Fact Checkers And Sort of Fact Checkers

Just hours before the terrorist attack that struck Paris last week, ABC This Week George Stephanopoulos asked President Obama, “ISIS is gaining strength, aren’t they?” and President Obama answered, “Well, no, I don’t think they’re gaining strength. What is true is that from the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them.”

In a recent Op-ed I wrote in The Hill, I criticized the President’s assessment with the statement:

“President Obama claimed that IS is not “gaining strength” and has been ‘contained.’  Yet, despite the Paris attacks proving this revelation false, President Obama has decided to double down on his willingness to imports tens of thousands of Syrian refugees into America.”

I am not the only critic.  The President’s statements even led Democratic Senator and vice-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Dianne Feinstein to counter President Obama’s assessment saying that ISIS is not “contained.”

So, it surprised me when I saw a comment at the bottom of the page saying the my use of the President’s ‘contained’ statement was “completely disingenuous” and that “What he [Obama] said was 100% accurate. PolitiFact rated the statement completely true.”

Was I wrong in saying the President’s statement was false?

After looking into this claim that I was wrong, I came to the realization that, the fact-checker Lauren Carroll did shoddy work and was just way too ambiguous.

First and foremost, Carroll’s ambiguity starts when she states that she wasn’t fact-checking the President.  The statement listed in Carroll article was not made by President Obama but by White House deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes who stated:

“When President Barack Obama said ISIS, or ISIL, was contained, he “was responding very specifically to the geographic expansion of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.”

Carroll even went to twitter to defend the idea that she was not fact-checking Obama but rather she was checking Rhodes:

This can be confusing because instead of actually fact checking President Obama’s words (which is what she should have done), she fact-checks a third party’s statement about what President Obama said. One twitter observer sums up the issue nicely:

Regardless, Carroll justified the “True” rating by highlighting that “where he [Obama] made this comment, it is quite clear that it’s within a narrowly defined scope: ISIS’s territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria.”

Breitbart News, John Nolte, I believe makes a correct assessment when he states that this is “sleight-of-hand.” that “comes from basing its ‘True’ rating — not on the question Obama is asked — but how the President chose to answer it.”

Carroll’s note that the President’s statement was about specific geographical containment is a bit questionable as well.

However, Nolte correctly notes that Stephanopoulos’s question was not specific about territorial gains, but rather:

“A question about the overall strength of this particular Islamic terrorist organization. In answer to that general question, Obama chose to answer this way.”

Additionally, I believe Carroll ignores a statement, in her own article, by Frederick Kagan, director of the Critical Threat Project, which said:

“Even though they haven’t expanded territorially recently… ISIS has actually expanded globally — with strongholds and cells in Libya, Yemen, the Sinai region, and Bangladesh, as well as establishing ties with other terrorist organizations in Africa.” {emphasis my own}

These assessments, plus the ambiguity between whether it was President Obama or Ben Rhode’s being fact-checked is sloppy journalism at its best.

Nolte has numerous good charges as to why the PolitiFacts article needs to be reassessed. At the bare minimum, there should be a disclaimer at the bottom, and perhaps, a new title.

Personally, I agree with Senator Feinstein, Mr. Nolte, and Mr. Kagan and stand by the original assessment I made in The Hill.

About Alex VanNess

Alex VanNess is a fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth and formerly served as the director of the Middle East Peace and Security Policy at the Center for Security Policy. In the past, Mr. VanNess worked as an Intern for Congressman Doug Lamborn and then later as a member of staff for Congressman Tom McClintock of California. His articles have appeared in The American Thinker, Breitbart News, The Washington Examiner, and The Daily Caller, where he writes extensively on U.S. defense spending, the U.S./Israel strategic relationship, and the existential threats posed by Islamic fundamentalism. Alex holds a degree in Political Science and Peace & Conflict Studies from Wayne State University, and has studied Jewish Law and Philosophy at Shor Yoshuv Rabbinical College in New York.