Sep
01
2007

Checking the FactCheckers

FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, bills itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit, ‘consumer advocate’ for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in U.S. politics.” But in its July 18 response to the International Association of Fire Fighters’ video critical of Rudolph Giuliani’s September 11 performance, which it accused of taking “liberties with the truth,” FactCheck continued a pattern of partisan double standards (Extra!, 11-12/05) that does more to confuse than to undeceive the U.S. electorate.

FactCheck took issue with several points in the firefighters’ video, including the role of faulty radios in firefighters’ deaths on September 11: “The video goes too far when it implies that bad radio communication was the only reason that 121 firefighters failed to clear the North Tower of the Trade Center after the first tower collapsed,” the group declared. The topic was summed up:

The 9/11 Commission ultimately concluded that “the technical failure of FDNY radios, while a contributing factor, was not the primary cause of the many firefighter fatalities in the North Tower.” Families of the firefighters who died on 9/11 have strongly disagreed with that finding. However, the commission based its conclusion on more than 100 interviews it conducted directly, plus transcripts of 500 additional interviews that the fire department had conducted.

In other words, by reporting their own impressions of went wrong on September 11 rather than relying on the findings of a political commission that they disagree with, the firefighters went “too far.”

The video presented firefighters’ claims that when they protested reduced search efforts at Ground Zero, “Giuliani had them arrested.” FactCheck responded:

This is false. When New York City firefighters staged a protest on Nov. 3, 2001, only 18 people were arrested, according to news reports, and not by mayoral decree. In fact, about a week later, Giuliani announced that the city would drop the harassment and criminal trespass charges against 17 of the protesters.

Perhaps in other cities people are arrested “by mayoral decree,” but in New York City, the police do it—and if it’s a high-profile political case, the mayor is generally understood to know of and approve the action. To say that people who were arrested weren’t really arrested because charges were later dropped is not fact-checking, it’s spinning.

FactCheck compares the anti-Giuliani video to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth ads attacking Sen. John Kerry during the 2000 presidential campaign. But at the time, FactCheck’s response to the Swift Boat ads was very different from its forceful condemnation of the firefighters’ video: Comparing Kerry’s and the Swift Boat Vets’ accounts of what happened in Vietnam, FactCheck declared (8/6/04): “At this point, 35 years later and half a world away, we see no way to resolve which of these versions of reality is closer to the truth.”