Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post’s political fact checker, is one of the protagonists of a narrative that, ironically, grinds ahead despite an utter lack of evidence to support its basic claims. In this story, the forces holding the line between civilization and the daily outrages of the Trump administration are a few brave discourse monitors who have taken up a position at the center to secure the peace for logic, facts, and reason. With their power to label any given statement with a shameful designation such as “pants on fire” or “whopper,” these fact checkers give centrists hope that truth will prevail, norms will be restored, and everyone will finally get back to the issues that really matter, like finding bipartisan consensus on balancing the budget with sensible entitlement reforms.
My fascination with the fact-checking narrative and the obvious difficulty of making it hang together began during the 2016 election cycle. After a strong case of late-Bush-era apathy, and having tuned out the tan suit, latte salute, and other domestic “scandals” of the Obama years, I was surprised to discover a brand new economy of political takes had emerged to combat the general sense of addled paranoia on the right — and that they had somehow coalesced around accomplished journalists earnestly using the phrase “three Pinocchios.”
In my efforts to learn the history of the fact-checking trend, one piece of wisdom kept turning up in exactly the same mindless formulation: that fact checking is “more important than ever.” Despite the historical tradition that the phrase implies, the practice is a recent innovation. According to Lucas Graves, the author of the 2016 book Deciding What’s True, it began in the post-9/11 blogosphere. Although historical antecedents exist, Graves dates the birth of fact checking to December 9, 2001. On that auspicious Sunday, the blogger Ken Layne (who was later one of the prime movers at Gawker and Wonkette) wrote, in response to comments on the Afghan war given by the Independent’s Middle East correspondent, “It’s 2001, and we can Fact Check your ass. And you, like many in the Hate America movement, are no longer able to dress your wretched ‘reporting’ in fiction.”
The first of the major political fact checking outlets, FactCheck.org, arose during the 2004 presidential campaign; as Graves tells it, the site rode the surging demand for its services amidst the manufactured swift boat scandal that dogged presidential candidate John Kerry. During the 2008 campaign, PolitiFact, originally a project of the St. Petersburg Times, and the Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” came into existence to round out the “big three” fact-checking machines. Kessler, who joined the Post in 1998 to cover business and economic policy, moved to the Fact Checker in 2011, when it became a permanent feature of the newspaper’s website.
In the ensuing years, Graves puts the fact checkers at the center of the online-discourse churn, writing headlines for “one reader — Google,” plotting posting schedules for maximum clicks, and cultivating an audience of hard-minded partisans seeking “ammunition to bolster existing political convictions.” The short history of this fact-checking era, like so many things that are “more important than ever,” is not a crusade for truth, but a confluence of war panic and online bullshit.
By adhering to Pinocchios and Whoppers, Kessler is able to stop short of saying the L-word.
The governing manifesto of Kessler’s “Fact Checker” takes a classic carrot-and-stick approach to the problem of discourse policing (along with a sadly embarrassing nomenclature). A politician who is good and tells the truth is rewarded with the “prized Geppetto checkmark,” while a politician who is bad and misleads or prevaricates is rated on an ascending scale of “Pinocchios” that correspond to increasing levels of untruth, culminating at four, which equals a “Whopper.” Graves provides context for Kessler’s whimsical terminology, noting that, because fact checkers see themselves as journalists and not editorialists, they are careful never to “call anyone a liar,” because doing so would “characterize a speaker, not just a statement.” By adhering to Pinocchios and Whoppers, Kessler is able to stop short of saying the L-word.
The Pinocchio system and its inherent tautologies can be summed up in three propositions: A statement is untrue to the extent it is a Pinocchio, four Pinocchios equals a Whopper, and “a Whopper is a whopper.” Even Kessler, as Graves writes, finds distinguishing between two Pinocchios (“significant omissions and/or exaggerations”) and three (“significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions”) to require slippery epistemology. “I freely admit,” Kessler told Graves, “the difference between two and three . . . is hard to say.” But, he said, he “does his best to be consistent.”
The philosophy underlying the entire endeavor is troubling, even if you can take seriously someone who thinks it’s funny to tweet “big if true” about the news while trying to write a children’s appendix to the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
“We are interested only in verifiable facts,” Kessler writes in his manifesto, seemingly unaware of the 90 or so years of crippling blows that the project of verificationism has taken in philosophy. (From Karl Popper to W. V. O. Quine and beyond, the course of analytic philosophy has generally veered away from the logical positivists’ attempts to “verify” facts in an affirmative sense.) Even allowing for the difference between the analytic philosopher and journalist’s understanding of verification, the concept has tended put fact checkers in a bind. Graves retells several anecdotes in which fact checkers, wary of venturing into media criticism, took politicians to task for (accurately) repeating claims as they were (inaccurately) reported in the press.
In matters of judgment, Kessler promises that he “will strive to be dispassionate and non-partisan.” That promise rests on the notion that a nearly 60-year-old Washington Post journalist with two Ivy League degrees can present the “view from nowhere” while retaining ultimate authority to select statements to fact check, weigh the credibility of competing sources, and demarcate between fact checking and editorializing.
