Fact Check

Wednesday's Example of Media Bias   —   Posted on December 14, 2011

From a post by OpinionJournal.com’s editor James Taranto (original post date 12/9/11).

At [a debate recently, Republican presidential candidate] Newt Gingrich declared: “So in a Gingrich administration, the opening day, there will be an executive order about two hours after the inaugural address; we will send the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, as of that day.”

The presence of the U.S. Embassy in Israel’s largest metropolitan area rather than its capital has long been a sore point for Americans who sympathize with the Jewish state. But Gingrich is far from the first presidential candidate to promise such a move, a history that leads the Associated Press to produce one of its “fact check” articles. The dispatch…is titled “Fact Check: Israel Embassy Promise May Be Empty.” It exemplifies what is wrong with the “fact check” genre, so much so that it shows the AP literally doesn’t know the meaning of the word “fact.”

The trouble here is that there isn’t a fact to check. Gingrich’s statement is one of intent, not fact. To the extent that the headline is true, it is because it is trivial. Any promise by any politician “may be empty.”

Here is the most persuasive part of [the AP] rebuttal:

THE FACTS: A promise to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem has become a standard part of pro-Israel political rhetoric. Similar pledges were made during their campaigns by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But no administration has ever acted on such a promise once in office. . . .

A 1995 U.S. law recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and ordered the U.S. embassy to move to Jerusalem from a neutral site in nearby Tel Aviv. Using their presidential power, Clinton, Bush and Obama have routinely suspended the relocation of the embassy while saying the U.S. is still committed to doing it.

Apart from the bizarre reference to Tel Aviv as “a neutral site”–most Arab and Muslim countries refuse to recognize Israeli sovereignty at all, not just in Jerusalem and the West Bank–these paragraphs are factual.

These facts lend support to the conclusion that, as the headline puts it, Gingrich’s promise to move the embassy is “empty”–or, to put it in more neutral terms, that it is unlikely that a President Gingrich would actually move the embassy. And we agree with that conclusion: It is unlikely. But that is a conjecture, an educated guess about the future, not a fact. …

But the idea that Gingrich’s pledge is contrary to fact because other politicians have failed to keep the same promise is beyond ludicrous. Did the AP in 2008 run a “fact check” rebutting Barack Obama’s promise to enact “heath-care reform” because so many previous presidents have futilely attempted to do so? …..

It would not have been hard to recast this story to make it journalistically sound, though it would have entailed a bit more work. [The AP reporter] could have begun by reporting the Gingrich promise, then put it in historical context by noting the record of other presidents. The arguments for why such a move is a bad idea could have been aired, too–not in [the reporter’s] own voice, but by interviewing diplomats or scholars who think it’s a bad idea. It might also have been worthwhile to seek a follow-up interview with Gingrich or a spokesman to ask why voters should expect him to keep this promise when past presidents haven’t.

Instead, the AP published what is essentially an opinion piece, and a rather lazy one at that. …To label that a “fact check”–as if it had some greater authority than actual reporting–is fundamentally dishonest.