Fact-checking in the Age of Trump: Why false equivalence is harming democracy

Image (cc) by PolitiFact

Have the media engaged in false equivalence when it comes to political lying? Do fact-checkers nitpick statements by Democrats in order to seem fair and balanced when they go after President Trump’s numerous and blatant falsehoods?

That proposition might seem ludicrous. If the media have told us anything about Trump over these past few years, it’s that he spews lies so freely that his every word and every tweet is suspect. So what do Democrats have to complain about?

This: Despite the media’s admirably tough-minded stance on Trump’s falsehoods, they are nevertheless holding Democrats to a much higher standard.

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Thunder on the left: The New York Times gets an earful from its most loyal readers

Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy

It has been an extraordinary few weeks for The New York Times.

From an outcry over a headline that blandly reported President Trump’s denunciation of racism in El Paso without acknowledging his own history of racist comments, to the demotion of an editor for several racially clueless tweets, to a fraught meeting with the staff called by executive editor Dean Baquet, the Times has found itself in an unaccustomed position: under fire from its core audience of liberal readers.

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Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

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God help me, but I’m writing about Elizabeth Warren and the likability factor

Elizabeth Warren. Photo (cc) 2012 by Edward Kimmel.

A few very brief thoughts about Elizabeth Warren and whether she’s “likable enough” (to recycle an unfortunate old quote from Barack Obama) to be elected president — the subject of a front-page story in today’s Boston Globe as well as multiple other outlets.

First, yes, of course there’s an element of sexism to it, as there was when the same questions were raised over and over about Hillary Clinton. But let’s not get carried away — it’s not just sexism. Republicans used the likability factor like a sledgehammer against Al Gore and John Kerry, and it was effective. Their opponent, George W. Bush, was regularly described as someone you’d rather have a beer with, which always struck me as pretty odd given that Bush was an alcoholic who had given up drinking.

Second, in Warren’s case, “likability” is shorthand for something real — a lack of political adroitness despite her substantive strengths and despite being, as best as I can determine, genuinely likable. The whole Native American thing is ludicrous, and it seems as though she should have been able to put it behind her years ago when Scott Brown and the Boston Herald first tried to make an issue of it. Yet it’s still here, and it makes you think she should have handled it differently. Certainly the DNA test didn’t help.

Third, there’s something to the idea that she let her moment slip away. The news and political cycles are so accelerated now that 2016 may have represented her best chance. That has nothing to do with likability. The fact that Beto O’Rourke may be a serious candidate seems silly unless you view it in that context.

Finally, Warren’s likability is a phony issue because it’s about the pundits, not the voters. If she wins the nomination and is ultimately elected president, there’s the answer to your question: she’s likable enough.

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Giuliani’s ‘truth isn’t truth’ gaffe was a howler. But it was also taken out of context.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There is nothing reporters and pundits love more than a mind-boggling gaffe. Rudy Giuliani achieved what you might call Gaffe Apotheosis on Sunday when he lectured Chuck Todd that “truth isn’t truth.”So let’s savor it, make memes out of it (Todd told us we should!), and throw it in the faces of President Trump’s allies whenever they repeat the falsehoods that spew forth from this administration. But let’s not pretend we don’t understand the perfectly reasonable point that Giuliani was trying to make.

As is the case with many political gaffes, the full effect of Giuliani’s howler depends on taking it out of context. The former New York mayor, now a member of Trump’s legal team, was asked by “Meet the Press” host Todd why the president won’t simply sit down and answer questions from special counsel Robert Mueller.

“I am not going to be rushed into having him testify so that he gets trapped into perjury,” Giuliani responded. “And when you tell me that, you know, he should testify because he’s going to tell the truth and he shouldn’t worry, well that’s so silly because it’s somebody’s version of the truth. Not the truth.”

Todd: “Truth is truth.”

Giuliani: “No, it isn’t. Truth isn’t truth.”

Giuliani knew instantly that he had stepped in a big, steaming pile, and he tried ineffectively to push back. The damage was done. But think about what Giuliani was saying: If Trump answers questions under oath, he’ll say things that contradict what others have said under oath. And that could set up Trump for a perjury charge. Giuliani expanded on that point a short time later, arguing that if Mueller had to choose between Trump’s sworn statements and those of former FBI director James Comey, Mueller would choose Comey, whom Giuliani identified — or, should I say, derided — as “one of his best friends.”

Now, set aside our knowledge that Trump has spoken falsely more than 4,000 times since he became president, and that Giuliani has a credibility problem of his own. Giuliani was actually making sense in saying that Mueller would have to choose between competing versions of the truth, and that he might be disinclined to believe Trump. But the inartful (OK, idiotic) way he expressed himself is all we’ll remember. This is mostly Giuliani’s fault, but it’s partly the media’s as well. Because this is what we love.

Want some more examples? Before Sunday, perhaps the most memorable gaffe by a Trump official was uttered by Kellyanne Conway, who used the phrase “alternative facts” in an interview with the very same Chuck Todd. Appearing on Jan. 22, 2017, Conway sought to explain White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s obviously false claim that Trump’s Inauguration Day crowd was the largest in history. Conway didn’t push back as hard as Giuliani did when challenged by Todd. But, later in the interview, she said Spicer was simply relying on different sources of information.

“I don’t think you can prove those numbers one way or the other,” she said. “There’s no way to really quantify crowds. We all know that. You can laugh at me all you want.” Yes, I understand that the small size of Trump’s crowd is factually beyond dispute. But Conway’s spin was reasonable, if wrong. She was not invoking Orwell.

On a more serious level, Hillary Clinton has been castigated for years over a disingenuous reading of her Benghazi testimony before a Senate hearing in 2013. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans?” Clinton said. “What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?” How callous! But as PolitiFact observed in analyzing Clinton’s testimony, she continued:

It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information…. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

The journalist Michael Kinsley once memorably defined a gaffe as an inadvertent statement of the truth. Sometimes, though, it’s a deliberate statement that you think won’t become public. That was the case in 2008, when Barack Obama told a group of his supporters what he thought of Clinton-leaning voters in poorer industrial cities: “They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.”

Four years later, Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser that 47 percent of the electorate would vote for Obama because they “are dependent upon government,” “believe that they are victims,” and “pay no income tax.” Both Obama and Romney spoke as they did because there were no reporters present, but their damaging remarks became public anyway.

For politicians and public figures, the solution to the gaffe challenge is obvious: Don’t step on your message with language that will seem clumsy, dumb, or insensitive if it’s taken out of context, as happened with Giuliani, Conway, and Clinton. And don’t speak your mind on the assumption that the media aren’t listening, as was the case with Obama and Romney. These things have a way of becoming public knowledge.

But there are lessons for the media, too. No one imagines that they should stop reporting gaffes, especially when they play out on live television. But even as Giuliani was making a mess of his interview, he was also saying something newsworthy: that Trump shouldn’t speak to Mueller for fear that he’ll be charged with perjury even if he speaks truthfully. You can agree, you can disagree, or you can denounce Giuliani’s statement as an outrageous attack on the rule of law. What the media shouldn’t do is overlook it in favor of cheap — if well-deserved — mockery.

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Misdiagnosing what’s wrong with The New York Times

Joe Pompeo has a new piece in Vanity Fair about all the unhappy people inside The New York Times. It’s deeply reported and interesting, but it also strikes me as a diversion from the main problem with the Times these days.

Pompeo’s thesis is that the Times is riven by factionalism that can largely (though not exclusively) be defined as younger “woke” staff members who would like to see the paper pursue a more explicitly liberal and anti-Trump path versus older, more traditional journalists who value balance and neutrality. The money quote is from Times manager editor Joe Kahn:

We do not see ourselves, and we do not wish to be seen, as partisan media. That means that the news and opinion divide, and things like social-media guidelines and some of our traditional restrictions on political activity by employees, may feel cumbersome to some people at this point in our evolution.

Pompeo did the reporting and I didn’t. So he may well be right about what people talk about inside the Times. Outside, though, the Times’ loyal and largely liberal readership is talking about other issues — such as the paper’s equally negative coverage of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign in the face of mountainous evidence that their transgressions were not remotely equal; the Times’ harsh but ultimately normalizing coverage of the Trump presidency (in contrast to The Washington Post, which has been relentless); and its weirdly gentle treatment of people on the far right, such as the notorious profile of the Nazi next door.

I wrote about these issues for WGBH News in January. I don’t think things have gotten better at the Times since then.

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Crooked Hillary redux: Making sense of the Uranium One distraction

Photo (cc) 2014 by clement127

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

To understand the current Trumpist obsession with Hillary Clinton and the Uranium One story, you first need to know what it is not. Uranium One is not a scandal or even a discrete set of facts that can be weighed and assessed. Rather, it is a talisman wielded by President Trump’s most ardent defenders in the hope of warding off the burgeoning Russia scandal.

Thus we have absurd characters like Sean Hannity of Fox News calling it “one of the biggest scandals in American history involving another country.” And The Daily Signal, a right-wing website published by the Heritage Foundation, asking, “Why isn’t the mainstream media covering Uranium One?” And Conrad Black, who speculates in The New York Sun that special counsel Robert Mueller will — or at least should — go after Clinton’s allies the Podesta brothers for their role in Uranium One now that the Russia inquiry has fallen apart. Because, you know, nothing says fallen apart quite like the indictment of two former Trump campaign officials and a guilty plea from a third, with the promise of more to come.

David French, a prominent anti-Trump conservative, explained in The New York Times what’s going on:

The desire to think the best of Mr. Trump combined with the deep distaste for Democrats grants extraordinary power to two phrases: “fake news” and “the other side is worse.” “Fake news” erects a shield of disbelief against the worst allegations and allows a person to believe that Mr. Trump is better than he is. For too many Republicans, every single troubling element of the Russia investigation — including multiple administration falsehoods about contacts with Russian officials — represents “fake news.”

The Trump supporters pushing the Uranium One story are impervious to facts not because they’re stupid but because the purpose of telling it is to put the media on the defensive. Nevertheless, there are facts, and I’ve endeavored to find out what they are by consulting the nonpartisan website FactCheck.org.

The verdict: There’s nothing to the claim, first made by then-candidate Trump in 2016, that the United States gave away 20 percent of its uranium to Russia and that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, was responsible. The facts are incredibly convoluted —we are, after all, talking about the Clintons. The full narrative encompasses the Clinton Foundation, a speaking fee paid to Bill Clinton, and a dubious book called “Clinton Cash,” written by a conservative activist named Peter Schweizer, promoted by Stephen Bannon, and, for reasons that have never been credibly explained, used by The New York Times as the basis for some of its reporting on the Clintons. But, FactCheck.org says:

It may be that individuals and companies sought to curry favor with Hillary Clinton and even influence her department’s decision on the Uranium One sale. But, as we’ve written before, there is no evidence that donations to the Clinton Foundation from people with ties to Uranium One or Bill Clinton’s speaking fee influenced Hillary Clinton’s official actions. That’s still the case.

Vox has a shorter, easier-to-follow take on the deal that calls the Republican conspiracy theory involving Uranium One “a thoroughly debunked and verifiably false charge.” Vox, in turn, cites a report by yet another nonpartisan fact-checking site, PolitiFact, which rated Trump’s accusations against Clinton as “mostly false.”

It’s also worth keeping in mind that Trump, not Clinton, is president — something that you might forget if you get pulled into the Fox News rabbit hole. (Hannity went so far as to call Hillary “President Clinton” the other day.) Even if there were reason to believe Clinton had been involved in wrongdoing (again, there isn’t), the value to the public of pursuing her at this point is not very high. On the other hand, the question of whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians goes to the very heart of our democracy.

