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.

FILED UNDER: Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Media
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. steve says:

    This won’t matter in the 2020 elections. Most Republicans either believe Trump never lies (most of them AFAICT) or they dont care. However, I have to think this has to be a factor in future elections. How can we ever take seriously Republican accusations about a candidate from another party lying? (This actually goes for a lot of things. Can we ever take serious a GOPO claim that character matters? That expertise matters? Etc.)

    Steve

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    All politicians, and for that matter anyone else of the species Homo Sapiens, stretch the truth, obfuscate, misrepresent, deceive, and yes from time to time just flat out lie. I don’t expect more from any politician and can’t really get very upset when they do so. Fact checkers are doing me a service by flagging untruths, rating them and then explaining the rationale behind the ratings. If I want more info I am free to investigate further on my own. Politicians whining about somebody doing this service for me is not likely to endear me to them. In light of that, here’s a suggestion: If one does not want to be called a liar, don’t tell untruths.

    All that said I do have to note that before trump I had never come across a politician that constructed an absolute alternative reality that bore very little resemblance to the world I live in.

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  3. drj says:

    But I still want the press to hold [Democratic candidates] accountable for their statements.

    Sure.

    But one should not, ever, under any circumstance attach the same number of Pinocchios to statements made by Sanders and Trump. It creates a false equivalence.

    Because Sanders is still bound by the truth, while Trump isn’t. If Trump speaks truthfully, it’s purely coincidental.

    By comparing Sanders and Trump (even implictly), Kessler c.s. are suggesting that Trump and his cronies still care about the truth. This is false and misleading; and works to support the GOP’s playbook.

    More generally speaking, quantifying truthfulness is a fool’s game, IMO. (Why can’t well-paid journalists use, you now, words and sentences?) But that is a different topic, I guess.

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  4. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Oh yeah, I almost forgot. I have to give Michael Calderone 3 Pinocchios for this statement:

    The Fact Checker also recently gave three Pinocchios to Democrat Bernie Sanders

    Bernie is not a Democrat, except for when it is convenient for him.

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  5. Moosebreath says:

    “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.”

    The problem isn’t the fact checking system — it’s the political environment. The fact checkers do their jobs reasonably well, but because a significant percentage of the country believe anything they say which contradicts their closed information circles cannot be true, and another significant percentage believes that anything which annoys liberals must be good, and still another significant percentage believes it doesn’t matter so long as they get class warfare on behalf of the upper class, then there is no price to be paid for Trump brazenly lying.

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  6. Kit says:

    The “trillion-dollar bailout” line isn’t anywhere close to being true. It’s off by orders of magnitude… 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

    Holding Sanders to the harshest numbers still doesn’t quite make for a full order of magnitude (much less multiple). As it is, a reasonable person could conclude that he found the most favorable number and doubled it. As an opponent, I think that I’d rather let the matter drop than argue: It’s only half a trillion, bozo! Leave the banks alone!

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  7. Kit says:

    Fact checkers live in the world of the left-leaning, reality-based echo chamber. As such, no one really cares about how Trump compares to others. He’s sui generis. He lies like the rest of us breathe. Were it up to me, I’d show pity on the poor saps tasked with tallying Trump’s endless lies, and pull the plug. Instead, every article mentioning Trump should clearly state that whatever he’s currently saying is most likely a lie.

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  8. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Trump being a mendacious fuq doesn’t give everyone else a free pass to lie.
    But Trump being a mendacious fuq doesn’t give him a free pass to keep lying either.
    Honesty is a good thing, and dishonesty should be pointed out.
    Go ahead and call Bernie a liar…but the press needs to spend A LOT MORE TIME hammering Trump for his lies. Trump is a fraud. Almost every story about him should be pointing that out in the context of whatever it is he is talking about, which invariably involves a lie.

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  9. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    Trumps biggest lie yet?
    Last night he claimed that it is fluorescent lights that make him look orange.

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  10. James Joyner says:

    @Kit:

    Holding Sanders to the harshest numbers still doesn’t quite make for a full order of magnitude (much less multiple).

