I've defined it as one who writes on the issue of truth while spinning on behalf of a partisan agenda.
Eric Alterman, formerly part of the left's media influence machine Media Matters for America, comes to our attention as another example of a truth-hustler via his "As a Matter of Fact" entry in his "Think Again" series at the Center for American Progress.
I'm skipping the portion dedicated to Alterman's obsession with Koch Industries. That leaves us plenty to work on.
Alterman presents us with the proposition that "reality has a liberal bias" may serve as a valuable device in explaining (or at least describing) a supposed tendency for conservatives to favor ideology over fact. The trick, of course, is for Alterman to make his case without favoring his ideology over the facts (hat tip to Dr. Sanity, who is among those to beat me to coining the term "reality-biased" as a play on Left's "reality-based" mantra).
Does he have good evidence?
Working the refs?
Without seeming self-conscious about either the aim of his column or his history with Media Matters, Alterman tells us that conservatives are effectively working the media referees. Instead of providing any example in support of his claim, Alterman offers up this odd portrayal of Mark Hemingway's critique of media fact checking:
As The Weekly Standard online editor Mark Hemingway complains, when such fact-checking organizations tend to find many more conservative lies than liberal ones, rather than respond that conservatives tell far more lies, the fact-checkers go looking for liberal fabrications and find them whether they exist or not. How else could the priests of false equivalence maintain their law that "both sides do it" -- what I call "on-the-one-handism" -- which has proven to be a fundamental tenet of Beltway faith?
The refs want to look fair!
Before we know it, Alterman has drifted from conservatives supposedly working the refs to the fact-checkers' attempts to appear fair (Alterman, of course, isn't working the refs!):
The American Prospect's Paul Waldman discerned this dynamic at work in 2011, when he bravely predicted that yet another of these fact-checking organizations, PolitiFact, would choose as its (gimmicky) lie of the year a "'lie' told by Democrats, even if the one it picks is far from the most egregious lie told this year, or even really a lie at all" -- owing to the fact that the previous two years, Republicans had been caught fibbing. Three times in a row is enough to cry partisanship whether it exists or not, so Waldman was on pretty strong ground despite the damage that such a strategy might do to the organization's reputation for intellectual integrity.
Alterman's subsequent example, Jon Stewart's claim about Fox News viewers being the most misinformed, fares worse if anything.
Alterman's examples actually suggest that some on the Left take poorly-supported propositions as truth and count against others the failure to equally subscribe to those dubious propositions.
The truth, no spin
Alterman's right that fact checkers want to appear fair, and I would grant that PolitiFact's 2011 "Lie of the Year" may reflect an influence from that motivation. But studies show that referees are biased. For example, referees working home games tend to favor the home team. Is that relevant when audience feedback for fact check stories comes primarily from the political left? And when journalists as a group tend well left of the general population?
Simply in terms of science, we can't accept without good evidence a narrative from liberals that liberals have a better handle on the truth. We clearly can't just take their word for it. We shouldn't accept as evidence studies with rampant selection bias problems. And we should view with suspicion writers such as Alterman who trumpet the high value of dubious evidence.