In the long-running war between the media and Donald Trump’s marvelous talent at fabrication, the media finally scored a point. Yesterday, Trump doubled down on the preposterous claim he made earlier this week, that Ted Cruz’s father was seen with Lee Harvey Oswald several months before JFK’s assassination–a claim that originated in a National Enquirer cover story last month.
“It was a major story in a major publication,” Trump told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, on Good Morning America. “You can’t knock the National Enquirer.”
Oh, but you can. Cruz and his father both denied any association with Oswald, and Politifact gave it a “pants on fire” rating, the lowest possible designation on the falsity scale. In a less common form of fact-checking, Jake Tapper at CNN took a full two minutes on his show The Lead to debunk Trump’s claim, which he called “bizarre, and completely uncorroborated.”
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) May 3, 2016
Tapper was hailed for his display of forceful truth telling, with media critic Jay Rosen calling it “one of the highlights of the campaign” on Twitter. But the praise directed at Tapper for essentially doing his job is a function of the media’s failure, particularly on TV, to call out Trump’s lies. Now that Trump is the presumptive Republican nominee, that has to change.
It’s true that Trump’s consistent lying is tough to combat because he is not deterred by facts. He continues to repeat statements even when confronted with evidence to the contrary, and he seems impervious to the brutal ratings lobbed at him by fact-checkers. On Politifact, Trump has a 3 percent “true” rating, and a 9 percent “mostly true” rating, for a grand total of 12 percent of claims that are more true than untrue.
Most politicians change their tune when called out, says Glenn Kessler, a fact-checker at The Washington Post, but not Trump. “Trump is unusual–unprecedented–in that no matter how often it is determined that what he is saying is false, he doesn’t stop saying it.”
Trump’s long-running lies are actually an opportunity. Real-time fact-checking is tough, but with Trump, that’s not the issue. “He is repeating old claims that have been found false,” says Kessler, so there’s no excuse for TV hosts not to be prepared. “These TV hosts should not be letting him get away with that.”
But they are. One prime example, highlighted this week by BuzzFeed Editor in Chief Ben Smith, is Trump’s assertion that he was against the war in Iraq before it started. He has repeated this claim often and confidently. “I said, Don’t go into Iraq,” Trump told Melissa Harris-Perry, in one of many such statements. “I said it loud and clear.” He has even claimed that Bush sent people to stop him from opposing the war so vocally. At his foreign policy speech in DC last week, Trump said he was “totally against the war in Iraq, very proudly, saying for many years that it would destabilize the Middle East.”
This is patently false. “Completely bogus,” says Kessler. “It has been fact-checked up the wazoo.” No evidence has been found that he vocally opposed the war and one key piece of evidence proves that he supported it. BuzzFeed’s researchers found an audio recording from 2002 in which Trump is asked if he supports the war. “Yeah, I guess so,” Trump says, and adds that he wishes George H.W. Bush had done it right the first time.
But you wouldn’t know that from watching TV.
While some print publications have allowed Trump to slide on this issue, notably a Maureen Dowd column in The New York Times, TV is the greater culprit. Andrew Kaczynski, also of BuzzFeed, tweeted a list of 12 TV segments in which Trump goes unchallenged on his position about Iraq. Not on the list are the two most recent cases, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe yesterday morning, and NBC’s Nightly News last night. On Morning Joe, Trump said about Iraq, “I didn’t want to do it. As a civilian I was totally against it.” The hosts, who hadn’t specifically asked Trump about Iraq and could barely get a word in edgewise, quickly continued to the next question.
Not only did host Joe Scarborough not challenge Trump, he defended him a short while later while talking to the show’s guest, Sam Stein, a political reporter at The Huffington Post. Trump “said the week the war started that it was going to be a mess,” Scarborough told Stein. “I mean, he certainly said that ahead of Hillary Clinton.”
When Stein reiterated that Trump claims to have been a vocal opponent before the war started, the MSNBC host responded that voters don’t care about candidates’ past positions. “They don’t care about your past. They care about their future.”
That’s a pretty wild statement to make about voters, and about viewers. Trump’s positioning himself as dovish (or as Dowd described it, “a mix of dove, hawk, and isolationist”) is incredibly significant, and would be even if it were true. It’s a cornerstone of his foreign policy position, and it differentiates him from Hillary Clinton, whose support for the war is a stain on her record and might have cost her the nomination in 2008. “We’re a humanitarian nation,” Trump said in DC. “But the legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion, and disarray, a mess.”
In his piece, BuzzFeed’s Smith called out a list of media organizations who have “allowed a flat lie about the most important American policy decision in decades [to] ooze its way into fact.”
TV’s failure to challenge Trump on this and many other issues is compounded by the fact that they’re dining off the Trump outrage cycle. A FiveThirtyEight analysis found that between December 22 and March 30, Trump led the news more than half the time, but that no story trended for longer than two days. While much of the coverage is newsworthy, plenty more is ratings fodder.
Both Kessler and Kaczynski called it frustrating to watch the truth being mangled in segment after segment. “The Washington Post fact-checker doesn’t have the audience that Anderson Cooper has at a Town Hall watched by a million people,” says Kaczynski, so even while the fact-checkers are studiously collecting damning evidence, millions of viewers are being fed unfiltered lies.
So far Trump has returned from all attempts to catch him in a lie with even more preposterous lies. But at this point, it’s not about catching Trump, or changing him, it’s about giving audiences what they’ve been promised: the truth.