2021 marked another year of brazenly slanted media coverage, and the “fact-checking” industry, who’ve long cast themselves as impartial arbiters of truth, was no exception.
With former President Trump out of office and President Biden at the helm, media fact-checkers vowed to cover his presidency with the same tenacity afforded to his predecessor. But those tasked with verifying political claims and holding the powerful accountable spent much of the year fueling their critics with reporting that far more resembled partisan, left-leaning opinion than a just-the-facts approach.
Critics say fact checks have become “fetishized” in the mainstream press as more declarative of the truth than a traditional news report, with eye-catching ratings like PolitiFact’s “Pants On Fire” or the Washington Post’s “Four Pinocchios.”
Journalist Mark Hemingway predicted as much in a 2011 column, writing at the time that “the media seem oblivious to the distinction between verifying facts and passing judgment on opinions they personally find disagreeable.” Ten years later, Democrats and their media counterparts continue to hail PolitiFact, Washington Post and other “fact-checkers” as the country’s last defense against misinformation.
Without further ado, here’s a roundup of the worst fact checks and related blunders of 2021.
Fact-checkers ‘suddenly’ flip on the Wuhan lab-leak theory
Glenn Kessler, who is tasked with determining the bounds of acceptable political realities for The Washington Post, was forced to walk back his position on the Wuhan coronavirus lab-leak theory in May after declaring it “virtually impossible” last year.
Kessler’s outlet reported in February 2020 that Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., had “repeated a fringe theory suggesting that the ongoing spread of a coronavirus is connected to research in the disease-ravaged epicenter of Wuhan, China.”
On April 30, 2020, the Post published a fact-check video declaring it “doubtful” that the virus escaped from the nearby Wuhan Institute of Virology, known for its research on bat coronaviruses and lab safety concerns. The video included Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, flatly denying the virus could have emerged from the lab and praising the autocratic Chinese government as “incredibly open.”
When Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, decried the outlet for concluding that the natural origin story was most likely, Kessler was quick with a retort, “I fear [Ted Cruz] missed the scientific animation in the video that shows how it is virtually impossible for this virus jump from the lab,” he wrote on Twitter. “Or the many interviews with actual scientists. We deal in facts, and viewers can judge for themselves.”
Soon thereafter, reports emerged revealing that Daszak’s group had funded coronavirus research at the Wuhan lab through government grants, although Daszak had earlier claimed he had no conflicts of interest while strongly denying the lab-leak theory.
More reports and evidence, such as researchers at the Wuhan lab becoming ill with COVID-like symptoms in late 2019, the Chinese government’s known efforts to cover up the virus from the outset, a lack of evidence connecting it to the wet market originally considered the origin place, prior warnings by the State Department of inadequate safety measures at the Wuhan lab, and the virus’ astonishing transmissibility which could suggest laboratory manipulation, have given the theory new credence in 2021.
Cruz, referencing the Washington Post’s “Pinocchio” scale for defining the severity of falsehoods, gave the Post four clown emojis for its “fact-checking” mishap.
The fact-check has been updated, with the note, “in recent months new evidence has tipped the lab leak theory onto firmer ground.” A new Post fact-check declared the theory was “suddenly” credible.
Fox News Digital previously reported some reporters acknowledged their initial dismissal of the theory was due to some Republicans like Cotton and Donald Trump espousing it.
Biden’s time check
USA Today issued a public correction in September on a “fact check” examining whether President Biden actually kept checking the time on his wrist during a dignified transfer ceremony, in honor of the 13 U.S. service members killed in a terrorist attack outside the Kabul airport.
Daniel Funke authored the fact check to address the outrage among the families of the fallen, who alleged they witnessed Biden check his watch multiple times as caskets of their loved ones were rolled onto the tarmac at Dover Air Force Base.
The fact check ruled their claim “partly false,” writing that the image of Biden that circulated on social media was real but that it does not “accurately summarize” what occurred. Instead, Funke argued that Biden had only checked his watch after the dignified transfer ceremony was over.
Critics blasted USA Today for suggesting that the Gold Star families had lied. The next day, USA Today issued a correction.
“Corrections & Clarifications: This story was updated Sept. 2 to note that Biden checked his watch multiple times at the dignified transfer event, including during the ceremony itself,” the correction read at the top of the report. “The rating on this claim has been changed from partly false to missing context.”
Funke eventually expressed “regret” for the error, writing on Twitter that “Journalists and fact-checkers are human” and they occasionally make mistakes.
