Politicians have always been accused of lying to win, but in our ancient history, we trusted the institution of the Fourth Estate to tell us the facts, without fear or favor. The core of this belief was that news reporting, journalism, was above partisanship and could be trusted.
Both sides of this equation have changed over the past generation. For the young, who have had the misfortune to come of political age for the last election, it may seem as if this is an entirely new phenomenon, but politics was vicious and false at the inception of this country and, with occasional calm, has remained so.
Arguably, the relative depth of shamelessness plumbed new depths in the last election, with the ridiculous claims of Darth Cheeto. Or some might attribute it to the rebirth of advocacy journalism, where we’re told the reporters’ “truths” instead of facts because of some narcissistic belief that they grasp deeper truths and hold some deeper duty to teach the groundlings what they should believe rather than trust us to go where the facts lead us.
Because nature abhors a vacuum, a new cottage industry was born: the fact-checkers. Unlike the staffers at newspapers and magazines who once verified the quotes and stats in articles, these are putatively independent sources who take no side except the facts. But can there be a self-proclaimed honest broker? Even if they start out as honest, can they remain above the fray?
Shortly before Election Day 2016, many persons in the media were feeling self-satisfied. They thought they had painted Republican Donald Trump as a liar and demonstrated that Democratic standard-bearer Hillary Clinton was truthful.
Brooks Jackson, the director emeritus of FactCheck.org, claimed responsibility for leading the media charge to keep the candidates honest. “It’s really remarkable to see how big news operations have come around to challenging false and deceitful claims directly,” he said. “It’s about time.” The chief competitor to FactCheck.org engaged in some gloating as well. “Is this the post-truth election as people have claimed? No,” said PolitiFact founder Bill Adair, “It’s actually the thank-goodness-there-are-fact-checkers election.”
Power corrupts, and the power to proclaim a fact to be true is particularly potent. Judges, take note. The belief in one’s own honesty, one’s own integrity, doesn’t necessarily translate to acceptance as the font of truth.
Neither Jackson nor Adair got the facts right as it turned out. The public trusts the fact-checkers about as much as they trust politicians. A Rasmussen poll before Election Day found that 29 percent of likely voters believe the media’s fact-checking of political candidates, while 62 percent think the media just “skew the facts to help candidates they support.”
There are two separate problems that derive from this effort to be the source of “facts.” The first, and most obvious, is that people’s acceptance of what constitutes facts is what confirms their bias. If I believe that the world is flat, then I’m disinclined to accept a “pants on fire” reaction to that “fact.”
The second is that things that can be objectively verified are finite, and the claims made extend far beyond facts into the very truths at issue.
One of the best examples of the subjectivity of fact-checkers came during the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. In April, PolitiFact weighed in on the controversy regarding the public restrooms law in North Carolina. The law required people in the state to use the public restroom that corresponds to their sex at birth.
PolitiFact ruled it objectively false to describe a person by his or her birth sex if that person identifies with another sex. The ruling came in response to an attack ad launched by then-Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz against frontrunner Trump, who said he opposed the North Carolina law. On the famed “Truth-O-Meter,” PolitiFact determined that Cruz’s ad was “mostly false.” But not because it falsely accused Trump of anything. Rather, PolitiFact adopted a radical position in vogue in academia and declared, “it’s not accurate to say that transgender women are men.”
If Politifact was the honest broker it held itself out to be, then it had no business becoming embroiled in the underlying controversy of whether transgender women are men. It’s not susceptible to being a fact, but only a truth. Much as it’s a perfectly fair argument to make, it’s the province of advocates to make it, not fact-checkers.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s a point that I’ve made before.
Facts are objective.
Truth is subjective.
That candidates, and officeholders, lie is nothing new. That people inclined to believe lies believe their lies is nothing new. But that the one institution charged with being honest has made a deliberate decision to become part of the battle for truth leaves us with no trusted source, no honest broker of facts.
Sure, journalists have always suffered from subject matter ignorance, or space limitations, or the mistaken belief that they know far more than they know. But that’s a structural problem with journalism. They can’t all be brilliant. But they can all be honest, even when the facts conflict with their beliefs.
But what of the fact-checkers, Politifact and FactCheck, whose existence is to bridge this gap? There was an old game played in college bars across America, where one person lied and the other swore to it. Much as this was fun when it was just a game, when the fact-checkers merely validate journalism’s truths, they not only squander their own credibility, but they leave us with no trusted source of facts. Without facts, we’re doomed.