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 23, 2019, 2:59 pm

One Horse Town

Press Rogue May 16, 2019, 4:00 pm

Playing With Fire

Press Rogue May 9, 2019, 4:00 pm

Boys on the Bus

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

December 2019

Gimme Shelter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Body Language

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Trash, Rock, Destroy

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Make Way for Tomorrow

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Red Dot

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Gimme Shelter·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I.

That year, the year of the Ghost Ship fire, I lived in a shack. I’d found the place just as September’s Indian summer was giving way to a wet October. There was no plumbing or running water to wash my hands or brush my teeth before sleep. Electricity came from an extension cord that snaked through a yard of coyote mint and monkey flower and up into a hole I’d drilled in my floorboards. The structure was smaller than a cell at San Quentin—a tiny house or a huge coffin, depending on how you looked at it—four by eight and ten feet tall, so cramped it fit little but a mattress, my suit jackets and ties, a space heater, some novels, and the mason jar I peed in.

The exterior of my hermitage was washed the color of runny egg yolk. Two redwood French doors with plexiglass windows hung cockeyed from creaky hinges at the entrance, and a combination lock provided meager security against intruders. White beadboard capped the roof, its brim shading a front porch set on cinder blocks.

After living on the East Coast for eight years, I’d recently left New York City to take a job at an investigative reporting magazine in San Francisco. If it seems odd that I was a fully employed editor who lived in a thirty-two-square-foot shack, that’s precisely the point: my situation was evidence of how distorted the Bay Area housing market had become, the brutality inflicted upon the poor now trickling up to everyone but the super-rich. The problem was nationwide, although, as Californians tend to do, they’d taken this trend to an extreme. Across the state, a quarter of all apartment dwellers spent half of their incomes on rent. Nearly half of the country’s unsheltered homeless population lived in California, even while the state had the highest concentration of billionaires in the nation. In the Bay Area, including West Oakland, where my shack was located, the crisis was most acute. Tent cities had sprung up along the sidewalks, swarming with capitalism’s refugees. Telegraph, Mission, Market, Grant: every bridge and overpass had become someone’s roof.

Article
Body Language·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

I am eight years old, sitting in my childhood kitchen, ready to watch one of the home videos my father has made. The videotape still exists somewhere, so somewhere she still is, that girl on the screen: hair that tangles, freckles across her nose that in time will spread across one side of her forehead. A body that can throw a baseball the way her father has shown her. A body in which bones and hormones lie in wait, ready to bloom into the wide hips her mother has given her. A body that has scars: the scars over her lungs and heart from the scalpel that saved her when she was a baby, the invisible scars left by a man who touched her when she was young. A body is a record or a body is freedom or a body is a battleground. Already, at eight, she knows it to be all three.

But somebody has slipped. The school is putting on the musical South Pacific, and there are not enough roles for the girls, and she is as tall as or taller than the boys, and so they have done what is unthinkable in this striving 1980s town, in this place where the men do the driving and the women make their mouths into perfect Os to apply lipstick in the rearview. For the musical, they have made her a boy.

No, she thinks. They have allowed her to be a boy.

Article
Trash, Rock, Destroy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The writer and filmmaker Virginie Despentes lives in a nondescript modern building in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. I know it well: it has a Bricorama—like a French Home Depot—on the ground floor, where we sometimes had cause to shop back when we lived in the neighborhood. The people who work there seemed to hate their jobs more than most; they were often absent from the sales floor. In the elevator to Despentes’s apartment, I marvel that while I was trying to get someone to help me find bathroom grout she was right upstairs, with her partner, Tania, a Spanish tattoo artist who goes by the name La Rata, like someone out of one of Despentes’s novels.

In an email before our meeting, Despentes asked that we not do a photo shoot. “There are so many images available already,” she explained. Much had been written about her, too. A Google search yielded page after page: profiles, interviews, reviews, bits and bobs—she read from Pasolini at a concert with Béatrice Dalle; someone accused her of plagiarizing a translation; a teacher in Switzerland was fired for teaching her work. The week I met her, she appeared in the culture magazine Les Inrockuptibles in conversation with the rapper-turned-actor JoeyStarr. The woman is simply always in the news.

Article
Burning Down the House·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Discussed in this essay:

Plagued by Fire: The Dreams and Furies of Frank Lloyd Wright, by Paul Hendrickson. Knopf. 624 pages. $35.

Frank Lloyd Wright isn’t just the greatest of all American architects. He has so eclipsed the competition that he can sometimes seem the only one. Who are his potential rivals? Henry Hobson Richardson, that Gilded Age starchitect in monumental stone? Louis Sullivan, lyric poet of the office building and Wright’s own Chicago mentor, best known for his dictum that form follows function? “Yes,” Wright corrected him with typical one-upmanship, “but more important now, form and function are one.” For architects with the misfortune to follow him, Wright is seen as having created the standards by which they are judged. If we know the name Frank Gehry, it’s probably because he designed the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, in 1997. And Gehry’s deconstructed ship of titanium and glass would be unimaginable if Wright hadn’t built his own astonishing Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue some forty years earlier.

Article
The Red Dot·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

That night at the window, looking out at the street full of snow, big flakes falling through the streetlight, I listened to what Anna was saying. She was speaking of a man named Karl. We both knew him as a casual acquaintance—thin and lanky like Ichabod Crane, with long hair—operating a restaurant down in the village whimsically called the Gist Mill, with wood paneling, a large painting of an old gristmill on a river on one wall, tin ceilings, and a row of teller cages from its previous life as a bank. Karl used to run along the river, starting at his apartment in town and turning back about two miles down the path. He had been going through the divorce—this was a couple of years ago, of course, Anna said—and was trying to run through his pain.

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.

Sebastian Gorka, the former deputy assistant to the president who now hosts a radio show called America First, was banned from YouTube for repeatedly uploading audio from the rock band Imagine Dragons without copyright permission.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Jesus Plus Nothing

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

By

At Ivanwald, men learn to be leaders by loving their leaders. “They’re so busy loving us,” a brother once explained to me, “but who’s loving them?” We were. The brothers each paid $400 per month for room and board, but we were also the caretakers of The Cedars, cleaning its gutters, mowing its lawns, whacking weeds and blowing leaves and sanding. And we were called to serve on Tuesday mornings, when The Cedars hosted a regular prayer breakfast typically presided over by Ed Meese, the former attorney general. Each week the breakfast brought together a rotating group of ambassadors, businessmen, and American politicians. Three of Ivanwald’s brothers also attended, wearing crisp shirts starched just for the occasion; one would sit at the table while the other two poured coffee. 

Subscribe Today