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Fact-checking the talking heads on television

Kirk Caraway

Last week, Michael Moore appeared on CNN to talk about his new movie, “SiCKO.” But before the notorious loudmouth could talk, host Wolf Blitzer ran a “fact check” that challenged some of the claims in the movie.

What came next was the human equivalent of dumping a handful of Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke. Moore then fact-checked CNN, which later had to admit that it had some of its facts wrong.

When I saw the video of this, I thought, wow, wouldn’t it be great if CNN and the other news networks did this for all the news subjects they invite on the air?

This is one of the things that angers me the most about television news coverage. These talking heads are allowed to spew whatever falsehoods they want, and are largely unchallenged. Even when you get dueling guests who take up different sides of an issue, both of them will talk past the other, making sure to get their sound bites in, no matter what the facts are.

Journalists used to hold their subjects to account in the past, but I guess that wasn’t good for ratings.

Even CNN’s flawed attempt at fact-checking Moore is a step in the right direction. Too bad they couldn’t have applied that technique to President George W. Bush’s news conference later in the week. That was a target-rich environment for falsehood, and the fact-checkers were, for the most part, Bush’s own people.

In case you missed it, Bush tried to take a report showing the Iraqi government had made “satisfactory progress” on less than half of the benchmarks imposed on it at the beginning of the “surge” and make it sound like a passing grade.

Maybe 50 percent was all Bush needed to graduate from Yale, but the stakes are a bit higher here.

When you examine the benchmarks the Iraqi government made progress on, you will find they only get partial credit. For instance, the benchmark that the government would provide three trained and ready Iraqi brigades to support Baghdad operations? Yes, there are three brigades, but according to a Defense Department report to Congress last month, only one-half to two-thirds of the Iraqi soldiers have actually shown up, and those who have are poorly trained. Our troops complain that the Iraqis aren’t pulling their weight, but Bush calls this “satisfactory progress.”

Perhaps the biggest fact-checking item of all is Bush’s overall assertion that there is progress in Iraq, which he keeps claiming is the central part of the “War on Terror.”

This came the same week that U.S. intelligence analysts issued a report showing that al Qaida, operating from safe havens in Pakistan, has rebuilt itself to pre-9/11 strength.

It’s kind of hard to claim progress in a war when your enemy keeps getting stronger, especially when your army is tied down in a civil war two countries over.

On this point, Bush tried to make-believe that black was white. “There is a perception in the coverage that al Qaida may be as strong today as they were prior to September the 11th. That’s just simply not the case,” Bush said at the press conference. Either he doesn’t believe his own intelligence agencies, or he just doesn’t read what they give him.

As reality-challenged as Bush is right now, he’s an easy target for fact- checking. Too bad nobody did anything sooner. During Moore’s rant on CNN, he made the point that if the mainstream media had applied the kind of fact-checking to Bush and his people five years ago that they did to him, there wouldn’t be a war in Iraq.

It is the responsibility of the news media to cut through the spin that comes from both sides of the political spectrum and to check what they portray as facts. It’s too bad that television news – and the rest of the news media – regularly fail in this endeavor, as all of us depend on them to hold our government accountable. We all can’t go out and read every report to see if our leaders are shinning us on.

Now that we have blogs pointing out the egregious media errors, hopefully these companies will learn to invest more resources in getting the facts right, instead of spending money following Britney Spears’ adventures in alcohol rehab.

• Kirk Caraway is editor of http://nevadapolitics.com and also writes a blog on national issues at http://kirkcaraway.com.