NEW YORK—I’ve had battles with fact-checkers my whole life.
I blame The New Yorker magazine—that’s where it all started.
Harold Ross, the founder of The New Yorker, was such a perfectionist he hired editors who worked on the phone book, because someone told him that was the most error-free publication in the world. He was obsessive about spelling, punctuation, grammar, but he was equally obsessive about the smallest factual details. If you wrote an article about a ferret, and your article stated that the ferret in question had black fur, you would receive a half-page memo from the Fact Check Department informing you that, after two phone calls to the American Ferret Association, there was a concern within the building that you might be confusing the color “black” with the color “black sable,” which is distinct from simple black. “Are you absolutely certain that it was a black ferret and not a black sable ferret?”
And, of course, in most situations like this, you’re not sure! The fact-checker has infused just enough doubt into the situation that you’re back on the phone, asking a ferret-raiser in Cahokia, Ill., whether the ferret you witnessed on Wednesday the 23rd was indeed a black ferret and not a black sable ferret.
This is what fact-checkers do. This is what they’ve always done. Harold Ross’ decision to create a staff of professional fact-checkers was eventually adopted by most major magazines and book publishers, so that by the time I went to work for Texas Monthly magazine, every fact-checker in the world was attempting to prove his or her fact-checking worthiness by aspiring to the standards of the New Yorker team toiling away in the rabbit warrens of 44th Street.
We had one fact-checker at Texas Monthly—I won’t name her, but you know who you are—who was so assiduous that she once challenged me on the plural of the word lasso. (She was actually a combination fact-checker/copy editor, so she had the toxic DNA of both species.) I said that you formed the plural of lasso by merely adding an s, but she was holding out for lassoes. Even though she couldn’t produce an example of lassoes in print, she nevertheless summoned some usage theory based on the double s that, to tell you the truth, I’ve forgotten. She then proceeded to track down people who work professionally with lassos or lassoes, only to discover that, although they might be fond of their ropes, they don’t often write sonnets about them. As I recall, we ended up referring the whole matter to a higher power—the editor in chief—and I was bound by his decision. I’m sure I never read the article in print, partly because, when you deal with fact-checkers all your life, you can’t handle the angst.
My only point in telling this story is this:
(1) Fact-checking is a very serious, tedious, time-consuming, nerdy, cerebral process that can sometimes go on or days.
(2) It’s an entirely internal matter.
It’s for Us, not Them.
It’s for the reporter, not the reported-on.
It’s for the newspaper, not the politician.
It’s for the company lawyer, not Donald Trump.
You don’t go around like a hired gun in the Wild West saying, “I’m gonna fact-check your sorry ass!”
Reporters don’t carry around a deck of Trivial Pursuit Fact-Check Cards so they can say, “No, sorry, you missed that one! And that was an easy category, too!”
I don’t know who first appropriated the word fact-checking to mean nailing Donald Trump—my first suspect would be CNN, closely followed by The Washington Post and The New York Times—but pretending you can apply the principles of fact-checking to daily news reporting on the fly, much less do it in “real time,” as the TV networks sometimes claim to do, is not only a slippery slope, it’s a Slip ’N Slide hosed down with axle grease.
And there’s another aspect of it that makes the whole pursuit the equivalent of jumping across ice crevasses at the North Pole:
Sometimes, when you go through the fact-check process, you decide not to fact-check.
A real-life example: As a cub reporter at the Dallas Times Herald, I witnessed a Houston police officer grab a student protester by his hair and slam his face against the wall of an office building.
Of course, I put this in the article.
The assistant managing editor asked me what my sources were.
I said my sources were my two eyes.
He said he needed two independent sources who would say a student protester got slammed against a wall.
I said, “Really? Isn’t that what I was there to do? Watch what the hell is happening?”
But that particular newspaper, at that particular time, was under the thrall of the two-source policy. This was invented by Ben Bradlee, editor of The Washington Post, during the Watergate investigation, and presumably the purpose of it was to attain a higher standard of certainty.
I was always opposed to the two-source policy, for a simple reason that would be backed up by any criminal investigator: The more explosive the secret, the more likely there’s only one person who knows about it. Even in the case of a conspiracy, the odds of having two conspirators turn against the others are approximately zero.
Of course, the example I’m using here is a whole additional level of insanity, since I was an eyewitness to the news event.
So I said, “Do you want me to go find the student and ask him if a cop bashed his face into the wall?”
I was being sarcastic, but the assistant managing editor actually said, “Yes, that would be a good way to report it. He could allege that he was beaten.”
“He was beaten! There is no ‘alleged.’”
Later I tried to get the editor to reverse the two-source policy, and I was even backed up by one of the company lawyers, but the guy had come from, of all places, The Washington Post, and so we mostly stuck with it.
In another case, I rode all night in a car with three members of the Ku Klux Klan after they announced they were going to “patrol the Mexican border” and capture wetbacks. I told the managing editor in advance, “I’m just gonna write down what they say and we’re not gonna fact-check it, okay?”
