I’m not sure there has ever been a major-media “fact check” that more completely, ludicrously, and appallingly missed the point than the one the New York Times published on Thursday about the vile, scurrilous, racist, antisemitic Republican claims aimed at demonizing and linking a Black district attorney and a prominent Jewish funder.
Appearing under the headline “Explaining the Ties Between Alvin Bragg and George Soros,” the “fact check” by Linda Qiu addressed whether there were, in fact, any links between the Manhattan DA who may be on the verge of indicting Trump for fraud and campaign-finance violations, and the left-wing philanthropist and noted target of antisemitic slander.
There are, strictly speaking, some things you could call links between the two men. But they are inconsequential.
Concluding that “These claims are exaggerated” is to entirely miss the actual meaning of the claims. It minimizes them. It whitewashes them. It virtually endorses them.
The journalistic issue should not be whether there is some factual basis in there somewhere, but that Trump and congressional Republicans are engaging in deceitful racist incitement.
The article’s acknowledgment that Soros is “a boogeyman on the right” and that attacks on him “often veer into antisemitic tropes” is a criminal understatement. Soros has become well known right-wing shorthand for Jewish cabal.
It’s beyond disgusting.
So here is how a journalist should respond:
"What possible objection could [Trump/Fox/GOP] possibly have to this Jewish billionaire Holocaust survivor?"
— Mehdi Hasan (@mehdirhasan) March 23, 2023
And here are some highly appropriate, infuriated responses to the article on Twitter:
Also, fact checks don’t say who is being harmed or helped by a person sharing a falsehood: “If you share this, then you are actively hurting [person or group(s)], and helping [person or group] by giving them attention and distracting you from important things.”
— Peter Kohan (@peterkohan) March 24, 2023
it does not "VEER into anti-Semitic tropes" .. it IS an anti-Semitic trope.
— Jennifer "Pro-privacy" Rubin (@JRubinBlogger) March 24, 2023
https://t.co/gg2UzU7RNO The Protocols of the Elders of Zion also deals in connections 'real but overstated'. Like, there are Jews in banking. And: if you control the media, that's power. But the Protocols' overstatement of these points is not the most notable fact about it. pic.twitter.com/pvBvObJ8QP
— John Holbo (@jholbo1) March 24, 2023
As media critic Oliver Willis tweeted, this is “What it looks like when the refs have been thoroughly worked.”
Why Fact Checking Should Die
I have long argued that fact-checking is anachronistic and should be abolished in favor of much more aggressive reality-checking and gaslight-fighting in the main news columns.
Case in point, publishing a “fact check” like the Times just did is like bringing a wet noodle to a gunfight.
One of the primers I wrote to launch this site in 2019 was about five fundamental ways in which fact-checking as an independent proposition has always been problematic:
- To assert themselves as credible and non-partisan, fact-checkers try to dole out their critiques in equal measure to both parties. In the current political climate, that quickly becomes absurd.
- Fact-checking tends to focus on extremely narrow, often quantitative statements because they are the easiest to convincingly debunk. By contrast, the most important deceptions are broad, big lies that need to be addressed more holistically.
- Fact-checkers engage in laughably gutless euphemisms and gimmickry (“Pinocchios,” and “Pants on Fire”) instead of using the term “lie”.
- The people who most need to be exposed to fact-checking are the least likely to see or hear them – and the least likely to believe them.
- And because fact-checking was established as distinct from the ordinary news-reporting process, a core competency has been relegated to the sidelines.
I’ve also argued that all the lying that currently floods our political discourse is itself the biggest political story of the moment — not the stuff of occasional assessments and sidebars. It poses a serious danger to the proper functioning of our democracy and is an affront to core journalistic values.
And fact-checks stovepipe accountability, which ought to be a key goal of political coverage (but is, in fact, dead.)
Journalists should be actively confronting Trump and others with their lies at every opportunity. They should deny liars opportunities to use the media – particularly live media — to spread lies. They should caveat every statement known liars make – not just the provably false ones – with the fact that they lie all the time.
The “why” behind the lie is even more important than the lie itself, as I argued here.
That’s especially the case because Republican lies about elections are calculated, democracy-killing lies. And that needs to be made very clear in every story about them — or journalists are not really telling their viewers and readers what they need to know.
Trump lied compulsively, yes, but also intentionally, and leaving those intentions unstated is bad journalism.
What should we do with all those fact-checkers? Some are too corrupted to salvage (Glen Kessler, I’m looking at you.) My suggestion is that every news organization in America identify defining assertions from each official they cover and each party, then assess their accuracy, then let the readers know, overall, who’s credible and who isn’t – ideally with an actual credibility meter.
That of course would require a fundamental change in how political journalism is practiced today. A reset, as it were. As I’ve written in the Press Watch mission statement: The uncontrolled spread of lies is anathema to everything American journalism stands for. Fighting it is the calling of our time, and here’s how:
- The main news story about a lie should rapidly confront and dispel the lie with facts. (See, for instance, the “truth sandwich.”) Journalists should treat a lie like a virus, for which they are the vaccine, not the spreader.
- Reporters should do this enthusiastically and repeatedly and prominently, as long as the lie remains part of the discourse.
- Then they should probe more deeply, to explore motive. What purpose does it serve? Whose purpose does it serve? Who is funding it?
- There should be consequences — or else what’s the point of fact-based journalism?
Finally, it’s essential for journalists to publicly and emphatically distinguish between media outlets that don’t lie and the ones that do. That means prying viewers away from Fox News – and back to reality — should be a goal of serious journalists everywhere.
There’s much more in the articles I linked to. And much more coming, if readers like you help me keep Press Watch going.