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The Fact-Checkers

How a respected but peripheral editorial job evolved into a partisan bludgeon for both sides of the American divide

Sean Cooper
December 03, 2020
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

One of the pleasant attributes of our modern media class is that they’ve remained largely untroubled by the values that once guided previous generations of journalists and writers. This is what gives them their friendly, frivolous air, and allows for so much free time to spend on Twitter. Disconnected from the burden to hold all forms of power to account—on both the left and right, across industries—and beholden not to principles or institutions but rather the economics of online verticals composed of other nearly identical writers, they can indulge themselves, and thus their audience, in the kinds of news making and commentary which never takes one by surprise, never rattles or discomforts. Their frictionless existence helps sustain the fleeting, ethereal quality in their writing, and weightless appearances on podcasts and TV.

Guardians of their own sealed information ecosystem, the media delivers soft pellets of info-entertainment through feeds, which promise the feeders downstream the constant and repetitive sustenance of the womb. For both the tellers and the told, the reliable storylines of shock and dismay are performative; the purpose of the performance is to energize creation myths which in another time and place might have been shared around a fire, folk epics of the earth’s destruction, the great darkness, and the rebirth that must follow, just as spring follows winter. Though wildly primitive, and untethered to actual lived experience, these narratives are hardly trivial; they strengthen the culture passed down from elder media makers to tribal members while continuing to unspool the reality which needs to be validated that day or week for the people who pay their bills.

This is part of why the rise of capital-R Responsibility across the media class over the past several years is so comedic—the other part being that white collar professionals who stridently proclaim strictly being 100% on the level are comic characters to everyone who is not one of them. Absent any true allegiance to agnostic scrutiny of political and business entities—what used to be called a responsibility to the public interest—our media makers playact the role of grown-ups, in a rule-enforcing, finger-wagging, shame-wielding, high-road crusade that the rest of the country rightly treats as a gag or a bore. This was the default posture for the media class during the entirety of the Trump administration. It was their job, in fact—the Great Responsibility—to keep democracy alive against the forces of the opposition, which was at once, in their telling, simultaneously inept and darkly totalitarian and fascistic, a union of 180-degree opposites that required increasingly bizarre descriptive metaphors that purported to describe the Trumpian assault on democracy, like “slow-motion Reichstag fire.”

But now the sun has risen.

“Judging from his initial choices, Joe Biden’s Cabinet and White House staff can best be described as a Team of Adults,” a New Republic columnist opined last week. In the Atlantic’s version, “the world as we knew it is safe. The grown-ups are moving back in.” On MSNBC, the NPR reporter Yamiche Alcindor relayed her source’s recap of the season’s final episode. “It felt like the Avengers. Like we’re being rescued from the craziness we’ve lived with these last four years. And now here are the superheroes to come and save us all.”

For those of us who are pleased about Trump’s exit, but more qualified in our enthusiasm to see Biden receive the keys to the White House, the prospect of hearing our media class tell the same story every day for the next four years seems almost as dreary as listening to a different, more alarming one-note story for the past four.

Theodore Adorno would likely note that our current media-makers are not entirely to blame here, as they have substituted at least for their public service an attempt to satisfy a public appetite, providing an atomized, widely depressed, overfed, extra medicated, strung out, overworked, understimulated population with “relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire,” Adorno noted—and I don’t think he’d distinguish between today’s entertainment and the stuff labeled news coverage. Yet the devices and techniques of journalism continue to serve a function in the current regime, albeit a rhetorical one; namely, to validate the portion of the feeds which are labeled news.

For several decades, fact-checking was the agreed upon process by which the underlying foundation of a news report or magazine piece were vetted as accurate. Fact-checking was a lowly occupation in the hierarchy of magazine mastheads, but an honorable one—a job whose importance was readily recognized by the writers and editors at the top of the masthead.

Gently imbued with the ideals of the scientific method, fact-checking departments, which were led in the postwar decades by the pace horse outfit at The New Yorker, sought a standard of replicability, whereby anyone else could, in theory, rereport a story and probably arrive at a similar, reason-based presentation of the facts. Fact-checkers worked below decks, scrubbing errors, correcting names and dates, and sanding off the edges of the framing or spin which did not correspond to verifiable reality. If they did their job well, meaning with intelligence, imagination and balance, and were enterprising by nature, a talented fact-checker might find her or himself destined for greater things—like a byline, or their own slot on the masthead.

