COMMENTS: Fact-Checking the Sunday Talkshows is One Fifth of the Battle

What fun it is each Monday morning, having dutifully sat through the news networks' Sunday morning talk shows, to read Jason Linkins' media monitoring efforts at Eat the Press. If monitoring television news is like watching a sporting event, I imagine Tyndall Report as being at a baseball game, scrupulously keeping score of every at bat and out, every run, hit and error, orderly and systematic, sipping a sudsy cool one. The sporting spectator that Linkins channels is an amphetamine-laden gambler placing wild side bets at a cockfight.

Linkins feels it while Tyndall analyzes it. Here he is bracing himself for an hour of NBC's Meet the Press: "Okay, I will now burn off several decades of purgatory by watching David Gregory interview Tim Geithner…Then Gregory and Geithner have a Samuel Beckett play about the housing market…BUT THE DEBT IS A PROBLEM THAT IS REAL TO DAVID GREGOREE! WHY WILL NO ONE STOP THE TURRIBLE DEBTS?"…HATE THIS SHOW!...And now I wish it would die in space, silently screaming into a void of its own making."

At the moment, there is a foment to subject the Sunday talking heads to the rigors of a fact check. So it is not only fun, but it is also worthwhile, to read Linkins' take to provide the broad view during this fact checking fad. He reveals that there is plenty more ailing these shows than a few fibs. And he has inspired me to compile a List of Five Checks for monitoring Sunday mornings--facts and four others.

The idea of a fact check was embraced by Jake Tapper when he took over the temporary chair at ABC's This Week in the interregnum between George Stephanopoulos and Christiane Amanpour. Eager to shake things up in a format that has every tendency to become staid and formulaic, Tapper responded to the fact-check suggestion made by Jay Rosen, the NYU journalism professor, at his Public Notebook on in December of last year: My Simple Fix for the Sunday Shows., the fact-checking arm of the St Petersburg Times, has undertaken the task of scrutinizing the assertions made by Tapper's guests and so far, among others, it has caught Bill Clinton being "barely true" about labor rights abuses in Dubai and Hillary Rodham Clinton being "half true" about hypothetical questions and Defense Secretary Robert Gates being "mostly true" about that Apache helicopter videotape of urban warfare in Baghdad, in which a pair of Reuters journalists were killed (also covered by ABC's Pierre Thomas and CBS' Bob Orr).

At Meet the Press, anchor Gregory has demurred from endorsing a factcheck of his own guests' statements. In response a pair of journalism students, Paul Breer and Chas Danner, have launched their own unofficial do-it-yourself fact-check site Meet the Facts. Professor Rosen speculated that explicitly correcting guests' misstatements might be so rigorous that Gregory had a "disturbing" incentive not to factcheck, lest they might refuse a Meet the Press booking.

The quest to ascertain the underlying truth, or lack thereof, of politicians' talk points has indeed found renewed vigor. During This Week's round-table on financial regulatory reform on Sunday, anchor Tapper returned to a question that had vexed him during his ABC World News reporting from the White House. When Republicans used the talking point, suggested by strategist Frank Luntz, that the proposed legislation would institutionalize further bailouts of too-big-to-fail Wall Street firms, were they being sincere? Tapper turned not to a pundit but to a journalist, Al Hunt, now of Bloomberg, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, to examine the truth value of that GOP talking point.

Linkins was beside himself with glee: "Tapper and Hunt then do a fine job unpacking and explaining what's exactly going on here. They will hopefully post a video of this soon, and I will include it. I mention it in brief because THIS WEEK! They are the show that TAKES THE TIME TO PATIENTLY EXPLAIN THINGS TO YOU ON SUNDAYS!"

So Rosen's Simple Fix has turned into all the rage. Steve Benen is worrying that Rosen's theory about bookability may be correct at Political Animal at the Washington Monthly. Alexandra Fenwick ponders the pros and cons at Columbia Journalism Review, calling it "a systematized effort to call BS." Kevin Drum follows the brouhaha at Mother Jones and allows that "it has possibilities." Granted it is important to hold politicians accountable if they misrepresent the facts. But Benen and Fenwick and Drum all implicitly inflate Rosen's view into the notion that banishing dishonesty is more than a simple fix, but an actual cure to what ails the Sunday talkshows.

That is why reading Linkins as he tears his hair out each Sunday is instructive. The things that drive him bonkers go way beyond an odd fib here or a fudging of a statistic there. Truth be told, politicians--and their aides and spinmeisters--are usually masters at devising a form of words that will allow them to represent any position under the sun without technically telling a lie. Jumping through the hoop of a fact-check will impose a little more rigor; Frank Luntz will not be able to be quite as slapdash in concocting his talking points. Yet the whole of Sunday morning could turn into a lie-free-zone next week and, I guarantee you, Linkins would still be exasperated.

