Fact-free checkers

I watched last night’s VP debate despite my deep personal desire to, you know, not do that, and while I don’t really think there’s much of anything substantive to say about the debate itself (Pence won because, despite lying virtually non-stop from beginning to end, his performance was not as unpleasant to watch as the seemingly jittery Kaine), something came up in the fact-checking afterward that should be getting more attention.

Full disclosure: I think the advent of fact-checking journalism is one of the worst things that’s happened to the media in my lifetime. Not only does it absolve regular journalists from having to check facts, thereby enabling them to safely retreat into safe, lazy, “shape of the world: views differ” stenography, but you have to deal with the added problem that the fact checkers are frequently terrible at checking facts.

So it was last night, specifically with respect to an exchange that Kaine and Pence had around the Iran nuclear deal:

KAINE: Do you know that we had 175,000 troops deployed in the battlefield in Iraq and Afghanistan? Do you know that Iran was racing toward a nuclear weapon and Russia was expanding its stockpile?

Under Secretary Clinton’s leadership, she was part of the national team, public safety team that went after and revived the dormant hunt against bin Laden and wiped him off the face of the Earth. She worked to deal with the Russians to reduce their chemical weapons stockpile. She worked a tough negotiation with nations around the world to eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program without firing a shot.

PENCE: Eliminate the Iranian nuclear weapons program?

KAINE: Absolutely, without firing a shot. And instead of 175,000 American troops deployed overseas, we now have 15,000.

Now, as Ali Gharib writes at LobeLog, the sentence I’ve bolded above should be rated “false.” But the reason it should be rated “false” is because, according to every available intelligence report, Iran didn’t have an active nuclear weapons program to “eliminate.” Whatever nuclear weapons program it may have had was halted in 2003, and even work on “dual use” technologies seems to have stopped around 2009. But here, per Gharib, is how the fact checkers at ABC and The New York Times handled the exchange:

ABC News gave the discussion a nifty heading—”Kaine says Clinton helped eliminate the Iranian nuclear program”—and, after rehashing the back-and-forth, rendered its judgment: “Grade: False.” Luckily for us, they offered a justification, with my emphasis:

Explanation: The nuclear agreement reached between six world powers and Iran last year does not completely eliminate the Iranian nuclear program. Its major achievement, as told by the Obama administration, was getting Iran to commit to reduce its stockpile of nuclear material and cease further enrichment, effectively extending the time it would take Iran to build a bomb.

The New York Times was a little less harsh on Kaine, but the newspaper of record also took a dim view of the Democrat’s assertion, grading it an “exaggeration.” The paper’s White House correspondent, Mark Landler, offered up his own explanation:

Senator Tim Kaine’s assessment gives Hillary Clinton more credit than she or the Obama administration deserves. It is true that the nuclear agreement sharply cuts back the number of centrifuges and nuclear material Iran can have, prolonging the period of time Iran would need to manufacture a weapon. But it does not eliminate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure, and the deal has a sunset clause, meaning Iran will be able to resume its work after the deal expires in 15 years.

For “fact checkers,” these folks are mangling the facts pretty badly. ABC just straight up misquotes Kaine, turning “nuclear weapons program” into “nuclear program” (they’re, uh, not the synonymous) and then rates his statement “false” on the basis of their own factual error. In the NYT’s case, the error is subtler but just as wrong. For Landler to say that “Iran will be able to resume its work after the deal expires in 15 years” assumes a couple of things: first, that it was already doing the work it will supposedly be “resuming,” which, if Landler knows something the CIA doesn’t then he should probably speak up; and second, that Iran will be totally free from restrictions at the end of that 15 year window. Except, as a party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is bound not to develop or acquire nuclear weapons in perpetuity. This is the same obligation that limits all but a small handful of nations around the world to civilian nuclear uses only. Iran will still be bound by the NPT, will still be under its prescribed inspections regime, and will be subject to penalties if it violates its obligations.

Also too, the first freaking paragraph of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action concludes with the sentence “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.” There’s no sunset, no 15 year time limit, nothing. Iran remains bound not to pursue nuclear weapons, period, for good.

Could Iran “resume its work,” whatever that means, regardless of the NPT? Sure, covertly, but by that measure it could also “resume its work” right now, covertly, and the 15 year “expiration” of the JCPOA doesn’t matter one way or the other. The implication of Landler’s “fact” check, though, is that something special happens in 15 years that would legally permit Iran to pursue nuclear weapons, and, factually speaking, that’s completely inaccurate.


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