But then came Silicon Valley and the ethos of venture capitalism. It dawned on the CEOs of media startups, and their imitators, that media was more valuable when it could be unbundled into parts that could be then monetized for other purposes—especially when the publishers of that content were inexplicably self-destructive enough to provide it to the large platforms for free. The actual writing and images in the pages of magazines and newspapers were more valuable to Google and Facebook when they themselves displayed it on their own platforms and sold advertising beside it, essentially monetizing the theft. So too with fact-checking, which in the Silicon Valley era of media-making is something that a broke press can longer afford and the large platforms can’t leverage, except as another scam to manipulate the public record.

Once ensconced almost exclusively in the editorial departments of legacy publications, fact-checking is now its own free-standing business. By this time last year, there were nearly 200 fact-checking outfits professionally engaged in debunking, correcting, and fixing facts—with names like PolitiFact, Snopes, and the International Fact-Checking Network. Some sell ads, and some get seven-figure donations from people pushing assorted sets of causes. In other words, they are modern media enterprises.

The Washington Post and New York Times also have their own in-house fact-checking czars, but their purpose is nontraditional—in the sense that these operations, supported with millions in sponsorship donations by billionaires like Pierre Omidyar, do not engage with ensuring the veracity before publication of reports that they themselves have made. Rather, their job is to correct the published work of others, by issuing declarations of unreliability or ratings of inaccuracies. As is often the case, these tasks are performed in direct collaboration with Google and the social media platforms that eviscerated the old business models of media-making, in order to censor the distribution of stories by rivals.

It’s a weird three step process: Destroy the media, create a toxic replacement in social media platforms, use the fading credibility of legacy media tools to censor their replacements. And for however odious or ill motivated one might find the political viewpoints of others, the new fact-checking regime has become a phenomenally one-sided endeavor—one devoted to self-promotion while invalidating the truth-claims made by the other half of the political spectrum.

The term “one-sided” may in fact understate the case. A recent analysis of the Associated Press fact-checking vertical found that 94% of fact-checks were made on Republican and conservative statements. During one 13-month stretch spanning the first half of Trump’s administration, there were no checks of liberal or Democratic statements whatsoever. Such naked partisanship does little to encourage a robust First Amendment, which operates under the theory that people can best shape their own views by encountering a spectrum of beliefs and ideas, including those they disagree with, even vehemently. It therefore comes as little surprise that younger Americans who are growing up under this system tend not to believe in the First Amendment, either.

In the 20th-century period after WWII but before Big Tech, the practice of fact-checking matured primarily at print magazines which would build up an inventory of fact pieces that sat around for months or even years (sometimes as long as 20 years, as The New Yorker did under William Shawn), until they were slotted into the editorial process which methodically moved through the fact-checking protocols of breaking down the entire piece into disparate, verified facts before it was reassembled and moved along toward publication.

The New Yorker, which emerged in 1925 along with a slew of other new little magazines, helped incubate the midcentury literary reportage and high middlebrow nonfiction and fiction that presented a rising, comfortable class with a shared worldview that grounded itself in a panorama of vivid fact which was obsessively decorated with anecdotes about both the down and out lower classes and the high dramas of the rich and powerful and famous. It foregrounded a sensibility of urbane, ironic detachment, a blended consumer product and cultural lodestar for those who aspired to become sophisticated cultural travelers, seeking out a path of greatest interest and least resistance during a period of widespread social upheaval.

However parochial or classist this sensibility was, it was also the idiosyncratic expression of actual humans who helmed the mastheads and occupied loosely overlapping literary communities who valued a pursuit of the types of questions that art and literature are made to address and which government, politics, and strict ideology cannot. Fact-checking helped anchor the evolution of this idiosyncrasy in shared realities. Even as editors came and went, and new magazines appeared like stars on the horizon, then flickered and died, the humanity of a collective literary effort was protected from becoming propaganda. For an increasingly secularized middle class, this culture attended to impulses that might have once been satisfied by organized religion. As Jimmy Breslin once said of Joseph Mitchell, who left behind his Southern Baptist roots in North Carolina to become the best New Yorker writer of his generation, that his new “religion was understatement, which produces clarity and lasts forever.”

Trump’s arrival was a boon to the fact-checkers hanging perilously onto their vulnerable media jobs.

