When Did Checking the Facts Become Taking a Candidate ‘at His Word’?

Before the first presidential debate, CNN sent out a press release to promote the idea that they’d be doing factchecking of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. It’s kind of sad that this would be considered a novel enough idea to warrant a press release, but the actual factchecking was nothing you’d want to call attention to.

Anchor Wolf Blitzer cued up the night’s first “reality check” from correspondent John Berman, “on the president’s claim that Mitt Romney wants a $5 trillion tax cut.”

And here comes Berman’s factcheck:

Now let’s look at the facts here. Mitt Romney does propose across-the-board 20 percent tax cuts. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center says under that plan, taxes on the wealthiest Americans would be reduced by $5 trillion initially.

Romney said he would offset that by closing loopholes and reducing reductions. So if you take him at his word, our verdict that Mitt Romney would cut taxes by $5 trillion, the verdict here is false.

Huh. So Romney wants a tax cut that would amount to $5 trillion. But since he has an unspecified plan to make up that amount by closing loopholes and deductions–which is, according to an array of critics, mathematically impossible without raising taxes on the middle class–Obama’s claim is false.

That’s a strange way to do a factcheck. If you take Romney “at his word,” even though he hasn’t really explained how his plan would work,  then he must be right.

Foreman’s next item only makes matters more confusing: “Mitt Romney claims that, even with these tax cuts, he will not add to the deficit.”

This is, of course, directly related to what Obama just talked about. So what does Berman say?

Want to look at the facts here again. Mitt Romney has not laid out specifics for how he would pay for his tax cut. He says it’s by reducing deductions and closing loopholes, but he hasn’t said which or how many. So the verdict here is simply incomplete. We just don’t know, Wolf.

Make sense? Obama says Romney’s $5 trillion tax cut is a $5 trillion tax cut. That claim is deemed false, because we’re to take Romney “at his word” that he will make up for the lost revenue by eliminating deductions without raising taxes on the middle class. When Romney won’t say which $5 trillion in loopholes he could possibly eliminate that won’t raise middle-class taxes–because, experts say, such loopholes don’t exist–that deception gets an “incomplete.”

“Incomplete” would be much too generous a description for this kind of factchecking.  In all fairness, Berman and CNN deserve to be awarded four flaming pinocchios.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.