An Impending Loss in the Fact-Checking Family?
Reports have circulated recently that The Weekly Standard, a fixture of conservative opinion since the mid-1990s, might not be long for the world. Paradoxically, the cause of the magazine’s undoing might be the very thing that has distinguished it these past few years. The Standard is owned by Clarity Media Group, a division of the Anschutz Entertainment Group, itself a wholly owned subsidiary of the Anschutz Corp. Philip Anschutz (pictured, at right), the billionaire at the helm of his eponymous corporation, has apparently tired of the harsh “Never Trump” editorial stance of the Standard, which is unique among conservative publications. On the same day reports about the tenuous future of the Weekly Standard broke, Anschutz announced plans for a national expansion of his other conservative publication, the Washington Examiner.
But there is another factor that separates TWS from other conservative publications – for the past year it has been one of the six fact-checking organizations participating in Facebook’s attempt to weed out the spread of fake news. Its involvement in the venture has not gone uncriticized. The politically left advocacy organization Media Matters for America branded the Standard as a “serial misinformer” whose explicit partisanship rendered it unfit for a fact-checking venture. A writer for Slate accused Facebook of “empower[ing] a conservative magazine to suppress liberal viewpoints” and, richly, of “picking sides in an ideological debate.”
Accusations of partisanship within fact-checking — an ostensibly neutral exercise — are nothing new. In disputing a call by fact-checking outfit Snopes, conservative publication the Daily Caller pointed out last week that the author of the fact check in question used to write for the liberal website Raw Story.
But The Weekly Standard was incorporated into Facebook’s fact-checking efforts because it agreed to abide by a code of conduct set forth by the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which vets Facebook’s fact-checkers. Additionally, Holmes Lybrand, the Standard’s primary fact-checker, is not permitted to write opinion pieces or be affiliated with any advocacy organizations or political parties.
Of Lybrand’s contributions, Standard Editor-in-Chief Stephen Hayes said, “The work really does speak for itself.” At RealClearPolitics Fact Check Review, we have found this to be true. Lybrand’s work is perhaps the clearest and most concise of any of the fact-checkers whose work we have scrutinized. An honest examination of the magazine’s fact-checking archives shows that Lybrand spends as much time defending the Obamas and Clintons against misinformation and conspiracy theories as anything else. Not even Slate is unified in the opinion that the Standard cannot be trusted to write accurate fact checks.
Our one criticism of the Standard’s fact-checking work is that instead of using the usual “true” or “false” verdicts, it tends to place irreverent quips at the top of pieces. It is only by reading the entire assessment that the reader finds the actual verdict. This is a disservice in an age in which readers tend not to make it past the headline. Still, this is a small gripe for an outfit that offers such concise fact checks and that, according to our research, almost never attempts to “fact check” matters of opinion — a frequent sin of fact-checkers.
When we launched Fact Check Review, the back page of the print edition of the Standard featured a parody of the press release concerning our initiative. The conceit was that we would eventually be forced to launch a review of Fact Check Review to verify our findings, and then a review of the Fact Check Review Review to verify those findings, and so on towards infinity. We were a bit miffed at the time, but in hindsight we must concede that it was funny.
But losing The Weekly Standard from the fact-checking scene would be no laughing matter. As we have written repeatedly, fact-checkers wield incredible power and responsibility. Those partnering with Facebook effectively have the authority of censorship. We are not reflexively against the fact-checking enterprise; we just think it needs to be better understood. We know enough to know that the loss of The Weekly Standard would harm, not help, the integrity of fact-checking.