Post public editor: The absurd futility of fact-checking Trump

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The Washington Post’s fact checker column—“The Truth Behind The Rhetoric,” by Glenn Kessler—is one of the paper’s most visible franchises, targeted by left-wing Twitter and President Trump alike. It celebrated having run down 10,000 of Trump’s false and misleading statements in April, a project that the occupant of the Oval Office sees as proof of fundamental bias. “The Washington Post is a Fact Checker only for the Democrats,” Trump tweeted a few months earlier. “For the Republicans, and for your all time favorite President, it is a Fake Fact Checker!” In July, Kessler was the subject of a lengthy take-down in The Outline (“Glenn Kessler sucks and that’s a fact”) that lambasted his column for offering “political language stripped of the very words that would be needed to advance a moral argument,” and failing to provide “meaningful resistance to Trump.”

It’s a truism of journalism that sniping from “both sides” means you must be doing your job right. But what the partisan complaints about the Post’s Fact Checker reveal is that it is doing something wrong. Trump supporters somewhat justifiably complain that it’s a Trump-specific project overly concerned with the most minute and obscure presidential utterances; they think it unfairly exaggerates petty puffery. I agree, and I also think that it dangerously minimizes the damage of Trump’s misrepresentations regarding policy. 

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Kessler says that the Post team analyzes any public statement they can find. Thus Trump’s “I’m a very big person when it comes to the environment. I have received awards on the environment” (falsely asserted at a business roundtable in January 2017) gets the same amount of attention as Trump’s baseless assurances that he’s not worried about Russian interference in the 2020 election because “we… have strong backup systems…and we’ve been working very hard…on the ‘20 election coming up” (from a press conference in March 2018). The former is an easily checked fib about his resume; the latter is a dangerously empty promise that misrepresents the administration’s almost complete abdication of election security measures. One of those things is about Trump’s ego, the other is about a threat to democracy. (The degree to which Trump’s ego is also a threat to democracy is a discussion for another time.) The trouble here is that the Post’s Fact Checker gives little context for the maliciousness of Trump’s intent, how his distortions exacerbate existing fault lines in our society. And the dubious quantitative measure the Post uses—one-to-four Pinocchios—isn’t applied to every claim. Trump’s empty boast about the environment received the dreaded four Pinocchios; the second merely appeared in the Posts database of Trump mistruths. 

The left’s concerns about Kessler’s bias have to do with flattening in that, even as the Post’s Fact Checker merely evaluates individual statements, it winds up putting quotidian political spin (Biden railing against the Trump tax cut since “all of it went to folks at the top”) on the same plane—four Pinocchios!—as Trump’s relentless promotion of racist tropes, including his multiple, wildly exaggerated claims about “migrant caravans.” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets three Pinocchios for saying that Trump transferred millions in federal funds to build a border wall, but “$0” to combat the opioid epidemic—a “misleading claim,” wrote Kessler—and Trump gets the same grade for tweeting, “Puerto Rico has been given more money by Congress for Hurricane Disaster Relief, 91 Billion Dollars, than any State in the history of the US,” which Kessler determined to be “simply false,” albeit based on a “guesstimate.” 

Perhaps Kessler should hesitate before tsk-tsking at those who present guesstimates as facts; ultimately, arbitrary measurements like Pinocchios are even more pernicious than guesstimates. Context-free and misleadingly specific, Pinocchios give readers an impression that the only thing that matters about a claim is the degree to which it is true. It is obviously impossible to calculate the percentage of truth in any one statement, something that Kessler acknowledged when we talked recently—referring to the wooden puppet used as the Post’s Fact Checker logo as “a marketing gimmick.” At the same time, he sees no reason to give it up, and says, “We can spend hours debating whether something is a three or four Pinocchio.” Today’s hazy “fake news” landscape is too treacherous for us to spend that much time measuring the depth of every tar pit; it would be a better service to readers to provide an overall map—and warn them about the motivations of those who would lead them astray.

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The futility of the Post’s Fact Checker should have become clear when the team debuted the “Bottomless Pinocchio,” a prize they now award to lies that the president repeats with no apparent attention to the Post’s reporting. I suspect that the Fact Checker staff believes the Bottomless Pinocchio to be a badge of shame, and perhaps it is—but I’m not sure it belongs on the president’s lapel. The Bottomless Pinocchio is an admission of defeat, or at least battle fatigue. 

In May, Kessler told the Poynter Institute that tracking Trump’s fabrications and distortions “has now become a bit of a burden, it consumes so much time.” He told me that initially, he had hoped that by creating a Trump disinformation database, “We thought we would be able to sort of put [fact-checking Trump] to the side.” Instead, he said, “it’s become an albatross on our backs.” Of course, anyone would be annoyed and exhausted by the job of fact-checking Trump; what’s odd is that Kessler’s grudge isn’t really about how much the president lies, it’s that he considers fact-checking Trump a lackluster side hustle to his real job. “It’s often too easy to fact-check the president,” Kessler told me. “For me, it’s not really important who is saying the claim, it’s, ‘Is this an interesting entre into a discussion about policy?’”

I don’t want to criticize Kessler for having such wonky goals, but they do seem optimistic to the point of irrelevancy. He’s fixing a leaky faucet while the whole building is on fire. 

