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

Image (cc) by PolitiFact

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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. After all, The Washington Post last month announced that Trump had made more than 12,000 false or misleading statements since his inauguration in 2017. Daniel Dale of CNN tracks every Trumpian falsehood — writing, for example, that the president “made at least 26 false claims” at a rally in New Mexico on Monday. PolitiFact has rated fully 69 percent of Trump’s public utterances as false to some degree, and 14 percent as being so at odds with reality that they have earned the coveted “Pants on Fire” rating.

And that’s just the tip of the journalistic iceberg. Indeed, 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. Most politicians exaggerate, butcher the facts or shade the truth, and journalists should take note when they do. But the press should also be careful to point out the difference between standard-issue rhetorical excesses and the sort of gaslighting that Trump engages in on a daily basis.

Last week Michael Calderone of Politico wrote an important story about Democratic complaints regarding the fact-checkers’ embrace of false equivalence. He began with the example of Bernie Sanders’ claim that “500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills.” The Washington Post’s Fact Checker column awarded three Pinocchios (out of a possible four) to Sanders — not because he was completely wrong, but because medical bills were only one factor in those 500,000 bankruptcies. Meanwhile, Calderone noted, the Post also gave Trump three Pinocchios for claiming that large swaths of his border wall have been already built when, in fact, none of it has.

The Sanders example is a matter of factual interpretation. The Trump example is somewhere between a hallucination and a lie. Yet they each got the same rating. How can this be?

One explanation is that journalism, steeped as it is in notions of fairness and balance, is unequipped for the extraordinary challenge of the Trump era. Calderone offered several other instances of Democrats’ words being parsed for shades of nuance so that they could be labeled as lies. He also wrote that “several prominent fact checkers said they don’t believe their job has changed when it comes to holding politicians accountable for their words on the stump and in TV studios, despite Trump’s persistence falsehoods.” And he quoted PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan as saying, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” OK. But everything is not the same.

Consider an example that Calderone didn’t cite: Joe Biden’s recent mixing up of three separate stories about honoring a heroic soldier who had tried to save a comrade in Afghanistan. Yes, Biden botched it pretty badly, but the essential truth of what he was trying to say came through. Yet The Washington Post headlined it, “As he campaigns for president, Joe Biden tells a moving but false war story.” False? Not really. More like Biden being Biden, lacking the discipline to master the details and not understanding why it matters.

Or how about two years of obsessing over Hillary Clinton’s private email server while the news that Trump uses an unsecured cell phone, reported last October in The New York Times, got about two minutes’ worth of attention — even though Chinese and Russian spies were reportedly listening in on Trump’s calls.

Those last examples aren’t about lies and fact-checking. But all of this is grounded in a larger, more enduring issue — accusations of liberal bias on the part of conservatives, and the duck-and-cover response from too many journalists whose politics may indeed be liberal but who bend over backwards to torment liberal politicians. Eric Alterman, in his 2003 book, “What Liberal Media?,” called it “working the refs,” and it goes back at least to Spiro Agnew’s famous nattering nabobs of negativism speech of 1970.

In 2012 — a more innocent time — I wrote in The Huffington Post that one of the big problems with fact-checking was that politicians’ false or partly false statements were rarely full-blown lies, but that ratings like Pinocchios or “Pants on Fire” suggested that every falsehood was a lie. “The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they’re not necessarily doing it because they want to,” I wrote. “They’re doing it because politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.” Now we have a president who lies so promiscuously that the fact-checkers seek out minor factual discrepancies among Democrats so it won’t seem like they’re picking on Trump.

In a report for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Thomas Patterson found that press coverage of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 campaign was actually more negative than that of Trump. In other words, her emails were treated the same as or worse than her opponent’s racist outbursts, the “Access Hollywood” tapecorruption at the Trump Foundation and so much more.

“Indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions,” Patterson wrote. “Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

Now we are moving into yet another presidential election season. The problem for 2020, as it was for 2016, isn’t that the media won’t report negative information about Trump. It’s that they will report negative information about his opponents in such a way that it all looks the same. In that respect, Democratic complaints about fact-checking that may seem trivial are actually emblematic of a much deeper problem with journalism: the primal urge to treat both sides equally, to be seen as fair, to avoid accusations of liberal bias.

