Death of a fact-checker

Richard Threlkeld was killed in a car crash in New York this morning. A few people — news junkies, mostly — will recognize him as a former network news correspondent for CBS and ABC News. He cut his journalistic teeth as a TV reporter in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

More than likely, though, few people will remember that it was Threlkeld who made fact-checking political candidates a standard of network news. He started doing so with the famous Dukakis “tank” ad in the 1988 presidential election.

Very little of the ad was actually true, Threlkeld pointed out in a piece that took the assertions apart one by one. But it didn’t matter, because it was enough that Dukakis simply looked silly,.

Threlkeld and journalism expert Kathleen Hall Jamieson discussed the technique during a seminar at Jamieson’s Annenberg School for Communications in 1992. You can find a copy of the presentation here and it’s worth watching again.

During it, he lamented his company’s definition of balance: that if he found falsehoods in a campaign ad for then (vice) president George Bush, he had to find falsehoods in challenger Mike Dukakis. “The problem … you always want to find two sides of a story. In this case there was only one side of the story, and I was unsuccessful in convincing them that sometimes there’s only one side of a story.”

Coincidentally, Threlkeld’s death came on the same day that the New York Times, which sees itself as the defining standard of journalism, caused a ruckus in the journalism community by asking whether it’s OK in 2012 to point out the falsehoods of political candidates.

Also coincidentally, his death came the week that his former company, CBS, launched a new morning TV news show that it claimed — mostly, incorrectly — would put the “news back in morning news shows.” He and Leslie Stahl were the anchors of the CBS morning news show from 1977 to 1979. It tanked in the ratings.

  • JackU

    Nit Pick: then president George Bush

    It was 1988 so it should be vice president George Bush.

  • Jim Shapiro

    “It tanked in the ratings.” Nice. And so smooth I didn’t catch it on the first read.

    I remember Threlkeld from watching that hit show, “The War in Viet Nam”, starring Walter Cronkite. It was on every night for several years.

    ( That was before the war department did such a good job of controlling the news I guess. )