Fact-checking is a noble endeavor, and its adoption throughout the news industry over the last 15 years has had huge practical and symbolic value.
But as it’s currently carried out at the national level, it feels a bit quaint. Case in point: Donald Trump literally laughs it off.
Political journalism needs to find a better solution to the aggressive, partisan spreading of misinformation and disinformation – and soon – or coverage of the 2020 election could fail as miserably as it did in 2016.
There are at least five fundamental ways in which fact-checking as an independent proposition has always been problematic:
- From the beginning, the various fact-checking entities have been intent on proving their nonpartisan bona fides, which in the news business typically means being equally tough on both sides. But the two parties do not engage in falsehoods equally. The Republican Party, well before Trump, abandoned forthright arguments in favor of dog-whistles and disinformation. The end result of striving for balance is often absurd. This is a canonical example; this is a recent one.
- Fact-checking tends to focus on narrow statements, and particularly ones that involve numbers, because they are the easiest to convincingly debunk. But everyone gets little things wrong once in a while. It’s the context, the frequency and the motive that establish how serious a problem that is.
- Fact-checkers engage in laughably gutless euphemisms and gimmickry (“Pinocchios,” and “Pants on Fire”) while traditionally avoiding the term “lie”.
- The people who most need to be exposed to fact-checking are the least likely to see or hear them – and the least likely to believe them.
- And because fact-checking was established as distinct from the ordinary news-reporting process, a core competency has been relegated to the sidelines.
In the Trump era (although it’s not just Trump) the pace of the lying has become overwhelming, and the consequences of lying have become effectively nil. “It’s as if President Trump has hit the journalism industry with a denial-of-service attack,” New York Times media writer Jim Rutenberg wrote in October 2018.
Fact-checking is now a distraction:
- The asymmetry in lying is now arguably the biggest political story there is, not the stuff of occasional assessments and sidebars. It poses a serious danger to the proper functioning of our democracy and is an affront to core journalistic values.
- There are so many lies every day that even the most superhuman of fact-checkers (yes, Daniel Dale, I’m looking at you) can’t keep up. As of October 14, 2019, the Washington Post database contains 13,435 “false or misleading claims,” and this actually understates the scope of the problem.
- The repetition of lies has emerged as a powerful force in our politics. Simple truth-telling isn’t enough anymore. The lies must be rebutted as often as they are uttered – ideally by reporting the truth first.
- Trump is going beyond telling lies. He is effectively trying to gaslight susceptible voters: make them doubt the reality of what they hear from anyone but him. Journalists have not found an effective response.
- There are insufficient consequences for lying. Journalists are not actively confronting Trump and others with their lies at every opportunity. They are not denying liars opportunities to use the media – particularly live media — to spread lies. They are not caveating every statement known liars make – not just the provably false ones – with the fact that they lie all the time. They are still treating as presumptively believable what the liars tell them.
We All Know What’s Going On
There’s really no argument in the reality-based media that spreading hate-filled, racist, conspiracy-theory-laden disinformation is central to Trump’s presidency and reelection hopes.
Reporters covering Trump not only know he lies all the time, they know how unhinged he is. And once in a while they say so.
Washington Post reporter Ashley Parker addressed Trump’s “alternate reality” dead-on in October 2019 — but only in an article relegated to the special format labeled “The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights.”
Trump’s South Lawn session on October 4 “again laid bare the incongruity between actual facts and what the president espouses,” Parker wrote. It was good stuff:
“I feel there was in the 2016 campaign — there was tremendous corruption against me,” said Trump, transforming himself — a man who has now publicly asked no fewer than three foreign countries (Russia, Ukraine and China) to look into his political opponents — into the victim of corrupt behavior….
“I was investigated, I was investigated, okay?” he said, before pointing at himself — two rapid-fire taps to his right breast — and adding: “Me! Me!”…
Finally, he began wrapping up: “I was investigated. I was investigated. And they think it could have been by U.K. They think it could have been by Australia. They think it could have been by Italy. So when you get down to it, I was investigated by the Obama administration.”
