Deciding What's True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism
By Lucas Graves
Review by David Wineberg
It is a strange turn of events that media outlets have abandoned their internal fact-checkers, and stories get written, published and reprinted from elsewhere with no vetting. Instead, third party organizations that do nothing but cherry pick news items for checking are doing that job. The job has not changed, but fewer items undergo the treatment. I guess we should be thankful anyone does it at all.
Lucas Graves’ Deciding What’s True is a survey of this pop-up industry. As in any sector, there are the big, highly visible players at the top (Graves calls them elite), and an uncollected mass of smaller players below. They pick from among the new releases, political events, Congressional nonsense and just plain lies, misquotes and fabricated stories that appear in the media daily. Sometimes they rate them with cute meters, but mostly they seek out the actual source of the data, if it exists.
Graves underwent the training and performed the duties of a fact-checker, giving insight into the tightrope walk the job requires all day, every day. They do the grunt work regular reporters don’t seem to do much of any more. They are harassed, threatened and vilified by politicians, media personalities and bloggers daily, which means they must be doing something right.
Added to the burden of political malfeasance, there is the new plague of internet facts. Before the web, they would circulate in e-mails. Now these made up facts give heft to all kinds of blogs, websites and social media. If you’ve seen one of these facts several times during a week, you tend to believe it must be true. Ironically, the internet is the first place fact-checkers turn to for verification. And then there’s the problem of people continuing to tout the lies long after they’ve been proven wrong. Or, as a Romney pollster said in 2012: “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
The book is very stilted. It uses the tiresome, academic, tell-them-what-you’re-going-to-say (etc.) format, plus the usual interminable (21 page) introduction doing the same. Chapters can take a page and a half to review what has come before and what the current chapter covers. This gives the reader no credit whatsoever, slows the read, and pads the book. Ironically, it could have had much more impact had Graves simply employed journalistic styles. Had he started each chapter with a dramatic case, or followed the fallout from some process, or showed how even the fact checking failed to stop the falsehood spreading, the book would have been gripping. Instead, it is a gentle survey. For a book dealing with such controversial hardhitting and significant events, it is disappointingly dry and flat.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.