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updated: 8/31/2012 1:30 AM

Fact checkers criticized after saying Ryan erred

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  • Republican vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday.

      Republican vice presidential nominee, Rep. Paul Ryan addresses the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., on Wednesday.
    ASSOCIATED PRESS

 
Washington Post

TAMPA, Fla. -- Did Paul Ryan bend the truth?

The verdict, rendered by a slew of media fact checkers, was immediate and unequivocal: In his first major speech before the American people, the Republican vice presidential nominee repeatedly left out key facts, ignored context and was blind to his own hypocrisy.

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The speech contained "several false and misleading statements," declared FactCheck.org, run by the Annenberg Public Policy Center. The speech was "not without inaccuracies," asserted PolitiFact, the Pulitzer-winning project of the Tampa Bay Times.

But the push-back from the Romney campaign, and Republicans at large, was just as quick and just as self-assured. "Lemmings to their own death," read the headline of a column by Erick Erickson on the conservative Web site RedState.com. "The fact checkers are not checking facts, they are spinning," he wrote.

Jon Cassidy, writing on the Web site Human Events, said one fact-checking outfit declares conservatives inaccurate three times as often as it does liberals. "You might reasonably conclude that PolitiFact is biased," he wrote.

The Ryan experience, which consumed the Republican National Convention and the broader political world Thursday, was a hyper-fast example of a pattern that has emerged again and again during this campaign, as fact-checking operations created and institutionalized during the 2004 and 2008 races have become key referees in the fight between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama.

For Ryan, a leading issue is whether he was fair to blame Obama for the shuttering of a General Motors plant in his home town of Janesville, Wis.

"Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: 'I believe that if our government is there to support you . . . this plant will be here for another 100 years.' That's what he said in 2008," Ryan said in his convention speech. "Well, as it turned out, that plant didn't last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day."

After Ryan spoke, the Web site PolitiFact Wisconsin -- a partnership between PolitiFact and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel -- rated the assertion "false."

The site noted "the plant closed while [President George W.] Bush was still in office, about a month before Obama was inaugurated."

Kessler, who authors the Washington Post's Fact Checker, called Ryan's statement "technically correct but phrased in a way that might leave listeners with the wrong impression."

Conservatives said it was unfair to call the statement inaccurate. Although the plant closed in 2009, people had voted for Obama on the premise that he had the power to reopen it. Former New Hampshire governor John E. Sununu, a top Romney surrogate, said that "the sentence Paul Ryan used was correct" because Obama could have "done something to get it so that it would stay open for 100 years."

"So, with all due respect to the Obama people and the fact checkers, they're wrong," Sununu said. "I find it amazing that fact checkers themselves need fact-checking."

Ryan, in an interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, defended his remarks. "I'm not saying it was his decision," he said. "I'm saying he came and made these promises, makes these commitments, sells people on the notion that he's going to do all these great achievements, and then none of them occur."

Although Romney aides insist that they do not look to fact checkers to decide whether a line of attack is fair, Romney suggested this month that Obama do exactly that.

"You know, the various fact checkers look at some of these charges in the Obama ads and they say that they're wrong, and inaccurate, and yet he just keeps on running them," Romney said, blasting an ad by an Obama super PAC that blamed the Republican for the cancer death of the wife of a man who lost health insurance after Bain Capital closed his workplace.

On his Web site this week, Kessler posted a Romney news release describing the "Obama Campaign's Top Ten Lies & Exaggerations," which draws heavily from the work of fact checkers -- including seven references to his own column, nine to FactCheck.org and four to PolitiFact.

"This week, it's the Republicans' week. They're going to be very annoyed and pushy over the things we say," Kessler said. "I fully anticipate next week at the Democratic convention that the tables will be turned."

The campaigns may publicly take issue with the fact checkers, but journalists who run the projects say the political camps respond professionally to questions about statements made by their candidates. The Obama campaign has tasked one media officer to deal exclusively with fact checkers' questions, and top Romney adviser Eric Fehrnstrom often personally handles requests.

But Brooks Jackson, executive director of FactCheck.org, said he fears that the campaigns have come to see running afoul of fact checkers as something of a badge of honor.

And the fact checkers say they don't see their role as designed to change the behavior of politicians -- or to persuade the public of a particular point of view in any given debate. Their goal, they say, is to provide more information for voters to do with as they see fit.

"I don't know if we're winning hearts and minds," Adair said. "I know we're succeeding in informing people."

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