It’s not often that I recommend a piece published at Slate, but this piece by William Saletan is the exception. As you may be aware, left-wing site Think Progress published a piece this week titled, “Brett Kavanaugh said he would kill Roe v. Wade last week and almost no one noticed.” The Weekly Standard wrote a fact-check of that piece saying the headline was false. Usually, no one at Think Progress would care about that, but in this case, they did care because the Weekly Standard is one of a handful of organizations which Facebook has partnered with for fact-checking. That meant that whenever the TP story was shared on Facebook (where they get a sizeable chuck of their traffic), there was also a note indicating it had been rated false by the Standard.
To say that the left reacted with outrage would be to undersell it. Here’s Saletan’s summary of the uniform reaction denouncing Facebook for partnering with the right:
Millhiser, in a follow-up article, dismisses the Standard’s fact-checking as “ideological” and accuses the magazine of “placing right-wing ideology before accurate reporting.” He warns: “If Facebook continues its partnership with The Weekly Standard, the consequences could be quite severe for left-leaning outlets generally—or potentially for any other outlet which publishes a news article that The Weekly Standard disagrees with.” Judd Legum, the founding editor of ThinkProgress, says Millhiser’s article was rated false only because “a hack at a right-wing magazine has decided he doesn’t like” it.
Other journalists have joined in this accusation. “@weeklystandard naturally wanted to censor it, because @weeklystandard is unscrupulous,” says one. “Facebook has given the Weekly Standard the power to drive liberal news outlets into the ground,” says another. “This is what happens,” says a third, “when you let non-reality-based organizations into the fact-checking community to achieve ‘balance.’ ”
The problem with all of this is that the Weekly Standard was correct. Brett Kavanaugh never said he would kill Roe v. Wade. The author of the TP piece tried to weasel away from the clear implication of his headline by claiming he used the word “said” to mean “indicated” or “communicated” and pointed to a dictionary definition on that point. But as Saletan points out even the author’s use of the dictionary is a stretch:
Let’s start with the dictionary entry Millhiser cited. It defines “say” as “state,” “declare,” “utter,” or “recite.” The only cases in which the definition refers to softer interpretations—“indicate,” “show,” or “communicate”—are when the act is nonverbal. The dictionary gives two examples: “the clock says five minutes after twelve,” and “a glance that said all that was necessary.” Kavanaugh is a person, not a clock. He spoke in words, not glances. To prove he said something, you have to show he said it.
Second, at his hearings, Kavanaugh was asked several times what he thought of Roe. He refused to address the substance of the case. It’s misleading to report that he “said he would kill Roe” when in fact he declined explicit invitations to say he would kill Roe.
Saletan adds a couple more points before reaching his conclusion about the episode:
So the Standard’s fact check is correct. By itself, that’s a small point. But ThinkProgress and its allies have made the dispute into something much bigger. By attacking the fact check as biased on the grounds that a conservative magazine published it, they’ve proved the opposite of what they intended. They’ve confirmed that the press is full of left-leaning journalists who sometimes can’t see or acknowledge congenial falsehoods, and they’ve demonstrated how these journalists unite, when challenged, in a tribal chorus to accuse conservatives of trying to “censor” them. In sum, they’ve demonstrated why we need conservative journalists to help check facts…
Watching my colleagues rationalize the false headline, accuse the Standard of imposing ideological censorship under the guise of fact-checking, and castigate Facebook for allowing “non-reality-based organizations into the fact-checking community” is humbling. It’s a reminder that most of us, including me, are good at seeing other people’s biases but lousy at seeing our own.
This is a fundamental problem on the left. When Ezra Klein launched Vox he published an insightful piece titled “How politics makes us stupid” which was about a very real problem of cultural cognition. The problem with Vox is that while it gives lip service to the idea that this is a universal problem (it is) it often behaves as if this is something only right-wing thinkers suffer from. Vox just keeps pumping out progressive explainers as if cultural cognition doesn’t apply to them at all.
I’ve interacted with the author of the Kavanaugh piece before and with some of his supporters mentioned above. Let’s just say I’ve not been impressed with their willingness to reconsider things in light of new evidence. What irritates them, in this case, is that they can’t simply ignore the pushback from the right as they would normally do. Because Facebook dared to let a conservative into the room, they are forced to acknowledge there is a problem, even if that just means whining about the Weekly Standard on Twitter.