I’ve been complaining about the political fact-checking sites for some time. I think the first time I mentioned them was in 2010 (the fad for so-called fact-checking, which I hope y’all are taking with a grain of salt) and I wrote a whole note criticizing the endeavor back in 2012. My complaint was largely that their expansive view of lying worked directly against the presumed purpose of the endeavor—it wasn’t providing incentives for candidates or incumbents to stick to accurate statements, if accurate statements were often declared untrue because they were deemed misleading.
I think that over that time we have plenty of evidence that the fact-checking sites, including those run by major journalistic outlets, have not decreased either the quantity of political lying or the scale of variance from the facts. They have also not increased the trustworthiness of journalism as an enterprise. They have not, I think, made it easier for people to be participants in self-government. They have not made us, as a population, less gullible, or more skeptical, or invulnerable to demagoguery. It’s a well-intentioned project, and I don’t blame the enterprises that support them, but I’m saying: it’s a failure.
This failure was emphasized by Glenn Kessler’s announcement of a new category—he is assigning a rating of bottomless Pinocchio to each of fourteen (so far) statements that Our Only President has repeated more than twenty times after that statement has been debunked, which he defines as his own site assigning three or four Pinocchios to it. Mr. Kessler points out that there is one politician who has achieved this bottomless falsehood status, but doesn’t draw the conclusion that it merits—while we talk all the time about how politicians constantly lie, very few politicians do lie frequently and obviously. Indeed, politicians almost always stick to reasonable accuracy—they spin, they shade the truth, they manipulate context, they cherry-pick facts, and they weasel around, but those are not things that are really susceptible to fact-checking. Our Only President just flat-out lies, all the time. And it turns out… that isn’t susceptible to fact-checking, either.
I’m not saying that sites like the Washington Post should stop having a political fact-checking column. I do think that they should consider what the purpose of that column is, and what it might be—and what role those columns have played in our standards for political honesty and journalistic trust since the fad began nearly ten years ago.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,