Following a spate of scandals in the 1980s typified by the Washington Post’s Janet Cooke inventing an eight-year-old heroin addict and winning a Pulitzer for her tear-jerking profile of this nonexistent person, newspapers created their own in-house hall monitors in the form of ombudsman and public editors who responded in print to reader complaints about journalistic mistakes. Their presence in a newspaper’s pages was intended to encourage skeptical readers to believe they could trust the institutions that published them. After all, who could doubt the integrity of media organizations willing to subject themselves to harsh scrutiny by one of their own employees?
Few of these monitors remain today, the victims of budget cuts and a changing media landscape. The New York Times, which could easily afford one, eliminated its public-editor position entirely in 2017. “Fact-checking” organizations that for a time tried to fill the void created new problems. Groups such as PolitiFact, now housed at the nonprofit Poynter Institute, claimed to be neutral arbiters of partisan disputes but turned out to be as subjective and just as (surprise!) left-leaning in their sympathies as many of the journalists and Democratic politicians whose work they were supposed to monitor. Unsurprisingly, this earned PolitiFact a Pulitzer Prize. Just like Janet Cooke.
Today, while news organizations still (sometimes) fact-check their articles internally, the professional “fact-checker” is a dying species whose purpose is now largely performative, an aging circus clown who too often mistakes himself for the ringmaster.
Consider Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post, who has enthusiastically doled out “Pinocchios” to those he deems to have committed offenses against the truth. He’s been the paper’s fact-checker—excuse me, “the Fact Checker”—for more than a decade. His career began the same year—2011—that the Weekly Standard published a blistering cover story outlining the considerable bias demonstrated by professional “fact-checkers” such as PolitiFact. “Media fact-checking operations aren’t about checking facts so much as they are about a rearguard action to keep inconvenient truths out of the conversation,” the Weekly Standard concluded.
At the time, Kessler, new to the fact-checking beat, responded to his critics with the earnest enthusiasm of the journalistic truth-seeker and argued strenuously that he viewed his job as nonpartisan. “Some people are always going to be partisan,” he wrote in 2011. “That’s fine, but that’s not the role of a reporter. We value the many comments we have received from our readers, the words of encouragement and also the criticism. Every day, we seek to live up to your expectations of a true, impartial seeker of the truth.” He added, “Sometimes you may choke on the meal we serve, but each day the food (for thought) will be different.”
Kessler’s meals have since proved to be less “food for thought” than partisan Soylent Green. A quick scroll through the Fact Checker’s work reveals lots of Pinocchios for Republican politicians and Fox News hosts but only the gentlest admonishments for Democrats. Kessler wrote, for example, that there are merely “reasons to doubt” President Biden’s recent claim that, as a child in 1961, he and his father saw two men kissing in Wilmington, Delaware, and that his father uttered a line straight out of a Hallmark Channel movie: “Joey, it’s simple. They love each other.” Rather than call Biden a liar for telling this highly suspect story, one he’s repeated often and never the same way twice, Kessler wrote that Biden’s story has “evolved over time.”
Similarly, in his piece on Biden’s State of the Union address, which contained plenty of whoppers, Kessler said the president merely “omitted factors” related to the rise in crime, for example, and he declined even to rate Biden’s claim Pinocchio-worthy. Evidently only the most outrageous lies can prod Kessler to release the Pinocchios for a Democratic president, such as Biden’s unequivocally false claim that he had once been arrested for standing on a black couple’s porch (this after Biden’s lie last year that he had been arrested trying to meet Nelson Mandela).
In the past, when pressed by critics to explain his decisions, Kessler claimed on Twitter, “We rarely fact check statements by PR people like Press Secretaries. We only did that once or twice during Trump and Obama. We have a high bar for such statements because we prefer to pin the Pinocchios on a policy-maker.” Not to fact-check or anything, but this is patently false; Kessler spent years fact-checking the statements of former President Donald Trump’s press secretaries such as Sean Spicer and Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
But Kessler’s days playing fast and loose with the Pinocchios might be coming to a head. In a piece fittingly published on April Fool’s Day, Kessler denounced the “incendiary claims” by Republican politicians and journalists that philanthropist George Soros funded the campaign of progressive Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, who recently brought a criminal case against former President Donald Trump.
Kessler wrote that anyone who called Bragg “Soros-backed” or “Soros-funded” was trafficking in a factually inaccurate claim about Bragg’s supporters. “Soros never directly funded Bragg, but instead contributed to a group that supported Bragg and other liberal candidates seeking to be prosecutors,” Kessler wrote. That group, Color of Change, had announced a plan to spend “over one million dollars” for Bragg (it ended up spending $420,000). Kessler’s conclusion? “Claiming Soros ‘funded’ Bragg is simply false, but many rely on the more ambiguous phrase of ‘backed,’ which is technically correct by several degrees of separation. But it’s still misleading and worthy of Three Pinocchios.”
Kessler also claimed that anyone who said Soros funded Bragg was engaging in rank anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing: “It’s a dangerous game that plays into stereotypes of rich Jewish financiers secretly controlling events.” Kessler should know, as he played it himself for years when the partisan leanings of the donor trended rightward. As Kessler wrote in 2015 about the campaign of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “One should note that Netanyahu is believed to have politically benefited from the efforts of American billionaire Sheldon Adelson.” (Adelson was, like Soros, Jewish.).
When Kessler tweeted out his Soros piece, however, a new fact-checker emerged. Users of Twitter’s Community Notes quickly appended a clarification to Kessler’s tweet, adding, “Soros donated $1 million to the Color of Change PAC, the largest individual donation it received in the 2022 election cycle, days after it endorsed Bragg for district attorney and pledged more than $1 million in spending to support his candidacy.” The creation of the Community Notes system allowed verified Twitter users to add context to Kessler’s tweet, effectively fact-checking the Fact Checkers’ facts.
Kessler was not pleased. He denounced the Community Notes with the hauteur of an aristocrat dismissing the peasants. “Twitter trolls who posted a ‘community note’ to this tweet apparently have not read the actual fact check,” Kessler tweeted. A second Community Note soon appeared on that Kessler tweet as well, noting, “The original Community Note says that the Color of Change PAC *pledged* $1 million. Soros donated $1 million to the PAC days after it endorsed Bragg and pledged more than $1 million in spending to support his candidacy. The PAC ultimately spent $420,000.”
Note to Kessler: If you’re the self-appointed collector of garbage takes by the media and political class, then you yourself should probably avoid littering.
Social media might be a cesspool of reactionary political takes, but in Community Notes, Twitter has created a feature whose crowdsourced devotion to correction sometimes does a better job than journalism’s professional fact-checkers. It might not be the most palatable replacement for a thoughtful ombudsman or a truly nonpartisan public editor, but given how long “fact-checkers” like Kessler and his promiscuously partisan Pinocchios have run the show, maybe it’s time for a new ringmaster.
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