    Yes, that’s true. I shouldn’t do math at 530 in the morning.

    As an opponent, I think that I’d rather let the matter drop than argue: It’s only half a trillion, bozo! Leave the banks alone!

    Sure. But, ironically, that’s the argument Scott Adams made as to why Trump’s lies were so effective in 2016: he won the talking point and opponents were left to argue things like “You’re not mega-rich, only super-rich.”

    @Moosebreath:

    The fact checkers do their jobs reasonably well, but because a significant percentage of the country believe anything they say which contradicts their closed information circles cannot be true, and another significant percentage believes that anything which annoys liberals must be good, and still another significant percentage believes it doesn’t matter so long as they get class warfare on behalf of the upper class, then there is no price to be paid for Trump brazenly lying.

    Maybe. But he won in 2016 on a fluke alignment of outcomes and a full two-thirds of the country thinks he’s fundamentally dishonest.

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  11. gVOR08 says:

    This has been an issue, and source of complaint, for years. Kessler has a habit of:

    Mr. D, you said a million when well respected study A, cited by your office, says 950,000. And we managed to find study B that says 700,000. Shame. Three Pinocchios for you.

    Mr. R, you said it was raining yesterday when the video shows you outside under clear skies. But it has sometimes rained in DC and it did rain in Chicago, so we can only give you two Pinocchios.

    The real problem is that Kessler and his bosses feel they need to maintain an appearance of bothsides even handedness in an era when one party is still kind of evidence based and the other lies about everything, every day to maintain power. Yes, all politicians lie, and they should be held to account. But Kessler does tilt the scales to avoid the appearance of bias.

    I still feel the Trump problem will go away. We’re approaching the Trumpularity, the point at which nothing Trump says can be fact checked because nothing he says is coherent.

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  12. James Joyner says:

    @gVOR08:

    Mr. D, you said a million when well respected study A, cited by your office, says 950,000. And we managed to find study B that says 700,000. Shame. Three Pinocchios for you.

    Mr. R, you said it was raining yesterday when the video shows you outside under clear skies. But it has sometimes rained in DC and it did rain in Chicago, so we can only give you two Pinocchios.

    None of the examples proferred by Calderone were anything like that. Trump routinely gets Three and Four Pinocchios and they’ve created a Bottomless Pinocchios category just for him. And Sanders wildly distorts the numbers to embellish his argument.

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  13. gVOR08 says:

    @James Joyner: You’re speaking to the last few days and Bernie. I’m talking about the last decade.

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  14. Tyrell says:

    Can today’s media do anything fairly? Even weather reports are given a political slant.
    “The media became enamored of Mayor Pete” There is an example. The media should not become enamored with any candidate. CNN made no effort to hide their adoration of Hillary. Fox is tied to Republicans. Most networks were, and are fixated on Don Trump. Even negative news is still publicity. Can any of the MSNBC people go one day without mentioning Trump? There’s other news out there. The news media we grew up with is long gone.
    Matthews was hollering again.
    “It’s not news” Ted Turner

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  15. Moosebreath says:

    @James Joyner:

    And while I am convinced @Tyrell: is cosplaying a time traveler from the 1950’s of an alternate Earth, he steps up and makes my point:

    “Can today’s media do anything fairly? Even weather reports are given a political slant.”

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  16. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    @Moosebreath:

    Even weather reports are given a political slant.

    That wasn’t at all true until Trump politicized the weather, and then NOAA and the NWS, last week.

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  17. Moosebreath says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    “That wasn’t at all true until Trump politicized the weather, and then NOAA and the NWS, last week.”

    Exactly. As I said above, “a significant percentage of the country believe anything they say which contradicts their closed information circles cannot be true”.