So, besides the Fact Check, what are the other criteria for monitoring these shows in order to measure whether they are doing their job?

First, let me offer my definition of what the Sunday morning circuit is supposed to accomplish. At their best, I see these talkshows as a celebration of politics as The Art of the Possible. They seek to locate themselves at the precise intersection of policy and politics, where the nation's leaders, those with concrete executive and legislative power, are asked to grapple with the crucial issues of governance, and to do so in a newsworthy fashion. Lean too far in the direction of policy and the discussion becomes theoretical not practical. Lean too far in the direction of politics and the discussion becomes courtier gossip--who is up, who is down--unhinged from the demands of the republic.

So it is important that the guests on these shows are accountable politicians--not pundits, not operatives, not spinmeisters. It is important that they are asked about pending matters of public policy--not hypotheticals, not political ambitions, not personal pettiness. It is important that both sides of the discussion, interviewers and interviewees both, should be committed to these values. A proper scrutiny of these shows would hold both guest and host accountable. Obviously, failing to tell the truth is one way in which they can fall short. That is why the factcheck is a good idea. Tyndall Report offers four other criteria to make a five-part checklist.

1.The Fact Check is stipulated.

2.Relevance: check on the selection of topics. Were questions asked about important issues? Were they issues over which there is a current, actionable controversy? Were they issues over which the newsmaker has some influence, power or leverage? If an ancillary topic was selected for a question or mentioned in an answer, was it raised in order to argue that it had been improperly ignored? If an unimportant topic did happen to be brought into the discussion, did either the interviewer or the interviewee do the right thing, and call the other for lack of seriousness?

3.Comprehensiveness: check on whether all aspects of a topic have been examined. Under this criterion, any interview in which a pair of guests appears, one from Party D, the other from Party R, should be called as bogus. Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert skewered that format by depicting Gregory as a chess clock as he refereed such a back and forth. This binary format makes the centrist mistake that a left-of-center position can only be challenged from its right and vice versa. Limiting all newsmaker interviews to one-on-one would allow the guest to be interrogated from all points of view, not just from the other side of the political aisle. A Republican leader should be asked to respond to liberal criticism, but also to criticism from the Tea Party. A White House official should have to reply to GOP talking points, but also to those from the NetRoots.

4.Responsiveness: check on the quality of the question-and-answer exchange. It is easy to see why this is important when scrutinizing the guest's answers. Did they address the question or were they evasive? Were they substantive or did they rely on vacuous generalization? But this is also a test of the questioner. Did the question require a direct answer? So often, the first answer on a line of questioning consists of the simple repetition of a party-line talking point on the issue of the day. Since the anchor already knows that talking point as thoroughly as newsmaker, let's make a suggestion: start the line of questioning by conceding the talking point; make the first question the first follow-up. One other thing: sometimes an evasive answer is entirely appropriate. Newsmakers are entirely within their rights to reject the premise of a question and to argue why it is falsely framed. We should insist, though, that changing the subject is done forthrightly, with an explicit rationale. Simply avoiding the question should mean that the question, simply, gets asked again.

5.Balance: check on the proper balance between policy and politics. Ideological balance on the Sunday morning shows is a fetish and it is also a curse. So often an exchange of dueling partisan talking points just dulls the brain. The balance I am talking about is to make sure that when a newsmaker guest or a pundit lurches too far towards the politics of an issue, they are brought back to addressing the underlying issue (I could say "and vice versa" here but that happens so infrequently that it is not worth it). How will this play in the polls? Whom does this make look good? Whom does this help in November? For every one of these questions, there has to be: Will this policy succeed? How will this change the situation? What might be the unintended consequences? So next time you see a roundtable at the end of a Sunday talkshow, check for the balance--not the balance of liberal and conservative, but between political operatives and policy wonks.

Done properly, these Sunday morning talkshows can offer a forum for substantive discussion of crucial issues confronting the body politic. Even when they fall short, they still offer a high-profile forum for politicians to push issues and to establish clout. The corridors of power inside-the-Beltway are chock full of ambitious Solons who believe they have the smarts, the grasp of detail, the charisma and the platform to make a mark with their peers and with the elite audience that watches these shows. They all believe they can get their point across without having to resort to shading the truth. I have no worry that a little bit of fact checking--or checking according to Tyndall's other four criteria too--will discourage politicians from accepting an invitation to strut their newsmaking stuff.

So, David Gregory. There is no down side.

PS: if any of you happens to like the classic Hollywood musical as much as Sunday morning talk, check out Jason Linkins' (you have to scroll down) hilarious deconstruction of Fred Astaire and Judy Garland in Irving Berlin's Easter Parade, directed for MGM by Charles Waters


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