Fact Checking in the Trump Era
Can the media fairly parse the statements of those running against President 'Bottomless Pinocchio'?
Donald Trump lies so often and outrageously, his opponents argue, that it’s unfair to parse their statements on an equal footing. While I disagree, they have a point.
POLITICO’s Michael Calderone outlines the controversy.
On Friday, The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded three Pinocchios to President Donald Trump’s boast that he’s already built large sections of a border wall, which the paper called “the false claim Trump most often repeats.” The Post counted nearly 200 instances of Trump making it.
The Fact Checker also recently gave three Pinocchios to Democrat Bernie Sanders for saying that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills” – when the study on which the claim was based only cited medical costs as a contributing factor in 500,000 bankruptcies a year, and other studies had a somewhat lower figure.
A false equivalence? Sanders’ team seems to think so – and they’re not alone among Democratic presidential campaigns fuming over fact checkers who appear to give their esoteric policy disputes and faulty recollections the same weight as Trump’s daily whoppers and spreading of self-serving myths like that of millions of fraudulent voters.
Both of the linked fact-checks are thorough and fair. Both meet the Three Pinocchio standard outlined by Kessler and company years ago:
Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions. This gets into the realm of “mostly false.” But it could include statements which are technically correct (such as based on official government data) but are so taken out of context as to be very misleading.
Still, I agree with Team Sanders that these are not equivalent misstatements.
Trump has been repeating this lie over and over and over for years. It’s only saved from the fourth Pinnochio by the technicality that there was already 500 miles of border fence when he took office and there has in fact been quite a bit of repair work on it during his tenure. But he has built zero feet of the concrete and steel wall he continually promised. It’s an outrageous distortion of truth and he wantonly repeats it despite it having been debunked endlessly.
Sanders’ claim, by contrast, is a wild exaggeration that makes for a good talking point to illustrate something that’s basically true. Any fair reading of the underlying study demonstrates the claim to be false. But the underlying point—that debt from health emergencies has been financially ruinous for an appalling number of Americans—is undisputed.
So, while both statements are equally untrue in a vacuum, they’re not equivalent. Sanders is taking liberty with the facts to illustrate a truth whereas Trump is relying on a technicality to tell a bald-faced lie.
Calderone provides another example:
The issue popped up again last week when Sen. Kamala Harris said during a CNN climate town hall that she once sued Exxon Mobil. A fact-checker at the network rightly pointed out that she only investigated Exxon, while suing other oil companies. Harris’s campaign responded not by challenging the point of fact, but fact-checking itself in the Trump era.
“Trump spent the morning potentially illegally teasing out jobs numbers and lying about a massive hurricane’s trajectory, but sure, let’s spend our time on whether, as Attorney General, Kamala ‘sued’ vs. ‘investigated’ Exxon,” Ian Sams, her press secretary, wrote. “When parsing word choice is given the same treatment as intentional lies. . . it blurs the very lines ‘fact checkers’ are supposed to help keep drawn.”
Here, I’m less persuaded.
Harris spouted a talking point designed to make her look tough. It wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment jumbling of facts but a misstatement of fact.
Was it as egregious as Trump’s bizarre lies to cover up his gaffe about a hurricane threatening Alabama? Of course not. Then again, they weren’t given equivalent treatment. Trump’s Sharpie moment received days of coverage, including roasting on all the national comedy shows. Calderone’s report is the first I”ve seen of the Harris fib.
Still, the underlying complaint is well-grounded.
The issue is of no small concern, Democratic strategists say.
Trump’s bold lies and spreading of disinformation – which have been regularly cited by almost every mainstream news organization – are a core part of their case against him. But when those same outlets begin parsing Democrats for using questionable data and making exaggerations, they create the impression that everyone’s a fibber. When it comes to lying, Democrats say, Donald Trump has once again broken the bounds of politics as usual, and the media is only helping him by enforcing the old rules.
Again, the fact that Trump lies routinely is baked in at this point. Multiple high-visibility outlets are tallying the lies and pointing out that the number dwarfs that of previous Presidents. They’re all routinely parsed, sometimes, as in the Sharpie case, for days.