Who’s making the claim does matter. Democrats, Kessler says, “seem eager to avoid the Pinocchio.” On the other hand, Trump’s lies have, if anything, increased in their audaciousness and frequency since he took office—and they have become even more loathsome in their calculated appeals to racism. But Trump’s truly vicious attacks on people of color are also designed to escape the kind of fussy exactitude the Post’s Fact Checker prefers: How do you count the Pinocchios on Trump’s slur that Baltimore is “rat-infested”? How do you measure whether Al Sharpton “hates whites”? Many were repulsed when Trump argued that there were “some very fine people on both sides” of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, but most people understood that the vileness of that statement didn’t stem from whether it was technically true—it was his argument that was offensive. And Trump keeps making that argument.  

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In the aftermath of the bloody August weekend that saw a massacre prompted by white nationalism, Trump went to the microphone to try to distance himself from the El Paso killer’s rhetoric and to present his administration as being part of the solution to gun violence. The Post fact-checked his assertion that his Justice Department had “prosecuted a record number of firearms offenses” and wound up awarding neither Pinocchios nor a Gepetto (the Post’s symbol of “surprisingly accurate” statements). Why the ambivalence? First of all, Kessler reported that the Justice Department’s methodology differs from researchers’, who give a 20 percent lower count of prosecutions. But the reluctance to be decisive was also due to Kessler having determined that the administration’s holistic action or inaction on gun control “may be a matter of opinion [so] we will leave this unrated.”

The Fact Checker makes a lot of calls that could be described as “a matter of opinion.” When Bernie Sanders said millions of Americans “work two jobs to survive,” the Fact Checker called it “misleading,” despite conceding that eight million Americans do work more than one job. As Kessler explained to me, “How does Bernie know they need to work two jobs ‘to survive’?” 

The hesitation to call out Trump for his dissembling on gun control stands out especially for what the paper didn’t—couldn’t—fact check: the President’s prima facie farcical denouncement of the white nationalist rhetoric he engages in and inflames on a regular basis. Granted, this gaslighting has flummoxed most of the media (see also The New York Times’s two misfiring attempts to land on the right headline to describe it). But fact-checking is supposed to boil the news down into its most important and vital polarities, and in the presence of Trump’s manipulation of racial animus, its compass needle just spins.

 

Trump’s shamelessness is not, unfortunately, completely unique at this moment in history. He’s a part of a global epidemic of creeping authoritarianism and brazen fabulism—which is why the general “fact check” model that began in the United States (with the Post’s Fact Checker as an early adopter) has also been taken up with alacrity around the world. In June, at Global Fact 6—the sixth annual summit of the International Fact-Checking Network, hosted by Poynter—almost half the participants were from countries outside Europe and the Americas. Fact-checking initiatives have sprung up in India, Colombia, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine; these are places where journalism balances on an even more precarious edge than it does in the US. Notably, a consortium of international fact checkers released a statement at Global Fact 6 calling for their colleagues to move on from “first-generation fact-checking”—or, “just publishing”—to the second generation: “publish and act.” Simply correcting politicians is insufficient, they wrote: “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.” 

The same criticism has been made here in the states, too—in the Post itself, in fact. Margaret Sullivan wrote in May that “fact-checking President Trump isn’t enough.” She called for fact-checkers “to bring some new tools and techniques—and maybe a new attitude—to the project.”

The Global Fact 6 statement  got even more specific, and advocated using regulatory pressures or a standards body to try to stem the flow of inaccurate information at the source, identifying patterns and common causes to find points of intervention ranging from “educating children to advocating for policy changes,” and pushing for social change “to challenge the casual acceptance of deceptive and misleading behavior.” 

Many international fact checking groups are supported or sponsored not by journalism schools or newspapers but by public donations and institutions such as the German Marshall Fund, the Soros Foundation, and the US’s own National Endowment for Democracy. It’s almost as if seeing your project as protecting democracy rather than promoting policy literacy might give you a dramatically different set of priorities.

I asked Kessler what he thought of the Global Fact 6 manifesto and he said he felt that the Post’s Fact Checker “has already been doing this.” He pointed to a series of clips in which Trump complained about the column, and told me, “Even if the president does not change what he says, he is aware of the Pinocchios.” Kessler suggested that a poll commissioned by the Post showing that the public doesn’t trust the president means that Trump’s “efforts to repeat his false claims aren’t working.” Kessler also told me that the Post’s “policy of not awarding Pinocchios when a politician admits error” is “in line with the idea that we need to seek corrections and hold people accountable.” I am concerned that these effects are, to quote one of the fact-checking statement signatories, “curing just the symptoms but not the disease.”

Kessler also told me about a new multimedia feature aimed at identifying manipulated videos, calling it “quite ‘second generation.’” It does seem closer to the mark, but the lessons are still framed by a strange, sterile point of view that identifies technical hallmarks of manipulated videos without commenting on the fact that most of the partisan examples given come from people or groups supporting Trump policies or claims. 

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. 

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Ana Marie Cox is a political columnist and culture critic whose writing has appeared in The New Republic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and Esquire. She hosts With Friends Like These, a podcast from Crooked Media. She lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota.