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A Tale Of Two Fact-Checkers

The Media Research Center dismissed Lead Stories as "liberal" because it fact-checks conservatives -- but it loves Just Facts because it reinforces the MRC's right-wing political narratives. Plus: The MRC finds a "media technology group" that serves as its echo chamber.

By Terry Krepel
Posted 5/6/2021

The Media Research Center's war on fact-checking is pretty simple: paint any fact-checking organization that fact-checks conservatives as "liberal" and, therefore, somehow not trustworthy. It has put a newly formed fact-checking group through that narrative -- targeted mainly because it works with Facebook.

Thus, Corinne Weaver had new target in a March 2020 post:

Facebook currently relies on nine fact-checking organizations in the United States to help the platform “reduce” and “remove” problematic content. However, many of the people the company has put in charge of suppressing content are pushing a left-wing agenda.

Lead Stories, a fact-checking organization started by Belgian tech blogger Maarten Schenk, is a perfect example. It was the top fact-checker for Facebook in January. The media outlet, which has eight CNN alumni who fact-check trending stories, fact-checks conservatives four times more than liberals.

The fact-checking operation was given $359,000 by Facebook to approve content on the social media site in 2019.

Lead Stories published 296 fact-checks between January 1, 2020, and March 9, 2020. Out of those, 55 entries were from right-leaning social media users and news outlets. Only 12 were from left-leaning social media users and news outlets.

In a moment when Facebook is heavily relying on fact-checkers to flag information on the coronavirus, Lead Stories has slammed many conservative outlets.

Weaver offered no evidence that "liberal" outlets put out the same amount of misinformation on social media than conservative outlets do, thus warranting parity. She also didn't dispute the accuracy of any of the fact-checks on conservative outlets that Lead Stories did. That makes her claim that Lead Stories is "pushing a left-wing agenda" entirely unsupported.

Nevertheless, the target had been drawn on the group. An MRC post the same day by Alexander Hall baselessly branded Lead Stories a "liberal fact-checker" and complained that it "failed to fact-check the contentious Democratic debate between former Vice President Joe Biden (D) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on March 15." That's another bogus attack, because it doesn't fact-check politicians at events; its mission states that "we specifically hunt for trending stories from known fake news, satire or prank websites in order to debunk them as quickly as possible."

A few days later, Weaver returned to complain that another conservative operation was fact-checked:

Third-party fact-checkers have the ability to cause pages on Facebook to be suppressed. These fact-checkers, who are paid by Facebook, are putting efforts into fact-checking satire and editorial cartoons. In other words — opinion.

Lone Conservative, a conservative media outlet designed for college students and recent graduates, was fact-checked by Lead Stories, an organization run by 8 CNN alumni. The Facebook page had posted a cartoon of bailout money being rolled into the Kennedy Center as money was being rolled out to the DNC. This was referencing the $25 million received from the coronavirus bailout that was given to the Kennedy Center.

The cartoon did not accuse the Kennedy Center of giving bailout money to the DNC. It was meant satirically. It was not a news story. It was a simple editorial cartoon.

An interstitial, or filter, was placed over the post with the label saying, “False Information[:] Checked by independent fact-checkers.” A “See Why” button led readers to a piece from Lead Stories, which initially had simply fact-checked an erroneous tweet where the Twitter user was unclear in posting about a hypothetical. Lone Conservative was not even mentioned in the fact-check.

Note to Weaver: the cartoon unequivocally shows the money being funneled through the Kennedy Center to the DNC, so it's hard to deny that it "did not accuse" any such thing. Given that such accusations are a staple of conservative politics -- Weaver seems to have missed that two days earlier, her boss Tim Graham accused Democrats of adding $75 million to the coronavirus stimulus package as a way of "supporting their own media assets" and "keeping their propaganda organs in fighting shape" -- pretending it "was meant satirically" doesn't pass the smell test. All she's doing here is indulging in the usual conservative-as-victim narrative.

Ironically, a few weeks later, Weaver seized upon a Facebook fact-check conducted by Lead Stories to trumpet the idea that because Trump did not explicitly "urge" people to inject disinfectants, it's false to say he suggested it. Weaver did not indicate whether she and the MRC would walk back its previous attacks on Lead Stories.