Parker even put his crazy talk in its historical context:
The president has long been comfortable with conspiracy theories. His political rise was abetted by the racist lie of birtherism — the false claim that Obama was not born in the United States. But ever since special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia probe, and now amid the throes of an impeachment inquiry, Trump seems to have moved into a split-screen reality — one in which he is the hero who has, as he tweeted Thursday, the “absolute right” to do just about anything he pleases.
But the Post’s front-page story that same morning, in dramatic contrast, was a model of decorum, respectfully reporting that Trump acknowledged that the House has the votes to impeach him but asserted that the Senate will exonerate him.
Daniel Dale, who turned fact-checking Trump from a hobby into a franchise, recently wrote for CNN about a major tell:
I’ve fact-checked every word Trump has uttered since his inauguration. I can tell you that if this President relays an anecdote in which he has someone referring to him as “sir,” then some major component of the anecdote is very likely to be wrong.
Lots of people do call Trump “sir,” of course. But the word seems to pop into his head more frequently when he is inventing or exaggerating a conversation than when he is faithfully relaying one. A “sir” is a flashing red light that he is speaking from his imagination rather than his memory.
But his colleagues in the press corps — including at CNN — overlook those comments.
New York Times fact-checker Linda Qiu wrote in late 2018 about how the Times could now “draw some conclusions not just about the scale of the president’s mendacity, but also about how he uses inaccurate claims to advance his agenda, criticize the news media and celebrate his achievements.” Among them:
Mr. Trump does not rely on repetition alone. He also embellishes talking points to amplify his achievements.
Take his repeated fabrication about the construction of new steel mills. After his administration announced tariffs on steel and aluminum imports in March, the president claimed in June that United States Steel was “opening six new plants.” A month later, the number rose to seven. He has also occasionally cited eight, possibly nine or a vague “many plants,” and he claimed once that plants were “opening up literally on a daily basis.” To date, United States Steel has yet to open or build one new plant, though the company has restarted idled components of some plants.
But read a typical Times story from the White House and it doesn’t mention that he is a repeat fabricator. It relates what Trump says more or less on face value, possibly with a response from “critics” a few paragraphs down.
The Job Has Changed
As bad as things have gotten in the past in this country, there has never been a president — or, let’s face it, an entire major political party — so invested in lying, in using propaganda, in spreading conspiracy theories, as we have now in Trump and the Republican Party.
The Post’s Fact Checker is an artifact from a time when individual lies stood out, when we basically trusted the discourse as a whole—a time when we were confident that falsehoods, once sniffed out and corrected, would disappear from our shared narrative. Lies are no longer errors, however, they are the story.
Just flat out wrong. https://t.co/agVaDl6Il4 Used to be when presidents were forcefully fact checked, they would alter the claim or stop making it. "Checking" a man who intensifies his falsehoods so as to maximize polarization and turn the press into a hate object— different job. pic.twitter.com/EkO4Rtb71j
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) September 12, 2019
So what is that different job?
Margaret Sullivan (@sulliview), the former New York Times public editor who now writes about the media for the Washington Post, declared in May 2019 that news organizations “have to bring some new tools and techniques — and maybe a new attitude — to the project.” One of her suggestions:
First off, they should stop using euphemisms, such as the New York Times did the other day when on Twitter it described one particularly brutal falsehood by Trump — that doctors and mothers collaborate to execute newborns — as a case of the president reviving “an inaccurate refrain.”
And she endorsed a suggestion from Dale that reporters should “challenge the president more directly and more often on false statements.”
One way fact-checking groups could evolve is becoming considerably more activist in fighting misinformation and disinformation. Three independent fact-checking groups abroad — Africa Check, Chequeado, and Full Fact – recently explained how they do that. In a manifesto of sorts, they admitted:
The idea that fact checking can work by correcting the public’s inaccurate beliefs on a mass scale alone doesn’t stack up. Nobody should be surprised when, despite fact checkers publishing lots of fact checks, people still believe inaccurate things and politicians still spin and distort. Fact checking can work but not if this is all we do.
