Cynicism about the media is so rife that as Election Day approaches, public debate seems to be as consumed with the fact checkers as the facts.
"In your Fact Check section today, it was pretty remarkable how unbalanced the coverage was," Randy Toney of Baton Rouge, La., wrote us. "I think it was 5-2 in favor, as usual, of President Obama."
Laura Stenzler of Ithaca, N.Y., on the other hand, was incensed that the president's challenger, Mitt Romney, wasn't being fact checked more. "Why am I not hearing from NPR about the false and inaccurate statements that Factcheck.org was able to report on within a day of the debate?" she wrote.
So I decided to fact check NPR's fact checkers. I reviewed all the checks made on Morning Edition and All Things Considered the day after each of the three presidential debates and the vice presidential debate.
My first finding: The two Republicans were called out more for being incorrect by 24-14 over the two Democrats. But candidates can also be found to have been correct on facts that are challenged. In this measure, NPR's checkers concluded that Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan did better than President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden by 12-9.
My second finding: The numbers by themselves don't mean much. What is important is that the NPR fact checkers were remarkably right, all criticisms to the contrary.
NPR's calls also jived pretty much with all the other major, systematic fact checking operations, including The Associated Press, The Washington Post, Factcheck.org, The New York Times, and Politifact. You can see the comparisons here.
Partisan media, such as Fox News, and the watchdog blogs were not included because I found that they cherry-picked which facts to check. Fox News, however, and almost every major media outlet additionally published The Associated Press fact check on their websites.
What the comparison shows is that there are indeed actual, unassailable facts in contentious issues such as tax cuts, health care, immigration, and the Benghazi attack. It also shows that too many of our ideologues, partisans and political leaders ignore these facts or deal in half truths.
A new survey of 5,500 listeners by NPR's Audience Insight and Research department confirmed widespread hunger for accurate facts. While not a scientific sample, the large number of online respondents overwhelmingly demanded that NPR include fact checking in all its political reporting, and not as an occasional feature.
Checking even led the list of what listeners want—more than candidate interviews, polls or information about the candidates' positions.
NPR's editors say they are trying to live up to that demand. "If we are in a position to say what's wrong with 'statement x,' then we say so," said Neal Carruth, who oversees election coverage.
Nothing in all this, moreover, means that they should check an equal number of claims by each candidate. In the search for truth, NPR's new ethics handbook rightfully stresses fairness, accuracy and independence, and not an artificial balance. Journalists should go where the facts lead them.
In the first debate, for example, NPR found that Romney was factually wrong nine times compared to just two for Obama. See the chart prepared by intern Laura Schwartz. Romney was more aggressive as a challenger in that debate and made more factual claims, however inaccurate.
But as Obama and Biden increasingly took off their gloves and began acting like challengers themselves, the numbers began to equalize. Ryan outdid Biden in being wrong, but only 6-5. In the second presidential debate, Romney still made more misstatements than the president, but the gap was now 6-2. By the third debate, in which Romney tried to appear presidential and made few factual claims, he also was wrong fewer times than the more aggressive Obama, 3-5.
In that debate, famously, both Romney and Obama challenged Americans to do their own fact checking and look up Romney's position on the government bailing out the auto industry. NPR's Frank Langfitt reported the next morning that in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Romney did indeed call for government loan guarantees after General Motors and Chrysler go through a bankruptcy process, contrary to what Obama said.
But facts by themselves are not enough. They require context to be meaningful. Langfitt's exchange with host Steve Inskeep continued:
LANGFITT: Well, the difference is that Governor Romney was talking about the federal government backstopping private investment to help these two companies get through bankruptcy. What President Obama is talking about was actually using taxpayer money to do it, which is how it went in the end.
INSKEEP: So the real difference between the two of them was whether or not to have spent billions of dollars in federal money on a bailout to keep the car companies alive.
LANGFITT: Yeah. What Governor Romney was talking about was federal guarantees. The problem is that would've required private investment. And at the time, it was very clear from the markets that there weren't any people who willing to put up that kind of money from the private sector to save these companies.
None of this is to excuse Obama's misstatement, but it keeps the issue of the auto bailout straight, and that is what is important to us as citizens.
You can find the complete list here of NPR's fact checks from the debates. You are welcome to judge for yourself how NPR is doing.