Self-appointed fact-checkers engage in dishonesty when they treat matters of opinion or debate as black-and-white issues to be judged as true or false.
Hysteria over “fake news” on social media has led to a bevy of fact-checking by news outlets and other websites. CNN, for example, loves to catalog every exaggeration, misstatement, or falsehood President Trump says. Though claiming otherwise, these self-appointed fact-checkers are not immune to bias, and they often treat matters of opinion or debate like math problems that have a definitive right or wrong answer.
Case in point, a website called TruthorFiction.com recently rated Professor Noah Feldman’s argument that President Trump hasn’t been formally impeached until the House delivers their charges to the Senate as “not true“, despite Feldman supporting his argument with legal precedent and history.
Feldman, who testified before the House in favor of impeaching Trump, is a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. The House chose him to testify because of his strong academic credentials. Truth or Fiction cited dissenting opinions from Twitter to come to their conclusion (later adding an opinion piece by Alan Dershowitz).
One dissenting opinion they didn’t cite was that of Robert G. Natelson, Senior Fellow in Constitutional Jurisprudence at the Independence Institute. Writing on TheHill.com, Natelson cites two unrelated cases to argue that the President is impeached simply on the majority vote of the House of Representatives. One case pertained to ratification of state constitutional amendments and the other to presidential appointments. I fail to see how these examples specifically relate to the act of impeachment or rebut Feldman’s argument.
Being an expert in a particular area doesn’t mean you’re always right or free of bias, but if two or more academics have a disagreement over a particular issue, what makes one side’s argument “true” and the other “not true”? You have to weigh the evidence for both sides, and in my opinion, Feldman has presented ample evidence to back up his case.
As Feldman argued, if Trump has been impeached, then Nancy Pelosi has no leverage and the Senate can begin its trial anytime. They don’t need any notice from the House. Of course, this isn’t true because Pelosi is withholding formal notification in order to pressure the Senate into making concessions. Pelosi’s own actions demonstrate that the House needs to take some additional action before the impeachment trial can begin.
Truth or Fiction filed their article under “Disinformation”! As though Feldman was deliberately trying to deceive the public with his argument. By fact-checking what is, essentially, an academic debate over what’s still an ongoing public issue, this website’s editors have clearly taken a side in the discussion. This has nothing to do with debunking fake news and memes and everything to do with advancing their own personal opinions.
According to their About page, the staff at Truth or Fiction? are journalists who left Snopes.com for a more “open” environment “free from restraint”. Its managing editor, Brooke Binkowski, was fired from Snopes in 2018, and under her leadership, Facebook flagged TruthorFiction.com as spreading clickbait. There’s nothing wrong with operating a competing website to do things your own way, but at least be transparent about your biases and don’t pretend to be “non-partisan” (as this website claims).
Presenting an opposing view is fine, of course, but so-called “fact checking” websites claim to be doing something else. They position themselves as arbiters of truth, defending the public from false or misleading claims. When it comes to actual hoaxes, determining truth or falsehood isn’t difficult, but not everything is a matter of black and white, truth and falsehood, especially in politics or law where opinion, interpretation, and perspective rule the day.