Episode 83: The Unchecked Conservative Ideology of US Media’s ‘Fact-Check’ Verticals
Citations Needed | July 17, 2019 | Transcript
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Adam: Yeah. And remember, as always, if you do subscribe to us on Patreon, you get 42, 43 or so mini-episodes we call News Briefs. They are about 10 to 40 minutes long where we talk about more recent events as they unfold. Obviously they’re not particularly recent anymore, but they’re still good and still relevant because I don’t know, ‘something, something history rhymes.’
Nima: Exactly. The Washington Post rates this statement “Three Pinocchios.” Politifact rates this meme “pants on fire!” The New York Times finds this political commercial “true, but misleading.”
Adam: In our media environment where there’s an overwhelming barrage of disinformation, information and so-called “fake news,” a cottage industry has emerged to quote unquote “fact check” all the content coming across our screens. Trusted, blue checkmarked media tell us that a viral meme, a politician’s statement or an article is indeed “factually” incorrect or correct.
Nima: But who fact-checks the fact-checkers? And what does corporate media’s particular brand of hyper-literal decontextualized approach to “facts” and “truth” say about how the press views its role as ideological gate keeper.
Adam: Moreover, to what extent does deciding what facts to check and which to ignore speak to a broader, unquestioned ideology that goes beyond the specifics of a single untruth, but instead speaks to a regime that never questions its conservative sources nor bothers debunking — on a fundamental level — broadly accepted conventional wisdom.
Nima: Later on the show we’ll be joined by writer Andrew Hart. His work has appeared in Deadspin, Gawker, Jacobin and most recently, The Outline.
Andrew Hart: The thing that I find so interesting, a sort of intellectual endeavor of looking into fact checking, is that there are so many ethical, epistemological questions that are raised by this whole endeavor and that the amount of time that’s been dedicated to any of them is essentially zero.
Adam: On this episode we’re going to talk about fact checking verticals like Snopes, the fact-checking verticals in The New York Times, CNN, PolitiFact, Washington Post. What we’re not going to do is interrogate the rise of the anti fake news fact-checking groups that emerged in 2016 and 2017 many of whom have connections to dubious U.S. and NATO funded organizations that act as a truth hall monitor for social media. That is a separate beast. We will tackle that at some point, but for the purposes this episode we are talking specifically about American news verticals that have something specifically designated to fact-checking.
Nima: But before we really get into all of that, we wanted to go over some of the origins of the fact-checking industry. In 1913, The Bureau of Accuracy and Fair Play was established at Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World by Pulitzer’s own son Ralph, along with Isaac White. The bureau focused on errors, complaints and really aimed to, quote, “correct carelessness and to stamp out fakes and fakers.” End quote. This bureau would keep track of who was making the worst mistakes in media in order to then call out repeat offenders. At the time this was actually considered a “novel departure.” That was actually a quote “novel departure” by a news organization itself because of the previous decades of sensational yellow journalism that were pioneered by William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal as well as Pulitzer’s own New York World.
Adam: In 1921, two young Yale grads, Harry Luce and Brit Hadden, they worked as junior staff reporters for The Baltimore Sun during the post-war recession, they had a dream, a quote “crazy half-romantic thing” unquote, of starting a weekly publication just called Facts, which was sort of the original hall monitor publication. By 1923, they had launched their new magazine, officially called TIME, and they hired staffers, all women as it turns out, who were researchers to question and confirm the writers’ reporting before publication. This was extremely novel at the time because prior you sorta just published it and therefore it was true and now there was this idea of independent fact-checkers within an organization. This had yet to reach the point where we were subjecting third parties. This was fact-checkers checking the journalists internally.
Nima: The New Yorker, which is renowned for its own fact-checking processes, started doing so in 1927, which was two years after the magazines founding, and really spurred by the publication of an egregiously inaccurate profile of the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay. Newsweek started its own fact-checking process in 1933. A 2017 article by Merrill Fabry notes that quote “Perhaps the earliest published use of the phrase ‘fact-checker’ can be found in an ad for TIME in a 1938 issue of Colliers, which mentions the expansion of ‘its researchers and fact-checkers from ten to twenty-two.’”
Adam: The political fact-check really took off in earnest after the new millennium. According to Lucas Graves, a research fellow at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and author of the book Deciding What’s True, the post-9/11 blogosphere is really what birthed the new fact-checking industry. So, on September 19th, 2001, Robert Fisk, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, a British newspaper, commented that quote, “any idea of America sending its military across Afghanistan is a very, very dangerous operation in a country where America has no friends,” noting that one of the leaders opposing the Taliban in Afghanistan had been killed on September 9th and the story had gone largely underreported. On December 9, 2001, blogger Ken Layne responded to Fisk, noting that the story has been covered by mainstream press like The New York Times, LA Times and BBC and declared quote, “It’s 2001, and we can Fact Check your ass. And you, like many in the Hate America movement, are no longer able to dress your wretched ‘reporting’ in fiction.” So from the beginning, fact-checking was about scolding people on the left who criticized the assumptions of American imperialism. The appeals or authority is the more traditional kind of bourgeois publications LA Times, BBC, so forth.