In August, Alexander Hall was mad that "Notoriously liberal fact-checker, Lead Stories" fact-checked a deepfake video featuring Nancy Pelosi. Hall's evidence that Lead Stories is a "notoriously liberal fact-checker" was his post cited above.

Weaver lectured in attacking a different fact-checker in a January 2019 post:

It is important for anyone who identifies as a ‘fact-checker’ to be as objective and neutral as possible. At least in theory.

But Facebook might not have done its homework in finding the right fact-checkers. The “charity” Full Fact was announced on January 11 as the new fact-checkers for Facebook. The BBC reports that the organization will “review stories, images and videos and rate them based on accuracy.”

But these fact-checkers might have a bigger agenda, according to their funding page. Google and liberal billionaire George Soros have donated extensively to Full Fact in 2018 alone. It is also funded by a radical leftist, Pierre Omidyar, who funds the Never Trump site the Bulwark, headed by Bill Kristol.

Perhaps the move was meant to placate Soros, whose organizations, including the Color of Change, have lobbied to have Facebook undergo a civil rights audit. Facebook has been under fire following the New York Times report, which said that Facebook hired a right-wing group to do opposition research on Soros.

However, there are no conservative fact-checkers left in the Facebook fact-checking family. With the close of the Weekly Standard, Facebook has yet to name a conservative successor to fact-check.

You might remember that Facebook's oppo research on Soros -- presumably done to placate its right-wing critics -- undercut the MRC's shaky narrative that social media outlets like Facebook are run by liberals determined to censor conservatives.

Weaver did not name any conservative fact-checkers who could be considered credible and not motivated by politics over journalism.

Then, it got personal. In a Nov. 6 post, Hall lashed out at Facebook and Lead Stories for flagging an MRC video as misinformation:

Facebook’s fact-checkers have tried to discredit MRCTV’s reporting about the most critical election of our lifetime.

The NewsBusters Facebook account posted a video on Thursday by MRCTV Managing Editor Brittany Hughes. In the video, Hughes slammed the lack of transparency during the 2020 election process. The text of the post itself asked: “Why aren't Americans allowed to talk about serious, legitimate questions regarding the 2020 election? Because Big Tech doesn't want you to.” Facebook fact-checkers predictably flagged the post with a massive label: “Partly False Information,” and claimed: “The same information was checked in another post by independent fact-checkers.”

The label linked to a fact-check claiming: “Biden Did NOT Suddenly Go Up 138K Votes In Michigan, With No Change To Trump” by none other than the notoriously left-wing Lead Stories.

Hughes responded that the fact-check was irrelevant because MRCTV’s video agreed with the fact-check’s statement: “What looked like a suspicious, one-sided jump was actually just an input error.”

Hall didn't mention that Marsh also falsely ranted that the election results "stinks worse than a Seattle fish market, and anyone with two eyes and a brain stem can see it."

Contrary to their claim that Lead Stories is "notoriously left-wing," both Hall and Marsh appear to concede that Lead Stories' fact-check on the Michigan votes is correct. Hall also reprinted the part of Hughes' script in which she pushes the conspiracy by claiming the vote numbers "were quickly added to Biden’s vote tally and any question over their legitimacy was immediately censored on Twitter" before admitting "the whole thing was a 'typo.'" The fact that Hughes put "typo" in scare quotes in her script tells us she wasn't all that happy that the facts trumped her conspiracy theory -- and that Facebook was correct to flag her video.

(It's also quite amusing to see Hall ridiculously portray Hughes' ranting in front of a green-screened brick wall as "reporting.")

A fact-checker the MRC likes

But if you're a fact-checker whose ideology matches up with that of the MRC's, it will consider you indisputably credible and ignore evidence that you're not. Which is why the MRC and its "news" division love Just Facts and its leader, James Agresti.

NewsBusters published a January 2020 post by Agresti that seems designed to fit the MRC's media-bashing narrative:

NBC News reporter and political director Chuck Todd recently railed against “misinformation” and singled out President Trump and “the right” for having an “incentive structure” to spread it. Todd, who according to NBC, “is responsible for all aspects of the network’s political coverage,” also stated that Republicans criticize the media for “sport” and “the loudest chanters of fake news” are “the ones who, under a lie detector, would probably take our word over any word they’ve heard from the other side on whether something was poisonous or not.”

