Who's Checking the Fact Checkers?
Updated: Oct 27, 2021
Mainstream media insists they're giving us the "real" facts. But where are they getting them from?
Once upon a time in America, it was okay to be misinformed. People weren’t hassled for believing the “wrong” thing or buying into a crazy conspiracy theory — because everyone had the right to be wrong or crazy. It’s what gave us an edge over people living under authoritarian governments who were forced to think in lock-step with everyone else.
But those days are gone.
Today, we have the freedom to believe whatever we want — as long as what we believe is “right.” Being misinformed is no longer an option and sharing the “wrong” information can even be dangerous.
Because people in the “freest” country in the world aren’t allowed to believe or think the “wrong” thing anymore.
Whenever there’s breaking news, a swarm of stories are pushed to our devices carrying headlines like What You Need To Know About XX or Why XX Is No Big Deal. These easily-digestible, conveniently-packaged summaries don’t just tell us what happened; they tell us what to think about it and how we “should” react. They let us know if we should freak out because it’s the end of the world as we know it or simply look the other way because it’s Russian disinformation.
The media that dispense 90% of our news — companies owned by five conglomerates and the wealthiest people on the planet — now determine who we should or shouldn’t believe, which stories are real and which are fake. They have the power to define how we perceive events and even how we perceive each other. They have the power to shape our reality.
This is an Orwellian phenomenon I’ve written about and cover extensively in my new book, Reality Bites, and it has profound implications for all of us. Because it encourages us to doubt anything we hear unless it comes from “credible” sources — and corporate-owned media is uniquely qualified to determine who those sources are. Why?
Because they can be trusted to do something you and I can’t: fact check.
Don’t get me wrong. Fact checking is extremely important, and it’s the best way to make informed opinions. But if mainstream media gets to decide what’s real and what’s fake, it’s worth asking who’s holding them accountable? Who’s fact checking the fact checkers? The answers matter now more than ever, and the Hunter Biden laptop hullabaloo shows us exactly why. It doesn’t matter if you think this story is earth shattering or a big nothing burger. What matters is that it illustrates how powerful — yet surprisingly flimsy — the media’s fact checking machine is.
When the New York Post reported that a computer allegedly belonging to Hunter had surfaced in a Delaware computer repair shop, it immediately raised eyebrows. Emails on the device suggested that Hunter may have benefited financially from facilitating a meeting between Vadym Pozharskyi, an adviser to a Ukrainian energy company, and Joe Biden, who helped shape Ukrainian energy policy in the Obama administration.
While there’s no proof the laptop actually belonged to Hunter or that the emails are real, an unearthed receipt shows Hunter’s signature on the repair shop’s paperwork. And although the emails were initially suspected to be Russian disinformation, the FBI has found no evidence of foreign interference. Like Russian election collusion, Ukrainian blackmail, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, and other scandals we’ve endured over the decades, this story has holes. There are a lot of unanswered questions. But there’s no evidence it’s fake.
And yet some mainstream news organizations refused to touch it.
NPR completely ignored the story, refusing to “waste listeners’ and readers’ time” with news that didn’t “amount to much.” In other words, the publicly-funded station fact checked the story, decided it was fake, and dismissed it instead of letting its audience hear it and make up their own minds.
The Washington Post, however, wasn’t afraid to tackle the scandal. Its in-house “truth squad," Fact Checker, conducted an analysis called Hunter Biden’s alleged laptop: An explainer. And this is where things get strange.
WaPo’s truth squad began by acknowledging that it couldn’t independently authenticate the emails (which is understandable since the laptop is in FBI custody). But what’s odd is that didn’t take what should have been the next logical step: contacting someone who might have personal knowledge of what’s on the computer. Hunter Biden, for example.
Instead, Fact Checker contacted Hunter’s attorney — a man whose first conversation with his client probably began with the words: “Don’t tell me anything about your computer.” So it was hardly a surprise that he couldn’t confirm whether the emails were real. But let’s not kid ourselves. People speak through their attorney for one reason: they’re concerned about the legal consequences of their statements.
This is selective fact checking. This is what you do when you’re forced to ask questions, but you don’t really want to find answers.
If Fact Checker had done more checking, it could have easily gathered other clues about the emails’ authenticity. It would have found that neither Hunter nor Joe Biden have personally denied the laptop belonged to Hunter or that he took it to the repair shop. Nor have they denied that Hunter uses the email address that Pozharskyi allegedly contacted him at or that he received Pozharskyi’s emails and responded.
If the truth squad was doing its job, it would have learned that although Joe Biden has vehemently denied his son engaged in any wrongdoing in his Ukrainian business dealings, neither he nor Hunter have denied the authenticity of the laptop or its contents. You don’t have to be a skilled fact checker to know what this means. This is how people behave when they know there’s other evidence out there, and they don’t want to get caught in lie.