It’s going to be an ugly, brutal campaign, and Trump’s going to drive the agenda once again. Are the media up to the challenge? The evidence suggests that the answer to that question is no.

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Billionaires’ bash: Big moves by Henry’s Globe, Bezos’ Post

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 10.40.06 AM

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday may have been the biggest day yet for billionaire newspaper owners John Henry and Jeff Bezos. Henry’s Boston Globe launched the long-anticipated Crux, a free standalone website that covers the Catholic Church. And Bezos replaced Katharine Weymouth as publisher of The Washington Post, bringing an end to the 81-year reign of the Meyer-Graham family.

At a time when the newspaper business remains besieged by cuts (including 22 Newspaper Guild positions at The Providence Journal this week, according to a report by Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio), Henry and Bezos are taking the opposite approach.

“You can’t shrink your way to success,” new Washington Post publisher Frederick Ryan told Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post. “Growth is the way to continue to build a strong news organization.” Ryan’s words were nearly identical to those of the Globe’s chief executive officer, Michael Sheehan, at the unveiling of the paper’s weekly political section, Capital, in June: “You can’t cut your way to success. You can only grow you way to success.”

First Crux. To my non-Catholic eyes, the site appears to offer an interesting mix of the serious and the not-so-serious. The centerpiece is John Allen’s deeply knowledgeable reporting and analysis, some of which will continue to appear in the Globe. (In late August, Publishers Marketplace reported that Allen is writing a biography of Pope Francis with the working title of “The Francis Miracle.” No publisher was named, but according to this, Time Home Entertainment will release it in March 2015.)

Crux national reporter Michael O’Loughlin has weighed in with features on Native American Catholics who blend tribal and Roman traditions and on the Vatican Secret Archives, whose contents turn out to be not as interesting as the phrase makes them sound. Vatican correspondent Inés San Martín covers stories such as Pope Francis’ call for peace in Gaza. WGBH’s Margery Eagan, a former Boston Herald columnist, is writing a column called “On Spirituality.” The events calendar makes it clear that Crux is a very Catholic venture.

There’s a lighter side to Crux, too, such as a trivia quiz on the saints and updates on football teams from Catholic colleges. Crux’s own reporters are supplemented with wire services, including the Associated Press, Catholic News Service and Religion News Service, as well as personal essays such as the Rev. Jonathan Duncan’s rumination on life as a married Catholic priest with children (he used to be an Episcopalian). Crux is also asking readers to write brief essays; the debut topic is illegal immigration.

Two quibbles. An article on the suffering of Iraqi Christians was published as a straight news story, even though the tagline identifies it as coming from “the pontifical organization Aid to the Church in Need.” When you click to “learn more,” you find out that Church in Need is an advocacy organization that is actively seeking donations. The disclosure is sufficient, but the placement strikes me as problematic. If Crux were a print newspaper, the article could have appeared on the op-ed page. Crux needs a clearly marked place for such material as well.

My other quibble is that content is undated, leaving the impression that everything is now. That can cause confusion, as with a John Allen Globe piece on immigration that refers to “Friday night” — and links to an Associated Press story published on Aug. 2. (Dates do appear on author bios.)

The site is beautifully designed, and it’s responsive, so it looks good on tablets and smartphones. There are a decent number of ads, though given the state of digital advertising, I think it would make sense — as I wrote earlier this summer — to take the best stuff and publish it in a paid, ad-supported print product.

Globe editor Brian McGrory, Crux editor Teresa Hanafin, digital adviser David Skok and company are off to a fine start. For more on Crux, see this article by David Uberti in the Columbia Journalism Review and this, by Justin Ellis, at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

***

A torrent of punditry has already accompanied the news that Frederick Ryan, a former chief executive of Politico, will become publisher of The Washington Post on Oct. 1.

The irony is thick. When Post political reporters John Harris and Jim VanDeHei proposed launching Politico under the newspaper’s auspices in 2006, they were turned down. Today, Politico often dominates the political conversation in a way that the Post used to (and, of course, sometimes still does). I’m not always a fan of Politico’s emphasis on politics as insider gamesmanship, but there’s no doubt the site has been successful.

