CNN public editor: Daniel Dale’s fact-checking mission checks out

Screenshot via CNN.

In June, CNN hired Daniel Dale, a reporter who had become—to the extent possible for reporters—famous, specifically for fact-checking. Soon after, when Donald Trump kicked off his re-election campaign, Dale was on air to discuss. 

“TRUMP’S RALLY FEATURED 15+ FALSE CLAIMS OVER 76 MINUTES,” the chyron read. Responding to clips from Trump’s rally, Dale—34, with the front of his hair flipped up and an eyebrow arched—walked Brianna Keilar, the CNN host, through false claim after false claim. Trump, ranting about Robert Mueller’s investigation of his campaign’s ties to Russia, said, “They spent 40 million dollars on this witch hunt. 40 million dollars.” 

Dale: “Trump’s been using this 40 million dollar figure. Rudy Giuliani’s used this figure. We don’t know where they’re getting it.” The whole segment was like that, with Dale explaining not just that a fact was wrong, but what the truth actually is. In this case, the answer to how much Mueller and the Department of Justice had really spent was about $25 million from September 2017 to September 2018. Watching, I felt similar to the way I do after listening to a friend tell an unbelievable story about her weekend and then hearing another friend walk me through what happened; a little exasperated, but also grateful.  

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CNN is in a unique position in the Trump era. On the one hand, the president maligns it perhaps more than any other network or outlet; attacks on it have become a stand-in for attacks on journalism and freedom of the press generally. On the other hand, the network was criticized for the amount of time it gave to Trump in the run up to the 2016 presidential election and, to this day, brings on guests who, like President Trump himself, lie to the American people. It is, in other words, criticized both by a president who says that CNN is fake news and by people who see it as enabling the president in spreading his misinformation, false claims, and outright lies to the viewing public. 

In that context, Dale attempts to set the record straight. Recently, I asked him about his process. Repetition helps, he told me: “Honestly, the only trick is that Trump makes the same false claims over and over.” The first time Trump busts out a false claim—in our conversation, Dale used that term instead of “lies”—he’s not usually able to check it immediately. But Trump has trotted out some false claims more than 100 times. And once Dale has heard something five times, it jumps out.

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He has some organizational help, too. “I do have a spreadsheet,” Dale said. “And we code it. It’s like: date, event, kind of event—so whether it’s a speech or a rally or informal remarks or a tweet—and then it gets an individual code name.” So when Trump says something inaccurate about the Veterans Choice program, Dale went on, “I can just go to the spreadsheet and go to that identifier and look at the count and see how many times it’s occurred.”

Dale started fact-checking while working as the Washington correspondent at the Toronto Star, where, in his spare time, he tweeted about whatever false claims he caught Trump making. He’d had experience covering dishonest politicians back in Toronto, with Mayor Rob Ford, who was caught on camera appearing to smoke crack, and later lied about it. But fact-checking wasn’t his full-time job at the Star; he was making a name for himself as a feature writer. 

Dale only started fact-checking because he thought that Trump’s tendency to fictionalize wasn’t receiving enough attention during the campaign. People on television and in the major papers were covering Trump, Dale told me, but not how frequently he was saying things that were untrue. In September 2016, Dale tweeted out a deadpan list of outrageous claims Trump made in a single CNBC interview. The list went viral, and though he hadn’t expected to do this forever, upon learning of Trump’s election, he realized that he’d have to keep fact checking for a long time.  

At CNN, Dale isn’t looking to judge how true or false something is, or to assign a number of “Pinocchios.” Nor is he focused solely on Trump: in checking Democrats, he’s called out Senator Kamala Harris, for example, for saying that she had sued ExxonMobil, when in fact she had opened an investigation.

Still, Trump is disproportionately dishonest. Some argue that fact checking Trump is pointless. I don’t agree with them, but I can see where they are coming from: there are children being detained in camps on the border, July was the hottest month in recorded history, and Taliban talks just fell apart. What does it matter if the president said that he passed Veterans Choice 85 times? What difference will pointing it out make? The most frequent criticism Dale gets, he said, is that people don’t care; millions of staunch Trump supporters aren’t sitting around reading Dale’s fact checks. “For me there are two main goals in doing this,” Dale told me. “One is informational: just to get the facts to readers.” 

The other, he went on, is accountability. “My attitude is that it matters when the president is dishonest,” he said. “And it should be pointed out every time, whether it’s a big lie or a relatively trivial exaggeration. It matters in principle if the president is deceiving people. Big or small, intentional or unintentional.”

There are plenty of false claims that, in the grand scheme of things, “are pretty minor,” Dale condeded. He’ll point out, for example, that the Consumer Price Index for prescription drugs declined for the first time in 46 years, and not, as Trump claimed, in 53 years. And people will tell Dale that he is missing the big picture—Trump’s broader point is correct. Dale argues, “Someone has to get people the details. How they choose to interpret them is up to them, but if the president is consistently wrong about the details, I’m willing to be the guy who gets accused of being pedantic for pointing that out.”

Having Dale on doesn’t absolve CNN of criticism for bringing on guests who mislead the American people and whom hosts don’t always fact-check in the moment. Having Dale on doesn’t undo all of the free advertising that CNN gave Trump in the run up to the 2016 election. But at least the rallies and speeches in the 2020 race won’t be covered in the same way. At least Trump’s false claims will be, or at least have the potential to be, a major part of the coverage. And at least having Dale on does mean that there is a beat reporter on one of the major stories of the Trump administration: that the president is pathologically dishonest, and that that matters.

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Emily Tamkin serves as CJR’s public editor for CNN. See this primer for more information on our public editor project.