The Media Today

After 10,000 ‘false or misleading claims,’ are we any better at calling out Trump’s lies?

April 30, 2019

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump uttered his first falsehood as president of the United States. It came early in his inaugural address. “Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth,” he said. “Politicians prospered, but the jobs left, and the factories closed.” By the time Trump finished speaking, he’d said seven more things that didn’t stack up. Later in the day, he said that “even the media” admitted his inaugural crowd had been “massive,” stretching “all the way back down to the Washington Monument.” Very clearly, this was not true, either.

Since the inauguration, a team of journalists at The Washington Post has kept a tally of every “false or misleading claim” the president has made. (CNN recently dubbed its leader, Glenn Kessler, “one of the busiest men in America.”) Yesterday, the Post confirmed that Trump has roared past the 10,000 mark: as of Saturday, he’d made 10,111 bogus claims in 828 days in office. That works out to roughly 12 per day, 85 per week, or 370 per month. Trump has fibbed at rallies (2,217 times), on Twitter (1,803 times), and in speeches (999 times), among other settings. About one-fifth of Trump’s false or misleading statements have concerned immigration; he’s said his border wall is being built—his most-repeated junk claim—160 times.

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Whichever way you slice it, it’s a yuge number. And Trump isn’t done yet. In fact, he’s picked up speed: as Kessler, Salvador Rizzo, and Meg Kelly note, “The tsunami of untruths just keeps looming larger and larger.” The 10,000 milestone initially appeared unlikely: “In the first 100 days, Trump averaged less than five claims a day, which would have added up to about 7,000 claims in a four-year presidential term.” Over time, however, the daily rate edged up. Recently, it has exploded: in the past seven months, Trump averaged nearly 23 false or misleading claims per day. The Post’s fact-checkers have had to innovate to keep things in perspective—before Christmas, they introduced “the Bottomless Pinocchio,” a designation for claims that are repeated so often they effectively amount to “campaigns of disinformation.” Last week, Trump made 171 false or misleading claims in just three days, “more than he made in any single month in the first five months of his presidency.” Forty-five of those came in a 45-minute interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity. You do the math.

While the Post has kept score, journalists have debated how we should characterize these claims. As Trump lied his way through the early days of his presidency, many prominent outlets hesitated to deploy the L-word. The New York Times, which had called Trump’s birther rhetoric a “lie” during the campaign, used that characterization again three days into Trump’s term, describing the president’s claim he’d have won the popular vote if it hadn’t been for all the voter fraud. Others, however, declined to follow suit. On NPR, Mary Louise Kelly consulted the Oxford English Dictionary. A lie is “‘a false statement made with intent to deceive.’ ‘Intent’ being the key word there,” she said. “Without the ability to peer into Donald Trump’s head, I can’t tell you what his intent was.” The Post, for its part, waited until August 2018 to use the word for the first time, around Trump’s characterization of hush-money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal; a justification, written by Kessler, was printed on A1.

Thousands of examples later, the anxiety around the word “lie” has mostly dissipated. Some arguments from early 2017—that using it would further dent trust in the press, for example—look quaint now. Far too often, however, major news organizations still resort to euphemisms. On Sunday, the Times tweeted that Trump had “revived an inaccurate refrain”: doctors are executing babies. “‘We built this city on sausage rolls’ is an ‘inaccurate refrain,’” Damon Kiesow, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, replied, referencing a viral British parody song about pigs in blankets. “What you have there is pretty much just a ‘lie.’”

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“Lie” may not be the best word for the Post’s fact-checkers to use—their database, after all, is designed to be comprehensive, and “false or misleading claims” is a broader term. Nonetheless, their tireless, thorough documentation has reinforced the case that the word “lie” is entirely appropriate much of the time. Trump routinely says things a president of the United States should know to be false, refuses to correct the record, and then, very often, says them again. The Post’s database reminds us that we should not become inured to the cascade. And it builds a real-time historical record of Trump’s presidency. In years to come, all the lying might be remembered as its defining feature.

