Fact-Checking in Limbo: Media Ethics Under the Biden Administration


Concerns are growing over a perceived easing of thorough scrutiny by the media’s ‘fact-checkers’ towards the utterances of the sitting US president, as compared with their previous approach. Under the leadership of Donald Trump, the media community – sometimes referred to as the mainstream media – seemed to be perpetually engaged in live ‘fact-checks.’ However, there’s been a noticeable shift in this trend under the administration of President Joe Biden, leading some to question if such scrutiny has been largely abandoned.

An examination carried out by Joe Concha, a media critic writing for The Hill, notes that these very fact-checkers appear to be taking an unusually long respite or have simply distanced themselves from rigorous inspection of the president. Concha illustrates this apparent lapse with the example of CNN fact-checker, Daniel Dale, who seems to have dropped off the radar in the current administration.

Data from Mediaite shows that from the period of June 2019 to November 2020, Dale was either mentioned or made appearances on CNN, on an average, at least once per day. Even by conservative estimates, this translates to over 500 mentions or features on the network within merely a 16-month period. However, under Biden’s tenure, Dale has been significantly less visible with the notable point that he has not conducted a single fact-check of the president since the month of June, as reported by Concha.

One might argue that this fall in activity is due to a lack of substantial material for Dale to delve into when it comes to Biden. Concha, however, starkly contrasts this claim, providing recent instances that required fact-checking. To illustrate, back in August, Biden had stated that the inflation in July was flat, a claim that was contrary to the actual figures that marked it near a staggering 40-year high of 8.3 percent.

Biden had also made the assertion that The Inflation Reduction Act had managed to bring down the inflation at the household level, in spite of studies suggesting that the Act would have a negligible impact on inflation. However, a review of related trends shows that food prices witnessed a spike in August, with the Consumer Price Index illustrating a year-over-year increase of 10.6 percent. This is a clear demonstration of numerous occasions over the summer where fact-checking was demanded.

There’s an inherent responsibility of ensuring that the nation’s leader is held accountable for his actions and words, particularly in an election year. The narrative is shaped and set forth through the media during these times and each side does its part in trying to influence this narrative. Unfortunately, the fact-checkers at mainstream publications seem hesitant to perform their duty in this regards.

The lack of scrutiny becomes more concerning when we observe the treatment of White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. It seems she has only been fact-checked once by Politifact in recent months since June. Astonishingly, this is the same press secretary who claimed that illegal border crossings were not a prevalent issue, contrary to the eyewitness accounts of border agents saying it happens daily.

Jean-Pierre continued to make unfounded claims, including asserting the Biden administration was undertaking substantial efforts to bolster border security compared to the Trump administration. Despite halting border wall construction and discontinuing the effective ‘Remain in Mexico’ policy, she maintained that the current administration was faring better in securing the borders. Such claims from Jean-Pierre were not assessed by the fact-checkers for their validity.

In a parallel narrative, the records evidently contradict Jean-Pierre’s claim — it is projected that this year alone, the country will witness more than 2 million illegal immigrants arriving, an all-time high. This startling fact warrants a simple fact-check yet seems uninteresting to outlets like Politifact, leading Concha to ask the question, ‘Why?’

More disconcerting is the reality that since stepping into the role on May 13, filling in for Jen Psaki, Jean-Pierre has managed to escape the critical lens of Factcheck.org, Associated Press, Reuters, the Washington Post, and even CNN. This lack of critical overview can be likened to a toll collector in an E-Z Pass lane, where not much effort is necessarily required.

According to Concha, the relevance and credibility of fact-checkers are being eroded extensively, especially among Republicans and independent voters. Evidence supporting this ire towards fact-checkers comes from a Pew Research survey which showed that seven out of every 10 Republicans believe these fact-checking entities hold inherent biases. A nearly equal number of independent voters also share this sentiment.

With the midterm elections not more than 50 days away, Concha emphasizes the high stakes involved. The political tides in Washington could tip, making the words spoken by public officials even more critical. Claims need to be scrutinized and half-hearted truths or outright falsehoods should be brought to light without any hesitation.

The political identity of the President, whether a Democrat or Republican, should not influence the action of fact-checkers. Regardless, it appears there exists a certain complacency in the fact-checking community, almost like they’re on a four-year hiatus, according to Concha.

Bearing the unique ability to shape narratives and influence public opinion, fact-checkers, bound by their commitment to truth, should rise above partisan considerations. Concha’s critique ends on a poignant note, labeling this lax state of affairs continue unabated is a ‘pathetic’ state of affairs.

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