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  18. Teve says:

    @Moosebreath: one of the Pod Save America guys just joked that if Trump keeps it up they’re going to have to start a conservative weather channel. 🙂

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  19. Anonne says:

    WaPo’s “fact check” on Sanders is a joke. Sanders correctly cited a study, and the study’s author corroborated that. That there is an academic discussion around the issue that perhaps the study is not accurate is not Sanders’ fault, and it’s certainly not worthy of awarding him three pinocchios. Instead Kessler doubled down to smear the study as not being peer-reviewed, when it was. WaPo reporters have even used that same statistic in other articles. It wasn’t fair, it was garbage.

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  20. Gustopher says:

    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.

    There are fair readings of the underlying study that do not demonstrate the claim to be false, so three Pinocchios for you.

    Medical debt significantly contributes to a massive amount of bankruptcy, estimated at 500,000 in the study. The studies with lower figures assert that each bankruptcy can have only one cause, which is patently absurd — two Pinocchio’s for them.

    I actually think there are problems with the higher number study as well, which should create massive error bars, which aren’t being maintained as the results are extrapolated out to the general population. And Sanders is cherry picking his studies.

    But even as cherry picking studies goes, he is picking one that is consistent with the direction of most reputable studies, and is defensible. Contrast that with the people who cherry pick data on climate change, where they go for the things that are not consistent with the reputable studies.

    It is hardly Sanders “lying his ass off” as you claim.

    ——
    I feel dirty defending Sanders.

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  21. Mister Bluster says:

    conservative weather channel.

    What we really need is a Weather Report that relates to both sides of the political spectrum. Call it Purple Rain.

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  22. mattbernius says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    That wasn’t at all true until Trump politicized the weather, and then NOAA and the NWS, last week.

    While this is true, I think the point was that weather channels are daring to discuss the icky facts of climate change which a thin-skinned faith-based denier finds deeply political because it hurts his feel feels.

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  23. James Joyner says:

    @Gustopher:

    But even as cherry picking studies goes, he is picking one that is consistent with the direction of most reputable studies, and is defensible. Contrast that with the people who cherry pick data on climate change, where they go for the things that are not consistent with the reputable studies.

    It is hardly Sanders “lying his ass off” as you claim.

    I think Kessler’s linked debunking of Sanders’ use of the study in question persuasive. But my “lying his ass off” assertion is about the other, wilder, distortion about bailouts. In both instances, I defend Sanders as distorting the evidence in service of larger truths. But it’s nonetheless wildly dishonest and deserves to be called out by fact-checkers.

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  24. John says:

    I think the problem is the Pinocchio scale. Other politicians’ statements should be measured on a scale of zero to one “Trumps”. For example, Bernie’s statement about topic X is one-tenth of a Trump.

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  25. mike shupp says:

    Does this “fact checking” do any good? Are there some number of erstwhile Trump supporters who have actually decided he lies habitually and should not be trusted? Where are they, in terms of numbers, residence, socio-economic class, and community status? Are there former supporters of Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris and Joe Biden who have switched to other Democratic candidates — or even to Donald Trump — because of their problems with facts?

    And how should we handle things when the next Trump-style liar comes along? Maybe we should give up this One-Two-Three-Many Pinocchio system for something quite different. Perhaps instead of reading that FiveThirtyEight or Vox.Com frowns on a candidate’ statements we should be treated to “The President’s Speech as summarized by the BBC and Deutsche Welt” or maybe “Today’s Coverage of the Campaign courtesy of Peoples’ Daily and Diario Panorama.” I think I’d pay a lot more attention to 150 different foreign newspapers registering disagreement with American politicians than 150 anodyne comments from Ezra Klein.

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  26. DrDaveT says:

    Analogy: fact-checking statements is like wine tasting. Wine tasting is a useful way of learning things about the relative quality and character of wines, but it makes some key assumptions. For one, it assumes that everything you’re tasting is actually wine, made from grapes and intended for human consumption.

    There are no descriptive terms or scores available to the taster if the glass actually contains motor oil or drain cleaner, and only a very confused person would try to assign Mobil-1 or Drano a description and a score. Nobody cares how much hint of vanilla or cedar or pencil lead the Drano features, nor should they.

    It’s equally confused to try to assign Trump mouth sounds a truthfulness description or score, for pretty much the same reasons.

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