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Opinion: Columnists

Who will fact-check the fact checkers?

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Opinion,Columnists,Sean Higgins,Campaign 2012

Google the words "Romney" "welfare ad" and "false" and you will get 32,200 results. This includes not just partisan websites but such ostensibly objective mainstream sources as the Washington Post, Bloomberg and CNN.

That would appear to settle the case: Romney's welfare ads are baseless. Except that as architects of the original reform like the Heritage Foundation's Robert Rector have pointed out, the claims are easily defensible.

So then how did the "the ad is false" declaration get such wide circulation, if its claims are at least debatable? Thank the various fact-check groups that have sprung up online. The St. Petersburg Times's PolitiFact, the Annenberg Public Policy Center's FactCheck.org and the Washington Post's Fact Check column.

These enterprises all have a seductive appeal, what with their Pinocchios and "pants on fire" ratings. Who doesn't want a seemingly authoritative voice bringing down the truth when it is convenient?

But contrary to the hype, they are not oracles delivering the judgment of the gods. They are as fallible as the rest of us. And they are having a corrosive effect on the political culture, since their judgments are often used to shut down debate rather than foster it.

A major problem is these groups' refusal to differentiate between clear questions involving verifiable facts, as in "did candidate x really say that?" and more complex judgment calls like Romney's welfare ad. PolitiFact rated the ad as "pants on fire" last month. The nub of the issue is whether a July declaration by the Department of Health and Human Services allows states to drop the work requirement.

Obama's defenders claim it merely gives states flexibility in determining the work requirement. Rector and others say that that flexibility will allow states to define the requirement out of existence.

The administration's changes to the program "removes the core of the [work-to-welfare] program; [It] becomes a blank slate that HHS bureaucrats and liberal state bureaucrats can rewrite at will," Rector wrote in an analysis late last month. He should know too. He co-authored the 1996 reform.

At the very least, this should be a split decision. But PolitiFact buys the administration's spin completely. It adds that the "pants on fire" rating came in part because the ad "inflames old resentments" about welfare -- a curious point to raise for an organization that supposedly checks facts.

PolitiFact similarly said that a Romney claim accusing Obama of diverting $716 billion to pay for Obamacare was "mostly false," but only after conceding that Obama's law "seeks to reduce future Medicare spending" by that amount to pay for its own provisions. Note that that is just a softer way of saying exactly what Romney said. PolitiFact conceded as much with this conclusion: "The only element of truth here is that the health care law seeks to reduce future Medicare spending, and the tally of those cost reductions over the next 10 years is $716 billion."

PolitiFact was, in fact, dinging Romney for separate but related points he made, such as his claim Obama was the first president to divert funds from Medicare (he's not) and quibbling with the (obviously metaphorical) use of term "robbed." But the main point about the diversion of funds stands. By giving it a "mostly false" ruling, PolitiFact misled people as to the accuracy of the headline claim.

In some cases, the fact checkers even ignore their own analysis. Washington Post columnist Glenn Kessler twisted himself into knots in July when he tackled a series of Obama campaign ads and statements accusing Romney of being "outsourcer-in-chief." He conceded he was stymied because the ads cited the Post's own reporting. "The Fact Checker does not check the facts in the reporting of Washington Post writers or columnists," Kessler wrote.

Nevertheless he said, "[T]here is little in the Post article that backs up the Obama campaign's spin."

Kessler then bafflingly refused to declare the ad false because "this debate involves an interpretation of a Post article" and instead urged people to re-read the article and make up their own mind.

That makes no sense, based on what Kessler said earlier in his column about Obama's spin.

But that bit about reading the stories and making up our own minds? Now there's an idea.

Sean Higgins (shiggins@washingtonexaminer.com) is a senior editorial writer for The Washington Examiner. Follow him on Twitter at @seanghiggins.

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Sean Higgins

Senior Writer
The Washington Examiner