The media’s war with Bernie Sanders highlights the need to factcheck the factcheckers

A picture of Bernie Sanders at a lectern pointing at someone or something.
Alan MacLeod

One of the only growing industries in news media right now is factchecking, which promises to differentiate reality from fiction for us in today’s post-truth world of spin and fake news. But factcheckers themselves are not neutral arbiters of truth; like everyone else, they’re individuals and organizations with their own interests and biases. And a case in point is how the media appears intent on trying to factcheck into oblivion everything Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders says, sometimes with comical results.

Billionaire-owned corporate media vs Sanders

The Washington Post (owned by the world’s richest person, Jeff Bezos), for example, claimed that Sanders’s assertion that millions of US residents were working multiple jobs was “misleading” because it was only eight million people, which represented a minority of the workforce, and that many of those extra jobs were part-time. It also gave his statement that six people (one of whom is Bezos) have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population ‘three Pinocchios’ – the designation just below the most egregious lie. This was because, they argued, billionaires’ wealth is tied up in stocks, not money itself, and that most people own essentially nothing. For them, this apparently disproved the Vermont senator’s well-sourced claim.

The Post also attacked the idea that Sanders is supported by ordinary people in an article titled Bernie Sanders Keeps Saying His Average Donation is $27, but His Own Numbers Contradict That. What was the contradiction it found? That the average donation was actually $27.89, not $27. But you’d have to click past the headline and read the article, which the large majority of people do not do, to find that out. And that raises the question: are these constant nickel-and-diming attacks on Sanders a good-faith attempt to reach a broader truth or an attempt to undermine his campaign?

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Factchecker neutrality is a myth

Corporate media has a highly antagonistic relationship with Bernie. Yet when Sanders suggested that their (well-documented and extreme) bias against him might be swayed by billionaire ownership of media (billionaires he proposes to tax), senior media figures dismissed the claim as a “ridiculous” “conspiracy theory”.

Factcheckers themselves are not neutral, infallible public servants, but part of an increasingly elite class of people with their own agendas, biases and preconceptions. Generally, elite journalists who espouse the values of this class represent a political ideology often referred to as ‘centrism’ (a word with its own problems), which displays hostility to any challenge to the status quo from either left or right. Indeed, the appeal to power is already baked into the idea of an expert, unbiased arbiter who can define truth.

There are an infinite amount of claims from thousands of potential candidates that could be investigated, meaning the most important bias any factchecker can have is choosing what stories to pursue in the first place. While ‘resistance’ media continues to question Donald Trump, it rarely challenges state power, or his claims on foreign policy issues like Iran or Venezuela, regardless of how outlandish they become.

In fact, when asked what was the most surprising thing they’ve found to be true, factcheckers at Channel 4 responded that it was that the United States had a history of interfering in foreign countries’ politics. The idea that a team of people could rise to such an influential position in political media without knowing about US intervention abroad speaks volumes to the narrow ideology of those working as journalists.

The weaponisation of ‘factchecking’

Often, it is the same media so intent on factchecking that pushes verifiable fake news to support US interventionism. For example, the New York Times helped connect Saddam Hussein to 9/11 while the Washington Post pushed the idea that he had weapons of mass destruction to pave the way for the invasion of Iraq in 2003. And they continue to pump out regime-change propaganda when reporting on Venezuela today. Are these organizations really the best judges of fact and fiction?

Despite being seen by many ‘centrists’ as a crucial part of our democracy, the public is already highly mistrustful of those who claim to be neutral arbiters of truth. Voters are skeptical of fact-checkers, and barely a third of people in the US think news media sorts fact from fiction well. And with their relentless pursuit of Sanders, media elites are highlighting that factchecking is becoming a weapon of the powerful to use against their political opponents, not a check on power itself.

Featured image via Gage Skidmore

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