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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The Globe gets ready to sail its Arc into Rhode Island

Big changes are coming for Boston Globe digital subscribers, not to mention staff members. Over the next few weeks, visitors to BostonGlobe.com will be driven to Arc, the paper’s new content-management system, according to an email to the staff from senior product manager Eric Westby. The email was passed along by a trusted source who asked to remain anonymous.

The Globe is licensing Arc from The Washington Post, where the CMS was developed.  As a Globe subscriber, I’m hoping for a consistent user experience across all platforms, web, tablet and phone, as is the case with washingtonpost.com and its “classic” (black) apps. The Globe unveiled an Arc-based mobile app last fall, but it remains underdeveloped. Among other things, you still can’t swipe horizontally through articles on the iOS version. (I’m told that you can if you’re an Android user.)

The final steps toward adopting Arc come at the same time that the Globe is making a digital push into Rhode Island, hiring three veteran reporters (so far) at a time when The Providence Journal is being decimated by GateHouse Media, its corporate chain owner. Improved digital platforms should help with that push — but only if the Globe really commits to getting Arc right.

The full text of Westby’s email follows.

Dear Colleagues,

A quick update on the upcoming Arc CMS launch. We’re happy to report that our Arc beta test has been a success, and we’ll be ending the test and moving BostonGlobe.com visitors to an Arc-driven site beginning April 22. Our plan is to transition the bulk of our traffic from Méthode to Arc gradually over the course of that week. Visitors will be randomly assigned to the Arc group in stages, with all traffic driven to Arc by Friday, April 26. Two things to note:

    • The plan is for the redesigned Globe.com homepage and the sports section front to follow one week later, in order to mitigate any potential workflow or technical issues at launch. Our current plan is to move these two critical pages from Méthode to Arc on or about May 1.
    • With this launch, we will have effectively moved BostonGlobe.com to a sleeker, more modern, and more flexible design, one that’s built for our future and run with the best system in its class. You’ll still notice an odd page here and there in the old site layout: Today’s Paper, Crosswords, Author pages, etc. We will be transitioning these pages one at a time in the weeks ahead, both to account for variables with the coding and to ensure our readers don’t lose any functionality during this important transition.

Articles will continue to be written and edited in Méthode for now, with the move to Ellipsis (Arc’s article authoring tool) soon to follow. This rollout will be a phased approach that will require training and careful planning. You’ll be receiving more information on the Ellipsis rollout soon.

There will no doubt be bugs to squash, but this launch will mark a major milestone in our Arc rollout.

All the best,

Eric Westby
Senior Product Manager, BostonGlobe.com

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Elizabeth Warren and that Washington Post story

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Jeff Bezos just made good on an unusual promise about body parts and wringers

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

This seems rather prescient given the events of the past few days. Here’s what Jeff Bezos told Washington Post staffers in 2013, shortly after it was announced he’d buy the paper. From “The Return of the Moguls”:

In his message to Washington Post staff members the day that the purchase was announced, Bezos alluded to an infamous moment during Watergate when Nixon henchman John Mitchell barked at Bernstein that “Katie Graham’s gonna get her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if a particularly damaging story were published. Bezos wrote, “While I hope no one ever threatens to put one of my body parts through a wringer, if they do, thanks to Mrs. Graham’s example, I’ll be ready.” As we shall see, it was not long before Bezos would be put to the test.

The first quote is from Katharine Graham’s autobiography, “Personal History”; the second is from a Post account of the sale.

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Book review: Jill Abramson paints a cloudy picture for journalism and democracy

Jill Abramson. Photo (cc) 2015 via Wikimedia Commons.

It’s easy to imagine how Jill Abramson’s new book might have turned out differently. In “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts,” the veteran journalist follows the fortunes of four media organizations. BuzzFeed and Vice are young, energetic, willing to break rules and try new things. The New York Times and The Washington Post are stodgy, sclerotic giants trying to grope their way toward a digital future. We all know how that’s going to turn out. Right?

Well, something unexpected happened on the way to the old-media boneyard.

Read the rest at The Boston Globe. And talk about this review on Facebook.

The Globe hits a digital benchmark — and finds a new art critic in Toronto

Murray Whyte (via LinkedIn)

A couple of good-news items from The Boston Globe.

First, the paper is reporting that it has passed the 100,000 level for digital-only subscriptions, a benchmark the paper’s executives had originally hoped to reach by the end of June. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has the details.

When I interviewed Globe editor Brian McGrory for “The Return of the Moguls” nearly two years ago, he said the paper would start to look like a sustainable business if it could hit 200,000. My mother always told me that the first 100,000 is the hardest. But the Globe’s digital presence is in the midst of getting an upgrade as it adopts The Washington Post’s Arc content-management system this fall. If the Arc transition goes smoothly, then perhaps another circulation boost will follow.

Second, the Globe is announcing today that it has finally replaced Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee, who left for the Post nearly a year ago. The Globe’s new critic is Murray Whyte, currently at The Star of Toronto, whose arrival in Boston, I’m told, was delayed because of immigration issues.

In an email to the Globe’s staff, deputy managing editor for arts and newsroom innovation Janice Page and arts editor Rebecca Ostriker call Whyte “a truly extraordinary writer” who “brings a unique combination of keen insight, wide-ranging expertise, superb judgment, and an ability to recognize and write about what really matters.” The full text of their message follows.

We are delighted to announce that Murray Whyte is joining the Globe as art critic, starting next month.

Murray was born in Winnipeg and grew up partly in Calgary, and he will completely understand if you have no idea where those places are (directly north — way north — of Minnesota and Montana, respectively). He’s spent the better part of two decades in Toronto, and the last 10 of those as the art critic at the Toronto Star, Canada’s largest daily newspaper, where he is a recent winner of Canada’s National Newspaper Award, the country’s highest journalistic honor.