Nima: FactCheck.org, the first major website devoted to this practice as like its entire reason for being, launched during the 2004 presidential campaign really in the wake of the disingenuous Swift Boat campaign targeting John Kerry. Just four years later, during the 2008 campaign, The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” was created and the St. Petersburg Times project PolitiFact went national. By now, over a decade later, political fact-checks are just common ubiquitous content on most news sites. Vox.com’s entire explainer identity basically does a lot of this same thing. There’s now even an International Fact-Checking Day, observed on April 2 — notably the day after April Fool’s Day.
Adam: So to sort of explain what we’re getting at when we talk about some of the pitfalls and limitations of fact-checking we’re going gonna start off with examples and we’re going to use them as a platform and talk about some of the broader ideological and philosophical limitations of what we view as being facts.
Nima: In June 2018, The Washington Post “Fact Checker” which is really the kind of, you know, biggest name, mainstream, fact-checking vertical in the corporate news sphere, it’s been run by Glenn Kessler since 2011 and now there are a bunch of staffers that also write their own fact-checks. So on June 6th, 2018 fact-checker Salvador Rizzo wrote about Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley statement after visiting the McAllen Border Station at the US-Mexico border and looking at the human beings that are being held in cages there. The statement, among others that Merkley gave, included, “They have big cages made out of fencing and then wire and nets stretched across the top of them so people can’t climb out of them.” Etcetera, etcetera. There were more descriptions. The Washington Post “Fact Checker” gave this statement at the time, “Three Pinocchios” claiming that kids were not actually being held in cages. However, journalists who were there with Merkley at the time and others who had visited already, including a Jacob Soboroff sub of MSNBC, made it clear that, I mean there were kids being held in cages that looked like cages,that had fences and wire and prevented people from getting out and people were sitting on the concrete floor with tiny little blankets, if blankets at all. Like this was provable. And yet The Washington Post initially gave this “Three Pinocchios.”
Adam: So here’s what they wrote in the original version, which was since changed after people were understandably outraged. Quote:
“The way Merkley described the CBP facility in McAllen — hundreds of children in cages with only concrete floors to sleep on — sounds like something out of a Charles Dickens novel. It’s indisputable that immigration officials hold kids in chain-link fence enclosures for up to 72 hours. Whether this setup is as draconian as Merkley made it seem is not something we were able to verify.”
Well, you just conceded the basic premise, but then go on to say:
“Merkley’s other claim, that HHS has a policy of not allowing anyone to visit its shelters for immigrant children, is false. The nuanced explanation his spokesman provided us does not match the blanket claim Merkley made on CNN.
“We were on the fence between Two and Three Pinocchios. As our readers know, the burden of proof is on the speaker. But Merkley and his staff were not allowed to record their tour of the McAllen facility. This leaves us with some photos we found from 2014 that prove some but not all of the senator’s detailed and sensitive claims. We can’t really hold it against Merkley if he tried to get visual proof but was barred from doing so.
“However, his staff knew that HHS had a process to grant access to the Brownsville shelter. By the time the senator went on CNN to say no one was ever allowed to visit, he almost certainly knew better. Because of this obfuscation, we settled on Three Pinocchios.”
So the original headline for the article, which was later changed, was “Does the U.S. keep immigrant children in cages?” Which the author acknowledges they do. They put them into, I think the term was chain link fences. And then, so we had the semantic debate about whether chain link fences were cages, which of course they are, and then there was some, a bit of rhetorical flourish about the degree to which they were not able to contact people on the outside. And this went from a “Three Pinocchio,” which is one less than the most Pinocchios you can get, so then they went back and they like, after the outrage, reduced it to “Two Pinocchios.” My guess is probably because they realized that once the kind of full scope of Trump’s ethnic cleansing policies came to light, they didn’t want to be giving “Three Pinocchios.” And so now we have all kinds of evidence. This article is a year old. We now have all kinds of evidence they keep kids in cages. This is now a sort of accepted fact because we have all this documentation. And so the main crux of their “Three Pinocchios” was that he didn’t have evidence because the draconian right-wing government wasn’t going to let him take pictures and that if you can’t provide photo evidence of an observation you make, that’s a lie.
Nima: Right. So, you know, The Washington Post “Fact Checker” has really a storied history of doing this kind of bogus bullshit thing. Just recently following the democratic debates at the end of June, Glenn Kessler, who, you know, runs the entire vertical, posted a fact-check of a lot of different statements made by various candidates. Among them was this quote, “Millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs just to survive.” That was said by Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, which Glenn Kessler of The Washington Post found to be misleading and here is why. His explanation was this: “Bureau of Labor Statistics data shows that nearly 8 million people hold more than one job. But most of those extra jobs are part time, not full time. And the ‘millions’ of people amount to just 5 percent of Americans with jobs. So that means 95 percent of workers are not working two or three jobs ‘just to survive,’ making this a misleading statement.” Now to call the verifiable fact, based on what the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which is certainly under counting, the fact that 8 million people are holding multiple jobs, to say that it’s misleading for Bernie Sanders to say that “millions of Americans are forced to work two or three jobs,” like, millions equals millions. That’s a factual statement. What is the point of disputing this and saying it’s misleading when “millions of Americans” is a factual statement and then going into like, ‘oh, but you know it’s only 5 percent, which means that 95 percent aren’t’ that actually is completely irrelevant. Like, 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, but there were 17 [million] at the beginning of it. So it’s like that ‘it wasn’t most Jews and really it was only 0.3 percent of the global population so really it wasn’t that bad.’ Like, you would never make that fucking argument. So what is, what is the point of this?
