Fact-checkers at the influential Poynter Institute’s fact-checking newsletter were dragged on Twitter Thursday after posting a deeply unserious article about Clubhouse, the new audio-based social media app that made headlines last weekend when Elon Musk used it to talk stock trading with Vlad Tenev, the CEO of Robinhood.
Setting aside the nuts and bolts of the app itself, it’s not a social media platform that can be easily fact-checked because the conversations are live, there’s no text or images, and nothing is saved (as far as I can tell it’s like radio except not everyone can listen in).
This clearly bothers a couple of fact-checkers at Poynter, who averred that the lack of archived posts or audio files “will surely produce barriers for fact-checkers. It will be not only hard to choose what club to join but Clubhouse also requires that fact-checkers listen to hours and hours of conversations before selecting what claims should be assessed.”
The Poynter folks were widely—and understandably—mocked for this (and for favorably comparing fact-checkers to Chinese censors), as if the real problem in today’s media landscape is that there might be some corner of the Internet that fact-checkers can’t reach to instantly render judgment.
Fact-checking is of course a baleful development in journalism that has little to do with facts and everything to do with legitimizing bias. But the Poynter dustup reminded me of an incident a few years back that illustrated why a healthy news media that understood its proper role and function wouldn’t need fact-checkers.
In 2019, I was at the Texas Tribune Festival killing time between the two talks I was there to see and I popped into a panel discussion on local versus state government. There, I heard then-Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt (now a state senator) say to a packed room that Gov. Greg Abbott “hates trees because one fell on him.” The crowd erupted in laughter.
Abbott was paralyzed from the waist down when a tree fell on him when he was 26, and he uses a wheelchair. I couldn’t believe Eckhardt would say such a thing in public, so I tweeted it out.
At #TribFest19 panel on progressive activism, @JudgeEckhardt, talking about #txlege overriding local ordinances like Austin’s tree ordinance, says Gov. Abbott “hates trees because one fell on him.” The crowd laughs.
— John Daniel Davidson (@johnddavidson) September 27, 2019
I soon heard from the Trib’s then-executive editor, Emily Ramshaw, whom I know to be a fair and professional journalist. She wanted to confirm what I’d tweeted actually happened. I said it did, I was there. She asked if I had a recording, I said no, I was just there at random, not planning to cover it, but it happened just as I’d said it did and told her she could quote me on it.
Later that day, the Trib published a piece about how Eckhardt had to apologize for joking that Abbott hates trees because one fell on him, citing my tweet. In her apology, Eckhardt said only that she had “said something disagreeable,” and it was clear that she’d been caught saying something to a room she assumed was full of people who hate Abbott as much as she does. (Later, I discovered that after the Trib article ran the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct formally sanctioned Eckhardt for mocking Abbott’s disability.)
How does this relate to the idiotic fact-checking column Poynter published? Well, there was no recording of what Eckhardt said, and no one in that room would have ever had a problem with it if a conservative journalist hadn’t been there by chance.
But Eckhardt knew what she said, I knew she said it, and—and this is most important—Ramshaw knew I was telling the truth. The Trib reached out to Eckhardt for comment based on my say-so.
The point is, you don’t need to record people’s social media posts and take screenshots of their tweets to fact-check them. You just need to be a trustworthy journalist who has a reputation for being honest and calling things as you see them.
One of the big problems in journalism today is that there are too few such people working as reporters. We need more of them, and more editors at major outlets who are willing to trust their reporters and stand by their reporting.