We are currently in the throes of a cultural moment few could have predicted: The Year of the Fact-Checker. It has been brewing for some time. Nevertheless, within the last week or so, the media has gone from reporting on fact-checking to reporting on the fact that fact-checking has become the subject of so much of their reporting.
The reasons for the fact-checker’s sudden emergence are obscure. James Pogue, himself a fact-checker, offered twin possibilities in a trenchant article for Oxford American. The first is Lifespan of a Fact, a book chronicling the seven year wrangle between essayist John D’Agata and Believer intern Jim Fingal, who no doubt ranks as the world’s first celebrity fact-checker. Pogue has very little patience for the book, calling it “definitely rhetorically empty” with its “smoothly edited and largely fabricated e-mail exchange.” The second was an episode of This American Life that drew outsized attention back in March. Factual inconsistencies had been found in a piece on working conditions at Foxconn plants in China. The retraction became the occasions for “an entire seppuku-session of an episode,” as Pogue describes it.
Certainly, those two productions — Lifespan of a Fact and the Retraction episode — are the most cohesive manifestations of the Year of the Fact-Checker. Add to that the recent scandal over Jonah Lehrer’s fabricated quotations in his ironically-named book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. But are those the causes of our new intentness over fact-checkers? These things never happen with the suddenness we feel them to have. It takes time, after all, to arrange and publish a book like The Lifespan of a Fact. And there were earlier intimations, comparatively minor episodes involving authors like James Fray and JT LeRoy. The more recent publications are more explicable as reflections of the fact-checker’s gradual entrance into the public consciousness — or should we say, conscience?
Another possibility: surely it’s no coincidence that it happened in an election year. Obama’s “you didn’t build that” gaff was widely quoted at the Republican National Convention last week, prompting a resurgence of stories that put the soundbite back into something like its original context. The speech given by Romney’s recently announced running mate, Paul Ryan, draw sharp criticism almost across the board. The Washington Post‘s Wonkblog identified only two truths, as against three misleading claims and six that were outright false. In a follow-up article, Wonkblog editor Ezra Klein qualified their accounting, saying that their criteria for a “true” statement would make it more accurate to call them “legitimate” statements, and that, even so, it took multiple passes through Ryan’s speech to come up with a paltry two. The Democratic National Convention, which begins Tuesday, will likely be subject to the same sort of scrutiny.
Of course, political spin is not an innovation fresh-made for the current political cycle. There have always been politicians willing to take a liberal view of the facts when it suits their ambitions to do so — one need not be particularly cynical to suppose that rigorously truthful candidates are the exception rather than the rule. Still, those interested in the particular form and practice of spin in the present race could trace a discernible course through the history of American politics, with highlights in the careers of Richard Nixon and Karl Rove. Just last week, Neil Newhouse, a pollster for Romney, responded to questions about the veracity of campaign ads by saying, “Fact checkers come to this with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs, and we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” That’s an attitude of the sort that led NPR to issue new ethics guidelines, favoring fact-checking over “he said, she said” reportage.
There is, I suspect, a third explanation, not so much in place of as in concert with the scandals and political spin. A curious aspect of the Year of the Fact-Checker is that it comes at a time of instability for fact-checkers themselves. It isn’t, after all, every publishing venture that can afford to hire fact-checkers. In the wake of the scandal over Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the publisher lamented that, on the whole, they had to trust in the diligence of their authors, particularly when it comes to a genre like memoir. Likewise, Lehrer’s indiscretions were caught not by his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, but by Michael Moynihan of Tablet Magazine. W.W. Norton published The Lifespan of a Fact, but the disputes documented therein are the result of a magazine submission, first to Harper’s, then to The Believer.
The fact of the matter, then, is that the fact-checker is largely the domain of the periodical — magazines in each of those cases, but more often newspapers when it comes to political spin. And periodicals, goes the well-rehearsed refrain, are in a state of crisis.
Someone else can check that claim for truth. What matters more here is the perception, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the public takes the rapid decline of print periodicals as a given. The commonest narrative is that they’re being given a run for their money by online publishing. Some of those online venues employ fact-checkers, but again, my point here has more to do with perception.
It is not that the internet has significantly limited our access to reliable facts — it may have done that as well, but the question has more to do with what we think our access is. Rather, our familiarity with the online media has changed our relationship to the facts.
It has, for one thing, made us all potential broadcasters. Each of us has received, at one point or another, a blatantly misleading or counter-factual email forwarded by an unsuspecting relative or friend. We pass links and isolated, often truncated factoids via social media, sometimes pressing send before seriously considering the plausibility of the message we’re broadcasting. Some of us practice spin on blogs of our own.
We have, in other words, seen up close how half-truths and fabrications turn into the currency of disputes with a national audience. Chances are, we ourselves have contributed to the confusion. And with that experience, we have developed a distrust of media that was comparatively rare in previous generations. Anecdotally, that’s apparent in our increasing ease with a term like “mainstream media,” once a harping point for paranoiacs and subculture purists. Recent research adds statistical rigor to the same conclusion.
Perhaps, then, there is an undertone of nostalgia in our heightened awareness concerning fact-checkers. It may be that we are recoiling from what we perceive to be our present relation to the truth. When we speak of “post-truth politics,” we indicate a temporal orientation, the sense that this is not merely a bad patch truth-wise, but a threshold we have passed. Our response, it seems, is to fetishize a rather old-fashioned job.
It may be naive to think that we can recapture the truth by making a culture hero of the once lowly fact-checker. As Pogue reminds us,
… checkers aren’t soldiers for truth, they’re soldiers for credibility. You are at the service of a magazine, first to keep it from getting sued, and second to make its writers look good.
That’s a rather cater-cornered approach to the truth, but in the end, it may be the best we have.