Adam: Well, yeah, most of the bullshit that’s done in these fact-checks is, they’ll sort of say something’s true, but it’s misleading. A good example of this was in February of 2018 The New York Times fact-checked Representative Joseph Kennedy, who did the response to Trump’s State of the Union address. Okay. And in this he said that quote, “top CEOs making 300 times the average worker is not right.” And so The New York Times fact-checker, Linda Qui, deemed the statement quote, “true but misleading.” Now we hear this a lot where something’s true but misleading. So here’s what she wrote. She said, “Mr. Kennedy is likely referring to a 2014 study from the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute. It found that compensation for chief executives at the top 350 American firms was about 300 times more than their employees. To start, that figure is out of date. The institute’s most recent study found a smaller — but still high — ratio of 271 to 1.” Oh okay. So then she said “Also, the employment compensation research site PayScale conducted a 2016 survey across 168 companies with revenues over $1 billion. That research found executive cash compensation was, on average, about 70 times the median salary of their employees, though some broached the 300 to 1 mark.” Now the problem with this is that most CEOs compensation doesn’t come in cash. It comes in stock options and equity and in fact a lot of CEOs, most famously people like Jeff Bezos, they make $1 in cash compensation because they have billions of dollars in stock. She apparently didn’t really know this. Then she would go on saying, “Looking at wages alone — and not counting other forms of compensation like bonuses or stock options — chief executives made an average salary of $194,000 in 2016.” But of course there’s two problems with this, which is the vast majority of compensation — you cannot set that aside, it’s the single key issue for CEOs — comes through stock options for quote unquote “top CEOs” which is what Kennedy was referencing. And then she does this other thing where she just says “all CEOs” but he clearly said “top CEOs.” He was not referring to the CEO of Mike’s Tires LLC in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. He was clearly referring to CEOs of top Fortune 200, Fortune 500 companies. So she kind of tries to nickel and dime this as factually inaccurate, but it is by all objective metrics it is completely true. And you see this a lot where they sort of say, ‘oh, this sort of seems sensationalist,’ right? The fact-checkers job is to kind of make sure that the masses aren’t riled up too much and so ‘we can’t mislead them. We can’t mislead the kind of foaming public. So I’m going to come in and kind of nickel dime these statements down.’ So in another of infamous example of this is that Bernie Sanders had a talking point throughout 2016 that his average donation was $27.
Nima: Of course.
Adam: Philip Bump, fact-checker at The Washington Post, found out that in fact the average donation was $27.89.
Nima: (Laughing) Therefore Infinite Pinocchios to you, sir!
Adam: Yeah. And so then after a flurry of criticism, he did this sort of joking ‘I was just trying to play around with them’ but the original headline says, uh, this is the original headline again, keep mind at 60 percent of people don’t read past the headline. It said quote “Bernie Sanders keeps saying his average donation is $27, but his own numbers contradict that.” So they’re off by 89 cents. And that was a huge scandal.
Nima: Yeah. I mean this tends to happen a lot that it’s this nitpicky fact-check that, okay, if you’re calling it down the line and you’re saying, you know, ‘oh, is this so precise that it is completely air tight?’ I guess there’s a value for that in a certain way. But I have a hard time figuring out what that value is because I don’t know who the audience is for these fact-checks. You know, it’s been said that oftentimes these kinds of debunking articles or even entire websites are there to provide ammunition for folks who already agree with what it’s going to say. It’s not providing information, it is not providing new information to say, ‘oh my god, like I was on board with Bernie, and then I found out the 89 cents thing and like now uncool because I don’t trust what he’s saying.’ That’s, it’s not how this works. And so these organizations, whether it’s Washington Post “Fact Checker” or whether it’s Snopes, whether it is PolitiFact that has local bureaus all around the country, there’s a national PolitiFact, it is generally, you know, judged to be credible. But then you get things like when it talks about the Iran Deal, the Iran Nuclear Deal, did a fact-check back in 2015 where the PolitiFact is correcting something Ted Cruz said that was ridiculous with this: “The deal requires Iran to give up 97 percent of its stockpile of highly enriched uranium, the kind needed to make nuclear weapons, as well as most of the centrifuges it can use to enrich uranium.” It goes on and says other things. That is fundamentally untrue and this is from PolitiFact. This is their way of sticking it to Ted Cruz was by using that statement, claiming that Iran had a stockpile of highly enriched uranium which could be used in nuclear weapons. That not true. Iran has never had highly enriched uranium and only highly enriched uranium can be used in nuclear weapons. Iran has never had it. That was not part of the deal. And yet you see how the fact-checkers themselves are not subject to the same scrutiny that they lend to others.
