Fact-Checkers or Feelings-Checkers?
Not even Trump’s most ardent supporters make the case that Trump doesn’t have a tendency to exaggerate and make false claims. (Or as he puts it, “truthful hyperbole.”) That being said, the American people have been bombarded with a new, unbridled form of arrogance that has been unleashed in a vain effort to destroy him. Of course, I am referring to the self-anointed “fact-checkers.”
One article from the Huffington Post back during the election drew my attention to this new scourge. It claimed “Donald Trump Made Up Stuff 71 Times In An hour.” Here are a few examples,
“1. Claim: “[Ted Cruz]’s home state is Texas. It may be Canada.”
“Reality: Canada is not a state and Ted Cruz, while born there, calls Texas home.”
Fact checking a joke. Good start.
“5. Claim: “I’m a loyal person.” — Trump on his decision to stand by Lewandowski.
“Reality: Trump is famous for the phrase, ‘You’re fired.’ His marital history also conflicts with this statement.”
Trump’s subjective claim is obviously false. The only acceptable answer, obviously, would have been “I am literally Hitler.”
“12. Claim: ‘I see Hillary with Benghazi, you know the famous ad, three in the morning, guess what, the phone rang, she wasn’t there.’
“Reality: An email did surface showing that Clinton missed a briefing because she was sleeping. It was not a phone call. And it was at 10:43 a.m., with Clinton likely overseas.”
The Huffington Post then went on to claim Trump was lying when he said a particular deal “cost me an arm and a leg” because he still has both of his arms and both of his legs.
Indeed, nitpicking seems to be par for the course with fact checkers. The Washington Post has a page devoted to fact-checking everything that comes out of Trump’s mouth (or Twitter feed) and has meticulously documented his 8,158 “false or misleading claims” while in office as of this writing. The most recent is when Trump claimed “With China, every year, for many years, we're losing $375 billion...” But oh no Mr. President, the Washington Post is here to set you straight, “The U.S. trade deficit in goods and services in 2017 with China was $335 billion. Trump often just cites the goods deficit, which was $375 billion.”
Thanks for clearing that up, WaPo!
The best, most perfect example of this sort of hypersensitive “analysis” was put on display after the second presidential debate by NBC News. In a fact-check that will echo through eternity, they corrected the president-to-be on his blatant mischaracterization of the facts:
Trump says Clinton ‘acid washed’ her email server.
Clinton’s team used an app called BleachBit; she did not use a corrosive chemical.
There are simply not enough laughing emojis in the universe to properly respond to this.
Then there’s fact-checking subjective statements. After Trump’s national address on immigration and his calls for a border wall, TV pundits and news outlets howled that fact-checkers, like this one, ruled that the border really isn’t in crisis like Trump says.
Then there’s the overgeneralizing. CNN’s John King “fact checked” Trump’s national address saying “The president says that a wall will stop the drugs... Most of the drugs, his own government says, come in through legal points of entry… A wall will not block the legal points of entry.” No one, including Trump, has ever claimed that all drugs come across the southern border or that a wall would by itself fix the problem. Trump just claims the wall will fix one part of the problem.
I guess that’s better than when CNN “fact-checked” Sean Spicer’s joke about Russian salad dressing, at least.
The king of fact-checking however, is of course, PolitiFact. PolitiFact claims to be unbiased despite being owned by The Tampa Bay Times, which, in its own words has “...never recommended a Republican for governor or U.S. president…”
I couldn’t find a listing of the party affiliations of its staff, but I did find one for PolitiFact Ohio. The analysis found that of the 15 writers on staff, 12 were registered Democrats and only three were Republicans. Of the three Republicans, one hadn’t contributed a single ruling, and another hadn’t contributed anything since 2011.
This is particularly problematic on the national level. As Politico pointed out in a very important piece on the “media bubble,”
“…Nobody has produced a better argument for how the national media missed the Trump story than FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, who pointed out that the ideological clustering in top newsrooms led to groupthink. ‘As of 2013, only 7 percent of [journalists] identified as Republicans.’”
Further, the article notes that, “As newspapers have dwindled, internet publishers have added employees at a bracing clip” and these internet publishers are “concentrated heavily along the coast… If you’re a working journalist, odds aren’t just that you work in a pro-Clinton county -- odds are that you reside in one of the nation’s most pro-Clinton counties.”
The so-called “Big Sort” has put vastly more Democrats than Republicans into the media capitals of the United States. And it’s hard to believe this hasn’t affected fact checking any less than it has affected the media overall.
This should make it easier to understand why, for example, Rand Paul’s comment that “the average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year” was rated as false. Yes, Louis Jacobson’s “ruling” noted that “his numbers are roughly correct [emphasis added] for the total of salary and benefits, but not for salary alone.” Also, the jobs aren’t the same, even though Paul didn’t imply they were. So yes, Paul was correct, but Louis Jacobson didn’t feel like he was correct.
And if you’d like to see countless more examples of this kind of thing, just meander over to PolitiFactBias.com.
Thus, it shouldn’t be surprising when a study by the George Mason University Center for Media and Public Affairs found that statements made by Republicans were labeled “False” or “Pants on Fire” three times more often than Democrats. This despite what Peter Schweizer found by analyzing numerous attitude surveys, that “Liberals are more likely to say that’s it’s OK to be dishonest or deceptive, cheat on taxes, keep money that doesn’t belong to them, and sell a used car with a faulty transmission to a family member.”
Whether those surveys are accurately representative and whether those opinions relate to actual actions and whether the actions of registered Democrats and Republicans relate to those of elected Democrats and Republicans is, of course, a matter for debate. But isn’t that the problem?
Breitbart, for example, has its own fact-checking and it shouldn’t be a shock to learn that Breitbart has found that it’s the Republicans who are usually the ones telling the truth. Checking simple facts, like what is the budget of the State Department, is one thing that could certainly be useful. But the types of debatable, subjective, and often colloquial statements that are routinely fact-checked these days are better left to the opinion columnists and talking heads to debate over. There’s just too much noise and nuance to say something is simply “true” or “false.”
Unfortunately, somewhere along the line the mainstream press decided that poorly paid, urban, hipster interns struggling into the late hours of the night to meet their quota of fact-checks to satiate the demands of their corporate overlords in order to pay for their overpriced, 400 square foot, studio apartments in Midtown Manhattan are the be-all, end-all arbiters of truth in our society.
I for one recommend looking elsewhere.