Let’s Talk About Fact-Checkers and our Relationship to Them

Without Googling the answer, see if you can identify who said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” Donald Trump? Wrong. Steve Bannon? Try Again. Brad Parscale? Bzzt. That quote comes not from MAGA World and their love of “alternative facts,” but from former Mitt Romney pollster Neil Newhouse in 2012. Yes, that’s right, the man who is now lauded by many to be the “sensible Republican” in the age of Trump once had his own difficulties with fact-checkers.

The reason why Trump today and Romney before him did not care for professional fact-checkers is not that Republicans are more willing to lie than Democrats, but because fact-checking has become political commentary by another name.

Remember when PolitiFact cited the Washington Naval Treaty, which went defunct in 1936, as proof that Republicans were being unreasonable in their criticism that President Obama was responsible for the dilapidated state of the Navy?

Or that time when President Trump hosted the Clemson University’s championship football team at the White House and served fast food that, “was piled up a mile high” and the Washington Post, reported, “FACT CHECK: At two inches each, a thousand burgers would not reach one mile high.” Democracy dies in fact checking obvious hyperbole.

The latest example of fact check craziness occurred on Sunday in the USA Today. The controversy was over the Trump campaign’s latest T-shirts, which included the slogan “America First” along with a bald eagle clutching an American flag. Some of Trump’s opponents said “You know else who had an eagle clutching a national symbol? The Nazis.”

After listing all the reasons why the shirt was not like the Nazis, the USA Today still rated the claim as true because they were similar, never mind the United States was a country for over a century-and-a-half before the Nazis seized power. After much outcry, because under that logic apples are in fact equal to oranges because, as fruits, they are similar, USA Today changed the ruling to inconclusive.

One could add many more examples, but we don’t have all day. Instead, we should consider why so many professional fact-checkers exist, because there is clearly a market for them.

In part, these guardians of the truth are a born out of societal laziness. Why do the work of fact-checking yourself when the self-appointed Minister of Truth can do the job for you?

Professional fact-checkers are also good for politicians. If you need to throw a 30 second ad together, what better way to define your opponent as liar then show a “pants on fire” graphic from PolitiFact with no context?

The election of Donald Trump came as a shock and people who dismissed Trump as an unserious carnival barker have spent an inordinate amount of time trying to blame anyone other than Hillary Clinton and her objectively awful campaign for her loss. One explanation given as to why Trump won was “fake news.”

In the aftermath of Trump’s election, some in the press would say that now more than ever a vibrant media was needed to hold the lying politicians to account. Now!?!?

Not only the politicians — by which they usually mean Trump and Republicans — but the internet as well. If Mark Zuckerburg won’t turn Facebook into the Ministry of Truth, then Congress, or we in the press, should pressure him. If there a right-leaning Christian satire site that is gaining in popularity, Snopes will make sure that there will be no fun allowed on the internet. All of this in the name of battling fake news.

Fact-checking allows us to delegate the responsibilities of civic engagement to someone else — someone who claims to be objective, but who in some cases has an axe to grind or is just incompetent. It allows us to be scared of arguments. Instead of debunking and convincing, cry that Twitter or Facebook does not remove a post or video. Professional fact checking has made us lazy.

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Writing about politics and other interesting things. Contributing Writer to NewsBusters. Member of YAF’s National Journalism Center’s Spring 2019 class.

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Alex Christy

Alex Christy

Writing about politics and other interesting things. Contributing Writer to NewsBusters. Member of YAF’s National Journalism Center’s Spring 2019 class.

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