Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The problem with fact-checking

Factcheck.org is useful. Not perfect, but useful. The problem with it, as seen in previous similar efforts - Spinsanity was worse - is that it has a hard time with judgements about interpretation. This piece about one of Obama's ads, which I found via Swampland, makes some fair critiques that add to factual conversation about how much money oil and gas executives have donated to John McCain's campaign.

Obama's campaign says $2 million. Factcheck.org says $1.3 million. It's a significant difference, and describing how each arrived at its total is helpful, both to understand the point Obama's ad makes and to show the byzantine nature of campaign finance.

Still, to call Obama's ad a factual "overstatement" is itself a factual overstatement. I offer these pieces of information from Factcheck itself:

  • Much of the money given in June went to a joint fundraising venture of the McCain campaign, the Republican National Committee and several state GOP committees, an unknown portion of which was passed through to the McCain campaign itself.
  • David Donnelly, the national campaigns director of the Public Campaign Action Fund, defended the Obama campaign's ad: "There's a strong case to be made that more than $2 million was given by the oil and gas industry to advance John McCain's campaign."
  • The report does not say how much actually ended up in McCain's own campaign coffers and how much went to other Republican candidates and committees.
Factcheck chooses the numbers provided by the Center for Responsive Politics. It's true that they are easy to interpret, but it's also clear that they don't tell the whole story. Factcheck acknowledges that it doesn't know where all the money ended up, and there's no way they can know how much expenditures will be coordinated, whether illegally or nudge-nudge-wink-wink.

Obama's campaign also chooses figures best suited to make its point, and they don't tell the whole story either. That would be hard to expect in 30 seconds.

Update: Obama's Overstatement (so-called) in Newsweek, too.

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