The opening of John McPhee's article on fact-checking in the current New Yorker (Checkpoints, Feb 9 & 16, 2009) suggests that checking the facts means checking each word for its factuality. Quoting a legendary fact-checker there, he writes:
Each word in the piece that has even a shred of fact clinging to it is scrutinized, and, if passed, given the checker's imprimatur, which consists of a tiny pencil tick.
This is revealed later on to be a metaphor and/or a record-keeping device; I think all involved know that literally checking at the word-level would be mostly pretty vacuous, and would miss a lot of assertions. My favorite non-word-level anecdote in the article:
Penn's daughter Margaret fished in the Delaware, and wrote home to a brother asking him to "buy for me a four joynted, strong fishing Rod and Real with strong good Lines …"
The problem was not with the rod or the real but with William Penn's offspring. Should there be commas around Margaret or no commas around Margaret? The presence of absence of commas would, in effect, say whether Penn had one daughter or more than one. The commas—there or missing there—were not just commas; they were facts, neither more nor less factual than the kegs of Bud or the colors of Santa's suit.
This is more or less perfect for anyone who has ever published a book on commas (not in an Eats-Shoots-and-Leaves way, but rather with the goal of using them as a window into certain intonational and semantic effects). The issue is whether Margaret functions as a restrictive modifier of Penn's daughter. If it does, then the way is paved for Penn to have more than one daughter:
(1) Penn's daughter Margaret is taller than his daughter Betsy.
If Margaret is merely appositional, then we'd do well to wrap it in commas, and then (1) becomes strange (indicated with #), because the first occurrence of Penn's daughter, lacking additional restrictive modifiers, presupposes that Penn has only one daughter:
(2) #Penn's daughter, Margaret, is taller than his daughter, Betsy.
McPhee has it right with the slight "in effect" hedge: failing to include the commas would not assert that Penn has more than one daughter, it would just suggest this pragmatically. We tend to expect that each restrictive modifier we encounter will do some work, usually by removing some objects from consideration and focusing us on others. Thus, "Penn's daughter Margaret" creates the expectation that Penn has at least one non-Margaret daughter.
The phrase "kegs of Bud" in the above brings us back to an earlier anecdote. That one also turns on the distinction between misleading claims and false ones. In a submitted manuscript, McPhee had simply guessed that a certain Budweiser factory produced 13,000 kegs a day, knowing that the fact-checkers would get the right number. The right number turned out to be 18,000. Again, I think McPhee's claim would not have been false, just misleading (and not only because it was bullshit). At the start of a semester of pragmatics, I often tell my students that I will try, later in the course, to convince them that it is true, albeit misleading, to say that I have seven fingers and four toes.