The remainder of WaPo’s investigation focused on whether Joe Biden actually met with Pozharsky. How deep did Fact Checker dig to get an answer? Not very. It asked Joe Biden’s campaign staff, the Bidens’ legal team, and a former Obama cabinet member if they recalled a meeting taking place and, not surprisingly, they didn’t.
Fact Checker’s efforts to find independent evidence of a meeting were equally feeble: it merely asked a Biden aide to review the Vice President’s schedule, and they found no meeting on the books. Keep in mind that Fact Checker couldn’t authenticate the emails because it didn’t have access to the laptop. Yet it didn’t feel the need to access Biden’s schedule (which wasn’t in FBI custody) to confirm the aide’s statement; it simply took the aide at their word.
And that’s all it took to debunk the story.
This isn’t fact checking; this is selective fact checking. It’s what you do when you’re forced to ask questions, but you don’t really want to find answers.
This isn’t the first time WaPo has conducted sketchy fact checking. Its truth squad frequently engaged in “contortions" to challenge claims made by Bernie Sanders (on one occasion calling his statement “mostly false” even though a source Fact Checker cited actually confirmed Sanders’ statement).
One of the world’s most powerful corporations has partnered with one of the country’s biggest newspapers to fact check news.
It could be a coincidence that the newspaper tends to get sloppy when it fact checks certain people and stories: Sanders has been a fierce critic of Amazon and WaPo (both owned by billionaire Jeff Bezos), and Donald Trump — Joe Biden’s presidential rival — has been locked in a bitter feud with Bezos.
But a deeper dive into this truth squad reveals more oddities. In 2015, Fact Checker received a $250,000 grant from Google News Initiative/You Tube to create video fact checks. Google News Initiative, in case you haven’t heard, is the tech giant’s $1 billion venture to “collaborate” with journalists to help build the "future of news.”
One of the world’s most powerful corporations has partnered with one of the country’s biggest newspapers to fact check news. What could possibly go wrong?
Google News Initiative also pays news publishers to “curate content” that gives readers “more insight” and “perspective” on important stories. This raises obvious questions: Why do consumers need assistance from a multinational corporation to gain insight and perspective on news? And why does Google want to provide this insight and perspective?
If the WaPo-Google partnership were the only unsettling link in the fact checking chain, it wouldn’t be so alarming. But Politifact and FactCheck.org — two “independent” leaders in the war on disinformation— also have questionable affiliations.
Politifact is known for debunking anything that goes against the mainstream narrative before it can breach the public consciousness. But what isn’t widely-advertised is the fact checking giant’s ties to very deep pockets. For example, it’s received donations from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and, perhaps coincidentally, has repeatedly debunked “false conspiracy theories” and “misinformation” about the Foundation’s investment in COVID-19 vaccines.
Going deeper, we find that Politifact is operated by the Poynter Institute, a non-profit research organization that receives funding from Facebook (to teach college students to be “better informed” voters) and the Google News Initiative (to teach teens how to discern “fact from fiction”). Isn’t it comforting to know that corporations are trying to help young people learn how to think?
Like Politifact, Factcheck.org accepts donations from Google and Facebook to debunk viral deceptions, although it claims this doesn’t influence their editorial decisions. Even so, Factcheck’s partnership with a company that blocks users from sharing information that strays from the mainstream narrative — adopting methods that would make Mao Zedong proud — speaks volumes about the kind of facts it deems credible.
Let’s face it. The world is getting crazier and more complex, and everyone seems to have an agenda. So does this mean we should never trust what fact checkers tell us? Of course not. But it does give us reason to question whether they’re as objective as they want us to think they are. It should make us wonder whether we can blindly accept what they tell us is “real” or fake.
Here’s what we know for sure: Google, Facebook, and other multi-media corporations will continue to insinuate themselves into every nook and cranny of mainstream news, increasing their power to shape our reality. We can’t stop this process, but we can decide whether we want to be part of it. We can choose to keep believing that they have a monopoly on facts and truth, or we can do what we’re not encouraged to do: think for ourselves.
Staying informed will requires us to look beyond the sources that fact checkers tell us are credible and even explore those they’ve labeled “fake.” It will require us to gather as much information as we can from as many sources as we can — on both “sides” and everywhere in between. It will require us to read between the li(n)es to find our own truth.
I’ve done my fair share of exploring over the years and put together a list of “non-approved” sources that have served me well. They’re not always right, but I’ve found their track record to be far better than any in mainstream media. If you’re interested in venturing beyond the world of fact checkers, it might be a good place to start.
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