The Fact-Check Tug Of War

Joining and the WaPo's Kessler, PolitiFact weighs in on the Obama campaign's outsourcing rhetoric, checking an Obama ad's assertion that Romney's companies were "pioneers in outsourcing":

Looking at all the evidence made public so far, we do not think Romney was actively involved in the day-to-day management of Bain after 1999. But it doesn’t mean his influence disappeared after he left.

And their conclusion:

We find reasonable grounds for labeling the companies as "Romney’s." He was the founder of Bain and assembled a team that looked to make high returns. One strategy was to invest in companies that played off the trend in outsourcing. We make no judgment on whether outsourcing is good or bad. It was widely seen as profitable, and Bain selected companies that would succeed. If picking a company makes it yours, Screen shot 2012-07-15 at 9.31.43 PMthen these were Romney’s companies and in a general sense, they did what he expected them to do. The one caveat is there is a gray area of direct accountability, because no one has reported that he was personally involved in managing those firms.

We find little evidence that the particular firms were "pioneers in outsourcing." The Obama campaign took the word from the Washington Post but used it as its own. Outsourcing was well established by the early 1990s, and firms were applying it in a variety of industrial areas.The Bain companies were among that group. The Obama campaign's statement would have voters believe that Romney played a key role in driving the outsourcing phenomenon. We find that an exaggeration. We rule the statement to be Half True.

Meanwhile, Dylan Byers says Kessler has "jumped the shark", while John Cole piles on. Jason Cherkis and Ryan Grim respond by flat-out rewriting Kessler's column for him (spoiler alert: a different conclusion). Apparently bewildered by the amount of criticism, Kessler responds:

I readily concede that the years 1999-2002 represent a gray period in Romney’s background.

The SEC documents, especially the ones Romney signed, do raise some questions. One Screen shot 2012-07-15 at 9.31.43 PMcould suggest that because Romney did not fully extricate himself from Bain until after his Olympic sojourn ended, he should bear some responsibility for what happened at Bain in these years. You could even say he hired the people who made these mistakes. But that is entirely different from suggesting that he had a direct role in these suspect transactions — as Obama’s ads claim — or that the SEC documents open Romney up to civil or even potential criminal investigation, as the Obama campaign has charged.

I will continue to evaluate the claims made by each campaign on a case -by-case basis. If new evidence emerges showing Romney had a direct involvement in suspect transactions, that certainly would become part of the evaluation.

When you ponder that mass of verbiage, you realize that Kessler is conceding that Romney bore "some responsibility" for the company whose actions are now under the microscope in the years 1999 – 2002, even though he was obviously not fully engaged in managing every deal (although his signature appears on several filings). That's really all that is at issue here: responsibility and accountability. Jay Rosen has been watching the story unfold and suggests the fairness-obsessed press will not be able to handle Romney's "post-truth" campaign:

1.) Key lesson of the climate change debate: you can run a political campaign against verifiable facts, and thereby weaken those facts in the public’s mind.

2.) The Palin-ator: you can invent stuff and stick with it when it is shown to be false because culture war politics feeds off the noise and friction when fictional claims are fact-checked by the mainstream media.

3.) David Frum’s observation from within the Republican tent: "Backed by their own wing of the book-publishing industry and supported by think tanks that increasingly function as public-relations agencies, conservatives have built a whole alternative knowledge system, with its own facts, its own history, its own laws of economics."

4.) Old-fashioned secrecy, as in: don’t release information, don’t explain.

And a Ben Smith post from last year, about Kessler and other fact-checkers, is worth dusting off:

The new professional "fact-checking" class is, at its best, doing good, regular journalism under the pseudo-scientific banner, complete with made-up measurements. At their worst, they're doing opinion journalism under pseudo-scientific banners, something that's really corrosive to actual journalism, which if it's any good is about reported fact in the first place.