Below, more on Trump, facts, and lies:

  • Deceitful intent: In January 2017, Mathew Ingram, now at CJR, nailed the “intent” question behind the word “lie” in a column for Fortune. “We have to infer intent based on what is known or what a person can reasonably be expected to know. In that sense, it’s not unlike the legal test for a false statement, which requires a ‘willful disregard’ for the truth,” he wrote.
  • Eau de toilette: The Post’s database has inspired various studies by academics. Last year, neuroscientists at University College London suggested “emotional adaptation” could be to blame for an uptick in Trump’s lies. “Repeated dishonesty is a bit like a perfume you apply over and over,” Tali Sharot and Neil Garrett wrote. “At first you easily detect the powerful scent of a new perfume. But over time and with more applications you can hardly sense its presence, so you apply more liberally.”
  • Semantics: In recent months, the mainstream media fact-checking model has been criticized from the left. In January, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attacked Kessler for using “a Walmart-funded think tank as reference material for wage fairness”; in a separate interview, she said that “there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” New York’s Eric Levitz backed her up: “Which truths and falsehoods the mainstream press chooses to spotlight… does reflect the ideological biases of the ‘objective’ press.”

Other notable stories:

  • CJR’s Andrew McCormick has a fascinating deep dive inside New York City’s battered, dwindling local-media scene. “Major publications, including The New York Times and the Daily News, have winnowed local coverage in favor of stories from across the nation and the world. Others, including The Village Voice and DNAinfo, a hyperlocal site, have closed outright. Mass layoffs have become the norm,” McCormick writes. “Boroughs larger than most American cities are now hardly trodden by local reporters.”
  • Pete Buttigieg is, quite literally, in Vogue. For Politico Magazine, David Freedlander profiles Lis Smith, the strategist behind Buttigieg’s ubiquitous media presence. “Buttigieg has gotten a number of lavish long-form features, so many that some have jokingly wondered whether Smith is getting paid by the profile,” Freedlander writes. “The fact that he’s everywhere, from cable TV to Ebony to your local NPR show to your favorite sports podcast, means that a guy with no name recognition is suddenly hard to avoid.” Meanwhile, The Daily Beast reports that Jacob Wohl, who tried and failed to smear Robert Mueller as an abuser, is trying and failing to smear Buttigieg.
  • In January 2017, Shiraaz Mohamed, a South African photojournalist, was abducted in Syria. Last week, his kidnappers sent the aid organization he had been traveling with a proof-of-life video, in which Mohamed appeals to the international community for help securing his release. South Africa’s Daily Maverick has more.
  • Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of ISIS, has appeared on video for the first time in five years. In an 18-minute film, released via ISIS’s central media ministry, al-Baghdadi acknowledges the group’s loss of territory in the Middle East, and casts the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka as “revenge” for its recent defeat by US-backed forces in Syria. The message challenged media narratives about those bombings, and about al-Baghdadi himself. “Why take the risk [of appearing] now?” Rukmini Callimachi, who covers ISIS for the Times, asks. “Perhaps because [ISIS] is at an inflection point.”
  • For CJR, Kelsey Ables, who lived in Sri Lanka during a constitutional crisis last year, assesses the government’s move to block social media after the Easter Sunday attacks. “Sri Lanka’s tragedy is neither a footnote in an American list of grievances against big tech nor a straightforward instance of authoritarian censorship by the government,” she writes. “The ban on social media should be seen as a desperate, albeit haphazard, attempt… to tame social media networks that have gotten wildly out of hand.”
  • According to Vice’s David Uberti, Fox News is winning Facebook in the Trump era. The network “has cemented itself as the most dominant news publisher on Facebook as measured by engagement, a crucial metric for Facebook’s ranking system and a rough gauge of attention on the platform.” Efforts to cleanse the site of fake news may have helped: “By diminishing the reach of a constellation of largely right-wing, fringe sites, Facebook may have effectively redirected some users’ attention toward Fox News.”
  • Following lawsuits by Devin Nunes, Joe Arpaio, Roy Moore, and others, Jonathan Peters and Jared Schroeder argue, for CJR, that the US needs stronger state and federal protections against litigation intended to curb media organizations’ expression. Such suits “are costly to defend even if the news outlet ultimately wins, and at the state and local levels, legal resources are especially strained,” they write.
  • And Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton reports that “a doorbell company wants to report crime news.” Ring, which is owned by Amazon, is looking to hire a “managing editor” with “a knack for engaging storytelling that packs a punch.” It’s a bad idea, Benton says.

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Updates: The headline has been updated. A detail locating one of Trump’s false comments has been changed.

Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.