The Associated Press picked an unfortunate time to make a mockery of its own fact-checking standards.
On Monday, the day after Meryl Streep criticized President-elect Donald Trump in a speech at the Golden Globe Awards, the news agency published what it billed as a “fact check” of Trump’s claim that Streep is “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood.” The AP’s 304-word report was headlined, “FACT CHECK: Streep Overrated? Trump Picks a Decorated Star.” Here’s an excerpt:
While "overrated" is an opinion, Streep, who took aim at Trump in her speech while accepting the Globes lifetime achievement award, holds the record for the most Academy Award nominations of any actor. She has earned 19 Oscar nominations and three wins, as well as a record 29 Golden Globe nominations and eight wins, and two Emmy Awards.
Plus there's a Presidential Medal of Freedom, not to mention 10 People's Choice Awards, two British Academy Film Awards, four National Society of Film Critics Awards, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, a Kennedy Center Honor and has been named a Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, the highest civilian honor given by the French government.
The list of accolades goes on to enumerate another couple of dozen, in roughly descending order of how much anyone could possibly give a crap. The story then compares Streep’s acting trophy case to Trump’s, noting that he received two Emmy nominations for “best outstanding reality competition.” (Fact check: The award is called “Outstanding Reality-Competition Program.”) It concludes on what is, for the AP, an uncharacteristically snarky note:
But he beat her to one award—a Golden Raspberry. He won a worst supporting actor trophy in 1989, appearing opposite Bo Derek in the crime comedy "Ghosts Can't Do It."
There is probably a conceivable world, a possible set of circumstances, under which some version of the AP item’s concept could have been amusing or illuminating, had it been better executed. Unfortunately, that is not the world we live in today, and this was not that version.
The flaws are too numerous and too obvious to bear full enumeration here. Suffice it to say that there were no facts in Trump’s claim to check; that publishing a laundry list of Streep’s accolades does nothing to rebut the claim that she’s “overrated”; and that the exercise smacked of the very brand of smugness that Trump routinely accuses the mainstream media of evincing.
All of this would be more easily excused as a misguided lark, had it not come at a time when the practice of nonpartisan fact checking is under assault from many on the right, who regard it as an excuse for the liberal media to cloak an ideological agenda in the guise of objectivity. Recently, some conservatives blasted Facebook’s decision to collaborate with a number of organizations that routinely fact-check possibly false claims, including the AP, on the grounds that they couldn’t be trusted to evaluate facts impartially. The AP’s “fact check” on Trump and Streep inadvertently reinforced the right’s anti-media point so effectively that Breitbart simply republished it in full, sans commentary.
In a time when information and disinformation are vying for readers’ attention on the slanted battlefields of cable news and social media, scrupulous journalistic fact checking is as important as it’s ever been. But objectivity and neutrality are philosophically tenuous constructs to begin with, and it doesn’t help when the organizations that profess to them stray so blatantly and clumsily into partisanship. We don’t need the AP’s fact-checkers to crack cheap jokes at the president-elect’s expense. We have the rest of the internet for that.
What we need is for them to, as far as possible, stick to the facts, and let the rest of us argue about whether Trump is acting petty or Streep is overrated. OPINION: He is, and she isn’t.