How The Cult of “Fact-Checking” Helped Trump Win

Earlier today I was asked by Nick Baumann to elaborate on a point about how the cult of “fact-checking” paved the way for Trump’s victory. So let me do that here, briefly.

Obviously “fact-checking” in of itself is a worthwhile, even vital enterprise. I say this as a former fact-checker (for The Nation magazine.) Without us fact-checkers, the magazine would have ground to a halt — it’s crucial in journalism to make sure that your facts are unassailably correct, for legal, ethical, and practical reasons.

But when I refer to the fact-checking “cult,” I’m not referring to the business of corroborating claims and ensuring that they are grounded in empirical reality. I’m referring to a certain ideology that has congealed in the elite media classes, with “fact-checking” as its guise.

A great personification of this mindset is the Canadian journalist Daniel Dale, who has been studiously covering Trump for whatever reason, and has been lovingly embraced by the anti-Trump American press corps. Often he’ll take things that Trump obviously said in jest and send them through his “Fact check!” Rube Goldberg device, thereby rendering the judgment that Trump’s facts were wrong.

Most of this is just completely superfluous: he is often “fact-checking” Trump jokes and wisecracks, which are not interpreted by most Americans as definitive statements of fact in the first place. (Honestly, I can’t be bothered to scour through Dale’s Twitter feed at the moment. It will get me too irritated.)

When your average dislocated steelworker in Western Pennsylvania hears a self-assured nerd proclaiming “FACT CHECK!!!!!!!!!” and the claim being fact-checked clearly registers as a joke, the steelworker will tune out subsequent anti-Trump coverage, because it strikes him as ridiculous.

If you overload people with preachy, preening nonsense on a daily basis, you thus overload their cognitive faculties, and they are going to ignore you.

Here’s what I wrote in September at The Daily Beast:

Daily Beast excerpt

If you want to find someone to blame for Trump, blame your local idiot journalist who spent 1.5 years in 24/7 anti-Trump meltdown mode, overwhelming the vast majority of news consumers with hysterical “FACT-CHECK!!!!!!!” pronouncements and forcing them to tune out most of the coverage, including anti-Trump coverage that was totally warranted, such as his history of stiffing small business owners. (Why did the Hillary campaign focus on lunatic Russia conspiracy theories instead of Trump’s bilking of mom-and-pop cabinet-makers? You’ll have to ask them.)

I imagine these fact-check cultists screaming “Fact check! Fact check!” in an obnoxious, nasally nerd voice, all in unison, as if they’re so convinced that they are the final arbiters of truth in the universe. They are so insulated, and cocky, and lack any capacity for self-criticism or self-awareness, that they don’t realize their “fact-checking” crusade is the product of ideology, not direct communion with universal divine wisdom.

This gets to the “fake news” craze now sweeping the punditocracy. Rather than reckon with their own profound failures, the pundit set wants to turn its attention to the abyss of the internet, and get rid of all news they deem “fake.” First amendment implications of the endeavor aside, “pivoting” to this effort gets them off the hook for failing every step of the way for 1.5 years straight. (“You had one job!!!!!!!!!”). How about instead of going to town on random internet content-makers, these elite content-makers grapple with their own failures? That should be step one.

Here are some examples of “fake news” propagated by prominent liberal pundits over the course of the 2016 election. Are they going to be purged?

Jamelle Bouie of Slate:

Ryan Grim of the Huffington Post:

Brian Beutler of The New Republic:

Believe me, I could supply countless additional examples. Are the above three figures going to be subject to the coming purge? They propagated “fake news.” What differentiates their propagation of bogus information and falsehoods from the “fake news” that their ilk now wants to be appointed to expurgate?

Clearly there’s a lot more to be said about this stuff but I’ll leave it there for now — in the meantime, please tell a pundit to go screw him or herself.