Adam: Well, one thing that I think is also really worth noting is the degree to which there’s a deference to power as the official word. So we’re going to go into this with our guest but so much of what makes fact-checking sinister in some ways — at best useless — is a reliance on sources who are considered “officials” “experts” who have their own institutional biases. So for one example, in 2016, Snopes was debunking an article that claimed that Obama signed a Christmas Bill making alternative media illegal. This was on a website that frequently traffics in stories that are not true, called YourNewsWire. And they claimed that the, um, the Bill would effectively criminalize fake news propaganda websites, which were certainly oversold. But then in debunking this, they made a massive factual error and a massive appeal to authority. They said quote, “So, while neither bill explicitly rules out targeting the spread of disinformation on the home front, the stated focus in both cases is on stemming its flow abroad. More to the point, the focus is on disinformation originating from foreign sources (e.g., Russia and China), not domestic ones.” And so to say that this was quote unquote “mostly false,” that was totally not true, when really it was half true. They of course did pass a law permitting the Global Engagement Center, which we talked about in Episode 79, is now we know for a fact used by Trump to propagandize on domestic citizens, but we don’t know the whole scope of it. The law absolutely allowed the State Department to propagandize American citizens. We now have evidence of that two and a half years later, but Snopes’ argument was resting upon, ‘oh well the government didn’t explicitly say they’re doing X, therefore they’re not going to do X.’ Now anyone with the most basic understanding of history knows that the government, when it does something sleazy or sinister, it doesn’t tell you it is going to do it in advance. And the real question, the real journalistic question would be to call the State Department or call the GOA, which I did for The Nation a couple months later. I said, ‘hey, does this law prevent, is there an express prohibition against propagandizing Americans?’ And they said, “no comment.” And the reason they said “no comment” was because they were going to allow it. So you see this a lot with things like Snopes and PolitiFact where their source is the government or government aligned, government funded think tanks. There’s a default deference to the best intentions of American officials and that’s sort of what creates what they call truth.
Nima: And that really winds up being the crux of all this. The idea of intent, fact-checkers in their own manifestos, in their own kind of “about” pages always appeal to the idea of intent. It’s the reason why fact-checkers, almost more than anyone else in the media, are so hesitant to call lies “lies.” So you see things like Daniel Dale, Washington Bureau Chief for the Toronto Star, who catalogued 5,276 of Donald Trump’s false claims since his inauguration, saying that the reason why the list is called “false claims” rather than lies is that we can’t be sure that each and every one was intentional. It’s the reason why you see Associated Press Standards Editor John Daniszewski saying quote, “We feel it’s better to say what the facts are, say what the person said and let the audience make the decision whether or not it’s an intentional lie.” End quote. It’s the reason why you see Executive Editor of The New York Times telling CNN in August 2018 quote, “I hate the fact that the debate and discussion over the word ‘lie’ has obscured a larger truth, if you will. Does it matter if The New York Times or The Washington Post uses the word ‘lie’ three times, seven times, 10 times, 20 times? Or does it matter more that the fact-checker has found 4,229 misleading statements?” It’s the reason NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly said on Morning Edition in early 2017 quote, “A false statement made with intent to deceive. Intent being the key word there. Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was.” It all comes back to intent. And the fundamental rule of thumb of this fact-check phenomenon now is not only this hesitancy to call lies “lies,” but the near ubiquitous refusal to identify patterns, trends, and yes, intent in politicians’ so-called false statements. So instead it’s this like tyranny of taking words at face value, right? Like the just calling balls and strikes on alleged facts while avoiding any sort of critical analysis of what actually lies behind the lies.
Adam: I mean, of course this is not a luxury afforded to official bad guys. You know, Putin has routinely on CNN said to have lied or to have perfected lies, but not even for the dreaded Trump can they say “lies.” I guess they probably think it’s a slippery slope. So yo get into this really goofy thing where Trump will tell you he’s lying. He’ll say like ‘I’m lying’ and you still can’t say he’s lying. I mean, Trump is very open about the fact that he’s bullshitting you. But this gets to this fact about our literal-minded relationship with the notion of truth and specifically the moral utility of acting as a hall monitor of truth or fact without ever wanting to interject oneself into ideological debates is itself a deeply ideological enterprise.
Nima: To discuss this more, we’re going to be joined by writer Andrew Hart. His work has appeared in Deadspin, Gawker, Jacobin and, most recently, The Outline. Andrew will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by writer Andrew Hart and it is great to have you on the show today Andrew. Thanks for joining Citations Needed.
Andrew Hart: Hey, thanks so much. I really appreciate you guys having me.
Adam: So we spent the intro going over some of the history of the fact-checking vertical, specifically its rise after 9/11. Can you lay out what you sort of view as the fundamental limitations, the extent to which the limitations of fact-checking are kind of baked into the philosophical cake of the vertical itself?
