Howard Kurtz doesn't know what "fact-checking" is

Blog ››› ››› JAMISON FOSER

Eric Boehlert pointed out earlier that the danger in the media beginning to fact-check the Sunday shows is that they'll go out of their way to try to appear "balanced" by fact-checking an equal number of falsehoods by Democrats and Republicans, even if the falsehoods uttered show no such "balance." As Boehlert noted, CNN's Howard Kurtz appeared to go out of his way to "slap the hand of two Democrats (Tim Geithner, Bill Clinton) who made borderline trivial statements last week."

Kurtz's purported fact-check of Clinton and Geithner are worth a closer look, as they are very good examples of exactly what media fact-checking should not be.

Here's Kurtz's fact-check of Bill Clinton:

KURTZ: And finally, Bill Clinton sat down with Tapper on "This Week," and the 42nd president was asked about his successor's decision on a Supreme Court nominee.


TAPPER: What advice would you give President Obama? Because Republicans are saying he's not including them in this.

CLINTON: I think it will be very difficult to just outright block a Supreme Court nominee that's otherwise qualified, especially after the Democrats confirmed -- or allowed a vote on Clarence Thomas and Justice Scalia, and a lot of other people who were -- Justice Roberts -- Chief Justice Roberts.


KURTZ: That's true. Senate Democrats did allow a vote on John Roberts, but only after publicly weighing the idea of filibustering President Bush's nominee.

As for a nominee that's otherwise qualified, as Clinton put it, Senator Barack Obama said that both John Roberts and Sam Alito were clearly qualified and voted against them.

OK. That simply is not a fact-check. Well, it is, I guess, but the obvious conclusion of checking the facts is that Clinton had them right -- but Kurtz spun it as Clinton stretching the truth.

Bill Clinton said Democrats allowed a vote on John Roberts. Democrats did allow a vote on John Roberts. But Kurtz presented the fact that Democrats thought about whether or not they should filibuster before deciding not to as some sort of "gotcha" that undermined Clinton's statement. It simply, and obviously, isn't.

Put another way: Bill Clinton said Democrats did X. Howard Kurtz responded: Ah-ha! But first they thought about whether to do X!

That isn't fact-checking. It is, in some ways, the opposite of fact-checking. Bill Clinton made a clear and simple declarative statement that was true. Howard Kurtz then confused the issue by bringing up irrelevancies that didn't actually undermine Clinton's comments, and presenting them as though they did. The viewer is left with the impression that Clinton's statement that Democrats allowed a vote on Roberts was misleading -- but it wasn't. Not at all.

Kurtz's fact-check of Geithner wasn't much better. Asked if "beat[ing] up on the banks" is "the smart thing to do politically," Geithner responded "There's no politics in this. This is not a partisan thing. This is a basic proposition. ... I don't know if it's good politics or not."

It seems like the kind of utterly mundane and inconsequential (and impossible-to-disprove) response that would better be ignored. But for reasons that escape my understanding, Kurtz thought it was a statement worth fact-checking:

KURTZ: That's partially true. The administration is undoubtedly doing what it thinks is right with this legislation, but of course there is politics involved. President Obama has repeatedly criticized huge Wall Street bonuses and blamed the big investment banks for resisting reform. And everyone knows they are fat targets because of public anger over the last banking bailout.


So, for Geithner to say he doesn't know whether the bill is good politics or not really stretches the bounds of credibility.

Again: Simply not a fact-check.

"President Obama has repeatedly criticized huge Wall Street bonuses and blamed big investment banks for resisting reform" is not evidence that the Obama administration is driven by politics rather than an effort to pass legislation it thinks is important.

And Kurtz's flat declaration that "everyone knows" banks are fat targets -- and his conclusion that, therefore, Geithner isn't telling the truth -- is just nonsense. The Washington Times doesn't agree. The tea partiers certainly aren't won over. (Not that I expect either the Washington Times or the tea partiers to be won over by anything President Obama does. The point is, there are segments of the electorate that don't like the Obama administration's approach to the banks, and who seem energized by it. Simply ignoring that and insisting that everyone knows it's good politics is foolish. It's like saying in March of 2009 that of course health insurance companies are fat targets, so health care reform is obviously a political winner. Well, maybe it is, maybe it isn't -- but that's a far-too-simplistic analysis.)

So put it all together and what do you have? Kurtz decided to "fact-check" an utterly trivial comment -- the Treasury Secretary saying the administration's approach to banking regulation is not driven by politics. And his "fact-check" consisted of a statement of fact that doesn't undermine Geithner's claim in any way and a dubious assertion that also doesn't undermine Geithner. That isn't fact-checking; it's punditry.

Howard Kurtz
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