As the Post’s own account makes clear, Ryan is a longtime Republican activist, and was close to both Ronald and Nancy Reagan. That shouldn’t affect the Post’s news operations, though it could affect the editorial page — hardly a bastion of liberalism even now. In another Post story, Ryan “endorsed” executive editor Marty Baron and editorial-page editor Fred Hiatt. Baron, a former Globe editor, may be the best newspaper editor working on this side of the Atlantic.

What concerns me is the strong scent of insiderism that is attached to Ryan. In an address to the staff, Ryan said one of his goals is “winning the morning,” according to a series of tweets by Post media blogger Erik Wemple (reported by Jim Romenesko). That might seem unremarkable, except that it sounds like something right out of the Politico playbook — um, make that “Playbook.”

A New York Times account by Ravi Somaiya dwells on Ryan’s obsession with the annual White House Correspondents Dinner, and quotes Ryan as calling it “an important event.” Those of us who find the dinner to be an unseemly display of Beltway clubbiness might agree that it’s important, but for different reasons.

Then again, if Ryan can fix the Post’s business model and show the way for other news organizations, all will be forgiven. The Post, like the Globe, has been expanding under new ownership. On Tuesday, the Post unveiled its most recent venture, The Most, an aggregation site.

Bezos’ track record at Amazon shows that he’s willing to take the long view. I suspect that he’s still just getting started with the Washington Post.

 

Bezos’ bucks may re-ignite Post-Times competition

Jeff Bezos
Jeff Bezos

When Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos bought The Washington Post last year for the paltry sum (especially for him) of $250 million, newspaper observers hoped that it presaged a new era for the struggling daily. For now, at least, it looks like those hopes are becoming a reality.

The Post is ramping up. Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post reported recently that the paper has hired 50 full-time staff journalists so far in 2014, and that it is making at least a partial return to its status as a national newspaper — a status it had retreated from during the final years of Graham family ownership. Executive editor Marty Baron told Calderone:

We’ve talked a lot about the need to grow. We’ve said that in order to grow, we have to look outside our own immediate region and the only opportunity for growth is digital. We are looking at growth opportunities around the country.

Richard Byrne Reilly recently wrote in VentureBeat that Bezos isn’t quite the hands-off owner that he appears to be, taking a deep interest in the paper’s digital initiatives. According to Reilly:

With chief information officer and technology vice president Shailesh Prakash at the helm, Bezos is pumping cash into the once staid company’s IT infrastructure. Lots of it. The new leadership has put 25 computer engineers into the newsroom, helping reporters craft multifaceted digital stories for mobile devices.

The Post’s expansion is a heartening development, and it’s one we’re seeing unfold in Boston as well. Red Sox principal owner John Henry, whose $75 million purchase of The Boston Globe was announced just days before Bezos said he was buying the Post, has, like Bezos, shown a willingness to try to grow his news organization out of the doldrums into which it had fallen.

The Globe is making some interesting moves into video; has redesigned its nearly two-decade-old free Boston.com site while moving all Globe content behind a flexible paywall at BostonGlobe.com; has developed new verticals for innovation and technology (BetaBoston) and arts and entertainment (RadioBDC and BDCWire); and will soon unveil a standalone site covering the Catholic Church.

As for the Post, it’s notable that its comeback coincides with a serious misstep at The New York Times — the botched firing of executive editor Jill Abramson. Combined with the loss this week of the Times’ chief digital strategist, Aron Pilhofer, to The Guardian, and the release of an internal report criticizing the Times’ own digital strategy, it may not be an exaggeration to suggest that energy and momentum have swung from the Times to the Post. (To be sure, the Times’ new executive editor, Dean Baquet, enjoys an excellent reputation.)

From the Pentagon Papers and Watergate in the early 1970s until about a decade ago, the Times and the Post were often mentioned in the same breath as our two leading newspapers. Good as the Post was during the final years of the Graham era, budget-cutting allowed the Times to open up a lead and remain in a category of its own.

It would be great for journalism and for all of us if Bezos, Baron and company are able to level the playing field once again.

