The State of AP’s Factchecking Is Sad–as Usual

AP's Calvin Woodward

AP’s Calvin Woodward

Why does AP still let Calvin Woodward “factcheck” political speeches? Does no one at the news service know what actual factchecking looks like? (If you’re coming in late, see FAIR Blog, 10/30/08, 2/25/09, 4/30/09, 1/28/10, 8/31/12.)

Woodward’s latest venture (1/29/14) into the factcheck genre, following President Barack Obama’s State of the Union speech,¬† produced¬† yet more illustrations of what not to do when gauging the accuracy of political speech. Take this item:

OBAMA: “We’ll need Congress to protect more than 3 million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer. But I will act on my own to slash bureaucracy and streamline the permitting process for key projects, so we can get more construction workers on the job as fast as possible.”

THE FACTS: Cutting rules and regulations doesn’t address what’s holding up most transportation projects, which is lack of money. The federal Highway Trust Fund will run out of money in August without action.

In other words, “We’ll need Congress to protect more than 3 million jobs by finishing transportation and waterways bills this summer.”

Or try this one:

OBAMA: “Today, after four years of economic growth, corporate profits and stock prices have rarely been higher, and those at the top have never done better. But average wages have barely budged. Inequality has deepened. Upward mobility has stalled.”

THE FACTS: The most recent evidence suggests that mobility hasn’t worsened.

The difference between “upward mobility has stalled” and “mobility hasn’t worsened” is mainly Woodward’s attempt to put a positive spin on dismal numbers.

Obama said the Affordable Care Act was ” adding years to Medicare’s finances.” Woodward’s response:

The degree to which the healthcare law improved Medicare finances is hotly debated. On paper, the program’s giant trust fund for inpatient care gained more than a decade of solvency because of cuts to service providers required under the health law. But in practice those savings cannot simultaneously be used to expand coverage for the uninsured and shore up Medicare.

Yes, actually, they can. The ACA was neutral in its impact on overall government spending: The increased spending on insurance subsidies and Medicaid expansion was offset by cuts in payments to Medicare providers. That necessarily means that the Medicare system is loaning money to other parts of the government, so that the Treasury owes money to the Medicare trust fund–such debt being the only way one can be “adding years to Medicare’s finances.” But there’s no contradiction between overall government spending staying the same and one part of the government increasing its debt to another part.

There is a contradiction, however, between publishing “factchecks” like these and maintaining that your goal is to make your readers better informed.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.