In practice, Kessler has sometimes failed under his own terms, such as when he refused last year to correct demonstrable errors in his characterizations of Bernie Sanders’s Medicare-for-all plan. He has also been willing to dive into clearly normative judgments; just last week, he took Sanders to task for the entirely factual claim that “three people in this country have more wealth than the bottom half of America” because debt obligations meant that “the bottom half have essentially no wealth” — rendering the comparison, in Kessler’s view, “not especially meaningful.” The only appeals process for disputing conclusions such as these is a sentence in Kessler’s manifesto that “welcome[s] feedback from readers who may dispute our conclusions and who want to offer additional information that might result in a change in ruling.”
In his version of fact-checking, Kessler gets to decide the location of the purported center on which he stands. Fact checkers are loath to say that one party lies more than the other. Even when faced with a study showing that one party actually did fare worse (under PolitiFact’s analysis, at least), Graves portrays the fact checkers dithering with phrases such as “you want the umpire focused on making calls” and “the question of trends is tricky for us” instead of attempting serious meta-analysis. Graves has Kessler himself professing belief “that both parties are equal in terms of willingness to manipulate statistics if they believe it will advance their political interests” and claiming that, during the 2004 election, “Kerry was just as bad as the Republicans.”
When one party is lurching rightward and the other’s power brokers are drifting after them in the misguided hope of capturing Panera moms, Kessler’s claim that both parties are equally bad is a meaningful judgment call. If Kessler insists that fact checking must police both parties equally, and that the center thus lies exactly between the two, his choice has a significant impact on everything that flows from it. The choice would be meaningful even if he placed the center somewhere else.
The question, then, is what Kessler believes. I don’t mean about “the issues,” because the argument from here will not veer into speculation about his predispositions on matters such as abortion rights or tax rates. I don’t even mean about the difficult judgment calls discussed above. I take Kessler at his word when he says that his project attempts to match a statement against the reported facts, and with a few notable exceptions, I think he mostly does what he sets out to do.
Fact checkers like Kessler are allies of a centrist project because they offer a political language stripped of the very words that would be needed to advance a moral argument.
I’m more interested in what Kessler doesn’t do — or, more precisely, what the rules of his enterprise won’t allow him to do. The best example is probably his repeated attempts to apply Freakonomics logic to the gender pay gap. Kessler takes aim at the statistic that women make 80 cents to a man’s dollar with basically the same arguments: women make different “life choices,” such as having children and entering degree programs with less remunerative outcomes; the figure is less stark when you consider weekly or hourly wages — as opposed to median — because women choose careers, such as teaching and childcare, that trade pay for flexible hours.
Assume, for the sake of argument, that everything Kessler says is correct, and set aside any objections about phrases such as “life choices.” What Kessler can still never say is that a society that pays less for the jobs that women do and forces them to choose between caring for their children and earning equal pay is a bad society, and it is bad because making half of the population live this way is wrong. The moral imperative of “wrong” in that sense can’t be cross-checked with figures on a Congressional Budget Office report, and so it falls neatly beyond the limits of Kessler’s project. The fact checkers’ rules limit them to interpreting the world in various ways, which puts them at odds with anyone who is trying to change it.
Writing in the early 1980s, the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre persuasively argued that, under liberalism, people do not share a common moral language. In its place, liberalism advances the vocabulary of public reason, under which people must translate their private and individual moral logic into a terminology that can encompass wider-ranging viewpoints about right and wrong. As the Washington Post’s Elizabeth Bruenig has written, this creates empty rhetoric that leaves people rightly feeling that no one is saying what they really mean. Fact checking, by its own rules, stops just short of the place at which a moral argument could take shape, allowing political questions to be answered with explanations of the status quo. It takes public reason to the extreme.
Kessler’s job is to check the facts. He does not run “value checks” or “policy checks.” I don’t believe that those terms would make sense to him, nor do I believe that he would work at the Post if they did. By placing facts at the center of politics, Kessler finds common cause with centrists who place the burden on voters to fall in line behind candidates instead of the other way around.
Fact checkers like Kessler are allies of a centrist project because they offer a political language stripped of the very words that would be needed to advance a moral argument. They cultivate a public discourse in which no one can call a wrong a wrong except in a very narrow sense, which means that, so long as the powerful have the right credentials and can dot all the ‘I’s and cross all the ‘T’s, there is no language to voice objection to their immiserating policies.
Perhaps fact checking would still have some worth if it could offer meaningful resistance to Trump. But for a very simple reason, it doesn’t. Truth can mean, as the fact checkers practice, that a proposition corresponds to something in the “real world.” Or it can mean, as the fact checkers “freely admit” nearly everyone else practices, that a proposition coheres with an existing framework of belief. As Graves reports, the fact checkers themselves conceded during the Obama years that people read them not for information, but for ammunition. Any notions that they are putting up resistance against Trump, whose base is three years down a rabbit hole of Pizzagate and QAnon after eight years of hyperventilating about birth certificates and bathroom sickos, are particularly laughable. And even if Trump were an exception, and the media stood a better chance at holding “regular” politicians to account, vesting power in elite Beltway personalities while slashing newsdesks and local journalism seems like a bad way to do it.
The fact checkers’ solution to America’s problems — correcting mistaken fact and expecting it to have any effect on mistaken belief — is exactly backwards. A project to restore a commonly held set of facts would first have to address deeper conceptions of right and wrong. If no one has the courage to make the argument that things are bad and that there is a way to fix them, then there is no real alternative. Fact checking cannot make that argument. Like most of the institutions in American life, it is good for those who run it and for very little else.