Andrew Hart: Yeah, well the inherent limitation on fact-checking is that it’s about the facts and that’s not a very interesting thing on its face. But it has a lot of interesting implications for what fact-checking can do and what it can’t do, which I think is arguably more important. I guess maybe one way to think about this is the first fact-check site that came into existence was FactCheck.org and that arose in 2004 during the Bush/Kerry presidential race. And the reason that FactCheck.org became extremely popular was because one of the most contentious issues in that race was this manufactured Swift Boats Veterans scandal that basically dogs John Kerry for the entire campaign. So this is really the foundational moment of fact-checking. There are some ideological predecessors to it, but this is when institutional public facing fact-checking really came into its own. And the whole purpose of it was basically, well, is John Kerry telling the truth about his war record and questions like that. But then look at the fact that the Swift Boat Veterans, their organization was called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. So already you see here that there’s no monopoly on the concept of truth. There is no truth capital “T” that you can just go to. It’s, you know, you can’t go to the principal’s office and basically say like, ‘oh, well here’s what the truth is, here’s what Glenn Kessler says the truth is or here’s what FactCheck.org or PolitiFact or the AP or Jake Tapper’ or any of these people, because at the end of the day, they’re all just people. They come at things with their own biases and other people that you’re, you know, in a contentious debate with about whether something is true or false, they might accept or reject those people for any number of reasons. I mean, look, if you come to somebody and say, Donald Trump is lying about the number of people who are at his inauguration or some sort of ridiculous, outlandish, obvious falsehood that Trump is telling and the piece of paper that you’re showing them that supposedly proves that he’s lying, you know, the first words on top, say Washington Post, the second words right below that say “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” You know, I mean it’s basically just saying like ‘this is the fuck Trump newspaper’ right at the top. I mean, who’s going to accept that among hardcore Trump supporters as, ‘oh well The Washington Post said it it must be true.’
Adam: So let’s drill down what we’re talking about here. You note The Washington Post “Fact Checker,” Glenn Kessler has had the position for some time. We dunked on a few of his examples earlier, but there’s one in particular where he tried to, as you put it, quote unquote “Freakonomics his way out of a gender pay gap discussion.” Can we talk about this example and what it tells us about the nature, the kind of literal-minded approach to facts in his kind of ideological allergy to what he perceives is undue ideology?
Andrew Hart: Yeah, I think this is a great example sample of exactly that because various times, at least three times, and at least one of the times it was brought up by Bernie Sanders, I think at least twice he’s taken aim at this: women make 80 cents on the dollar in the economy. And the way that he’s addressed it has exactly as you said, it’s like, you know, applying this Freakonomics logic to it, where what he says is, you know, ‘women make different life choices, women take employment in certain fields that allow more flexibility, that have shorter hours, that allow women to balance home and work life’ and things like that. And the thing that I think is so perfect about this example is that even if you allow that all of that is correct and even if you set aside any issues that you’d have with the terminology and just accept what he says completely at face value, it doesn’t address what my reaction to that is and I think what a lot of people’s reaction to that, it’s like, well, okay, but that’s wrong. That’s bad. People shouldn’t have to make that choice to be put in this bind where it’s like, ‘well, I could, you know, I really wanna have a family life and I really want to have a work life and the only way to do that is to make less money.’ There’s all sorts of ways that that could be addressed, but that would require a sort of infiltration of a normative statement into these things. When the thing about fact-checking is it is all about the facts, you know, and so what it’s terminology is based on is just making elaborate descriptions of the world and then making the entire discussion about those elaborate descriptions of the world. As I alluded to in the article, like it’s very reminiscent of the famous Karl Marx quote from Theses on Feuerbach where he says to this point, the philosophers have attempted to describe the world in various ways, but the point is to change it. Well, if you’re trying to change something, elaborate descriptions of reality really don’t have any use for you.
Nima: Right. Which actually I think speaks to, as you’ve written about Andrew, the fundamental exercise of not actually trying to change anything, which seems to be kind of a, you know, central point of fact-checking that it is just this calling of balls and strikes. ‘Hey, we’re just umpires,’ but forgetting also that umpires get to throw pitchers out of the game if they hit two batters in a row because they actually determine intent, right? They’re not just like, ‘hey, well, you know, this just happened in a vacuum twice in a row, I guess take first base and whatever.’ Umpires actually get to do more than what fact-checkers assign themselves to be able to do, even though they just try to plead, you know, that they’re umpires. But this really actually gets to something else that you wrote in your piece that I think is really fantastic to kind of unpack. And you wrote that, in the early 1980s, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre argued when commenting on liberalism that people “do not share a common moral language and that in its place liberalism advances the vocabulary of public reason under which people must translate their private and individual moral logic into a terminology that can encompass wider ranging viewpoints about right and wrong.” So what this winds doing is this creates this empty space where it gets into that civility argument that we’ve talked about on the show before, where no one really says what they mean. Can you kind of expand on this a bit and what you think the broader ideological trend at work here really is?
Andrew Hart: Yeah, I think this is an excellent question that really gets to the heart of what makes fact-checking such an interesting way in to discussing a lot of different issues with basically how people in the public discourse discuss anything.
