We are in a time of hyper-propaganda, and not just from Russia, through social media that has reached, if not influenced, tens of millions of Americans. The president of the United States repeatedly lies and pushes conspiracy. The media gave Michael Wolff an enormous amount of attention for a piece of work that was sloppy and in many ways fanciful.
By doing so, we legitimized the mixture of fact and fiction in politics, something we’ll regret later. A growing number of viewers, listeners, and readers eagerly consume information they want to believe while shunning that which challenges their worldviews. In such an environment, independent fact-checkers are invaluable, which is why they must hold the line.
That’s why PolitiFact’s experiment is incredibly ill-advised.
“Big news!” PolitiFact tweeted last week. “Former Florida U.S. Reps. @DavidJollyFl and @AlanGrayson have agreed to serve as reader advocates for PolitiFact. They’ll be critiquing our work and publishing on Politifact.com. Read why we’re doing this and tell us what you think.”
Apparently, so many readers told PolitiFact what they thought, the experiment was rethought. By the next morning, the well-regarded fact-checking site had rescinded its offer to former Rep. Alan Grayson, who made headlines in 2009 when he stood in the House chambers and said the Republican health care plan was “don’t get sick” and if you happen to get sick “die quickly.”
Several readers reminded PolitiFact of Grayson’s well-known bombastic history. Jack Sherman of Politico tweeted a video of Grayson threatening a Politico reporter with arrest because Grayson didn’t like being asked questions about domestic abuse allegations.
PolitiFact quickly changed course. “We sought out a Democrat and Republican to critique our work in order to try to improve the trust and credibility in fact-checking and PolitiFact,” the site said in an explanation tweet. “It has become clear our choice of Alan Grayson did not meet that threshold to many.”
How a fact-checking site didn’t know to fact-check the men they had chosen for this experiment, which is supposed to last until April, is baffling. But even after that setback, PolitiFact still didn’t see the folly of the experiment itself.
“We called Alan a short while ago and informed him that we would be canceling our agreement for him to write on PolitiFact,” it said in a follow-up tweet. “We remain committed to this experiment, however, and will be seeking out a Democrat to replace Alan. If you have a good suggestion, please reach out.”
I do. Get rid of the cliched and misleading one-Democrat-one-Republican version of fairness. Dump the political angle completely. If the goal is to increase credibility, getting in bed with politics couldn’t be a better way to guarantee the opposite will happen.
Instead of politicians, bring on a couple of unaffiliated journalists to critique your work. If the right-left paradigm is what you’re married to, choose a well-regarded journalist from a conservative outlet and one from a liberal one. Just make sure they are more committed to ethical, accurate journalism than they are to an ideology. Just about any competent professional journalist would fit the bill, given that, by definition, they, too, are fact-checkers.
Plenty of journalists turn to independent fact-checkers such as PolitiFact for research purposes, but also find fault with conclusions PolitiFact writers have reached. Having the original fact-checkers hold independent fact-checkers accountable would increase PolitiFact’s credibility more than any politician, Democrat or Republican, ever could.
When I responded with a critical tweet of the original idea, PolitiFact responded that it was an experiment to see if readers like it “and to see if we all can learn something from it.”
Fact: Facts are facts, no matter if readers like them.
If even fact-checkers haven’t recognized that we are in a dangerous era in which holding fast to facts—and protecting them from political rhetoric instead of putting them on par—is more important than ever, we are in more trouble than I thought.