First of all, shut the fuck up, James Taranto.
In a pinch, “fact checking” is just about the shortest serviceable definition of the word “journalism.” This is like saying that spraying water onto things that are burning is bad for firefighting.
The context for this is sudden and deeply asinine intra-media handwringing over whether Lester Holt, the moderator of tonight’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, should “fact check” the nominees’ statements in real time. Here’s Janet Brown, executive director of the Commission on Presidential Debates—the bipartisan organization charged with hosting and producing the debates—giving spectacularly mealy-mouthed voice to this nonsensical horseshit, in an interview with CNN’s terminally useless Brian Stelter:
This is to say that the thing being debated by nominally serious adults is whether a journalist expressly invited to preside over an exchange between powerful public figures should knowingly let falsehoods go unchallenged, because, uh, like, “facts” might vary depending upon their size and/or one’s source of information; because the moderator of the debate should moderate the debate’s timeliness, decorum, and subject matter, but not the quantity of lies allowed to pass unremarked upon within it; and because “fact checking” is nerd shit.
A simple truth is being swallowed up by abstract categories and terms of art—“fact check” and “moderator” and “journalist” and “debate” and “candidate” and so on—here. Powerful people will be speaking, and less powerful people will be paying attention to them. The powerful people will advance self-serving fictions—they will lie. These lies may be outright and knowing falsehoods, or involve a dishonestly authoritative pose masking a shaky grasp of facts, or be artful sidesteps posed as actual answers to questions. When a lie is told, someone will recognize that it is a lie. That person will have a platform for pointing out that it was a lie. That opportunity will imply a moral duty—not as a “moderator” or a “journalist,” but as a human being with a brain and the capacity for critical thought and honesty—to point out the lie, so that other people who have not identified the lie will not be fooled by the lie. If that person chooses, instead, to stay silent, out of a sense of loyalty to one of the powerful people or responsibility to the made-up protocols of a made-up role (“moderator,” say), that person is choosing to be a party to the lie. That person would then be advancing a self-serving fiction—a lie—of his own: that the responsibilities of political loyalty or to a made-up role or whatever overrule his moral duty as a human being to the truth.
None of this is complicated in any way by any of what’s true about who will have a microphone at tonight’s debate or what made-up word anybody uses to describe what he or she should do with it. The term “fact check” is being used deliberately—by cynical access-brokering horserace shitheads like Stelter, performatively neutral functionaries like Brown, and craven apparatchiks like Taranto—to suggest some special weirdo discipline outside the ordinary vocational scope or qualifications of debate moderators, or mechanically unsuited to the format of a presidential debate. This, too, is a multiply self-serving fiction—a lie.
“Fact checking” is not some esoteric specialized exercise; it does not belong to any particular consecrated order of fact-checking professionals. It is not outside the bounds of literally any profession or circumstance. “Fact checking” is critical thought. You do it every time you read or hear anything: You check the presented representation of reality against what you know to be true. When you find a discrepancy, you say, “Hey, that’s bullshit.” When you witness others being deceived and manipulated by that bullshit, you tell them, “Hey, that’s bullshit.” Whether you are a debate moderator or journalist or cab driver or fry cook, either you do this, or you are a derelict human being.
With that in mind, here are some things that are true: No one who can be trusted will ever ask another person to disengage their critical thinking or swallow their impulse to tell the truth. If Lester Holt’s job tonight requires that of him, it is a bad job, one actively harmful to however many people watch him do it, and no trustworthy person will want to do it or want someone else to do it. If the candidates can be expected to spout so many lies that Lester Holt’s truthfulness would turn their debate into a stuttering mess, that is the debate they deserve. Lies are supposed to be interrupted. You’re supposed to interrupt them.