During the Vice Presidential debate on Tuesday I saw a professor tweet that they wanted a fact check on whether the United States was the “greatest nation” in the world. It felt like an odd thing to complain about. Mike Pence used this once as a throwaway line. This statement was more forgettable than most of the debate, which is really saying something! On the other hand, I’ve been trying to write a post on what journalist can and can’t fact check for weeks. Pence provides a great example. Can we fact check a claim like the United States is the greatest nation in the world?
To start off I want you to ask yourself, how do you feel about the United States?
I love statistics, but that’s not the first thing that came to mind when I thought about the US. This is what makes fact checking a statement like Pence’s deceptively tricky. We can fact check specific outcomes. For example, if Pence said the United States has the best health care system in the world, we could look at the disproportionately high cost of health care in the US without a corresponding increase in life expectancy. There’s a lot of room for improvement. If Pence made a specific reference to America’s wealth, we could check both per capita income and inequality levels (I like this particular illustration from Pew). Whenever a politician says the United States is the greatest nation in the world at a particular thing, we can check whether that is factually true.
When US politicians say America is the greatest nation in the world, it’s rarely providing facts that America is great at X, Y and Z. It’s about giving people a feeling. If someone comes along and tells you that your feelings about the United States are wrong, that’s not a fact check. It’s a value judgment. We may have different feelings about the United States. After all, it’s a big country. That’s not the point. Pence’s claim that the United States is the “greatest nation” in the world is a great way to separate journalists’ role as literal fact checkers from how they handle moral judgment.
My guess is the professor who wanted a fact check of Pence disagrees with his broader moral values. Since Pence’s long record was barely discussed during the debate, it would be valuable for journalists to explain how Pence’s distinct moral values influence his public policy. You may recall how a wide range of Americans – including large corporations – disagreed with Pence’s support of a state law that discriminated against gays. Pence has also pushed for the strongest anti-abortion measures since Roe v. Wade and tried to block Syrian refugees from resettling in Indiana. The first law was repealed after fierce protest from the business community; the other two have been ruled unconstitutional. Pence’s moral values led him to the Republican ticket. People will disagree on whether Pence’s policy is good or bad, but I expect both sides would largely agree with this description of Pence’s social policies.
Critical academics love to attack the caricature of journalistic objectivity, arguing that everyone has their biases. But journalistic objectivity has never meant being unbiased. Objectivity is a way for journalists to distance themselves from making moral claims in their writing (Tuchman 1972). Let’s say a reporter at an objective publication felt Pence is a religious extremist. They couldn’t put those feelings in print. However, they could keep calling Pence’s opponents until someone says Pence is an extremist. This form of “he said, she said” journalism is unlikely to satisfy critical academics. Publishing a back-and-forth on Pence’s claim that the United States is the “greatest nation” in the world isn’t the same as a reporter using their own moral authority to check Pence.
Since more and more of my academic contacts have called for journalists to impose some kind of moral sanctions in their campaign journalism, I wanted to tell you a story from my reporting days. I heard Robert Byrd was putting a hold on the DREAM Act. This was back in 2002, when the bill was initially up for Senate consideration. (Got to love how quickly Congress can move!) Anyway, I called Byrd’s office and a spokesman confirmed that the Senator was responsible for the hold. I asked why, and he said Byrd needed “more time to study the bill.” I was calling in August. I knew the Senate was on recess. So I asked the spokesman whether his boss would have had enough time to read the bill by the time the Senate reconvened. He said he wasn’t sure, which is awfully suspicious.
I was mainly concerned with whether or not Byrd’s spokesman was telling me the true reason why his boss put a hold on the bill. I didn’t consider the ethics of whether a temporary hold was legitimate public policy. I didn’t try to hold Byrd accountable on some moral level for blocking a “good” bill. To be honest, I had no idea whether the DREAM Act as it was written in 2002 was a good piece of legislation by the time I filed my story. I knew there were arguments for it and against it. I knew both sides made assumptions about what was morally correct and the long-term implications of the bill.
I did not want to give a moral stance on the DREAM Act when I covered it. It’s not that I was working for an objective news organization so I “had to” avoid taking a side. I sought out objective journalism so I could share a wide range of important information and viewpoints with my readers instead of sharing my own opinions. I grew up in a household where everything was portrayed in black and white. Being able to empathize with a wide range of sources – even politicians I vehemently disagreed with – was incredibly liberating. Not having to take a moral stance while I was covering political campaigns made it easier to advocate moral stances in my private life outside of the newsroom. This also made teaching more enjoyable for me and better for my students.
When I was a political journalist, I got lied to on a regular basis. A big part of my job was sorting through the lies. You’d figure political journalists and former journalists would be the strongest voice saying readers need a strong hand to guide them through the minefield of lies. However, I found journalists always showed the most confidence in the audience. They believed that if they laid out the facts, audience members could reach the appropriate moral conclusions. Of course, some audience members will back the politician and attack even the most neutral, fact-based journalist. If that journalist jumped up and down and said the politician is an awful human being, would that moral condemnation do anything to make their article more persuasive?