Press Rogue — May 2, 2019, 3:41 pm

Correct the Record

Last week, President Trump distorted the truth for the ten thousandth time since taking office. That’s according to Glenn Kessler and his fact-checking team at the Washington Post, who have assumed the unenviable responsibility of scrupulously tracking the president’s every false and misleading assertion. In an article announcing the milestone, the Post’s fact-minders wrote that Trump has been averaging twenty-three disreputable claims a day since September, an eye-popping increase from the early months of his tenure, when a typical day saw no more than five fabulations.

The Trump presidency has proved a boom time for fact-checkers. Since 2016, public-facing fact-checking—grounded in the pioneering work done by Kessler, Snopes, and PolitiFact—has mushroomed into the mainstream. Once relegated to anonymous labor at the nation’s finer periodicals, checkers now have their own bylines. In an unfortunate twist, however, this new emphasis on fact-checking highlights the paucity of that accountability work in most typical daily reporting.

Just look at Trump’s appearance last Friday before the NRA. While Kessler and his crew dutifully recorded and refuted twenty-four shady claims, the Post’s primary report about the speech was pegged to the president’s announcement that he was withdrawing the United States from an international arms trafficking agreement. Only through consulting the Post’s fact-checking database would a reader discover that his speech also included assertions that last year’s tax cuts were “the biggest ever” and that Democrats want to “disarm law-abiding Americans.”

The New York Times followed a similar playbook, leading with the treaty withdrawal before briefly summarizing the speech itself: “Mr. Trump touted gains in the economy and railed against a ‘corrupt’ news media. He also disparaged the special counsel investigation into his campaign that he said had been part of a coup attempt carried out at the highest levels of the government.” This absurd claim about being the victim of a failed coup, which PolitiFact deemed a “pants on fire” falsehood, was left to stand on its own. The Times did devote a separate short item to correct the record, but only analyzed five claims, a fifth as many as Kessler’s team.

This habit of calling out a single falsehood and overlooking the rest is most pernicious when it comes to coverage of the president’s signature declarations. In the Post’s lead story about this year’s State of the Union, the only factual pushback came well below the fold when, after mentioning the president’s contention that “the lawless state of our southern border is a threat to the safety, security and financial well-being of all Americans,” the paper informed readers that “some research indicates that undocumented immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than U.S. citizens do.” Meanwhile, Kessler and co offered a laundry list of corrections, methodically working through everything from deceptive data on the nation’s unemployment rate and the number of Americans on food stamps to more outlandish  declarations, such as the notion that had the United States not elected Trump, the nation would now “be in a major war with North Korea.”

For those who merely read the report on the speech, it appeared Trump substantially strayed from the truth just once during those eighty-two minutes. In reality, he made at least twenty-nine misleading statements. The Post’s fact-checkers dissected each claim meticulously, offering a particularly thorough analysis of the border framing their colleagues saw fit to second-guess, pointing out that there are “far more cases of travelers overstaying their visas than southern border apprehensions,” and that most recent immigrants are asylum petitioners, meaning the president’s proposed border wall would do nothing to address the situation he described in such dire terms. Even if an editor would be loath to devote the 259 words the fact-checkers allotted to the subject, surely they could budget a line or two.

In fairness to the Post reporters, calling out the border claim was warranted given that curbing immigration is one of Trump’s core priorities. The Times didn’t do even that. Neither its front-page report nor its news analysis mentioned any of the dozen false and misleading claims that were highlighted in an item that was buried in the print edition; instead, their authors chose to characterize the speech not by its dishonesty but by its “fluctuating tone” which “toggled between conciliation and confrontation.”

Even if reporters assume that readers take Trump’s fast and loose relationship with the truth for granted, neglecting to emphasize his deceitfulness allows for what Kessler and his crew described this week as a growing “tsunami of untruths” to pass by with little notice. I reached out to Kessler to better understand what’s behind this acceleration in false and misleading claims (they avoid the term “lie,” given the near impossibility of confirming the president’s genuine knowledge of the facts), and he pointed to two factors. First is the White House’s move away from regular press briefings and toward appearances on Fox News and impromptu press gaggles. Second is Trump’s propensity to repeat claims he’s made in the past, meaning that the longer his presidency wears on, the deeper his well of dubious talking points gets. “His rallies used to result in 30 or so claims,” Kessler wrote in an email. “[N]ow it’s 60.”

Cataloguing these untruths is a critical responsibility. And in one sense, it’s heartening that fact-checking has become a discrete feature of reporting in the Trump era. But there’s also a danger that when publications cordon off fact-checking from mainline reporting, they’re letting the rest of the newsroom off the hook. For those who go looking for fact-checks, work like Kessler’s provides the truth in exacting detail; for more ambivalent readers, the president’s inaccuracies become invisible.

