At the outset of his presidency, several major news outlets eagerly and proudly announced that they were going to fact-check Donald Trump’s every utterance and document all the misinformation he was spreading. To their credit, news organizations set aside considerable resources to dutifully unpack Trump’s “falsehoods,” as the press preferred to call them. The unspoken assumption was that as the detailed fact checks piled up and it became obvious to everyone that Trump so often wasn’t telling the truth, he would feel shame or embarrassment and change his ways and that members of his own party would likely be unwilling to defend his chronic mendacity.
Boy, that didn’t work out, did it? It didn’t work because, of course, Trump is utterly shameless. As a pathological liar, he doesn’t care if he gets fact-checked, and he doesn’t care if his claims are immediately debunked. He doesn’t care because he wants to create an alternate universe where he and his loyalists bask in their own “facts.” He wants nothing to do with the real world where agreed-upon facts are the basis for public debate. And rather than being nauseated by Trump’s lies, the GOP has feasted on them for years now.
Now, as the 2020 campaign gains momentum and the same news outlets are fact-checking Democratic candidates, here’s the problem: By setting up this side-by-side forum where Trump and Democrats are, at least on the surface, treated as equals when it comes to the veracity of their statements, the fact-checking exercise creates a huge perception problem. That’s because, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being complete truths and 10 being complete untruths, the fact checks of Democratic candidates suggest they basically operate in the 1-2 range. Trump, on the other hand, hovers around 30 or 40.
By all means, the media should keep fact-checking Democrats and make sure their campaign rhetoric is accurate. That’s certainly a worthy endeavor. But it shouldn’t use that same traditional umbrella of truth-telling to deal with Trump. He’s so obviously in a separate category that it makes no sense for him to be included the same fact-checking space as Democrats.
Yet today, the fact-checking forums use the same language for both Trump and Democrats. They’re both guilty of making “misleading,” “incorrect,” or “exaggerated” statements. But does anyone think that actually captures the damage Trump has done with his brutally dishonest onslaught over the past two years when it’s been almost impossible for him to open his mouth and not lie?
Look at these recent staid fact-checking headlines from The New York Times:
- “Fact-Checking Trump’s Speech to the N.R.A.”
- “Fact Checking Trump’s Inaccurate Tariff and Trade Claims in Florida Rally Speech”
- “Fact-Checking Trump’s Claims on Agriculture, Trade and Poll Numbers”
And from CNN: “Trump continues to mislead on immigration and Puerto Rico disaster funding.”
The Washington Post chimes in with “Trump’s parade of false claims overseas.”
It’s no exaggeration to say that an accurate headline for all those entries could have simply been “Trump lies about everything, again.” Because in those instances, Trump lied about drug prices, his border wall, international treaty agreements, MS-13, tariffs, existing trade deals, union support for trade deals, agricultural data, his approval ratings, the climate, the Vietnam War, U.S. military drug policy, the Iran nuclear deal, and attacking John McCain.
Should that type of manic, Olympic-style lying really be housed under the same roof as Kirsten Gillibrand incorrectly claiming that the NRA is “largely funded” by gun manufacturers? Or Bernie Sanders saying he received “More votes from young African Americans, Latinos, Asian American, Native Americans than Clinton and Trump combined,” a claim CNN tagged as being “unclear“? Or Elizabeth Warren saying, “I supported Massachusetts changing its laws on marijuana,” which The New York Times deemed to be something of an exaggeration? Those Democratic fact checks aren’t quite the same as debating how many angels can dance on the head of a needle—but they’re close.
The dilemma here is obvious: Media fact-checkers are still using traditional methods to put Democrats under a microscope to look for minute factual stumbles, while Trump is proudly marauding around the country demolishing the truth on an hourly basis. Yet media fact-checkers are using the same methods on him, too. It just doesn’t work.
And then there’s the problem of the L-word. Most news outlets still won’t regularly call Trump a liar, even as their fact-checking operations document his chronic lies—oops, I mean his “falsehoods.” Suddenly, with Trump’s political ascension, newsrooms became contorted in knots over the simple issue. The debate went like this: “Could a presidential statement, no matter how blatantly false, be deemed a lie since, by definition, the word implies an awareness of falsity and intent to deceive? How can journalists know what’s in Trump’s mind, even when he repeatedly says transparently untrue things?” as The Washington Post recently noted.
So instead of categorically pointing out that Trump lies like no other president in American history, the press puts him in the same fact-checking arena as Democrats, who often get ticketed for the minor infraction of embellishing. (The Times claimed Sanders “exaggerated” his claim that 70% of Americans support Medicare for All, even though the Times conceded that a Reuters poll found that 70% of Americans support Medicare for All.) The point: If Trump fact-checks aren’t going to call out his lies, then the exercise is useless.