The Problem With Fact Checkers

Glenn Kessler Pinochhio

If the fact-checking industry were honest, there would be roughly two kinds of conclusions.

  • Republican said X, but X is not true.
  • Democrat said Y, but the issue is more complicated than that.

We see this all the time but fact-checkers try to hide it. They complain endlessly that liberals have distorted the truth while giving conservatives the benefit of the doubt because they are so much more likely to spout complete nonsense.

Reporting to Fact-Checking: False Equivalence Always

What ends up happening is that a false equivalence is created. A liberal over-generalization is equivalent to a conservative lie.

Note: this wasn’t always the case. There is a long tradition of conservative intellectuals.[1] Fact-checkers in 1970 probably would have caught equal lies. But American conservatism has been off the rails for a long time.

Eric Alterman has noticed that the same tendency of regular reporters to equate liberals and conservatives applies to fact-checkers. He provided a great example. During the 2008 DNC, The Washington Post fact-checker, Glenn Kessler complained that Obama’s statement about John McCain’s voting record didn’t have enough nuance. Four years later, it was very different when it came to the Republican Party:

During the 2012 Republican National Convention, for example, Kessler defended the falsehoods told in a speech by Representative Paul Ryan, then the party’s vice-presidential nominee. Why? According to the headline above Kessler’s column, “The truth? C’mon, this is a political convention.”

Balance always, truth not so much.

Two Fundamental Problems With Fact-Checkers

I remember when these outlets and sub-outlets first appeared, there were two criticisms of them:

  1. Fact-checking should be a regular part of reporting. To make it a special journalistic endeavor was going to make reporting worse.
  2. Fact-checking would have the same problems of regular reporting with claims of bias and so on.

The first criticism didn’t really matter because mainstream “objective” journalism had long before given up on doing anything as contentious as fact-checking what politicians did — especially conservative politicians!

The Same Old Problems

The second criticism played out as expected in a number of ways. The first is that conservatives don’t even pay attention to fact-checkers. Even “reasonable” outlets like RealClearPolitics dismiss them as nothing more than opinion journalism.

Although I don’t think that’s true when it comes to their analysis of conservative claims, it’s hard not to see that when it comes to liberal claims. A great example of this happened after Bernie Sanders said that millions of people work two or three jobs. It turns out that 8 million people do this.

But our good friend uber-fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave the claim 3 Pinocchios (out of a possible 4) because, well, I really don’t know. Apparently, Kessler thought Sanders meant 100 million? Who can say?

What we can say is that Kessler never would have nit-picked a conservative in this way for two reasons. First, he wouldn’t need to because they lie so much more. Second, he wouldn’t need to because he doesn’t need to invent conservative falsehoods to even things out.

It was always understood that if it turned out that the fact-checkers found a lot more conservative lies than liberal lies, the conservatives would just dismiss it as bias. And despite the efforts of fact-checkers to avoid this, they still find that conservatives lie a lot more.

Of course, it doesn’t matter. If fact-checkers found exactly the same number of falsehoods from Democrats and Republicans, conservatives would call foul. And this is understandable because there is a lot to complain about.

Skewed Samples

One of the things that skew results is also used to create false equivalence: the facts that are checked. Why do fact-checkers pick a particular claim to look at? Many of them are silly.

PolitiFact, for example, fact-checked the Facebook claim that all Fox News women are blond. That’s pretty amazing given that everyone understood that the claim was hyperbolic. What’s more, given that the vast majority of people have dark hair, the fact that most Fox News women have blond hair goes along with the point being made.

Fact-checkers go out of their way to seem balanced. That trumps any effort they have to find the truth. For example, Trump lies constantly. PolitiFact looked at 102 of his claims in 2019. It could have been a thousand. Or one.

I now refuse to reference fact-checkers. There is a tendency among people to disregard fact-checkers when we disagree with them but to hold them up as authoritative when we don’t. What’s the point of that?

They are useless. And they should be treated as such — especially by those of us on the left who are most abused by them.

[1] Note that these intellectuals were still wrong and mostly just as bigotted as modern Trump supporters. But they did care about the same intellectual niceties that I do. And they could be shamed. In other words, they were like Max Boot.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

2 thoughts on “The Problem With Fact Checkers

  1. WTF, Kessler? Of course people work multiple jobs, you crazenuts dumbass. I can’t believe a nationally-published author wrote otherwise, what an utterly ferocious dipshit. I’d have to try hard at stupid to put that in writing,, it’d take some serious effort.

    • I think it is just that they are so eager not to be criticized by conservatives that they lose their grip on reality. And it does them no good. Conservatives still call them liberal hacks.

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