Photo (cc) by Steve Jurvetson and used under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Michael Calderone on what to expect from Carolyn Ryan

One of the first media pieces I ever wrote for The Boston Phoenix, in the mid-1990s, was on the shrinking Statehouse press corps. Among those I interviewed was a young reporter for The Patriot Ledger of Quincy named Carolyn Ryan.

Ryan went on to great success at the Boston Herald, The Boston Globe and The New York Times. She was recently named the Times’ Washington bureau chief, and Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post has written about what to expect. An excerpt:

Ryan … has managed large reporting staffs in New York and Boston and is known inside the paper as a fierce competitor who sets high expectations. Such attributes can benefit the the Times’ Washington operation, which appears to be stepping up efforts against Politico and others in driving the political conversation of the day. Ryan may help ward off the complacency that news outlets long at the top of the media pecking order can sometimes fall prey to.

Quite a rise for Ryan, a hard-working, talented journalist. She deserves this moment, and I have no doubt she’ll make the most of it.

The Newseum caves in on reporters’ access

Yes, that’s the First Amendment carved onto the vertical slate in front of the Newseum.

For many of us, it began with a tweet Thursday morning from Boston Globe editor Marty Baron:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/GlobeMartyBaron/status/213267379352907778″%5D

Clicking led to a blog post by Globe political reporter Matt Viser, who had covered an event by Mitt Romney in Washington at the Newseum, a museum about journalism and the importance of the First Amendment. Toward the end, as Baron noted, came this rather startling paragraph:

Romney stayed to take questions. But following his 28-minute address — held at the Newseum, which is situated between the US Capitol and the White House — reporters were escorted out of the room and weren’t allowed to listen to the questions.

In the Newseum? The irony couldn’t have been any thicker. (And not just Romney. See update below.) As Huffington Post media reporter Michael Calderone put it a short time later:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/mlcalderone/status/213290979799736321″%5D

Also jumping in was New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, who guessed — correctly, as it turned out — how the Newseum would respond:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu/status/213290735695446018″%5D

Media blogger Jim Romenesko wrote that he contacted Newseum spokesman Jonathan Thompson and “suggested … that the Newseum put a clause in its room-rental contracts requiring journalists be respected in the House of Journalism — for example, not be marched out of a room when it’s time for politicians to face questions.” Please click to read Thompson’s response, but the short version is that Rosen’s prediction was on the mark. You’ll also see my suggestion for how Thompson should have responded.

So those are the facts. What are we to make of this?

First, I’m inclined to give the Romney campaign half a pass here. It is hardly unusual for presidential candidates to hold events from which the media are excluded. You may recall that one of the worst moments of Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign was when he complained to supporters at a no-media event about Pennsylvanians who “cling to guns or religion.” In that case, a supporter named Mayhill Fowler, who also blogged for the Huffington Post, decided to write it up.

But Romney only gets half a pass because he and his handlers should have known that excluding reporters from an event in the “House of Journalism,” as Romenesko called it, would create unwanted controversy in a way that excluding them from a fundraiser in a hotel banquet hall wouldn’t.

Second, and more important, the Newseum’s response was reprehensible. I’m reasonably sure officials there didn’t know Romney was going to lower the cone of silence. Maybe it’s never happened before. But the proper response would have been to express chagrin and promise that steps would be taken to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Reporters should never be kicked out of an event at the Newseum, whether it’s private or public. But as of this writing there’s been nothing from the Newseum other than Thompson’s statement and this tweet from Thursday:

[blackbirdpie url=”https://twitter.com/Newseum/status/213309765412073473″%5D

No doubt the Newseum needs the rent money. According to its tax filings for 2010, the most recent that’s publicly available at GuideStar, the museum took in $73.4 million and spent $78.8 million, for a deficit of $5.4 million.

On Thursday, though, Newseum officials stepped in it in a way that could end up costing them a lot more in future donations than they’ve ever made in private rentals. My guess is the proverbial high-level conversations are taking place right now.

By the way, Viser is back with a more comprehensive story today.

Update: Politico media reporter Dylan Byers takes a swipe at Calderone, his predecessor in the job, saying that Obama “did the exact same thing” at the Newseum back in March. Yes, it should have been news then. And it only underscores that it’s long past time for the Newseum to prohibit private groups that rent its facilities from banning reporters from their events.

Photo (cc) by David Monack and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.