Kamala Harris and the not-so-empty stockpile
Axios drew criticism in February after it deleted a tweet fact-checking Vice President Kamala Harris, who repeated the debunked claim that the Biden administration was “starting from scratch” with its coronavirus vaccine rollout.
Harris insisted in an interview with Axios co-founder Mike Allen that the Trump administration had left Biden “no stockpile … of vaccines” or a “national strategy for vaccinations.”
“In many ways, we’re starting from scratch on something that’s been raging for almost an entire year,” Harris said at the time.
Axios shared that exchange but included a comment by White House chief medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, disputing the claim.
“We certainly are not starting from scratch because there is activity going on in the distribution,” Fauci said in an earlier press briefing.
That Axios tweet, however, was later deleted, leading to questions among eagle-eyed Twitter users. Axios did reshare the clip of Harris’ exchange with Allen, but removed Fauci’s comments that contradict the vice president’s claim.
CNN blames conservatives for questioning false ivermectin story
CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale was slammed as “very obviously a rank partisan” for taking the “conservatives pounded” approach after multiple mainstream outlets were fooled by a false story that some Oklahoma hospitals were overwhelmed with patients having overdosed on the drug ivermectin.
Dale penned a piece, “Fact-checking the misinformation about Oklahoma hospitals and ivermectin,” which admitted the viral story was a “poor piece of journalism.” But despite mildly criticizing the outlets who advanced the false story, the liberal reporter somehow managed to blame conservatives for jumping to conclusions that the bogus story was in fact bogus.
While Dale was irked that conservatives “baselessly jumped to the conclusion that the doctor [quoted in the story] was a liar who had made the whole thing up,” it turned out that people who suspected something was fishy with Dr. Jason McElyea were correct. The story was later deemed false after the Northeastern Hospital System denied any patients were treated for overdoses from the drug and that McElyea hadn’t actually worked at one of the hospitals in question for two months.
National Review’s Kyle Smith wrote at the time that Dale evidently “applies nearly all of his energies to attacking the right” and he “just couldn’t bear to admit that critics of this story on Twitter and elsewhere were perfectly correct to mock and debunk it.”
The collapse of the Lafayette Square narrative
The left-leaning media narrative with CNN fact-checker approval went belly-up again in June when an Inspector General report found former President Donald Trump did not have Lafayette Square forcefully cleared of protesters, so he could pose in front of a church last year.
When the former president walked from the White House through Lafayette Square to visit a riot-torched St. John’s Church, protestors had already been cleared from the area. Many journalists concluded Trump had been the one to order the protestors out. But an investigation released by the Interior Department Inspector General Mark Lee Greenblatt said U.S. Park Police and the U.S. Secret Service deemed it necessary to remove protestors from the park on June 1, 2020, in order to install anti-scale fencing.
At the time, there were numerous examples of media figures pushing the story that Trump demanded protesters to be cleared, including CNN’s Dale, who stated in February that “they cleared peaceful protesters out of the way for a Trump photo-op” and anything to the contrary was false. Critics said they were not surprised that another CNN fact check had “gone down in flames,” due to Dale’s “diminishing credibility.”
HuffPost called ‘stupid liars’ after accusing Cruz of lying about court-packing
The Huffington Post was savaged in April as “stupid liars” for claiming Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, had lied about Republicans never engaging in so-called “court-packing” when they controlled the White House and Congress.
Indeed, Republicans during the Trump administration did not expand the size of the Supreme Court – which is set at its current total of nine by the Judiciary Act of 1869 – while in power. But the left-wing site published a video calling Cruz a “master gaslighter” and tweeted he had told his “biggest lie yet” when he made his remark.
“We had a Republican president, a Republican Senate, and a Republican House,” Cruz said. “We didn’t do this. We could have … You didn’t see Republicans when we had control of the Senate try to rig the game. You didn’t see us try to pack the Court.”
In its fact-check video, HuffPost bitterly noted President Trump filled three vacancies on the Supreme Court during his tenure, and Republicans filled hundreds of federal judge openings. None of that constituted court-packing by expanding the size of the Supreme Court, which some Democrats like Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., are proposing to offset its current 6-3 conservative majority.
After Cruz’s office and critics erupted, HuffPost deleted its original tweet but reposted the same video.
Joe and Kamala’s change of heart
While the Biden administration aggressively pushed Americans to get the vaccine this summer, social media users resurfaced comments made during the 2020 election cycle by the then-Democratic ticket that cast doubt in a vaccine developed under Trump.
