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20 January 2021

The rise of the fact-checker in an age of disinformation

As president Donald Trump made more than 30,500 false or misleading claims; and the Washington Post tracked every one.  

By Dorian Lynskey

When Glenn Kessler began editing the Washington Post’s Fact Checker in 2011, he described himself in an interview as “someone who tries to cut through the muck for Americans who don’t have time do that”. In the terminal phase of the Trump administration, even for Kessler, there has been more muck than time.

The Fact Checker, which is both a blog and a Sunday newspaper column, was conceived to use “false or misleading claims” by public officials (graded on a scale of one to four “Pinocchios”) as opportunities to illuminate various policy areas. Under Barack Obama, this system worked. Donald Trump’s false claims, however, were so relentless that analysing each one proved neither useful nor possible, so Kessler set up a database to log them all.

“It was designed to save us time and focus on what’s important,” said Kessler, a wry, unflappable 61-year-old who has covered every president since Ronald Reagan. “Unfortunately, it became the monster that ate the Fact Checker. In his first 100 days he made 492 false or misleading claims. He later did more than that in a week.”

[See also: Jimmy Wales: “Wikipedia is from a different era”]

When we spoke in December – before the events of 6 January and Trump’s subsequent Twitter ban and impeachment – Kessler’s four-person team was running behind, but the most recent total, accurate as of 13 January, is 30,529. “We don’t count retweets,” he said, laughing. “And thank God for that.”

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Fact-checking politicians is a relatively recent innovation in US journalism. In the early 1950s, the proto-Trumpian red-baiter senator Joseph McCarthy exploited newspapers’ fetishisation of impartiality to make them effectively stenographers of disinformation. Only the Milwaukee Journal took the unprecedented step of inserting parenthetical corrections and clarifications into news stories. In the eyes of the Washington press corps, according to McCarthy’s biographer David M Oshinsky, “The press had no business telling the public which ‘facts’ were really ‘facts’ and which were not.”

Kessler himself fact-checked the 1996 presidential election campaign for Newsday but that, he explained, was “super-rare”. The industry orthodoxy broadly held until January 2007, when the Washington Post’s Michael Dobbs started Fact Checker and Florida’s St Petersburg Times launched the PolitiFact website. “Part of it was a response to the failure of journalism to adequately vet Bush’s claims of weapons of mass destruction,” Kessler said.

Fact Checker was retired after the 2008 election but revived in 2011 on a permanent basis under Kessler. He thinks that he and Dobbs were able to break the taboo around fact-checking because they had both covered the State Department for the Post. “As a diplomatic correspondent you have to interpret what diplomats and leaders are saying: They say this but in reality here’s what’s happening. Writing those stories gave us the confidence to sit back and authoritatively say, actually, what the president said is wrong.”

[See also: Why the Foxification of the British media must be resisted]

After the 2016 election, Kessler tentatively suggested that Trump might be improved by high office. Instead, the president’s lying became exponentially worse. Whereas a conventional president would bend the truth towards an election or policy goal, many of Trump’s untruths were trivial, unnecessary and even self-defeating. They were also numbingly repetitive, which informed the methodology behind the Fact Checker database. While Daniel Dale, who maintains a similar database for CNN, claims to include only untrue statements, Kessler also counts half-truths. “If you say something half-true 300 times, isn’t that a form of propaganda? And don’t we have a responsibility to list it?”

In 2020, Kessler’s team published a book called Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth: The President’s Falsehoods, Misleading Claims and Flat-Out Lies. The distinction between the three is important. “The problem with the word ‘lie’ is a liar has to know they’re lying and I think Trump actually believes a lot of what he says,” Kessler explained. “It’s not like he thinks, ‘I know I lost the election but I’m going to keep saying that I won.’ I think he actually believes that he won. Trump lives for the moment. It doesn’t matter to him if he says something today that is completely the opposite of what he said yesterday. It only matters in the here and now.”

Four years of Trump have changed US journalism for the better by mainstreaming the once-radical idea of including fact-checks within the body of a news story. There are now more than 400 fact-checking projects worldwide, with annual conferences and an umbrella organisation, the International Fact-Checking Network. “It’s become quite the new form of journalism,” Kessler said.

[See also: The New Statesman on the Trump era]

At the same time, Trump has normalised political dishonesty. Between 2007 and 2018, the proportion of Republicans who said that it was “extremely important” for presidential candidates to be honest fell from 71 per cent to 49 per cent. “The biggest issue fact-checkers face is that the wrong people are reading the articles,” Kessler said. “How many conservatives are reading our correctives? Social science research shows that people absorb information that confirms what they already believe.” Nonetheless, he believes that Trump’s compulsive mendacity did ultimately backfire by motivating some moderate voters to abandon him in crucial swing states, such as Arizona and Michigan. A price was paid after all.

With Joe Biden in office, Kessler expects his job to return to the healthier tempo of the Obama years, when there was room to scrutinise members of Congress and advocacy groups. “The president won’t be the all-consuming focus. When Biden was vice-president he was a bit of a gaffe machine but he’s an instance of someone transitioning to the new role in a way that Trump never did. I know for a fact that his people were very eager for him not to get Pinocchios.”

By the time you read this, Kessler hopes, the Fact Checker database should have published a final tally which enables him to put the monster to bed at last. “It just got worse and worse,” he sighed. “But the light is at the end of the tunnel.” 

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Biden's Burden