He agreed with me, and, miracle of miracles, the newspaper-reading public of the state of Texas was able to understand, on their own, without us calling anybody any names, that maybe the Vidor, Tex., headquarters of the Ku Klux Klan comprised some dim bulbs who didn’t need to be “outed” as liars.
All of which brings me to my ultimate point. You may not be aware of this, since you’re probably not a navel-gazing, self-important journalist type, but the world of journalism was apparently altered forever on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 17.
That’s the day the lead story in The New York Times was “Trump Gives Up a Lie But Refuses to Repent.”
There have already been several articles written about this, most of them praising the Times, which was really proud of this piece about the “birther” controversy in which they used the word lie for the first time to describe something a politician said. Dean Baquet, the executive editor, has done interviews about it. Apparently there were internal deliberations prior to publication. Apparently they knew they were departing from precedent, which would have used phrases like “widely assumed to be a false statement” or “unproven allegation” or “called a liar by his critics.”
“Newspapers struggle with terms like ‘lie,’” Baquet told an interviewer. “We struggle with them too much.”
In other words, they wanted to say “Trump is a liar”—on the day he was saying that Obama was born in the United States.
Even if he was lying before, he wasn’t lying on the day he was called a liar.
You would have to get inside the head of a Timesman to know exactly what’s going on here—and, believe me, that’s a place none of us wanna go—but it was sort of the ultimate extension of the “I’m Gonna Fact-Check Your Ass” culture that started around the time Trump became the Republican nominee. It’s especially interesting that they used the religious word repent in the headline, as though Trump was an apostate flirting with outer darkness by refusing to apologize.
A week later, the Times devoted a full page to “A Week of Whoppers from Donald Trump.” (The reason they were called “whoppers,” by the way, is that Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman had written a whole column explaining why Hillary tells “fibs” but Donald tells “whoppers”—in fact, “Double Whoppers”—and the theme was later taken up by other writers until, believe it or not, “fibs vs. whoppers” became an actual standard of evaluation throughout the summer.)
I was hoping that the Donald Whopper Page would turn into a regular feature—“We’re gonna fact-check your life, dude!”—but apparently the 31 alleged lies they found during the week of Sept. 18 were simply an in-house celebration of their liberation on Sept. 17.
“We’re allowed to say he’s a liar! We’re allowed to say he’s a liar!”
On closer examination, they were double-dipping. Five of the 31 items were variations on “I opposed the war in Iraq.” Others were Trump statements like “We have cities that are far more dangerous than Afghanistan.”
Here’s the Times’ reasoning on that one: “No American city resembles a war zone, though crime has risen lately in some, like Chicago. Urban violence has fallen precipitously over the past 25 years.”
I would quibble about the “resembles a war zone” thing—been to downtown Camden, N.J., or East St. Louis, Ill., or Laredo, Tex., lately?—but the important thing is this:
The Times reporters and other media outlets insisted on taking Trump literally.
You and I know that “far more dangerous than Afghanistan” is not a literal statement.
We know that Trump had not consulted any academic studies of living conditions in Afghanistan and then compared them with living conditions in various American cities.
You and I know that Trump talks like a guy in a bar, not a lawyer establishing a legally defensible court record.
You would think that street-savvy New York Times reporters would understand this as well. You would think anyone who had ever interviewed a politician would instinctively understand this.
It’s a good thing the authors of the “Donald Whoppers” page weren’t with him in 2005 when he started talking about grabbing women by the crotch, because they would have followed up with “When you touch the vagina, do you do it in an invasive way, or is it more of a surface feel?”
(Quick digression: Billy Bush was absolutely right to agree with Trump and egg him on. When you’re interviewing someone, that’s what you do. If I had been interviewing him, I would have said, “You do that too? I like to grab ’em when they’re not looking.” You do whatever you have to do, and say whatever you have to say, to establish rapport with the guy you’re interviewing—because what you say doesn’t matter, but what he says matters a great deal. I never understood why Mike Wallace and other reporters at 60 Minutes would embarrass people on camera. The moment you do that, you lose all access to information. There’s apparently something of the same culture at the Times, a group decision to “make him squirm” instead of the more effective technique—cozying up to him to glean more information.)
All through the presidential debates, there were demands that the moderators “fact-check” Donald Trump. In the second debate, Lester Holt gave in to the pressure and challenged Trump on remarks he’d made about the New York City stop-and-frisk policy—and it was Holt who got the whole thing wrong, not Trump! At about the same time, CNN started using chyrons—those little text fields that scroll across the bottom of the screen—to supposedly “fact-check” Trump while he was speaking.
Look, people, I know you’re all geniuses. I know you couldn’t work at the Times or the Post or CNN unless you had a 180 IQ, a photographic memory, and clairvoyance. But that fact-checker you just hired is paid to watch you, not the Donald.
I know, I hate it too. I hate it every time they call me or send me a memo or tell me they think I screwed up. I hate it every time a fact-checker saves my ass.
Using fact-checking as a weapon is like using your own Breathalyzer results to say somebody else is drunk.
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