Fact-Checking the Press: The White House as Watchdog

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The logo above is taken from the White House blog of the same name.

It seems the White House has taken on a new role: fact checker. But they’re not just keeping tabs on political opponents. According to Time magazine, the White House will now respond directly to media and press coverage that the administration believes to be “misleading or simply false.”

Rebuttals will be made via the White House blog “Reality Check,” where the President’s communications team will take on reporting that is inaccurate.

After a summer of vitriolic, fringe-fired criticism about everything from health care reform to the President’s address to schoolchildren, White House communications director Anita Dunn told Time “It’s opinion journalism masquerading as news…They are boosting their audience. But that doesn’t mean we are going to sit back.”

A recent post on the White House blog took on critical press coverage of the administration’s use of so-called “czars.” The post refutes claims made by Fox News mainstay Glenn Beck and a piece in the Washington Post by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson (R-TX). Another recent blog post addressed criticism, again coming from Beck, of President Obama’s attempts to win the 2016 Olympic bid for Chicago.

But Michael Clemente, head of Fox’s news department, argues in Time that Beck isn’t a news reporter, but rather a pundit whose show Clemente compared to “the op-ed page of a newspaper.” And, in fact, Hutchinson’s piece in the Washington Post was on the op-ed page and was countered with a different opinion the following week.

According to Dunn, opinion should not, however, be contaminated by false information. As the White House blog and Time reveal, of the 32 alleged czar posts in Obama’s administration, “Nine of those so-called czars, it turned out, were subject to Senate confirmation, making them decidedly unlike the Russian monarchs.”  Dunn felt that the Post should not have printed the piece without verifying Hutchinson’s claim. “The idea — that the Washington Post didn’t even question it,” Dunn told Time.

Any organization with a clear agenda–even the the President’s office–can not be considered an objective, fact-checking body that looks at all sides before publication.

That said, it’s disturbing that the White House feels the need to fill a void left empty by the press, which should be monitoring itself for misinformation and keeping those who portray vitriolic opinion as fact accountable for their actions.

But this is no easy task, especially as the line between news and opinion continues to blur. Opinion should be based on accurate facts. Propagating false information hidden under the cloak of personal opinion is both lazy and unethical. However, in treating pundits and opinion writers — particularly those like Beck who traffic in personal attacks — as if they were serious news journalists, the White House perhaps makes a tactical error by further confirming their place in the media landscape.

It’s a tough call for the president. Do you let the public and the press sort this mess out on their own? Or do you step in and call out the lies or honest errors? And if you decide to monitor the press, where do you draw the line between legitimate news media reportage worthy of being held accountable and inflammatory drivel parading as fact that becomes more alive when you dignify it?

We’ll be watching the White House blog to see who they deem worthy of fact-checking attention.

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Fact-Checking the Press: The White House as Watchdog

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