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Who fact-checks the fact checkers?

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The arrogance of journalists to presume to be able to tell the public what the “facts” are is getting out of hand.  Too often journalists working on tight timelines get their facts wrong or mix up facts with opinions in these fact checks.  And in my opinion this is coarsening the political discourse.  How does it coarsen the discourse?  Well, if a politician loses a fact check, whether the fact check was fair or not, they’re branded a liar, or at best a doofus for getting the facts wrong.  Calling people liars does not promote civil discourse.

Case in point—and no this isn’t going to be about Candy Crowley’s embarrassingly mistaken live-debate fact check—consider Josh Gerstein and Darren Samuelsohn’s article “Debate fact check: Hofstra presidential debate” at Politico in which they claim Romney got his facts wrong on the legality of automatic weapons.

Here’s what Romney said: “We of course don’t want to have automatic weapons, and that’s already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons.”

Here’s Gerstein and Samuelsohn’s so called fact check: “This was correct — until about eight years ago.  Certain types of semi-automatic firearms were banned by a law that Bill Clinton signed 1994, but it expired a decade later. Obama noted during Tuesday’s Long Island debate he’d like to get the ban reintroduced in Congress, but the chances of it passing are slim.”

These guys have their facts all wrong.  Romney said that it is “already illegal in this country to have automatic weapons.”  Automatic weapons are different from the semi-automatic “assault weapons” banned in 1994 referred to by Gerstein and Samuelsohn.  Federal laws make it illegal to own automatic weapons without special permission from the U.S. Treasury Department and outright ban the ownership of newly manufactured automatic weapons.  The fact is, automatic weapons are effectively illegal for all but the most enthusiastic gun collectors.  If I was a journalist I would probably call them liars, but I’m willing to accept they’re just a couple doofuses on this point.  (I’m sure they’re plenty smart on other points.)

The irony is, if you need further confirmation on my version of the facts, then read the book unSpun by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson who happen to be fellow fact checkers at the Annenberg Public Policy Center.  (Yes, the fact checkers are about to fact check the fact checkers.)   Chapter 3 of their book is entitled “’Tall Coffees’ and Assault Weapons.”   As they explain, “Fully automatic weapons of all kinds were outlawed around the time of George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly and Bonnie and Clyde.  It has been illegal in the United States to own a real machine gun since 1934 (except with an expensive and hard-to-obtain federal permit).”  The authors assert that the “so-called ‘assault weapon ban’ signed by President Clinton in 1994 didn’t really ban assault weapons.”  And they then explain:

In fact, all that the assault weapon law “banned” was the manufacture and import of certain semiautomatic weapons, which can’t be fired any faster than an ordinary pistol or rifle despite their military-style look.  The very term “assault weapon ban” gave a misleading impression. 

When Congress let the law expire in the midst of the 2004 presidential campaign, the misleading name was exploited for political benefit in a TV ad by the liberal political action committee MoveOn PAC.

So Romney was right.  In the debate, he clearly explained that he’s not in favor of new laws to limit gun ownership.  And he then went on to say we already have laws, such as laws against automatic weapons, and that we need to enforce those laws, not add new ones.  It was a pretty straight forward answer with nothing but the facts.   Furthermore, as Jackson and Jamieson explained above, the term “assault weapon” that Candy Crowley repeated in her question to Romney was loaded and misleading.  If there was a fact check, it should have been on Crowley for not clarifying the terms of the question.  That was left to Romney who correctly distinguished assault weapons from automatic weapons.

But here we have two journalists claiming otherwise and basically calling Romney either a liar or an idiot.  So who fact checks the fact checkers?  This is just one of many examples—and admittedly a more trivial example—where I’ve seen a fact checker get the actual fact wrong.  As I’ve already argued, this only coarsens the political discourse.  Maybe journalists should get back to reporting and step down from being the judge and jury of what is in fact factual.