Biden repeatedly indicated only if there was enough “transparency” would he take the vaccine and that the “American people should not have confidence” in the vaccine developed by the Trump administration if his concerns weren’t addressed.
Harris was heard during a CNN interview that getting a vaccine that’s approved by the Trump administration would be “an issue for all of us” and “if Donald Trump tells us that we should take it, I’m not taking it” during the vice presidential debate.
Still, PolitiFact issued a so-called “fact-check” with the headline “Biden, Harris distrusted Trump with COVID-19 vaccines, not the vaccines themselves,” insisting that the clips used in the video were “selectively edited to take the statements out of context.”
“The parts that are left out make clear that Biden and Harris were raising questions not about the vaccines themselves, but about then-President Donald Trump’s rollout of the vaccines and the risk that the effort would become rushed or politicized,” contributing writer Tom Kertscher wrote in July 2021.
For PolitiFact’s “ruling,” Kertscher concluded the video “was selectively edited to leave out the context of their statements.” and that Biden [and] Harris simply raised doubts about “Trump’s trustworthiness, his ability to roll out the vaccines safely and the risk of political influence over vaccine development.”
“We rate the video False,” PolitiFact declared.
Jacob Blake’s pocket knife
Last August, police shot a Black man named Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wis., while trying to arrest him after a domestic incident, leading to violent uprisings and protests in the city. The media widely reported he was unarmed, including in a USA Today fact-check declaring the notion he brandished a knife before the shooting “false.”
He later admitted in a January ABC News interview, however, that he dropped a pocket knife and picked it up as he returned to his car, where he was shot in the back. That confirmed what prosecutors said a week earlier about Blake being armed with a “razor blade-type knife” as they elected not to charge officers in the shooting.
USA Today added an editor’s note with the new information but did not change its rating, saying, “ratings are based on what is known at the time. When this statement was made in August 2020, it was not clear what Blake was holding or when, given the grainy cell phone video and lack of detail released by police.”
A ‘hit job’ on Sen. Tim Scott
The Washington Post shocked readers in May for publishing a “hit job” on Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., questioning his family history of going from a childhood picking cotton to the halls of Congress after Scott delivered the Republican Party’s response to Biden’s speech to a joint session of Congress.
Kessler penned a lengthy piece examining the “origin stories” of comments Scott has made about being an ancestor of slaves. Scott has said his grandfather dropped out of elementary school to pick cotton, so the liberal newspaper enlisted its fact-checker to get to the bottom of the claim.
“The tale of his grandfather fits in with a narrative of Scott moving up from humble circumstances to reach a position of political power in the U.S. Senate,” Kessler wrote. “But Scott separately has acknowledged that his great-great-grandfather, Lawrence Ware, once owned 900 acres in South Carolina.”
Kessler then declared he “dug into the South Carolina census records” to “close this gap in Scott’s narrative” despite admitting “census data is historically questionable at best — and at times unreliable,” concluding, “Our research reveals a more complex story than what Scott tells audiences.” Kessler then dove into a longwinded tale of Scott’s ancestors using the aforementioned “unreliable data.”
The article ignited a firestorm on Twitter. Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley called the article “shameful,” while others said it represents “everything wrong with the fact-checking industry” and demanded Kessler apologize to the GOP senator. Kessler claimed his critics “twisted” the article to make it sound more sinister.
Kyle Rittenhouse’s gun charge
Judge Bruce Schroeder tossed the sixth charge against the 18-year-old for having a dangerous weapon as a minor after prosecutors conceded Rittenhouse’s rifle was not short-barreled as the law has a carve-out for such weapons.
Politifact appeared to assert otherwise after a claim made by a random Facebook user on Aug. 27, 2020, who wrote, “Carrying a rifle across state lines is perfectly legal,” adding “Based on the laws I can find of this area at 17 years old Kyle was perfectly legal to be able to possess that rifle without parental supervision.”
“Is that true? State laws suggest not,” PolitiFact’s Daniel Funke, now with USA Today, wrote at the time.
Critics railed against PolitiFact for publishing false information in the wake of the shootings.
“This fact check was always wrong, but now that the weapons charge has been dropped it’s officially PANTS ON FIRE,” Mark Hemingway reacted.
According to the article, the Facebook post was flagged to PolitiFact “as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed.” Facebook has since admitted its fact-checking labels are based merely on “opinion,” which it says makes it immune from defamation lawsuits, according to the New York Post.