Andrew Hart: And I think that you’re exactly right that it shows the ways in which it has parallels to the civility discourse. It has parallels to how like discourse policing, like I listened to your episode on Jake Tapper for instance, and this is like a close cousin of those kinds of things. And I guess in order to elaborate on that, let me just sort of unpack what the idea of public reason is and then go into some examples of strategies that are based on this idea of public reason and maybe sort of a warping of it for strategic goals that really do leave people feeling like, ‘wow, these guys, when they’re telling me something, they’re saying a bunch of words, but they mean something completely different.’ And to illustrate that, so the enlightenment theories of morality basically depended on the idea that every single person is an autonomous moral agent. And flowing from that as the idea that everyone sort of has this inscrutable internal list of moral imperatives, moral sentiments, rules, things like that. And there is no real authority to appeal to when saying, ‘okay, well this one is right and this one is wrong’ when it comes to comparing these lists that are in everybody’s heads. In order to bridge that gap, so just because everyone has the ability to sort of have their own set of moral prerogatives, it doesn’t mean that the need to come together to forge consensus around, you know, getting things done evaporates. There’s this process, and this is a concept from John Rawls I think, of public reason. And basically this is the notion that in between working from your sort of set of internal moral geography to a collective action, that there’s these sets of vocabularies around certain concepts that allow people to speak to one another even though they might not share the same sort of internal topography when it comes to their morals. And I think like the human rights discourse is a really good example of this because human rights, I mean it’s hard to argue against the concept of human rights, but when people start talking about human rights and politicians and people in power start saying things about, you know, ‘we need to protect human rights’ and stuff like that, oftentimes the very next thing that happens is that all of a sudden there’s just a bunch of bombs falling, people dying.
Andrew Hart: You know, I don’t think that escapes people’s notice and that they come to understand that, ‘oh, okay, when you’re talking about human rights, what you really mean is that you want to go to war.’ And so bringing this back around to fact-checking, fact-checking is one of this sort of cluster of arguments based on public reason in which, that are often deployed basically to say ‘this person,’ you know, whether it’s a politician or someone in the public discourse or whatever ‘is bad. But it’s very difficult for me to sort of make the argument directly that this person’s bad and shouldn’t be in power, shouldn’t be saying these things or whatever the case is.’ Instead what people try to do is to use different concepts that are sort of closely associated with being bad and then make this two step argument. So in other words, you might argue — now I know you guys did an episode about this and I thought it was a really good episode — about corruption. So you might say, ‘well look, what I want to do is I want to prove this person is bad, but the way I’m going to do it is I’m going to prove this person is corrupt and then being corrupt is bad therefore, this person is bad.’ And going back to what you were saying earlier about umpires being able to throw players out of the game, I mean corruption is a really good illustration of how that concept actually has like a, an actual instantiation in the world, which is basically, you know, you see in Brazil right now where basically the, uh, the recent presidential election there where Jair Bolsonaro came to power, well before that a judge who was overseeing widespread corruption charges basically advised prosecutors on how to make a case against the former president, Lula da Silva, that he was corrupt. And then they were able to throw Lula in jail, make sure that he couldn’t run for the presidency, Bolsonaro comes in and Sergio Moro, who is the judge in that trial is named the Minister of Justice. So, I mean, it’s kind of funny because what could be more corrupt than that of course. But-
Adam: Yeah, and of course it’s holding on football, it’s in every play, it’s just about whether or not you call it or not.
Nima: (Chuckles.) Right.
Andrew Hart: The other example that I wanted to point out that’s very similar to fact-checking is the discourse around hypocrisy. Hypocrisy I think is a really, really close cousin of the fact-checking argument because, you know, in the fact-checking argument, what you’re doing is you’re saying ‘this person’s bad, but I’m not going to prove he’s bad, I’m going to prove he’s a liar.’ In the hypocrisy example, obviously it’s just you’re proving that he’s a hypocrite instead of that, you know, he’s a liar. And it is really becoming sort of a dull blade to call somebody a hypocrite. And I think that this idea of public reason really what that move is happening through public reason really shows why it’s becoming such a dull blade. And I would say this is true also of fact-checking. It’s because people know that when you’re saying, ‘oh, this guy’s a hypocrite, or this guy’s a liar. And I don’t like him because of that.’ It’s not that you care so much about lying or hypocrisy, it’s that you care about not liking the person.
Adam: So you should just say so.
Andrew Hart: Right, exactly. So I mean it’s, the argument that you’re making is an argument under a set of criteria that really you don’t probably care that much about. And, you know, the obvious rejoinder to this is people will say, ‘well look, if this was someone that you liked, you wouldn’t be making this argument about hypocrisy.’
Andrew Hart: And you know, quite frankly, that’s probably true.
Andrew Hart: There’s very few people who when it comes to like these sort of neutral questions or neutral values or whatever, that they’re like really, really committed to policing both sides equally on it and stuff like that. You know, one instance in which that may be true is the fact-checkers because I do think that the fact-checkers actually sort of have swallowed their own Kool-Aid on this stuff. They really care about it.
Adam: Well, but then again, both sides has its own limitations.
Andrew Hart: Of course, of course.
Adam: Both sides are defined by partisanship and not by power. Yeah, exactly.
Andrew Hart: I mean they have the ability to sort of place the center anywhere they want and it turns out that what they basically do is just try to find the 50 yard line between the red team and the blue team.
Nima: Right, and then they pat themselves on the back for it.
Andrew Hart: Exactly.
