Who checks the fact-checkers?
“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” is the question posed by the Roman poet Juvenal from his “Satires.” It is literally translated as “Who will guard the guards themselves?” The quote has several variations including, “Who watches the watchers?” and “Who will watch the watchmen?”
Our question is “Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?” As the name suggests, “fact-checking” refers to the process of verifying factual information for the purpose of promoting the truthfulness and accuracy of journalistic reporting. Even though journalism in America has existed since the nation’s inception, “fact-checking” as a term of art didn’t make an appearance until the early 2000s. Prior to that, the reliability of a story would depend on the integrity of the reporter and the watchful eye of an obsessive editor.
Today, “fact-checking” frequently refers to after-the-fact review of a story or statement by a third party.
Those on the center-right of the political spectrum have noticed for years that “fact-checkers” apply a harsher standard to Republicans and, even worse, won’t bother to fact check some of the most outrageous lies of progressives or Democrats. Mark Hemingway of the Washington Examiner, a conservative-leaning publication, wrote a piece in 2011 entitled “Lies, Damn Lies and ‘Fact Checkers.’” In it he notes that “fact-checkers” attempt to give themselves “a veneer of objectivity doubling as a license to go after any remark by a public figure they find disagreeable for any reason.” More recently, Adi Robertson, writing for technology news outlet The Verge, observed that “fact-checking is becoming a political cudgel.”
To illustrate this from a story just last week, the Sacramento Bee published its own version of a “fact-check.” The article, published on Dec. 14, was headline, “Fact Check: Mitch McConnell says Democrats want to create a ‘slush fund’ for Gavin Newsom” and the Bee labeled the story as “Untrue.”
But from a conservative point of view, the “slush fund” label is more truthful than not. In a nutshell, Republicans and Democrats in Washington are at loggerheads over another round of economic relief for a national economy bludgeoned by the pandemic-induced government shutdown. Republicans have insisted on liability protection for businesses and health-care providers while Democrats demand that state and local governments receive funds along with the private sector.
The “slush fund” label is credible because it is unclear that there would be limits on how the states and local governments could spend the money. Republicans are justified in their contention that blue states like California, New York and Illinois have mismanaged their economies. Red states that are more fiscally prudent shouldn’t have to subsidize bailouts to those states that are not.
But the real problem with the Bee’s “fact-check” piece is that it never mentions the real reason McConnell called it a slush fund: Pension obligations. Unfunded pension obligations, mostly in blue states, is the driving force behind the Democrats’ push to have local and state government bailouts as part of the COVID-19 aid package.
It is a verifiable fact that Sen. Mitch McConnell used the phrase “slush fund.” But whether federal dollars given directly to the states and local governments constitutes a “slush fund” is a matter of opinion. Ironically, it is the liberal publication The New Republic that made the following cogent observation: “The trouble is, fact-checkers have expanded their purview from checking strictly empirical statements to ‘checking’ contestable political statements.” I agree.
Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.