And the fact-checkers aren’t wrong here:
In interviews with POLITICO, several prominent fact checkers said they don’t believe their job has changed when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their words on the stump and in TV studios, despite Trump’s persistent falsehoods.
“Two wrongs don’t make a right,” said PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan.
And most of the outlets scale the lies, such as with the Pinnochio system.
Beyond the Harris team’s gripes, the news media’s focus on former Vice President Joe Biden’s factual errors, or gaffes, has drawn comparisons to the fervent coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails in the 2016 election, while Sanders’ campaign has taken aim at The Post for publishing “factually inaccurate ‘fact check’ articles.” That critique has been echoed in progressive outlets like The Nation and The Intercept.
“When fact checkers rightly call Trump a liar for saying ‘the noise (from windmills) cause cancer,’ & then feel obligated to be ‘balanced’ by calling Bernie a liar for correctly saying Wall Street got a ‘trillion dollar bailout,’ Democracy Dies in Darkness,” Sanders senior adviser Warren Gunnels tweeted Saturday, appropriating the Post’s slogan while sharing The Intercept story.
The Post’s Fact Checker team, led by editor and chief writer Glenn Kessler, has catalogued more than 12,000 false or misleading claims made by Trump in office. The president’s tendency to continue making false claims in the face of evidence even prompted them to add the “Bottomless Pinocchio” label to its standard scale of one-to-four Pinnochios.
The critics’ larger point—that the traditional fact-checking system wasn’t built to handle the likes of Trump—is a good one. Trump lies so often, so brazenly, and often so bizarrely, that it’s hard to compare him to sane opponents.
Still, it doesn’t help Team Sanders’ case that they’re lying their asses off.
The “trillion-dollar bailout” line isn’t anywhere close to being true. It’s off by orders of magnitude. Like the exaggeration about how many bankruptcies are caused by medical debt, it’s a lie in the service of the truth: we didn’t punish criminal wrongdoing behind the 2008 financial crisis in the way we did the 1986 savings and loan crisis and we did bail out the financial sector. But, even with the most expansive possible definition of “Wall Street,” the figure was less than half a trillion. Using the normal definition, it was around $135 billion.
While ordinary Americans pay less attention to the news and, certainly, to the fact checks than I do, I think they’re capable of understanding the difference. Indeed, poll after poll after poll after poll shows that Americans overwhelmingly think Trump is dishonest. The third or so who still aren’t convinced of that are, for all intents and purposes, unpersuadable.
And, again, Kessler and company created the Bottomless Pinocchio category last December to ameliorate the problem:
Trump’s willingness to constantly repeat false claims has posed a unique challenge to fact-checkers. Most politicians quickly drop a Four-Pinocchio claim, either out of a duty to be accurate or concern that spreading false information could be politically damaging.
Not Trump. The president keeps going long after the facts are clear, in what appears to be a deliberate effort to replace the truth with his own, far more favorable, version of it. He is not merely making gaffes or misstating things, he is purposely injecting false information into the national conversation.
To accurately reflect this phenomenon, The Washington Post Fact Checker is introducing a new category — the Bottomless Pinocchio. That dubious distinction will be awarded to politicians who repeat a false claim so many times that they are, in effect, engaging in campaigns of disinformation.
The bar for the Bottomless Pinocchio is high: The claims must have received three or four Pinocchios from The Fact Checker, and they must have been repeated at least 20 times. Twenty is a sufficiently robust number that there can be no question the politician is aware that his or her facts are wrong. The list of Bottomless Pinocchios will be maintained on its own landing page.
The Fact Checker has not identified statements from any other current elected official who meets the standard other than Trump. In fact, 14 statements made by the president immediately qualify for the list.
This is an astoundingly powerful comparison. To state boldly that the sitting President of the United States is “engaging in campaigns of disinformation” is amazing in its own right. To count fourteen (actually, were’ up to 23) of them—as against zero by twenty-odd opponents combined—should surely be enough to illustrate the chasm.
I would vote for any of the Democratic candidates still in the debates over Trump. All of them are more honest, decent, and sane than he is.
But I still want the press to hold them accountable for their statements. The fact that Trump has broken the fact-checking system doesn’t make anything less than that the new standard.