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A Salute to the Enduring Terribleness of Politifact/Punditfact

We need good fact-checking in this country, but we do not need these guys.
President Truman reviews the District of Columbia military police, 1946.
President Truman reviews the District of Columbia military police, 1946.

Yesterday, I got a note from the folks at Punditfact, an outgrowth of a thing called “Politifact,” which markets itself as a civic-minded fact-checking operation, but it’s not.  Fact-checking is a crucially important part of civic discourse and therefore citizenship, so I've long felt that it's a real shanda that the outfit that markets itself so aggressively as the brand-name provider of fact-checking, is in fact not doing that at all.  We need good fact-checking in this country, but we do not need these guys.  As the outfit persists, and indeed metastasizes, I worry that they’re giving a bad name to the whole otherwise-noble enterprise of checking facts.

In their note yesterday, the folks at Punditfact let me know that they wanted to fact-check a claim from my book Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, because it had been cited (by a blogger) in a discussion about President Obama saluting with a coffee cup in his hand the other day. 

The relevant portion of the book is from this bit (from pp. 36-37) about the Reagan presidency:

“Consequently, White House military aides saw a lot of the president, which perhaps bred a certain amount of familiarity, which could be why one aide, John Kline, wondered aloud if maybe Ronald Reagan was doing something out of line.  Kline noticed that his boss was saluting members of the armed forces.  Soldiers were supposed to salute their president; the president was not supposed to salute the soldiers. No modern president, not even old General Eisenhower, had saluted military personnel. It might even be, well, sort of, improper. Reagan seemed disappointed at the news. Kline suggested he talk to the commandant of the United States Marine Corps and get his advice, and the commandant’s advice ran something like this: You’re the goddamn President. You can salute whoever you goddamn well please. So Ronald Reagan continued saluting his soldiers, and he encouraged his own vice president and successor, George H. W. Bush, to do the same. And every president since has followed.”

So, this is about Reagan starting a new White House tradition of regularly saluting military personnel, something no president had done before. Reagan wrote about making the change in his memoirs. Punditfact even published a portion of a speech in which Reagan talked about his deliberate decision to change that tradition, to become the first president to start saluting military personnel as a matter of course.

So, what I wrote is true. Punditfact found it to be true. They published an amusing presidential speechmaking anecdote that not only shows that it’s true, but makes you feel all warm-hearted about its being true.  And then gave their rating:  “Mostly False”.  Ta-daa!

Usually, I ignore these guys.  Yesterday, I made the mistake of responding to their letter, which I regret. Don’t feed the trolls.  They included a line from my response to them in their rating, which I realize now may create the impression that I participated in this enterprise as if it was a real thing.  It’s not a real thing: it’s Politifact.  It’s terrible.

But in the interest of trying to spread the gospel of their terribleness, I thought I should share the whole note that I actually sent them, not just the bit they quoted:

Dear Punditfact folks --Are you serious?  General Eisenhower saluting at a full dress review of the troops in wartime, before he was president?  President Eisenhower waving with his hand vaguely near his hat, upon getting out of a car, once?Presidents before Ronald Reagan did not -- as a regular, daily feature of the office -- return the salute of military personnel.  Ronald Reagan writes in his own memoirs about how he decided to break that tradition when he started regularly returning salutes as President.  He started it -- other presidents have continued the practice since then.  That’s the truth.Acknowledging that truth is not the same thing as saying  that no president ever threw a salute, on occasion, before then.  But, given what you just sent over and given the patented Politifact approach to this kind of work, I’m sure you’ll cast it that way anyway.I remain, as always, amazed by you.Yours sincerely,Rachel Maddow

I know I shouldn't have fed the trolls, I know. 

Mostly Falsely Yours,