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WASHINGTON--Fact-checkers from Politifact, FactCheck.org, and The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog were out in force after the first two presidential debates, as they have been for much of the 2012 campaign season. Do Americans want journalists to assess the accuracy of debate claims, candidate speeches, and TV ads?
Brooks Jackson, who heads FactCheck.org, thinks so. He recently said, "In an age where the typical citizen is subjected to an avalanche of the kind of pure baloney that journalists used to keep out of the public discourse[,] they are looking for journalists to be kind of adjudicators or referees. That's what we try to do."
The media's job used to be to report the news--who, what, when, and where. Their new role as adjudicators extends their warrant at a time when skepticism of the media is already sky high.
In a September Gallup poll, 60 percent said they had either "not very much trust or confidence" or "no trust at all" in the media to report the news "fully, accurately, or fairly."
It's far from clear that Americans want the media to go into the uncharted waters of assessing candidate claims and counterclaims. A new poll from Annenberg suggests that about 9 percent of respondents have reported visiting a fact-checking site.
But a second and more fundamental reason for skepticism about the rationale for fact-checking operations is that they misunderstand how most Americans make decisions. I don't know about you, but I haven't read, yet alone fully digested, the 2,000-plus-page Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or listened to Fed chair Ben Bernanke's four-part lecture series about the Fed and the financial crisis.
Nor have I spent hours on the candidates' websites reading the fine details of their approaches to corporate taxation. Like most people, I suspect, I have general impressions of the candidates and their claims based on what they say themselves and on news reports.
Fact checkers seem to believe that factual information is the be-all and end-all in terms of public judgment. It's not.
Here I am indebted to the great social scientist Daniel Yankelovich, who wrote an essay about this years ago. While he wasn't writing about fact-checking operations, his observations have broad application.
Yankelovich argued that journalists are the "chief drumbeaters for the importance of factual information."