddow’s side.
PolitiFact has yet to respond to the criticism, aside from a tweet in which it referred Maddow’s viewers back to Jacobson’s research. Meanwhile, International Business Times reached out to Jacobson and PolitiFact’s editor, Bill Adair, but they did not immediately respond. Updates will be posted here when they do.
Criticism of PolitiFact comes at a time when consumer distrust in the news media is at an all-time high. A September 2012 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Americans now say “they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” At the same time, the need for reliable news sources has never been more apparent, as evidenced by the torrent of misinformation that coursed through the veins of social media amid the aftermath of the recent bombings in Boston.
In an attempt to parse the haze of errors and propaganda, independent fact checkers offer news consumers a kind of agenda-free safe haven, at least in theory. But based on how quickly Maddow’s loyal viewers were ready to join her in pouncing on PolitiFact, it’s easy to infer that fact-checking agencies are viewed not as the independent watchdogs they purport to be, but as yet another defective component in a substandard media ecosphere.
Got a news tip? Send me an email. Follow me on Twitter: @christopherzara
To contact the editor, e-mail: