We've been living under the "fact check" era at newspapers for three or four years now. I tend to agree with the Wall Street Journal's James Taranto when he writes:
The "fact check" is opinion journalism or criticism, masquerading as straight news. The object is not merely to report facts but to pass a judgment. The Washington Post's Fact Checker blog ends each assessment with between one and four "Pinocchios," just like movie reviewers giving out stars.
Like movie reviewing, the "fact check" is a highly subjective process. If a politician makes a statement that is flatly false, it does not need to be "fact checked." The facts themselves are sufficient. "Fact checks" end up dealing in murkier areas of context and emphasis, making it very easy for the journalist to make up standards as he goes along ...
And yet they persist. I think many news reporters enjoy the freedom to just opine or offer analysis under the guise of "fact-checking."
Still, I thought this one from the Washington Post was particularly interesting. It deals with some statements presidential contender Herman Cain made about Planned Parenthood and race. Now, you will never find me defending anything that any politician says on account of how I believe that somewhere close to 100% of all politicians lie somewhere around 100% of the time. I'm all for checking out what they say and providing news consumers with information to combat their tendency to lie. In any case, it looks like Herman Cain made the "fact checker" at the Washington Post a bit upset by talking about Margaret Sanger's eugenicism.
You can read the relevant exchange (or what I assume is the relevant exchange) from "Face the Nation" at the top of the "fact check." Host Bob Schieffer asks why Herman Cain said that Planned Parenthood was more like "planned genocide" and why he said that Planned Parenthood put centers in black communities and targeted black babies.
Schieffer asked for proof that this was Planned Parenthood's objective. Cain says:
Cain: If people go back and look at the history and look at Margaret Sanger's own words, that's exactly where that came from. Look up the history. So if you go back and look up the history -- secondly, look at where most of them were built; 75 percent of those facilities were built in the black community -- and Margaret Sanger’s own words, she didn’t use the word "genocide," but she did talk about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born.
Cain also says something about Planned Parenthood not counseling women against abortions.
So what followed?
Did we get a list of the many Sanger quotes on eugenicism? Cain says to look at her words. Maybe he meant her piece for the New York Times where she led with a call for "racial hygiene" and said:
Birth control is not contraception indiscriminately and thoughtlessly practiced. It means the release and cultivation of the better racial elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extirpation of defective stocks -- those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.
Or maybe he was referring to her piece from the Birth Control Review where she wrote:
Eugenics is suggested by the most diverse minds as ... the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems. The example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feebleminded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation. The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.
Or maybe he was just referring to her line:
"Knowledge of birth control is essentially moral. Its ... practice must lead to a higher individuality and ultimately to a cleaner race."
Did we get stats on how Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in the country, and data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though they comprise only 13 percent of the population? Did the "fact check" include information on how nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women? Did we learn that 60% of black pregnancies in New York City end in abortion?
Did we learn that 97.6 percent of pregnant women going to Planned Parenthood in a recent year got abortions while fewer than 2.4 percent of pregnant women received non-abortion services including adoption and prenatal care?
No, no, we did not learn any of these things. Instead we were told that Margaret Sanger was a "racial pioneer." At worst, she may have exhibited an ever-so-slightly "paternalistic attitude toward African Americans." Dear God, I hope that the Washington Post's Glenn Kessler isn't asked to fact check something about American slave owners.
We get, in fact, many many paragraphs of contextualization to tell us that Sanger's racial eugenics weren't even unpopular at the time. I mean, heck, you can't really argue with that. I think -- there's a museum about this on the National Mall -- that even the leader of Nazi Germany was enthusiastic in his support of eugenics. You can look it up.
Of course, Cain wasn't talking about whether Sanger's racism was problematic for the time but, rather, just morally problematic. But in a "fact check" the "fact checker" sets the terms of debate. Got it?
You won't be surprised, then, that Cain got four Pinocchios, apparently mostly for accidentally revealing Margaret Sanger's eugenicism. And that's a subject that Planned Parenthood itself assures us -- assures us -- is in no way problematic.
No, really, the "fact checker" didn't manage to speak to anyone troubled by racial eugenics or abortion or any black pro-lifers working to highlight Sanger's (totally understood and contextualized by the Washington Post) views on eugenics. Perhaps pro-lifers are in short supply over at the Washington Post, I don't know. But he did get some really great sources at Planned Parenthood and they assure us that Sanger's comments are totally fine and nothing to be worried about and all those black fetuses are being very nicely taken care of at Planned Parenthood, OK?
So just remember next time you read a story about someone talking about "cultivation of better racial elements," "a cleaner race" and "the solution for racial ... problems," the Washington Post will be the first to tell you that you're probably reading about a "racial pioneer."
Four Pinnochios indeed!