Networks Divided on How to Fact Check

The Sept. 26 presidential debate demanded fact checking. It was unclear what the next day’s broadcasts would do.

NBC responded with fifty-five seconds of fact checking inside another story. CBS had a whole story devoted to it. ABC avoided fact checking altogether.

NBC’s Peter Alexander pointed out three misstatements, two by Donald Trump and one by Hillary Clinton…saying only that they were not true.

For example, this on Clinton and the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

“Not true. She praised the Trans-Pacific deal as the gold standard before opposing it.”

NBC Graphic

NBC Graphic

On Trump’s claim that the Clinton campaign started the birther controversy:

“That Trump claim, according to PolitiFact, also not true.”

NBC Graphic

NBC Graphic

Julianna Goldman’s report for CBS was distinctly different.

Instead of declaring a statement true or false, she provided contradictory facts.

Regarding Trump’s release of his tax returns:

“A letter from Trump’s tax attorneys says only his returns since 2009 are under examination by the IRS, and it does not say he shouldn’t release them,” Goldman said.

CBS Graphic

CBS Graphic

On the candidate’s position on the Iraq war:

“But six months before the war began, Howard Stern asked Trump in a radio interview if he was for invading Iraq.”

CBS Graphic

CBS Graphic

Finally, on Trump’s attitude towards climate change:

“Well he tweeted it. In 2012, Trump wrote, ‘The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese…'” Goldman said while also displaying the tweet graphically.

CBS Graphic

CBS Graphic

Goldman follows these fact checks on Trump with this graphic:

CBS Graphic

CBS Graphic

She says more than 80 percent of false statements made during the debate were by Trump.

On Clinton’s denial that she called the Trans-Pacific Partnership the gold standard:

CBS produced a clip from a speech in Australia in 2012 saying exactly that.

CBS Graphic

CBS Graphic

Unlike NBC, CBS consistently provided source material for their fact checking.

Are networks obligated to mention their source? Is it fair to the audience to leave this out? Does doing that put NBC and other media sources in danger of being distrusted?

Ken Auletta, a contributor for The New Yorker, praised CBS.

“CBS News was transparent about its fact-checking sources after the first presidential debate,” he said. “When CBS asserted that Trump or Clinton were not telling the truth, or that ‘more than 80%’ of the falsehoods uttered in the debate were by Trump, they left no room for viewers to think these were press-manufactured facts.”

Auletta said this is crucial to honesty from the press.

“If reporters are to reclaim their credibility as referees, we have to prove our impartiality by striving to be more transparent.”

Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan agreed, but said it doesn’t mean NBC did a bad job.

“I thought CBS’s was better, but NBC’s didn’t engender a feeling of mistrust in me,” she said. “It’s not like they’ve got some big scoop here and they’ve failed to tell you where that came from.”

“I don’t think it invalidates the fact checking or arouses suspicion in the viewer if you do it in a fairly quick way,” she added.

Sullivan still praised fact checking as a “great development that’s happened in journalism.”

“The more detail we can give news consumers the better.”

More from Auletta: 

  • “Two words often invoked in this presidential campaign are transparency and authenticity. Or to state both more simply: honesty.”
  • “Polls reveal that the public has an equally jaundiced view of the press, and a lack of transparency — or honesty — is central to their critique.”

More from Sullivan:

  • Referring to ABC:
    • “Id put that at the bottom of the barrel.”
  • Referring to NBC:
    • “As a viewer I didn’t find myself saying, ‘Oh my god where did they get that from?’”
    • “They didn’t think they should devote a lot of time to it within the short nightly news broadcast, but I thought it was pretty effective.”
    • “It was good that NBC did what it did and I found it credible.”
    • “If [viewers] were interested they could pursue it further.”
  • Referring to CBS:
    • “I thought that CBS’s approach, which was deeper and more thorough, was the best of the three.”

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