Part of the problem, they wrote, is that not enough people are reading their work (in particular, not enough of the people who need to read them.) “Second generation fact checkers,” they wrote, “move from just publishing to ‘publish and act’.”
These independent groups – which have more freedom than fact-checking desks within newsrooms – “seek corrections on the record, pressure people not to make the same mistake again, complain where possible to a standards body. In other words, we use whatever forms of moral, public, or where appropriate regulatory pressure are available to stop the spread of specific bits of misinformation.”
But American media fact-checkers don’t need to lobby or issue demands to become more activist. They just need to do better journalism — by assessing overall credibility, rather than individual nitpicks.
Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College who focuses on misperception, explained the problem to the New York Times in 2017:
“We know politicians are risk averse. They try to minimize negative coverage, and that negative coverage could damage their image over time,” Mr. Nyhan said. “But the reputational consequences of making false claims aren’t strong enough. They’re not sufficiently strong to dissuade people from misleading the public.”
In a new research study, however, Nyhan found that unlike individual fact checks, summaries that paint a comprehensive picture of a politician’s accuracy may impose those much-desired reputational costs on politicians who repeatedly make false claims.
Back in 2008, I interviewed two neuroscientists who had some fascinating suggestions. Among them:
- State the facts without reinforcing the falsehood.
- Tell the truth with images.
- Provide a compelling storyline or mental framework for the truth. Effective debunking requires replacing the falsehood with positive content.
- Discredit the source. The motives of the purveyors of falsehoods can provide a powerful story hook.
Credibility Can Be Assessed in Many Ways
Not only should political journalists write major stories about lies and lying, but they should also help the public understand which political candidates or leaders are basically trustworthy and which aren’t. And lying isn’t the only indicator.
One way of looking at the issue that I realized is particularly revelatory when I was covering George W. Bush – and which would be legitimately devastating for Trump – is to look at how the person deals with dissent. Do they hide from it and misrepresent it? Or do they acknowledge it and address it honestly?
Specifically, I would look at:
- Is the person exposed to dissenting views – either in public or private?
- Do they encourage dissenting views?
- How hard does staff keep dissenters away?
- Are they ever willing to try to make their case in front of people who don’t already agree with them?
- Do they engage with dissenters? If so, do they do so respectfully?
- Do they publicly respond to dissenting arguments?
And most importantly:
- When they talk about dissenters or dissenting arguments, do they describe them accurately (and then make their counterargument)? Or do they engage in hyperbole and use straw men?
Another way could be to openly address how willing a candidate is to answer a direct question. Rather than quoting rambling responses that duck the question, reporters could simply tell readers and viewers that the person didn’t answer it.
Fighting the Gaslighting
In a marvelous Twitter thread in July 2019, Rosen noted that Trump sometimes makes news just to sow confusion about the news he made the day before. Rosen urged newsrooms to find new ways to address that:
People knew what the Spotlight team was for at Boston Globe, and sent things to it. They will learn what the Gaslight Desk is for and refer things to it. Imagine editors telling front line reporting teams not to bother with Trump’s latest because Gaslight would be handling.
Public recognition that Trump is engaged in gaslighting – trying to make people doubt reality – was greatly advanced in July 2018, when Trump told a VFW convention: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.”
What’s really amazing is the highlight reels (like this one from MSNBC) with clips of Trump saying something – and then denying he ever said it.
Stephanie Sarkis, a therapist in clinical practice, wrote for USA Today in October 2019 that “Donald Trump’s gaslighting has led the country into a spiral of doubt, anger and despair”:
This is classic gaslighting technique — telling victims that others are crazy and lying, and that the gaslighter is the only source for “true” information. It makes victims question their reality, becoming even more dependent on the gaslighter for “truth.”