This religion proved its worth. By and large, magazines remained the most factually reliable publication one could find in American letters or universities. On the whole, for several decades, they remained repositories of the most rigorously scrutinized and reliable claims to fact. Magazines were much more reliable than nonfiction books, which were rarely fact-checked by the publishers and often only if the author paid for it. As one longtime fact-checker famously said of the publishers who didn’t invest resources into their checking operations, “If the writer and editor don’t care how the foundation concrete gets poured, they deserve to live on the highest floor of the building they designed.”

As magazines rounded the corner on the new century there were emerging commercial pressures to keep up with a news cycle and media environment which began to stretch around the clock, seven days a week. The internet wasn’t a force yet, but television and the influence of a television screen which required perpetually fresh content was now being felt across all media. At The New Yorker, the rising tastemaker Tina Brown was, to the surprise of many, installed at the helm of the masthead. She quickly transformed the establishment’s editorial scheme to compete in the increasingly competitive marketplace by adding color photographs and shortening the articles, while emphasizing politics and pop culture at the expense of the esoteric and idiosyncratic topics that had formerly been the magazine’s hallmark, and were the product of a decidedly more literary and less fashion-oriented sensibility.

For the austere fact-checking department this meant that pieces that once moved through the editorial pipeline over the course of months now sped through in days or in some instances hours. In one frenetically assembled Talk of the Town piece, five errors were discovered after publication—an unheard of number of factual mistakes. That poor fact-checker was fired immediately, “just vaporized,” as a colleague said at the time. Tina Brown doubled the size of the fact-checking department to try to scale up with her ambition to turn The New Yorker into a magazine comported to the velocity of the day’s news.

The pace of news cycles has only accelerated since the late ’90s, continually approaching some infinite horizon; no one cares about the published corrections that used to get fact-checkers and reporters fired. The news business, magazines and journals are a shell of their former selves, with 1,800 newspapers shuttered since 2004, and 1,200 communities no longer receiving any local news coverage. The jobs that have been created to replace the nearly 100,000 reporting jobs that have been eliminated by the dismantling of the newspaper and magazine businesses consist, in one way or another, of making pellets—i.e., breaking down unreliable stories into ever-smaller pieces that can be fed into the hungry maw of the platforms.

To those who might not clue into the original source of the so-called article or pull quote or social media headline that populates the news-looking portion of their feeds, the idea that the news business is anything but thriving seems to be incredible. After all, there are online media networks by the dozens filling in for some of those old local newspapers, like the Prairie State Wire and South Central Reporter, which as The New York Times reported recently, were now in all 50 states, a robust network “built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals.” A survey in 2016 found that for eight of 11 of the nation’s leading magazines, most of which were multi-National Magazine Award winners, the process for their digital publications involved at most a fact-check of basic name spelling, dates, and a kick of the tires for libel vulnerability by the magazine’s lawyers—who, at better-endowed publications, now impose their own distinctly unliterary standards on what goes to press.

This, anyway, was the current state of affairs for fact-checking, such as it was, across American media, when Donald Trump became a serious contender for the presidency. Not unlike how Sept. 11 revolutionized our national security protocol into a robust surveillance apparatus—one part actual security interest and several parts theater and military industrial grift—Trump’s arrival was a boon to the fact-checkers hanging perilously onto their vulnerable media jobs. Though they no longer were part of a decadeslong editorial tradition, they could at least, like the former journalists now working at content mill websites, use the tools of the trade at scale to shape the modern media narratives that purported to present the public with some version of the truth.

For the media audience, there were now credentialed top-shelf fact-checkers to follow every day in social media feeds and on favorite news websites. At The Washington Post, Glenn Kessler, a former reporter, gave out Pinocchio noses to lying public officials. Granted, there was something juvenile about grading statements with children’s stickers—and Kessler sometimes got it wrong, like during the 2016 election when Kessler gave two noses to Ted Cruz for his claim that Obama removed an Oval Office bust of Churchill, which Obama had later conceded he had removed. But these were minor surface fissures in the dam against falsehoods writ large, assembled in necessary haste to thwart the flood of bad information Ted Cruz and those like him were otherwise pouring into the public sphere.

