Last December, NYU professor Jay Rosen proposed something simple yet revolutionary: why don't the Sunday morning chat shows fact check their guests? After "Meet the Press" host David Gregory declined, two college students launched a website to do it for him. One of them, Chas Danner, explains what they're trying to accomplish.
BOB GARFIELD: In December, NYU Journalism Professor Jay Rosen proposed something simple that was, at the same time, revolutionary: Why don't the Sunday morning talk shows fact-check their guests? In a blog post, Rosen argued that there was plenty wrong with the Sunday show format but that fact checking each show and posting the results online on Wednesday would be a relatively easy way to add a little more accountability to the show’s guests, the hosts and the producers. But when Meet the Press host David Gregory was asked about the idea, he said that fact checking would not be incorporated into his show, saying, quote, “People can fact check Meet the Press every week on their own terms.” A week later, two college students took Gregory up on his offer and launched the website Meet the Facts. Paul Breer, a political science student in Kansas, and Chas Danner, a journalism student at The New School in New York City, comb through each episode of Meet the Press, list all of the asserted facts on their website, get help from other like-minded students of truth and eventually label the statements as true, mostly true, half true, or false. Chas Danner, one of the founders of Meet the Facts, joins me now. Welcome to the show.
CHAS DANNER: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Give me an example of non-fact or, you know, lie [LAUGHS] that you've come across.
CHAS DANNER: Last week, Mike Pence made some statements where an –
[BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
BOB GARFIELD: This is the congressman from Indiana?
CHAS DANNER: From Indiana, yeah.
BOB GARFIELD: Let's listen to what Mike Pence had to say.
MIKE PENCE: Yeah, the so-called Stimulus Bill that has taken us from 7.5 percent unemployment to nearly 10 percent unemployment nationwide -
BOB GARFIELD: So what was your take on that statement?
CHAS DANNER: So he’s using the right numbers there. He’s actually a little bit off, but he used it to suggest that unemployment is now worse because of the Stimulus Bill. USA Today did a survey of economists where they agreed that, in fact, the Stimulus Bill had cut the unemployment rate, that it would be much worse, in fact, if it hadn't been passed. And the Congressional Budget Office, which is a nonpartisan organization, said the same thing.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, there are other people in the fact-checking business already. They're nonpartisan, apolitical. I'm talking about Politifact -
CHAS DANNER: Mm-hmm.
BOB GARFIELD: - for example. You guys are both Democrats, and I wonder whether your fact checking will be deemed, you know, nonpartisan enough to be taken seriously.
CHAS DANNER: Well, you know, I mean, that’s certainly a problem. And that’s one of the reasons that we were very much out in front about that in saying, you know, we're Democrats, you don't have to Google us and find out. I don't personally believe that it’s possible to have no bias, but I certainly believe that you can do your work in a way that you disregard your bias. Facts are just facts. All we can do is say - we show our work, these are the links that we use, this is how we came to this conclusion. If people are going to disagree with us, then there’s nothing we can do about that.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I understand that you’re planning to show the time spent on each particular fact that you’re checking.
CHAS DANNER: As a way of explaining [LAUGHS] that, no, really people can't do this on their own terms. They need journalists to be doing this work.
BOB GARFIELD: But it also tells me that you’re spending a lot of time [LAUGHS] checking facts, trying to go to school. Do you plan to devote the rest of your life to make sure that David Gregory’s guests, and Gregory himself, get it right?
CHAS DANNER: I wish I could talk to David Gregory or Betsy Fischer, the executive producer, and, and make a case for what we're doing. If they ever agreed to do it, we would just give them all of our stuff. We'd give them the website, we'd give them the user names. It’s not my life’s calling to fact check Meet the Press forever, I don't think. But if it turns into a, a permanent counterpoint to Meet the Press, so be it. We don't want that to be the case. We want them to change course. But it’s something that needs to be done.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, NBC declined our request to discuss this subject, but they did give us a statement. “One of the core missions of Meet the Press is accountability, and we take that responsibility very seriously throughout an interview and in our preparation. In addition, we always welcome viewers and media monitoring groups to join the conversation by visiting our website or downloading our app where we post the transcript after the broadcast.”
CHAS DANNER: They're suggesting that their job ends with releasing the transcript. You know, we just think it’s their responsibility to confirm that people are being truthful on the show.
BOB GARFIELD: Meet the Press’ reputation with David Gregory and before him with Tim Russert hinged largely on its willingness to confront guests and question their statements and sometimes, you know, come up with a real gotcha.
CHAS DANNER: That certainly is, I think, the brand identity of Meet the Press in a lot of ways. That’s why it makes even less sense that they wouldn't want to do something like this. Imagine the end of the show where they say, okay, just as a reminder, everything you've heard we're going to look into. If somebody said something that wasn't factual, you know, we're going to let you know about it, or even part of the broadcast the next week. There’re so many different ways that getting this information would be beneficial to the program.
BOB GARFIELD: Well Chas, I appreciate your spending the time with us.
CHAS DANNER: I appreciate it as well. Thanks a lot.
BOB GARFIELD: Chas Danner studies journalism at The New School in New York City.