Washington Post opinion columnist Eugene Robinson called Trump out over his insistence that he did nothing wrong in his Ukraine phone call:
Trump is trying to gaslight Americans by claiming, over and over again, that the smoking-gun evidence against him was actually a “perfect” phone call. He said it 12 times in brief Oval Office remarks Wednesday as Finnish President Sauli Niinisto quietly looked on, and four more times at their joint news conference that poor Niinisto had to endure as Trump went off the rails. He has said it repeatedly on Twitter, often in ALL CAPS. Since the rough transcript of the call was released last week, he has said it virtually whenever he has been within yelling distance of a microphone….
He understands that repetition is one of the keys to making people believe something that is patently untrue. That’s what he does with the derisive nicknames he gives to those he sees as standing in his way. He did it with “Crooked Hillary” Clinton, despite the complete absence of evidence that she had committed any crime. He does it with the “fake news” label he stamps on any story he doesn’t like. By saying something over and over, he implants the message.
As usual, the search for wisdom over how to respond to lunacy from the White House leads directly to … political cartoonists and late-night comedians.
Ruben Bolling did a “Tom the Dancing Bug” cartoon about “Donald Trump in Gaslight” in October 2018. (The term arises from the movie of the same name.)
— Tom the Dancing Bug (@RubenBolling) October 24, 2018
And Stephen Colbert has essentially made fighting Trump’s gas-lighting a central theme of Late Night.
— The Late Show (@colbertlateshow) August 16, 2019
He told the story of how that came about in an August 2018 Rolling Stone interview:
I remember it was at Christmas of 2016, I was talking to Jay Katsir, one of my writers, and I said, “Oh, [Trump’s] left us a very interesting place to stand: reality.” All we have to do is go, no, that’s not true or that’s not a fact, this is a fact. Here’s what we all know to be true, and here’s the insanity they’d like us to accept. And the jokes are all in the arc between those. Like, y’know, what people say and what they do — satirical jokes are often in the arc of that hypocrisy….
The thing is that you’re not crazy. We’re serving the audience in a way, while [Trump’s] gaslighting the audience. As a Catholic, I was taught that the worst thing was heresy because not only are you sinning, you’re also dragging somebody else into your sinful state. Well, Donald Trump is a heretic against reality; he lives in this fantasy world where only his emotions count and therefore only his reality is real. But he’s also saying, “Everybody else, your reality isn’t real.” And so all you have to do is go, like, “Hey, you’re not crazy.” That’s the thesis statement. Your reactions, your emotions are valid — you actually feel that way. The world is as you perceive it. Don’t let anybody say you’re crazy. This is not what America is meant to be about.
You're not crazy, no matter what Donald Trump says. https://t.co/vN5mwJDX3v
— Stephen Colbert (@StephenAtHome) July 25, 2018
“I’m so happy to be with you, you not crazy people,” Stephen Colbert said in his Late Show monologue Tuesday night. “Because you’ve got to remember that you’re not crazy, no matter what Donald Trump says.
But They’re Still in Denial
The fault in mainstream journalism’s inability to counter misinformation and disinformation lies with top editors more than the fact-checkers themselves. It’s those editors who should be integrating an assessment of Trump’s (and others’) credibility into every story they publish. They should be constantly rebutting lies.
But the fact-checkers also don’t get it.
Michael Calderone reported for Politico in September 2019 about the controversy surrounding the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarding “three Pinocchios” to a Bernie Sanders statement that was largely true, a classic example of fact-checkers trying way too hard to find balance between the two parties.
But Calderon also noted:
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.
Longtime Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler acknowledged in December 2018 that “Trump’s willingness to constantly repeat false claims has posed a unique challenge to fact-checkers.” He explained:
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.
But in an underwhelming response to this reality, Kessler indicated he would continue on as usual with one exception:
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.
As of early August, Kessler had identified 23 – all belonging to Trump. But he doesn’t mention it in the constant stream of individual fact-checks.
And his colleagues don’t mention it when the quote Trump lying.