It's Tuesday, so once again Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is dominating the national conversation. At time of writing, The Washington Post has gotten at least nine articles out of her 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper over the past two days. Some are supportive, but centrist "straight" reporters and columnists are skeptical. Aaron Blake says her response to complaints about bungling facts "just so happens to be the underlying ethos of the entire Trump presidency," while former neocon Max Boot compared her to both Trump and Sarah Palin for the same reason.
This hysterical reaction, while wildly off-base, is also an instructive lesson in the political ideology and functions of centrist journalism.
First, let's go through the complaint here. Ocasio-Cortez really has fumbled a few facts. Most notably, she incorrectly stated that leaks in the Pentagon budget could finance a big portion of Medicare-for-all, which is not true at all. The Washington Post's fact checker Glenn Kessler identified a few other more suspect claims in an article from August (more on this later).
When Cooper asked her about this, she responded:
OCASIO-CORTEZ: If people want to really blow up one figure here or one word there, I would argue that they’re missing the forest for the trees. I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.
COOPER: But being factually correct is important —
OCASIO-CORTEZ: It’s absolutely important. And whenever I make a mistake. I say, "Okay, this was clumsy," and then I restate what my point was. But it's not the same thing as the president lying about immigrants. It’s not the same thing at all. [60 Minutes]
Thus Boot argues that she "cares more about ideological correctness than factual correctness. "The Post’s Fact Checker has documented her reign of error," he writes, citing Kessler's article. He concludes that if "this attitude takes hold among the broader populace, responsible self-government becomes impossible, and radical demagogues will succeed reactionary ones."
We should first note that Boot isn't being quite accurate himself. Ocasio-Cortez did not say ideology is more important than accuracy, she said accuracy is not more important than being morally right. But let's dig into the more pressing factual question here.
When I started my journalism career, I worked as a fact checker for many months. Focusing on strict empirical truth is a devilishly tricky business (and a decent introduction into the basic problems of epistemology), but one that is key to quality reporting. It also bears scant resemblance to The Washington Post's Fact Checker column.
For instance, one of the key tasks of fact checking is figuring out not just when something is mistaken, but how it might be fixed. Very often a writer will say something that is not strictly accurate, but is pretty close and might be corrected with a slight change of wording. Your job as the fact checker is to help the writer both by correcting errors and by figuring out how they might make their case stronger.
Many public fact checkers hardly ever do this. Much more frequently, they do gotchas — reading something to find a narrow inaccuracy, proclaiming a Truth Harm, and moving on. Thus are the partisans on the left and right put in their place, and the centrist reporter raised up as the neutral arbiter of facts.
Of course, most of the facts in the Fact Checker articles — particularly the hundreds of Trump ones, because he is a veritable daily piñata of lies — are fine. Pretty much everything Trump says is wrong or deceptive and they do a good job pointing that out. But occasionally they are astoundingly sloppy, which is nowhere more obvious than with Ocasio-Cortez herself. Kessler himself epically botched a fact about Medicare-for-all in his Ocasio-Cortez fact check back in August, claiming that the Medicare-for-all bill she supports would "slash payments to providers by 40 percent." This is off by a factor of at least 3.5 — a gigantic mistake that is absolutely ridiculous as a matter of basic arithmetic, which reveals Kessler has little or no familiarity with the structure of medical spending.
Despite being hounded about this ever since the article was first published, Kessler only fixed the error this week — in the process appending another false excuse, claiming the problem was "too much shorthand" instead of (embarrassingly) getting his facts wrong. Sounds like someone has a less-than-absolute commitment to rigorous empirical accuracy!
Even Ocasio-Cortez's worst mistake — saying the Pentagon has lost $21 trillion, which could pay for two-thirds of Medicare according to a Mercatus Center study — isn't completely off-base. This comes from taking a poorly-presented Nation article at face value, and it's not correct. But let's think like a fact checker: The military does in fact spend a ton of money and a whole lot of it is either waste or stuff we plainly don't need.
I estimated here that if we really attacked administrative waste, drug prices, and medical cost bloat in the American health-care system, we could cut total health care costs by $800 billion. That leaves only roughly $210 billion in revenue to make up. Annual military spending is $892 billion (if you count all the stuff that isn't in the Department of Defense base budget). We could absolutely find $210 billion in there — indeed, it would only take America back to the 2006-level of Pentagon spending. The tweet in question, while wrong, isn't quite as silly as it sounds.
As Ocasio-Cortez herself admits, accuracy is important. But the motivation behind the centrist tut-tutting here is probably to find some lefties committing errors so that they can be set against the gargantuan pile of lies and errors from Trump and the right, and thus produce a few scraps of evidence that this journalism is politically neutral — and centrist moderation is the only fact-based political coalition. That centrists can build up an "Ocasio-Cortez is similar to Trump" argument on top of an article which itself contained a major factual inaccuracy that went uncorrected for five months just gives the game away.