In the run-up to this November’s election, the media consumers who’d been following along with Kessler and other fact-checking operations since the beginning could imagine a robust response during the last days of October, heading into Election Day, when the New York Post published a story on Hunter Biden to derail the Biden campaign. One didn’t even need to read the article to know it was wrong. One could intuit that the story involving the nominee’s son and a Ukrainian power company had a great stink around it, a sordid taint of an attempted scandal—one which had clearly been orchestrated by the opposition to benefit Trump. If there was any genuine concern about the actual truth of the story, it didn’t last long. The story was false, and needed to be denounced as such—even if the individual facts later somehow turned out to be true.

But how to prove that something was false, as the clock ticked toward the election? The old technologies were inadequate. Proving things takes time—especially when the answer has to come out right. The system wasn’t built for that. There was therefore great relief that the technology CEOs quickly stepped in to take responsibility for their own platforms. In a matter of minutes after the Post ran the story, which was sourced from the illicitly copied hard drive of a laptop purportedly left behind by Hunter at a Delaware repair shop, Twitter and Facebook refused to allow users to circulate links to the article—or to any other outlet covering the story, until it could be verified against a fluid definition of standards by fact-checkers.

At Facebook, Andy Stone, once the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee press secretary, now a Facebook public relations executive, explained that the reduction of Facebook’s “distribution on our platform” of the article would go into place while it was looked over by some of Facebook’s over 15,000 “third party fact checking partners.” Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey, and his top attorney, Vijaya Gadde, shut down the article from being shared on their website on the grounds that the hard drive was hacked material, and therefore potentially an invasion of privacy to Hunter himself, which thus compromised the article’s newsworthiness—a standard they apparently made up on the spot. Others like NPR joined suit in sanitizing the public space of the Hunter article, as the Managing News Editor Terence Samuel explained shortly after, “We don’t want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories, and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions.”

That the Watergate tapes or Edward Snowden’s cache of revelations about government surveillance and misconduct would have been silenced on the platforms according to these rules, it still made sense, one could say, to thwart circulation of something so explicitly timed and which could very well have been based upon entirely fabricated materials. Fielding attacks from the right-wing mob, which pointed out Dorsey’s previous decision to not block Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei’s posts calling for an end to the “long-lasting virus” that is Israel while denying the Holocaust, on the reasonable grounds that Dorsey wants world leaders like Khamenei to have the “right to speak and to publish what they need,” Dorsey extended an olive branch by apologizing for Twitter’s “unacceptable” censorship, as he described it, thereby maintaining the integrity of our American democracy while also appeasing the hardliners in TrumpWorld.

Who is this weird performance for? That’s the more interesting question, of course. The answer to that one takes some thinking.

One could imagine a woman who comes from nowhere but is omnipresent, like a consumer profile, and appears across the culture. She is a role model. Women and many men wish to be like her even if they don’t know her name. On social media and in her small world of acquaintances she is friendly with members of the resistance, that online subculture built around unequivocal denunciations of anything faintly suggestive of Trump, but she doesn’t indulge in the full range of their histrionics. In other words, she is likable. On the topic of the antifa she just wishes they’d go away. Her affinities lie in her urbane set of preferences and lifestyle aspirations, which make her ideas on politics and social issues appealing to a wider demographic of age, race, and socioeconomic backgrounds. Let’s call her Dora, inspired by the cartoon character who likes exploring.

The values which animate this appealing phantom serve as the foundation for one of the more peculiar mental constructions which loom over our present moment: a core belief in the self-evidence, on the one hand, of how convincingly they, as Dora is prone to refer to consumers of TrumpWorld, have been hoodwinked; duped by the cheap talk polluting the echo chambers of Fox News, conservative podcast/YouTube streamers, and high-volume bottom-grade digital news outlets, which with frightening success continue to envelop this audience of viewers, listeners, and frantic, all-caps forwarding emailers in a false reality of distorted make-believe. At backyard gatherings this summer, after a glass of fair-trade carbon-neutral wine, she would say, with sympathy, these people are like sheep; they are suckers who are acting “against their own self-interest,” who lack situational awareness of how much harm they’re doing to themselves, and so to the nation.