Speaking directly to those unsupported claims, a scientific survey commissioned by Just Facts shows that many people are indeed misinformed—but contrary to Todd—this is a bipartisan affair. In fact, the survey found that the most commonly believed misinformation accords with left-leaning narratives spread by the press, and Democrat voters are more likely to accept these falsehoods than Trump voters. Furthermore, sizable portions of Trump voters have swallowed some of these media-promoted liberal fictions, as well as some conservative ones.

A good number of the questions in the survey, however, seem designed to push a conservative narrative, particularly regarding taxes and school choice and energy (though it does conceded that "the earth has become measurably warmer since the 1980s." Indeed, Just Facts' front page seems to reflect a conservative mindset, while also insisting that its research is "meticulous" and "rigorously documented."

Despite that -- and the fact that this article is published at an indisputably biased right-wing outlet, where Agresti has published previous items -- Just Facts insists on presenting itself as non-biased. Agresti has even written a lengthy attack on the Media Bias Fact Check website for daring to suggest that it has a conservative bias, attacking the website's reasoning as "flagrant and simplistic" and accusing it of being "either inept and/or dishonest."

An Aug. 27 column by Agresti published at CNS, was filled with misinformation, despite attacking other (non-right-wing) fact-checkers for failing "to get even basic facts correct":

In the final presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Clinton said that “half of all” illegal immigrants in the U.S. “actually pay federal income tax.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning fact check organization named PolitiFact looked into Clinton’s claim and reported: “While there is no official figure, experts estimate that about half of all undocumented workers pay federal income taxes, if not more.”

In reality, the polar opposite is true. Data from the IRS, the Social Security Administration, and the Congressional Budget Office show that roughly half of illegal immigrants file federal tax returns, but virtually none of them pay federal income taxes. Instead, they file these returns to claim refundable child tax credits, which give them cash welfare payments for every child they have.

Are we supposed to believe that PolitiFact doesn’t understand that “paying income taxes” is not the same as “filing tax returns to get welfare?"

Agresti aggressively ignored the obvious: If these undocumented workers did not pay those income taxes -- and they have, in fact, been documented doing so by the IRS and other federal offices -- they would not be eligible to get those child tax credits. The fact that these workers got the tax credits does not negate the fact they paid into the system.

Agresti cited a couple other examples of picayune hair-splitting he didn't agree with -- even though he did the exact same thing, then parroted the MRC narrative that fact-checkers are just a bunch of nasty liberals:

So what’s the common thread here? They all mislead in ways that support progressive political agendas. This is not a coincidence. I’ve examined countless fact checks that are rife with deceit, and in nearly every case, it’s the same story: They mangle the truth in ways that advance leftist narratives.

Why would they do this? I can’t read their minds, but this can only boil down to two factors: incompetence and/or dishonesty.

So what's Agresti's excuse for his truth-mangling attack on PolitiFact in an attempt to advance a political narrative -- incompetence or dishonesty?

CNS gave Agresti an uncritical platform to Agresti to push claims that the presidential election was stolen from President Trump through various means of purported fraud in a Nov. 9 column:

Based on current population data from the Census Bureau and voting data from previous elections, my organization, Just Facts, has conducted a study to estimate the number of votes illegally cast by non-citizens in the battleground states of the 2020 election. The results—documented in this spreadsheet—show that such fraudulent activities have netted Joe Biden the following extra votes in these tightly contested states:
  • Arizona: 51,081 ± 17,689
  • Georgia: 54,950 ± 19,025
  • Michigan: 22,585 ± 7,842
  • Nevada: 22,021 ± 7,717
  • North Carolina: 46,218 ± 16,001
  • Pennsylvania: 32,706 ± 11,332
  • Wisconsin: 5,010 ± 1,774
If the lower end of these illegal vote estimates were removed from the vote tallies as of Nov. 8, 2020, 2:00 AM EST, Donald Trump would be leading in states that have a total of 259 electoral votes, or 11 shy of the 270 needed to win the presidency. If the upper end of the illegal vote estimates were removed, Trump would be leading in states that have 285 electoral votes, or 15 more than needed to win the presidency.

These estimates account for just one type of election fraud, and they tend to understate it because they depend on Census surveys, which are known to undercount non-citizens.