Shying away from directly refuting a powerful figure is not a new impulse. As the venerable editor David Starr wrote in 1963, “Once upon a time, news stories were like tape recorders…. If the speaker lied, or the document distorted the truth, so be it— even if the reporter knew better.” It’s a mark of progress that such a stenographic approach to journalism seems ludicrous today. Still, the pursuit of objectivity that led to the behavior Starr describes remains a strong motivation for many contemporary reporters, and fear of appearing biased surely bears some responsibility for the compulsion to treat fact-gathering and fact-checking as independent processes.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Papers like the Post and the Times could integrate fact-checking into daily reporting by doing something as simple as stressing the number of deceptive statements uttered in a speech, or better yet plucking out three or four whoppers relevant to the story’s news peg and elaborating on them. The pace and persistence of Trump’s misdirection precludes a thorough airing of each individual fib or exaggeration in every article. Nevertheless, it’s crucial that all coverage interrogate the president’s relentlessness dishonesty. Trump’s lying has not abated since his elevation to the Oval Office. It’s gotten worse. The press can’t allow that trend to slip by unnoticed. 

Share
Single Page

More from Kyle Paoletta:

Press Rogue May 16, 2019, 4:00 pm

Playing With Fire

Press Rogue May 9, 2019, 4:00 pm

Boys on the Bus

Press Rogue April 25, 2019, 2:00 pm

Too Big to Cover

Get access to 169 years of
Harper’s for only $23.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2019

Downstream

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Stonewall at Fifty

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Maid’s Story

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Is Poverty Necessary?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Is Poverty Necessary?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

In 1989 I published a book about a plutonium-producing nuclear complex in En­gland, on the coast of the Irish Sea. The plant is called Sellafield now. In 1957, when it was the site of the most serious nuclear accident then known to have occurred, the plant was called Windscale. While working on the book, I learned from reports in the British press that in the course of normal functioning it released significant quantities of waste—plutonium and other transuranic elements—into the environment and the adjacent sea. There were reports of high cancer rates. The plant had always been wholly owned by the British government. I believe at some point the government bought it from itself. Privatization was very well thought of at the time, and no buyer could be found for this vast monument to dinosaur modernism.

Back then, I shared the American assumption that such things were dealt with responsibly, or at least rationally, at least in the West outside the United States. Windscale/Sellafield is by no means the anomaly I thought it was then. But the fact that a government entrusted with the well-being of a crowded island would visit this endless, silent disaster on its own people was striking to me, and I spent almost a decade trying to understand it. I learned immediately that the motives were economic. What of all this noxious efflux they did not spill they sold into a global market.

Article
Stonewall at Fifty·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Early in the morning on June 28, 1969, New York police raided the Stonewall Inn at 53 Christopher Street, the city’s most popular gay bar. The police had raided Stonewall frequently since its opening two years before, but the local precinct usually tipped off the management and arrived in the early evening. This time they came unannounced, during peak hours. They swept through the bar, checking I.D.s and arresting anyone wearing attire that was not “appropriate to one’s gender,” carrying out the law of the time. Eyewitness accounts differ on what turned the unruly scene explosive. Whatever the inciting event, patrons and a growing crowd on the street began throwing coins, bottles, and bricks at the police, who were forced to retreat into the bar and call in the riot squad.

Post
The Wrong Side of History·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Left to the tender mercies of the state, a group of veterans and their families continue to reside in a shut-down town

Article
Downstream·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The squat warehouse at Miami’s 5th Street Terminal was nearly obscured by merchandise: used car engines; tangles of coat hangers; bicycles bound together with cellophane; stacks of wheelbarrows; cases of Powerade and bottled water; a bag of sprouting onions atop a secondhand Whirlpool refrigerator; and, above all, mattresses—shrink-wrapped and bare, spotless and streaked with dust, heaped in every corner of the lot—twins, queens, kings. All this and more was bound for Port-de-Paix, a remote city in northwestern Haiti.

When I first arrived at the warehouse on a sunny morning last May, a dozen pickup trucks and U-Hauls were waiting outside, piled high with used furniture. Nearby, rows of vehicles awaiting export were crammed together along a dirt strip separating the street from the shipyard, where a stately blue cargo vessel was being loaded with goods.

Article
What it Means to Be Alive·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

My father decided that he would end his life by throwing himself from the top of the parking garage at the Nashville airport, which he later told me had seemed like the best combination of convenience—that is, he could get there easily and unnoticed—and sufficiency—that is, he was pretty sure it was tall enough to do the job. I never asked him which other venues he considered and rejected before settling on this plan. He probably did not actually use the word “best.” It was Mother’s Day, 2013.

Cost of renting a giant panda from the Chinese government, per day:

$1,500

A recent earthquake in Chile was found to have shifted the city of Concepción ten feet to the west, shortened Earth’s days by 1.26 microseconds, and shifted the planet’s axis by nearly three inches.

Gene Simmons of the band Kiss addressed Department of Defense personnel in the Pentagon Briefing Room.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Happiness Is a Worn Gun

By

“Nowadays, most states let just about anybody who wants a concealed-handgun permit have one; in seventeen states, you don’t even have to be a resident. Nobody knows exactly how many Americans carry guns, because not all states release their numbers, and even if they did, not all permit holders carry all the time. But it’s safe to assume that as many as 6 million Americans are walking around with firearms under their clothes.”

Subscribe Today