Yesterday NYU Professor Jay Rosen, PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair, and Director Brooks Jackson were all interviewed on California radio station KPFA’s Letters to Washington. Host Mitch Jesserich led a interesting discussion between the three, starting with Professor Rosen and his explanation of how his idea came about and his analysis of the current state of the Sunday shows:

An argument about common facts in which the parties and their representatives can take divergent views on those facts is one thing, but an argument where people don’t even agree on facts and what is true in the first place is a completely different thing.

Professor Rosen said he believed the goal of the Sunday shows was to both “take the temperature of Washington” and attempt to start the week by making news with statements made by guests, but that the format of the shows has not adjusted to an increasingly hyper-partisan Washington and that the hosts “tend to show a chronic lack of imagination in responding to shifts in the political game itself.”

Regarding Meet The Press host David Gregory’s statement that there was no need to have a “formal arrangement” for fact checking the show’s guests, Rosen said:

My sense is that David Gregory believes that he himself is a fact checker and if somebody tries to pull anything shady on his show he lets us know right away because he’s an expert interviewer.

Rosen believes Mr. Gregory seems to expect that viewers and pundits from the left and right will later argue publicly about the statements made on air and that kind of post-broadcast attention will work fine by itself.

What he’s really saying is “There aren’t any facts to check after I’ve done my job and all there really is is the clash of opinion” and that’s a very bizarre position for a journalist to take.

The discussion then moved to PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair, who was very excited at the level of attention suddenly being applied to fact checking:

I’m really thrilled with how this all came about, I think Jay had a great idea, and I was glad to see Jake Tapper take him up on it and I think now it’s led to more fact checking by everybody.

Mr. Adair also gave his analysis of fact checking’s status quo:

This is really what the media should have been doing long ago. We’ve done it in fits and starts over the past 20 years – It’s not like fact checking is new – but I think what’s new is the ability to aggregate it to help people make sense of democracy better than we have before. And so that’s what we’ve done at Politifact, I know that’s what they’ve done at, and the more the better.

Brooks Jackson from agreed that in a world of mostly opinion-based journalism, facts have fallen to the wayside. He gave a historical view:

Journalism generally is kind of regressing to what it was in the days of the pamphleteers. Don’t forget when this republic was founded there were no independent news voices. Newspapers were owned by political parties, subsidized by them, and there wasn’t anything we would know today as objective news reporting.

And both Mr. Adair and Mr. Jackson indicated they thought the process of fact checking itself required both experienced journalists and a commitment of resources.

Mr. Jackson:

Well it does take time and it does take experienced staff – you can teach younger folks to do this – but ideally its under the supervision of somebody who’s a grizzled veteran who’s been lied to by politicians a few times and knows the experience of it.

hours of research, sometimes days, the important thing is you need to be absolutely sure of what you’re saying and sometimes research a subject with which you’re not familiar.

And that news organizations

could deploy the resources they have a lot better, maybe do less celebrity news reporting and more political fact checking

Professor Rosen then came back in to indicate there was another cost:

It’s not just that it takes time and knowledgeable people that you have to pay to exert a quality fact check. It’s expensive in that the results may really piss off one part of the audience. It’s expensive in that criticism coming from the culture war aspect of American politics – which is huge – can come down on your head if you do it.

Fact checking or insisting that a statement made was actually untrue and ungrounded in reality can disrupt the smooth flow of television and make for a lot of on-air awkwardness.

He specifically pointed out how an organization like CNN has attempted to be non-ideological while allowing unchecked ideology to flourish on their network.

They don’t see that their own professional routines have contributed to this.

All in all it’s a very interesting 20 minutes on the subject of not only fact checking the Sunday shows but on fact checking in general within journalism. The discussion begins at 40:00, take a listen..

KPFA’s Letters to Washington – 4/26/2010