Adam: Which gets to our kind of, something we talk a lot in the show, which is we talk a lot about epistemology because we are a media criticism show and epistemology is a reoccurring theme because it’s like the core of how you understand media, which is to say so much of the idea of fact-checking, I’m less interested in what the particulars of a specific fact-check are as I’m interested in why certain facts are being interrogated and why certain other facts are not, and I want to approach this in two ways. The first of which comes down to sourcing, which is one of the things I find most interesting is that when I first started doing media criticism, I would notice that people like Ezra Klein, who really obsessed over this idea of shared reality, when you looked at the sourcing of his writing, it was the World Bank, the University of Chicago, Steven Pinker. The sourcing had its own, the thing that they rely on the most for their kind of democracy was created by the CIA. There’s this kind of obsession with facts but not a question of where these facts are coming from or what the motives of those who are providing those facts may be. You see this a lot with The Washington Post fact-checks and PolitiFact. We talked in the beginning of the show about Snopes did a fact-check of an article that was criticizing the NDAA for legalizing domestic propaganda and their entire basis for it not being true was that the government said they wouldn’t do it. I’m fascinated by this idea of the kind of nerd patrol not really being interested in what’s behind the curtain. Can you talk about that? And is that maybe outside the scope of fact-checking or do you think that the kind of garbage in, garbage out element to this is one of the reasons why so much of these fact-checks are kind of shotty when you look at them for more than two seconds?
Andrew Hart: Well, I think cynically you could just understand these fact-checkers as another sort of laundry machine between the information that has a dubious source or a biased source or whatever you want to call it, of course all information has a biased source, but it’s like when you’re laundering money, you know, you send it to one bank account, into another bank account, then to another bank account and you know, it just sort of goes down the line. And I think the fact-checkers, because they spit out their results in these whimsical, ‘oh, you know, you got 18 Pinocchios’ or whatever.
Adam: Got ‘em.
Andrew Hart: It sort of puts the final media gloss on a series of ways that information is laundered. Now, look, I don’t think necessarily that, you know, the Glenn Kessler’s of the world are like evily cackling about the fact that what they’re doing is, you know, laundering information for powerful people. I think. Yeah. I mean it’s just classic ideology. It’s just the water that they’re swimming in. They don’t understand that it’s around them.
Nima: Yeah. Which actually gets to this broader media trend of hand wringing over, you know, Trump’s “war on truth” or you know, what we hear about quote “the firehose of falsehoods” end quote and that, you know, all of this obviously stems from the sinister Soviets, always. But, you know, as you’ve written Andrew, like the idea that people like Kessler or Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star, now CNN, you know, major like Trump fact-checker, you’ve written, quote “Any notions that they are putting up resistance against Trump, whose base is three years down a rabbit hole of PizzaGate and QAnon after eight years of hyperventilating about birth certificates and bathroom sickos, are particularly laughable.” End quote. Can you talk to us about how fact-checking has this faux resistance appeal and yet what might actually make change? What would real resistance look like?
Andrew Hart: Quite frankly, you know, I might have some ideas about what I think would work, but I mean I think it’s a difficult problem to unpack, but just to show the insufficiency of fact-checking to confront this kind of conspiratorial thinking, I mean, I don’t think you really need any sort of deep psychology to do that. Again, just take the example of you know, someone who is a PizzaGater or QAnon person, you know, was a Birther during the Obama years. Their concept of truth is not like what is it really like out there in the world? And then, you know, what is a particular proposition in isolation based on that? It’s like, ‘What coheres with my framework of belief?’ And you see a lot of people whose frameworks of belief are delusional and I don’t think you can really expect to sort of confront every single point manifestation of that delusion in isolation with, especially with a piece of paper that says, “Washington Post,” again just says, you know, you might as well just say ‘Fuck Donald Trump’ on the top of it and expect that that’s going to have any sort of bearing on the person’s framework of delusion that’s leading to all of these manifestations of delusional belief.
Adam: I want to ask a question about the ways in which, and we’re going to do a separate episode on what we call the kind of normative descriptive shuffle, ‘cause I think it’s something you see a lot where somebody will say, ‘oh, Biden’s racism’s bad’ and then somebody will respond, but 90 percent of voters don’t care about it. And it’s like, well, wait a second. I wasn’t saying it polls well, I was saying its bad. You see this a lot with a lot of these fact-checkers. You sort of note this yourself in your piece where in his criticism of Bernie Sanders’ Medicare For All plan, Kessler does this kind of descriptive normative shift. Can you talk about the ways in which people who sort of appear to be calling factual judgments, smuggle in their own kind of ideology or, or value systems?
Andrew Hart: With Kessler I mean, the example that you’re citing, it was big on Twitter, you know, I guess probably two weeks ago or something like that. And essentially Sanders made the claim that, you know, the three richest people in America control more wealth than the bottom 50 percent. And Kessler said, ‘okay, well, you know, in some technical sense this is accurate but it’s not particularly interesting.’ And the reason he thought it wasn’t interesting was because it’s not that it has to do with the relationship between assets and debts. So the idea that, you know, the bottom 50 percent it’s not that they actually control less stuff than the top 50 percent, it’s just they also are sort of burdened, that a lot of that is canceled out by debts. I think being generous to Kessler, he would say, you know, something along the lines of, ‘look, I’m just trying to provide context for you to understand the fuller picture of reality that’s implicated in the statement.’ There were a lot of funny responses on Twitter where-
Adam: Yeah, namely that the Sumerians had a concept of zero, but Kessler does not in the year 2019.
Andrew Hart: (Laughs.) Uh, well yeah. And you know, people basically saying things like ‘it’s impossible to compare you to Jeff Bezos because you are dirt, you are dust, you are, you know, insignificant scum’ or whatever.
