TUESDAY, AUGUST 16, 2022
Who will fact-check the fact-checkers? In a recent column, George Will started out by battering Josh Hawley around.
He did so in the course of praising a new book—a book in which Chris Stirewalt, late of Fox News, offers a critique of our country's "broken news business."
In Will's view, Hawley cast a silly showboat vote against admitting Finland and Sweden to NATO. In Will's account, this is where the performance led:
WILL (8/10/22): ...That evening, Hawley appeared on Fox News to receive Tucker Carlson’s benediction.
This umpteenth episode of a senator using the Senate as a stepping stone to a cable television green room illustrates what Chris Stirewalt deplores in his new book, “Broken News.” He was washed out of Fox News by a tsunami of viewer rage because on election night 2020 he correctly said Donald Trump had lost Arizona. Now he says today’s journalism has a supply-side problem—that is, supplying synthetic controversies:
“What did Trump say? What did Nancy Pelosi say about what Trump said? What did Kevin McCarthy say about what Pelosi said about what Trump said? What did Sean Hannity say about what Rachel Maddow said about what McCarthy said about what Pelosi said about what Trump said?”
In all honesty, Stirewalt's call of Arizona came remarkably early—and Biden's winning margin turned out to be scarily slim. Maybe Stirewalt knew what he was doing that night, maybe he just got lucky.
(If you flip a coin to call a state, you'll get it right half the time!)
That to the side, Will quoted Stirewalt mocking a type of "synthetic controversy" involving our nation's cable news stars. He went on to make the highlighted claim.
We wondered if it was accurate:
WILL (continuing directly): But journalism also has a demand-side problem: Time was, journalists assumed that news consumers demanded “more information, faster and better.” Now, instantaneous communication via passive media—video and television—supplies what indolent consumers demand.
More than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level. Video, however, requires only eyes on screens. But such passive media cannot communicate a civilization defined by ideas. Our creedal nation, Stirewalt says, “requires written words and a common culture in which to understand them.”
Is that statement about our "indolent [news] consumers" accurate? Is it true that "more than half of Americans between ages 16 and 74 read below the sixth-grade level?"
We'd never seen a claim of that type. We wondered if it could be defended.
For starters, full disclosure! Measuring someone's "reading level" isn't like measuring their height or their weight.
You can measure someone's height with something resembling perfect accuracy. Measuring the grade level at which a person is able to read simply isn't like that. It involves a much less objective set of assessments.
That said, we wondered if the highlighted statement could be defended as basically accurate. And so, we decided to click Will's link, a link which took us to this August 2 essay at Snopes.
There's little doubt about what the Snopes essay said. The topic was brooked in a Q-and-A format, with Madison Dapcevich starting her presentation like this:
Do More Than Half of Americans Read Below a 6th-Grade Level?
This claim is true, according to a review of the U.S. education system that was conducted in September 2020. Let’s explore.
In essence, Will was simply repeating what Dapcevich had said. (She cited the age range—16 to 74—as she continued.) That led us to wonder if there was any justification for Dapcevich's assertion.
In the next two paragraphs, Dapcevich offers a spectacularly confusing attempt to provide the source for her claim. She offers four separate links in those two paragraphs. Clicking all four links, then clicking additional links within those links, we found ourselves whirled about in a conceptual vortex.
We're not sure we've ever seen a more confounding journalistic presentation. And yet, Will had made his striking statement based upon nothing but apparent faith in the accuracy of the claim in Snopes.
Before the week is done, we may attempt to lead you through the list of Dapcevich's links. For whatever it's worth, we found no place, in any of the reports to which she linked, where evidence was offered in support of the claim which ended up in Will's column.
As we attempted to negotiate the Dapcevich links, we thought of the passage in the Iliad where mighty Achilles is almost swept away by the angry river Scamander. But we never found a way to support the accuracy of her claim.
To be fair, Will is anti-Hawley and anti-Trump. He's also anti-Carlson.
That said, he makes a sweeping claim about adult literacy in this column. For that reason, there's a certain irony involved in the following question:
Did George Will bother to check the accuracy of his source?
Similarly, Snopes has long been billed as a major fact-check site. The amazing confusion found in that recent Snopes report leads us to recycle a bit of Plato:
Who will fact-check the nation's fact-checkers? How can we know if they're right?