On the other hand, and this is what’s curious about our friend Dora the Explorer: She does not give much weight to the possibility of a similar effort of coordinated duplicity striking closer to home. It is off her radar as a possibility, as far away as Elon Musk’s landing on Mars. If someone suggested, even in an offhanded, joking manner, her own media stream was compromised by partisans and political surrogates pushing their own power-hungry agendas, she would brush it off as a conspiracy theory circulated by one of the radio host YouTube spirit guides. If it was anything this notion was designed for popularity among what Dora considered privately as the lowest common denominator, only they would suspect that a similar coordination between parties of wealth and political power could or would manipulate the accuracy and integrity of the prestige-tier news and commentary products which she curates and shares, with no qualms about veracity, because she knows it to be the truth, annotated in messages and emails with light commentary and funny email subject lines, between friends and some members of her family.

Her confidence in her certainty about the rigor and quality of the news websites she reads and the stories she clicks on is reinforced by her group texts and social media feeds. It’s developed over the years as Dora has watched how the toxic news sources and problematic people, some of whom were journalists according to their profiles and some who just appeared to be people who became popular on the internet, were quickly rooted out for various improprieties. It began in earnest during the 2016 election, this swift, organized, and succinct sanitization of her space. And while the election was lost she felt assurance afterward that at least she could trust those who she followed to sterilize her feeds and websites from conspiratorial loons like Alex Jones and all those who were trafficking in partisan hit jobs like the 11th-hour attack on Hillary and her private email server.

Now that the technology CEOs were making amends from their past crimes in 2016, with Twitter properly censoring circulation of the Post story and labeling Trump’s tweets with fact-check links, it was hard to be as concerned as she was before about breaking up Google and Facebook. It seems so long ago to her, last summer, when there were different kinds of conversations happening in her feeds around wealth inequality, regulation, and policies to reduce the ill effects of increasingly concentrated power. After Elizabeth Warren sank, and Bernie lost, and the pandemic became the only topic of the internet, the energy that had gone into the wealth and power conversation had shifted almost entirely to partisan skirmishes around race. Entirely absent in fact were any more stories about breaking up Big Tech or policies which would alleviate the effects of monopoly power aiding runaway wealth inequality.

Still, Joe Biden wasn’t going to just let the tech executives get off the hook entirely, Dora knew this. The New York Times was highlighting just how the president-elect was going to “keep scrutiny of tech front and center.” Northeast radio stations were talking to Brookings Institute experts who explained how Biden is about to “go hard on Big Tech.” As Dora observed, Biden was loading his administration up with the kind of intelligent, world-class experts and insiders, including the top brass on his transition team, from Airbnb, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Sequoia, that finical incubator for YouTube and dozens of other top tech properties. Who understood the problems of Big Tech better than the best and brightest of Silicon Valley.

All around, actually, Biden could consult from a plethora of experts with deep knowledge of tech, starting with his Chief of Staff Ron Klain, who ran one of Silicon Valley’s leading D.C. lobbying operations after leaving the Obama administration. Likewise there was the small army of former Obama administration people and other former government people who had moved over to lobbying firms in Washington to assist in the Trump resistance. In 2017, Google hired 80% of their 113 lobbyists because of their past government work experience. Amazon hired two of every three and Facebook three of every four of their lobbyists that year directly from the pool of ex-government employees who fled Trump, ahead of the slow-motion Reichstag fire.

Indeed, experts were everywhere around Biden, they flocked to him like filaments around a magnet, assuring him that no one provided better, more intelligent and evidence-based oversight of Big Tech than the leaders of that very field.

It was this deference to validated, certified expertise, backed by degrees from one of the top five colleges, that Dora increasingly admired in the work of the fact-checkers she’d read every day—keeping tabs on the toxic sludge being pumped out by the administration and its surrogates. In this devolving of the public commons into half reality and half falsehoods she came to see that the facts that serve as the basis for most news and commentary were not naturally occurring phenomena but rather statements which had achieved consensual validation, a collective effort to ascertain the truth. The TrumpWorld consumers had their infotainment talking heads, and then there were the actual experts, polite, reasonable people just like her, there to properly validate and fact-check the information they provided for her feed.

Every so often Dora clicked over to one of the websites the TrumpWorld people always linked to, or would flip on the only television channel they watched—just to be broad-minded. She couldn’t last more than two minutes. It was an exercise in immersing herself in a place made up entirely of falsehoods. She shuddered to think that half the country actually lived there. Something must be done.

Sean Patrick Cooper is a journalist who has contributed narrative features and essays to The New Republic, n+1, Bloomberg Businessweek, and elsewhere. His first book, The Shooter at Midnight: Murder, Corruption, and a Farming Town Divided will be published in April 2024 by Penguin.