Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
That's a Latin phrase from the Roman poet Juvenal, which roughly means "Who watches the watchmen?" But what's Latin for "Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?"
Recently, there was a tussle between blogger/media titan Arianna Huffington and PolitiFact.com
that raises this question.
PolitiFact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning project of the St. Petersburg Times, vets statements from elected officials and others and rates them on its Truth-O-Meter. Appearing on ABC's "This Week" on June 6, Huffington noted that Halliburton, which has had a role in the BP oil spill, "defrauded the American taxpayer of hundreds of millions of dollars." Liz Cheney, whose father was Halliburton's chief executive before becoming George Bush's vice president, was also part of the round-table discussion that day. She declared that Huffington was living on another planet and that her assertion had "no relationship to the facts." Huffington responded, "I'm so glad PolitiFact is going to be checking this."
In April, Jake Tapper, the interim host of "This Week," had asked
PolitiFact to fact-check guests on the show, accepting an idea first proposed by New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen. So, as she was jousting on-air with Cheney, Huffington thought she could corner her. And PolitiFact was game. As the site put it
, "We have a hard time resisting when people on national television ask us to fact-check them." PolitiFact assigned one of its veteran vetters, Angie Drobnic Holan, to the case, and three days later, it issued its verdict.
The PolitiFact report
noted that Halliburton's former subsidiary, KBR, which held one of the largest contracts assigned during the Iraq war (bagging about $31 billion), has repeatedly been questioned about its fulfillment of contracts. PolitiFact referred to a congressional investigation
that found Halliburton had overcharged the government $167 million for its purchases of gasoline, and noted that a government audit
had charged KBR with overcharging $4.5 million for meals it provided. PolitiFact also pointed out:
Government auditors have noted
that KBR refused to turn over electronic data in its native format and stamped documents as proprietary and secret when the documents would normally be considered public records.
The group added:
Over the course of several years, the Defense Contract Audit Agency found that $553 million in payments
should be disallowed to KBR, according to 2009 testimony by agency director April Stephenson before the bipartisan Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Commissioner Charles Tiefer, a professor at the University of Baltimore Law School, said that amount represents a small portion
of everything that auditors examined as potentially questionable.
The PolitiFact report further noted that the Justice Department is suing KBR for "knowingly including impermissible costs" in its bills to the U.S. government, and the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) director has estimated these bills could total $99 million or more.
But after outlining all this, PolitiFact pronounced Huffington's statement merely "Half True." What bugged PolitiFact was her use of the word "defrauded." It explained:
Some of the overbilling in Iraq appears to have been done from haste or inefficiency, or even in a desire to please military officials in the field without regard for cost. Whether the waste in contracting constitutes fraud is still being examined.
But PolitiFact also said:
In ruling on Huffington's statement, we find much in the public record to support her statement, most notably the Justice Department lawsuit. Certainly there have been hundreds of millions of dollars that Halliburton's KBR attempted to charge the government that have been denied.
Understandably, the "Half True" verdict did not go over well with Huffington. In a column
, she fired back, characterizing PolitiFact's conclusion as "an object lesson in equivocation, and a prime exhibit of the kind of muddled thinking that dominates Washington and allows the powerful to escape accountability." She added:
This isn't to lump PolitiFact in with Liz Cheney, but its attempt to bend over backwards to find the comfort of the middle ground is part of the problem it was presumably formed to combat.
Huffington cited a DCAA audit
that found KBR had filed more than $1.4 billion in questionable costs and $441 million in unsupported costs. She sarcastically poked at PolitiFact's assertion that there's "much evidence that makes us believe that hundreds of millions of dollars were lost to waste and inefficiency, not deceitful fraud":
Really? "Hundreds of millions" lost due to "waste and inefficiency"? Sure, no program is perfect, but when "hundreds of millions of dollars" just disappear, they don't fall between the sofa cushions. And why is it that all of Halliburton/KBR's "inefficiency" somehow redounded to the company's benefit and not the government's? In any case, the best defense PolitiFact could muster is that Halliburton/KBR was only a little fraudulent, and simply hugely, massively, and spectacularly incompetent. Thus, my statement was adjudicated Half True.
I'm a fan of the HuffingtonPost and PolitiFact. But it did strike me that Huffington had done a good job depicting PolitiFact as wishy-washy in its evaluation of her slam on Halliburton. Days later, PolitiFact replied to her assault.
Bill Adair, the Washington bureau chief of the St. Petersburg Times and editor of PolitiFact, insisted
it was "silly to suggest we were seeking a safe 'middle ground.' In fact, two days after her column ran, Huffington Post published a piece by another writer complaining that we gave Democrats too many False ratings." He acknowledged that the "Half True" rating can be quite frustrating, explaining that it means a statement "is accurate but leaves out important details or take things out of context."
As for Huffington's specific charge about Halliburton and KBR, Adair noted that "hundreds of millions of dollars have been identified as wasteful and potentially fraudulent, but the lines are not clear." But was PolitiFact giving Halliburton and KBR too much benefit of the doubt? When a company files more than $1.5 billion in questionable or unsupported costs and half a billion dollars in bills are disallowed, what's going on? I'm reminded of another media phenomenon: how difficult it is for mainstream media journalists to declare a president has lied. (I cover that here
Adair has a countercase. But he ends up relying on a cliche, noting proudly that PolitiFact has been blasted by conservatives it has fact-checked and also by liberals, as if this means it's doing something right. He writes, "The lesson of these episodes and many others is that we have found one thing that conservatives and liberals agree on: They don't like it when independent news organizations hold them accountable for what they say."
I suppose no one does. So I hope Adair takes it well when I point out that PolitiFact did miss a big piece of this story. Readers can judge for themselves if Huffington was ill-advised or justified in using the word "defrauded" on the basis of all those investigations and findings. (I lean toward calling fraud "fraud.") But what is beyond dispute is that Liz Cheney was dead wrong. On "This Week," she said that Huffington's charge had "no relationship to the facts." Given that even the stingy vetters of PolitiFact concluded there is "much in the public record to support [Huffington's] statement," Cheney's denial deserves the Truth-O-Meter's "Pants on Fire" rating.
Yet PolitiFact didn't evaluate Cheney's remark. So here's the real problem: Huffington made a charge that was rooted in reality. Cheney responded with a statement that had no basis in reality. Yet PolitiFact zeroed in only on the former and let the real lie escape. True, Huffington had dared PolitiFact to review her remark. But Adair and his intrepid band were free to expand the mission. The greater public service would have been to compare Huffington's and Cheney's comments and determine who was closer to the truth. This is where PolitiFact truly fell short.
Having said that, I hope that this column survives any subsequent fact-checking -- and that both Huffington and PolitiFact continue to expose officials, candidates and pundits who flagrantly mug the truth to cover up the misdeeds and improbities of the powerful.
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