“The right-wing response to Robert Mueller’s investigation is to change the subject, preferably to an alleged ‘scandal’ involving Hillary Clinton,” writes CNN media reporter Brian Stelter, who adds: “This creates a thick layer of fog, making it hard to see what really matters. Maybe this is the goal. Regardless, it poses a challenge for journalists who are trying to convey the truth.”

The truth is that the Uranium One story isn’t about the truth. The Trump White House and its allies are essentially gaming the media’s old-fashioned dedication to balance — regardless of the facts — by flinging unsupportable charges that will be reported alongside the Russia news in the name of being fair and objective. Trump’s allies, who despise Clinton, will grab onto those stories and denounce everything else as “fake news.”

It’s an ugly and depressing situation with no clear solution.

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Margaret Sullivan on the media’s terrible coverage of the Clinton campaign

There’s a very strong Margaret Sullivan column in today’s Washington Post on the media’s terrible coverage of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s especially good to see her call out The New York Times, for whom she was its best public editor before moving on to the Post.

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Once again, the Times bends over backwards for Trump while the Post lets him have it

It seems that every day The New York Times finds a way to say something hopeful about President Trump while The Washington Post sticks with reality as we can all see it. There are many examples I could dredge up, but let’s start with today’s papers. First the Times’ Glenn Thrush:

Harvey Gives Trump a Chance to Reclaim Power to Unify

Hurricane Harvey was the rarest of disasters to strike during the Trump presidency — a maelstrom not of Mr. Trump’s making, and one that offers him an opportunity to recapture some of the unifying power of his office he has squandered in recent weeks.

Now a tropical storm as it continues to inundate the Texas and Louisiana coasts, Harvey is foremost a human disaster, a stop-motion catastrophe that has already claimed at least 10 lives and destroyed thousands of structures. But hurricanes in the post-Katrina era are also political events, benchmarks by which a president’s abilities are measured.

Mr. Trump is behaving like a man whose future depends on getting this right.

Now the Post’s Jenna Johnson:

Even in visiting hurricane-ravaged Texas, Trump keeps the focus on himself

As rescuers continued their exhausting and heartbreaking work in southeastern Texas on Tuesday afternoon, as the rain continued to fall and a reservoir near Houston spilled over, President Trump grabbed a microphone to address hundreds of supporters who had gathered outside a firehouse near Corpus Christi and were chanting: “USA! USA! USA!”

‘Thank you, everybody,” the president said, sporting one of the white “USA” caps that are being sold on his campaign website for $40. “I just want to say: We love you. You are special…. What a crowd. What a turnout.”

Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters.

As I said, these contrasts are a regular occurrence. I don’t know what to attribute them to, but I wonder if the Times’ bend-over-backwards approach to Trump is the flip side of its decades-long obsession with Clinton non-scandals, from Whitewater to emails. Yes, the Times has done plenty of great investigative reporting on Trump, and it seems to be locked in a steel-cage death match with the Post to see which paper can dig up the most dirt on him. But then there are these weird tonal lapses.

The Times and the Post are great papers. The Times features better writing and has a much broader mandate. But the Post’s fierce coverage of national politics and its unapologetic attitude toward Trump have long since made the Post my first read, along with The Boston Globe.

Update. From my Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder:

I’m sure that has something to do with it. Yet Trump has been known to pick up the phone and call Post reporters, too. There’s no question that the Times is the paper Trump, a New Yorker, most cares about. I don’t know how much of a factor that is.

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Obama’s choices: Making sense of The Washington Post’s big exclusive

Earlier today I did some tweeting on the bad choices that then-president Barack Obama faced over Russian meddling in the election — the major theme of The Washington Post’s astonishing exclusive. I’ve pulled my tweets into what Twitter calls a Moment. Please have a look.

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