Agresti also threw out a statement from "a Ph.D. scholar who specializes in data analytics" who floridly declared: "Instead of adding politics, vitriol, and bias to this timely, heated topic, this study provides a credible data analysis that supports a strong hypothesis of non-citizens having a significant effect on this election. Any serious critic should try improving on these estimates, as opposed to dismissing them with unproven claims."

Given the bias of Agresti and his organization, it's clear that Just Facts is, in fact, adding politics and bias to support the conservative narrative that the election was stolen from Trump.

Agresti went on to complain: "A common argument used to dismiss facts about election fraud is that President Trump’s Advisory Commission on Election Integrity failed to find widespread evidence of such malfeasance. This claim is a classic half-truth because it neglects to reveal that the Commission existed for less than a year because its work was blocked by the refusal of states to turn over voter data and a flurry of lawsuits." Agresti failed to note that the reason states refused to turn over election data to the commission was because it was never a legitimate attempt to study "election integrity" and, instead, was seen by many as merely a tool to implement additional roadblocks to voting (another longtime conservative narrative) -- as evidenced by the fact that it was stacked with conservatives and the Democrats on the commission were largely out of the loop regarding the group's proceedings.

Well, USA Today looked at Agresti's study and pointed out that it's all unverified speculation and that few non-citizens are likely to vote because of the harsh penalties -- i.e. deportation -- for doing so, and that the "Ph.D. scholar" who floridly signed off on the study is not an election expert. As you might imagine, Agresti didn't take that well, resulting in an indignant Nov. 30 CNS column:

A “fact check” by USA Today is defaming a Ph.D.-vetted study by Just Facts that found non-citizens may have cast enough illegal votes for Joe Biden to overturn the lawful election results in some key battleground states. The article, written by USA Today’s Chelsey Cox, contains 10 misrepresentations, unsupported claims, half-truths, and outright falsehoods.

Furthermore, Facebook is using this misinformation to suppress the genuine facts of this issue instead of honoring its policy to “Stop Misinformation and False News.” Compounding this malfeasance, a note at the bottom of Cox’s article states that USA Today’s “fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.”

Most of Agresti's attacks on the fact-check are picayune -- three involve bashing Cox for noting that neither of the scholars he cited as having "vetted" the study having relevant experience in elections -- and involve rants such as these: "Yet Cox describes this stunning array of documented facts with the phrase 'Agresti argues' and then rejects all of them in favor of an unsubstantiated claim from a progressive lawyer. That’s not fact-checking but propagandizing." As if Agresti isn't trying to do his own propagandizing in the first place.

Agresti struck again in a Feb. 5 item published by the MRC, bringing his nitpicky approach to focus on a single protester at the Jan. 6 Capitol riot:

A PolitiFact article written by Bill McCarthy declares “there’s no proof that” a left-wing anti-Trump activist named John Sullivan incited rioting at the U.S. Capitol. As a result of this claim, Facebook flagged and reduced distribution of a post which accused Sullivan of doing so.

However, video footage indisputably proves that Sullivan encouraged people to storm and vandalize the Capitol. Moreover, Sullivan was subsequently arrested and charged with “violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds” and “interfering with law enforcement” during the riot. In the wake of these revelations, PolitiFact “updated” its article twice but has not changed its conclusion despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

What Agresti is doing here is an alternative version of the ConWeb argument that Sullivan's arrest somehow disproves that the Jan. 6 riot was a right-wing-driven pro-Trump event -- despite the fact that hundreds of those arrested are clearly right-wingers and Sullivan is apparently the only non-right-winger to have been arrested.

Indeed, Agresti went on to complain that PolitiFact "claims there is “no credible evidence” that the crowd that stormed the Capitol was 'infiltrated or led by antifa activists in disguise.'" But Agresti identifies nobody other than Sullivan and his accomplice who has been identified among the hundreds of rioters.

Agresti sounded like a defense lawyer in offering a very narrow defense of Donald Trump over accusations he incited the riot:

In contrast to PolitiFact’s claim that Sullivan’s calls to “storm” and “burn” down the Capitol don’t constitute incitement, PolitiFact has not fact-checked any of the hundreds of Congressional Democrats who declare in their impeachment resolution that President Trump incited the riot. This is in spite of the fact that Trump didn’t call for violence and emphasized in his speech on that same day that people should go “to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard.”

