At the June 28 Democratic presidential debate, Senator Bernie Sanders said, “Three people [in this country] own more wealth than the bottom half of America.” And Glenn Kessler, who leads The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” blog, wrote, “This snappy talking point is based on numbers that add up.” But Kessler, having checked the fact and confirmed that it was true, for some reason continued checking. “People in the bottom half have essentially no wealth,” he helpfully pointed out. “So the comparison is not especially meaningful.”
That seems like a judgment call best left to, say, a “meaning-checker,” but Kessler, a former business section editor who happens to be a descendant of Royal Dutch Shell and Procter & Gamble executives—an actual member of the American elite and a likely member of the one percent—makes Sanders the regular target of his attempts to police the bounds of acceptable political realities from his perch at The Washington Post. In June, he dinged Sanders for saying that “millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs”—because, while Sanders was right, at least eight million do work more than one job, 95 percent of Americans don’t. His team has also taken on Sanders’s claim that health care costs lead to 500,000 bankruptcies a year, going so far as to fact-check the study where Sanders found that statistic. Finding fault with its premises, they declared the study to be untrue, and awarded the candidate three “Pinocchios” for referencing it. (In the lexicon of the Post’s fact-checking department, lies, rather than causing Pinocchio’s nose to grow, cause him to spontaneously reproduce, like a very naughty paramecium.)
Sanders may get the worst of it, but no one is safe from Kessler’s cherry-picking, his tendentious selection of experts from an array of reliably center-right publications and think tanks (“Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute wrote recently for Bloomberg” is a typical Kesslerism), or his insistence on presenting center-right economic assumptions as “facts.” When Senator Cory Booker, for instance, made an entirely factual statement about American gun violence, Kessler took issue, again, with Booker’s premise, calling it “facile” (raising the question, once more, of whether we are reading the “Fact Checker” or the “Superficiality Checker”).
Because Kessler is particularly bad at his job—or, rather, because he is doing a different job, that of a centrist columnist disguised as a fact-checker—he has deflected attention from his competitors, most of whom also routinely mistake elite conventional wisdom for truth. In September, PolitiFact, the venerable fact-checking operation run by the nonprofit Poynter Institute, waded into a fight between Julian Castro and Joe Biden over their health care plans, and found a disputable but eminently supportable claim Castro has made—that there is a “big difference” between a plan people are automatically enrolled in and one they opt into—to be “mostly false.” When Elizabeth Warren blamed trade policy for American job losses, an Associated Press fact check said, “Economists mostly blame those job losses on automation and robots, not trade deals.” Some economists have indeed made that claim, but others vehemently disagree—pointing out that very little, if any, evidence exists to support the automation thesis. What may look like the unquestioned assumptions of centrist economists appear to these organizations, somehow, as cold, hard facts.
Fact-checkers did not always have such an expansive bailiwick. Prior to its establishment as a public-facing industry, there was already a job with that title, but primarily in magazines, not newspapers. People holding that job were not responsible for determining whether a magazine story was true (i.e., is campus political correctness a threat to liberal democracy?) but whether the discrete statements of fact within it were true (i.e., did the College Republicans event with Tommy Robinson happen on this date?). As for determining “truth,” at least for the purposes of feature writing, Aristotle nailed it: “To say of what is that it is, or of what is not that it is not, is true.”
When our current titans of fact-checking were founded, they seemed determined to practice their craft with Aristotelian restraint. The industry was born in the George W. Bush era—FactCheck.org dates back to 2003, PolitiFact to 2007—and their style (including the cutesy lingo) reflects an era in which the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center’s official version of reality suddenly had to compete with Glenn Beck’s. Like their magazine counterparts, these fact-checkers would only check that a statement was technically true. If, for example, a journalist quoted (accurately) an unreliable source who claimed that Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi government had ties to Al Qaeda, and an administration official cited (accurately) the journalist’s work to support military intervention, the hands of every fact-checker involved in the production and distribution of this untruth would be tied.
Ironically, had fact-checkers kept to this narrow interpretation of the facts, they might actually be useful today. Trump deals less in shifty evasions and omissions than he does in clear falsehoods. While some of his claims can be hard to verify, the just-the-facts approach will catch most of his “whoppers” (to use a highly technical fact-checking term).
The trouble is, fact-checkers have expanded their purview from checking strictly empirical statements to “checking” contestable political statements. As a result, Trump’s most glaring whoppers—such as his ludicrous suggestion last April that wind turbines cause cancer—appear no different than Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s contention that it’s morally wrong to pay people less than a living wage.
It is odd that fact-checking was so narrowly defined when a narrow mandate served the interests of power, and that its brief has now expanded considerably at a time when an overly broad mandate serves those interests. Perhaps the endless appetite for eyeballs and engagement that now distorts the entire media industry led these projects to drift away from their original mission, causing them to create an endless supply of “facts” to be “checked” for the sake of feeding the content maw. But Kessler, for his part, seems to view his mission as more than drumming up clicks; he wants to police the bounds of American debate, in favor of the sort of Chicago School economic consensus and Clinton-era moderation yearned for by so many of his fellow members of the Council on Foreign Relations. The rest of the writers at PolitiFact and the AP and so on need not fall into the same trap.
Fact-checking grew out of a journalistic tradition of not just explaining, but accepting, the world as it is. The simple fact that Donald Trump was elected president should prove that old assumptions about how the world works no longer hold. And yet, the most fact-checkable president in history stumps even the fact-checkers. Outfits like Kessler’s have spent the Trump era rooting around for evidence that CNN’s ratings are up, not down, as Trump has claimed, and that you don’t, in fact, need a voter ID to buy cereal at the supermarket. These are all easily corrected untruths. But the truths Trump reveals—the rot in our jingoistic militarism, our plutocratic economy, the racialized violence of calls for “law and order”—continue to rampage through our common life unchecked.