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. 

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