Andrew Hart: I mean, I lean more toward the latter camp. I, I think that Kessler probably sees himself as providing context to this, but going to the point of, yeah, the normative descriptive shuffle. I mean there’s all sorts of different ways that this has been analyzed. You know, it goes back to this sort of the is-ought problem in philosophy and so you could analyze this in a million different ways. But I think the way I would look at it is, look, I mean it’s true that this is sort of a man made, artificial distinction between, yeah, I guess normative and descriptive statements, but really, I mean, not to get too like freshmen-smoking-weed-for-the-first-time, but everything is man made. I mean, if there’s some sort of objective reality, it runs completely in parallel to us and it’s not accessible by us.
Adam: Yeah. Well I guess it’s the fact that it’s like the worst thing you can do is insert a value claim in a fact-check. Right? It’s the ultimate sin.
Andrew Hart: Right. Yeah. And this ties into sort of the, I guess the hierarchy of problems that exist within fact-checking. You have at the base level fact-checkers can make mistakes under their own terms. They’re not experts on everything. So they might misread a report and say that something is false when someone who actually understands it better would understand that the statement was true. Then you get to the sort of more complicated problems, boundary problems basically that are things like ‘oh you’re smuggling in, you know, a normative value judgment in your thing that’s supposed to be pure reportage’ or whatever. And then the third critique, which is I think what we’ve spent most of the time and the one that I find most interesting is basically like, well, what does this doing? Even if you can explain away all those problems, what does this even doing?
Adam: Because one of the things we thought about doing for the show was to — we decided against it — was to fact-check a couple articles from Der Stürmer.
Andrew Hart: (Laughing.)
Adam: Um, and, and I would be curious though, like if this was, if this was 1937, what would be the moral utility of fact-checking Der Stürmer? Like what would that actually move the needle vis-à-vis liberals?
Nima: Right. Without being ideological about it. Right?
Andrew Hart: Right.
Nima: Just being straight down the line like ‘well, you know, that gets Three Pinocchios!’
Andrew Hart: Yeah. I mean I think it’s completely artificial, of course to sort of say that the fact-checkers, their purview is journalism and reportage and that’s the line that they adhere to and they don’t profess to insert their opinions into things. But of course the sources that you pick, the way that you’re willing to weigh the evidence —
Adam: Which facts you choose to fact-check seems to be the most important one.
Andrew Hart: 100 percent. I mean all that stuff flows from you being a specific person as a fact-checker. There’s no like view from nowhere on fact-checking. It all comes from somebody. The thing that I find so interesting, a sort of intellectual endeavor of looking into fact-checking, is that there are so many ethical epistemological questions that are raised by this whole endeavor and that the amount of time that’s been dedicated to any of them is essentially zero.
Adam: Yeah. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of first principles being established. Like why are we doing this as sort of, they kind of gesture towards these very lofty liberal ideas of fighting post-truth, but they don’t start, you know, this is why I think on our show and in my writing and Nima’s writing, it’s extremely clear what our ideology is. Like, we are very open about it. It’s pretty, it’s extremely obvious, right? We are not posing as neutral arbitrators. And I think there’s something far, far more sinister, as I’m sure you know, and you even note it in your piece, about acting like you’re neutral when we all know that you’re not really.
Andrew Hart: Yeah, and I mean, and that’s just one of the issues with fact-checking. But you know, I do think that it’s a way for people, and again, I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is something that people are doing consciously necessarily, but I think it’s sort of a way to remove their opinions from the realm of the normative into the realm of the reported fact and to sort of say, you know, ‘look, this is a fact. All you need to do is look at the words Washington Post at the top again. I mean, you know, it’s, it’s institutionalized fact. It’s not just, you know, it’s been through a process.’ And the thing about it is the second you look into that process, you realize, well there’s a lot of issues here that have come under absolutely no scrutiny whatsoever that, you know, you’re producing the truth through all of these mechanisms that, quite frankly, I mean, there’s a lot of deep thought on the kinds of issues that are implicated here, but the amount of time that’s been given to any of them is nothing. You know, there’s no consideration for that. It’s just sort of like, ‘well, this is what we do.’
Nima: I think that’s a really good place to leave it. Writer Andrew Hart, his work has appeared in The Outline, Deadspin, Gawker, Jacobin. You can be followed on the Twitter machine @the_moma. Andrew, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Andrew Hart: Hey, thank you so much for having me. It was really good and I thought you guys asked really excellent questions.
Adam: Yeah, we could have talked about that all day. I think the um, there’s sort of two separate issues, there’s the philosophical limitations of the idea of the fact-check and then there is the one that Hart really pushed on, which is the efficacy of it. Does it work? Similar to our hypocrisy episode. Who is it for? Does it really work? And can we fact-check our way out of fascism? And perhaps maybe we are putting too much, there’s some scope creep46:36 here, we’re putting too much pressure on the fact-checkers to do that. I think that to me what’s interesting is what fact-checks are being fact-checked out of the trillions of facts, which are the ones that we decide to fact-check and out of the trillions of sources, which sources are we leaning on to describe reality?
Nima: So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed on fact-checkers. Thank you everyone as always for listening. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed and become a supporter of the show and our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. As always, a very special shout out goes to our Critic-level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Production consultant is Josh Kross. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research and newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, July 17, 2019.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.