Yet, the impeachment resolution alleges that Trump is guilty of “inciting violence against the Government of the United States” because he stated in his speech: “if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.” This quote is taken out of context, as Trump used the word “fight” 20 times in the speech, making clear that he was speaking about legal, not physical, fighting. For example, he said that Rudy Giuliani has “guts, he fights.”

Agresti also engaged in some context-ripping, as the resolution also noted that "In the months preceding the Joint Session, President Trump repeatedly issued false statements asserting that the Presidential election results were the product of widespread fraud and should not be accepted by the American people or certified by State or Federal officials. Shortly before the Joint Session commenced, President Trump, addressed a crowd at the Ellipse in Washington, DC. There, he reiterated false claims that 'we won this election, and we won it by a landslide'" -- thus making it clear the alleged incitement wasn't confined to what Trump said immediately before the riot.

'Media technology group' parrots the MRC

As the Just Facts example shows, the MRC loves it when an outside research group lacking the MRC's partisan baggage parrots MRC talking points. This happened again in an October 2018 post by Corinne Weaver:

Is Google News neutral? Not according to a new report that studied the issue and determined that its results were skewed liberal.

AllSides, a media technology group, spent two weeks analyzing Google News’ homepage and determined that news outlets with a left-leaning bias were always at the top of the list. The study determined that out of 123 individual measurements, 65% of the news links provided were liberal, while only 16% of the links were conservative. That’s a 4-to-1 ratio. 20% of the links given were considered to be from a middle perspective.

The study pointed out that the positioning of the news was very important. Overall, left-wing news tended to be in the top two results, and right-wing news was always below the fold, 12 positions down.

AllSides wrote, “The numbers are so significantly strong and consistent in favor of news media sources from the left that the overall conclusion of a leftward bias is well justified.” Later on in the study, it stated, “AllSides analyzes the news on a daily basis and have often found it difficult to find perspectives from the right when using Google News.”

In the methodology, AllSides noted that sites like ABC, Buzzfeed, CBS, CNN, NBC, NPR, Politico, Time, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and Huffington Post were heavily favored, while sites like Breitbart, The Blaze, The Daily Caller, Fox News, and the National Review were almost always below the fold. Even some of the news considered to be in the center wasn’t necessarily neutral, as the study included NPR, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, and BBC.

91% of the 123 measurements “indicated at least some preference for news media with a left bias over sources with a right bias.” It went even further: apparently 80 percent of the 123 measurements preferred left-wing news over news from a center source.

First: Note how Weaver conflated "liberal," "left-leaning" and "the left," as if they all mean the same thing. Second, any "report" that buys into the MRC's ideological idea that any news outlet that is not blatantly conservative must be on "the left" is suspect. And this one certainly is.

AllSides claims to be about eliminating "filter bubbles" so people "can better understand the world — and each other." But its media bias rating system questionable. It states that it uses "patented media bias detection and display technology," but it also incorporates public opinion as well. That's problematic in an age when organizations like the MRC spend millions of dollars a year to perpetuate the notion of "liberal bias" in the media and the president denounces anyone who fails to report on him less than positively as "fake news" and "enemies of the people." That sort of propaganda can't help but skew the results.

AllSides' report, like Weaver, occasionally differentiates between "lean left" and "hard left" but more often not just uses "left," as if there was no difference between the New York Times and Mother Jones. The report apparently did not rate the alleged bias of individual articles highlighted in Google News, just that of the outlet.

AllSides also clearly buys into the right-wing idea that because most journalists are liberal, news outlets are therefore liberal:

There are far more news sources on the left than on the right, and it is well documented that individual journalists (that the Google algorithm might automatically recognize as more credible, and therefore their clicks and linking behavior would have greater-than-average influence on Google’s relevancy score) are much more likely to have views on the left, to the left of the average American. This would likely skew search results toward the left.

Considering the fact that online news consumers tend to be younger and lean farther left than the rest of America, that would also likely skew search results toward the left.

AllSides, like the conservative anti-media activists at the MRC, ignore the idea that liberal journalists working for a mainstream media outlet do generally endeavor to be fair and balanced in their reporting, while conservative journalists working for conservative outlets feel no such constraint.

This report seems to have swallowed whole much of the MRC's guiding anti-media philosophy. No wonder Weaver liked it.

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