- THE WASHINGTON EXAMINER - MAY 26, 2021 - Hugo Gurdon, Editor-in-Chief -
It is time for the news business to admit that “fact-checking” is a tiresome, misleading, and dishonest blight on actual reporting.
It hardly existed in Fleet Street when I left Britain in 1997. Checking facts was understood to be the core of a reporter’s job, not something sloughed off to someone else. Perhaps this was because British education was mostly essay writing, not checking multiple-choice boxes. Students quickly learn to write fluently when faced with blank sheets of foolscap and limited time to fill them. Quality obviously varied, but educated people were assumed to be capable of coherent composition.
The residual challenge was knowing the facts or, in the case of reporters, finding them out. So, it was startling at first to encounter America’s bifurcated system, in which “fact-checkers” monitor reporters like gamekeepers trying to catch poachers. And it’s far worse now than it was back then. Fact-checking has grown beyond recognition in the past 25 years and chokes the news business like a parasitic vine.
“Fact-checkers,” often employed by full-time “fact-checking” organizations, are widely granted weighty authority they haven’t earned and don’t deserve. Members of the fact-checker species are no more likely to be right than the reporters whose work they presume to judge. They are themselves often merely former reporters who reached their ceiling in real journalism, or else young novices who have still to learn how it’s done. Yet they’re accorded outsize gravitas. That’s why shallow would-be rebuttals that are really nothing more than opinion pieces are often labeled “fact checks.” Their stolen authority conceals rather than exposes the truth.
Scratch a fact-checker and he’s just another guy lugging around his prejudices and thinking (like a grumpy reader) that a story is flat wrong just because it isn’t written the way he’d have written it. It’s more than a decade since I told my reporters not even to refer in their stories to fact-checkers’ findings. Because they’re irrelevant. That a fact-checker concludes X, Y, or Z usually reveals nothing useful.
Yet fact-checking has spread like a nasty rash over the nether regions of our profession. The people conferring “pinocchios” and “pants on fire” ratings are as likely as not to base their decisions on criteria less related to accuracy than to personal taste, ideology, or slavish acceptance and imposition of a tyrannical orthodoxy.
It is people of this caliber who hurled rhetorical ordure and accusations of falsehood down on the head of Sen. Tom Cotton and the rest of us who suggested that COVID-19 might have emerged from a coronavirus research lab in Wuhan, China, not from a nearby exotic foods market. This was logical, and I expect it will eventually be found to be true. But it contradicted Beijing’s narrative and agents and the left-wing media — perhaps I repeat myself — and former President Donald Trump mentioned it, so it had to be dismissed by the Washington Post, for example, as a “conspiracy theory” that had been “debunked.”
The currency of “debunking” is so devalued that one can now say reliably only that it denotes something the supposed debunker disagreed with. Actual debunking admits of no compromise. A story cannot be undebunked. A story from which a fact-checker withdraws a “pants on fire” rating, as PolitiFact did recently after the New York Times broke ranks on the Wuhan lab theory, is one that was never shown to be wrong and was instead simply defamed. The people checking the facts made faulty assumptions and sloppy decisions of exactly the type they profess themselves suited to guard against. It’s that bad.
There are fact-checkers all across our news landscape. Facebook, one of the biggest distributors of (other people’s) news reporting, employs a legion of them to put “flags” on stories they say are false or partly false. When challenged by news organizations or the original writers, who can have a great deal more relevant knowledge than those passing judgment, the fact-checkers usually do one of three things: admit they’re out of their depth, fall silent, or say a particular piece of context should be added. The last of these amounts to nothing more than saying they’d have written it differently.
Mistakes cannot be eliminated from news reporting, hard though one tries to avoid them. When reporters stumble, they, we, should be held accountable. The embarrassment is bracing. But that’s a better system than having jumped-up journos acting like officials from the Ministry of Truth, denigrating perfectly good work until given permission by the biased gray lady to change the narrative.
We don’t need an army of carping and caviling “fact-checkers” who, like angry fans in the bleachers, hoot derision but neither know nor care as much as the people they decry.
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