Fact-checking is the essence of journalism. Whether it be straight journalism or opinion journalism, unless you are reporting on verifiable facts, you are not practicing journalism. Period.
Fact-checking is also an industry within journalism which has failed to hold itself to the incredibly high standard of the word “fact,” and the practice has become its own kind of ideology. A few months back, I wrote about CNN, The Washington Post and Politifact confusing a “who said what” check for a “fact” check on Bernie Sanders’ 100% true claim that a Koch Brothers-funded policy outfit found that his Medicare for All plan would save Americans $2 trillion over the current health care system. The problem there is instructive:
The fact is that Charles Blahous [of the Mercatus Center] ran Bernie Sanders’ numbers and found that it would save us $2 trillion over the current system, and Charles Blahous says he doesn’t believe that Bernie’s numbers are realistic. What the “fact checks” are saying is that because Blahous doesn’t believe Sanders’ numbers, Sanders’ claim that his numbers were validated by a study partially funded by the Koch brothers is misleading. These fact-checkers are siding with Blahous despite the fact that Blahous’ facts are dependent upon Sanders’ facts.
The reason they side with Blahous is because, like Jake Tapper said, they’re not here to make any judgement on the viability of Medicare for All. They’re here to say whether or not Sanders’ claims are factual, per the terms of the debate (which the fact-checkers have set). WaPo explicitly stated that their fact checks “rely heavily on how a study’s author says the data should be presented.” The problem here is that not only are there legitimate questions around both the author’s and the employer’s credibility behind the study, but also that the study relied on numbers from a group of leftist policy wonks who should have at least as much credibility as anyone taking money from the Koch brothers. Confirming that people said words is not the same kind of fact as those words having truth behind them.
Today brought a bigger screw-up. While this previous problem with Medicare for All is more of an issue of framing and what the word “fact” should mean in the “fact-checking” context, The Washington Post’s fact-checker, Glenn Kessler, published what can only be described as bad journalism. I will tag in Julia Carrie Wong, a senior technology reporter at The Guardian, to highlight the substantive problems with today’s WaPo “fact-check” on Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez’s quote:
“I think it’s wrong that a vast majority of the country doesn’t make a living wage, I think it’s wrong that you can work 100 hours and not feed your kids. I think it’s wrong that corporations like Walmart and Amazon can get paid by the government, essentially experience a wealth transfer from the public, for paying people less than a minimum wage.”
This is just sloppy work by Glenn Kessler (he seriously cited a 2005 paper titled “Walmart: A Progressive Success Story”), and it's not the first time he has royally screwed up some simple journalism. On a previous “fact-check” of Medicare for All, he made a gargantuan mistake, corrected it, then included that same gargantuan mistake in future “fact-checks” of Medicare for All.
The fact-checking industry has become so predictable in its pedantry and obsession with minutiae over big picture facts that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez basically wrote the thesis of Kessler's column two days before he did.
If people like Glenn Kessler are going to call themselves “fact-checkers,” then they must meet the incredibly high bar that is the standard for the word “fact.” It is not a “fact” that Ocasio-Cortez is wrong about Amazon and Walmart just because their PR departments said that she was, and it’s beyond embarrassing that a journalist would take a PR shop at their word, let alone use it as the primary source for a “fact.” This is proof that while Kessler wants to pretend that he is the sober adult, operating above the fray of ideology, his “fact checks” are in fact, an ideology unto itself, where all leftist policy is a fairy tale, according to Walmart, Amazon and the Koch Brothers.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.