As Globe readers will soon learn, Murray is a truly extraordinary writer. He brings a unique combination of keen insight, wide-ranging expertise, superb judgment, and an ability to recognize and write about what really matters. He does not focus on art for art’s sake, but rather connects art to what can make a difference to people living in the world — to society, to ideas, to our culture as a whole.

Murray’s eclectic background also extends beyond arts journalism, including a stint as a producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. In fact, he may be the only journalist in North America who has reported from the oil sands in northern Alberta and Uranium City in Saskatchewan as well as the Venice Biennale.

But the visual arts have always been in his bones. As a journalism graduate student at New York University, his refuge was the Museum of Modern Art, where he could exult in the stillness of Mark Rothko or the luminescence of Claude Monet. Art museums, he says, are his version of a walk in the woods — a rejuvenating, almost transcendent communion with the sublime.

He’s also a huge hockey fan — another kind of sublime — and would appreciate any spare tickets when the Calgary Flames come to town, because surely, he says, there can’t be anyone else here as interested in the progress of Dillon Dube on left wing this year. Can there?

Murray will be making his home in the Boston area with his wife, photographer Sian Richards, and their two children. He’ll arrive at the Globe in mid-November. Please join us in giving him a very warm welcome.

Janice and Rebecca

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A few preliminary thoughts on The Boston Globe’s new Arc-powered app

Following a soft launch, The Boston Globe today is going public with its new app for tablets and phones, powered by Arc, The Washington Post’s content-management system. I’ve been playing with it since Tuesday, and I have a few very preliminary observations.

— It’s fast and attractive in a Post kind of way. The icon for the app is a white “B” on a black background, and the look and feel are similar to the Post’s black app. Stories load quickly, pictures are big and the type size can be easily adjusted.

— The organizational scheme is intuitive and makes sense. Across the top is a navigation bar that lets you choose from among Top Stories, Sports, Metro and the like. One of the choices is Marijuana, a hint of the paper’s expanded coverage of all things pot that is said to be in the works. Click on “Sections” at the bottom and you can drill down to more specific coverage. Again, this will be familiar to Post readers.

— Unlike virtually any news app I’ve ever used, you can’t swipe from one story to the next. Instead, you have to click the back arrow to return to whatever section you’re browsing. Stories load quickly enough that this amounts to a minor annoyance, not a major one. But it needs to be fixed.

— Stories appear in seemingly random order, even in the Top Stories section. As I scroll through the section right now, I see a few news stories followed by some sports, then back to news, then some more sports. The Top Stories sections of the best newspaper apps — those offered by the Post and The New York Times — are divided into sections and have a curated feel to them. The Globe needs to do better.

— As with the Post, there is no Today’s Paper listing of stories. That’s actually one of my favorite features of the Times’ app, since I might read a few stories on my way to work and then pick it up later during the day. A newspaper as a fixed record of the day’s most important events may seem old-school, but stories you might want to read tend to disappear from continuously updated apps. There’s a Today’s Paper listing at the Globe’s website, which works fine on a phone, even if it’s slow. I’d like to see that migrate to the app as well.

Based on first impressions, I’d give the Globe’s app a “B.” Given that the Globe’s owners, John and Linda Henry, have bet the farm on selling pricey digital subscriptions (currently just shy of 100,000), the tech side ought to keep working and get it into the “A” range. There’s a lot to like, a few things that need to be improved and one shortcoming — the inability to swipe from story to story — that is just plain unacceptable.

Update: A Facebook commenter says that you can swipe with the Android version. I’m an iOS user. But that suggests the problem won’t be too difficult to fix.

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Trump’s Amazon-Post vendetta reflects his corrupting sense of victimization

Previously pubished at WGBHNews.org.

If you care to read one more example of President Trump’s fundamentally corrupt way of looking at the world, I recommend Jon Lee Anderson’s profile of the former ambassador to Panama, John Feeley, which appears in the current New Yorker. Anderson begins with a shocking anecdote — or, rather, an anecdote that would be shocking if we had not long since gone numb. Feeley was sitting outside the Oval Office in June 2017, waiting for a meeting with Trump. He heard the president drop an F-bomb in the midst of a tirade, then was led in. Vice President Mike Pence and future chief of staff John Kelly were with the president. Anderson continues:

As he took a seat, Trump asked, “So tell me — what do we get from Panama? What’s in it for us?” Feeley presented a litany of benefits: help with counter-narcotics work and migration control, commercial efforts linked to the Panama Canal, a close relationship with the current President, Juan Carlos Varela. When he finished, Trump chuckled and said, “Who knew?” He then turned the conversation to the Trump International Hotel and Tower, in Panama City. “How about the hotel?” he said. “We still have the tallest building on the skyline down there?”

I offer this to illuminate a different story — one that was nearly overlooked last weekend amid an unusually weird and disturbing outburst of Trumpian mishegas. Last Friday, The Washington Post reported that Trump had been pressuring Postmaster General Megan Brennan to double the postal rates paid by the retail giant Amazon to deliver its packages. According to the Post’s Damian Paletta and Josh Dawsey, Brennan has pushed back repeatedly, even showing the president slides to demonstrate that the Postal Service’s arrangement with Amazon and several other companies is a plus for the money-losing agency.

But Trump would not be appeased, and the reason seems obvious: The Post is owned by Jeff Bezos, the founder and chief executive of Amazon. And Trump — motivated, as always, by his personal need to assert dominance over anyone he perceives as an enemy — wants to punish the Post for its tough coverage of his campaign and his presidency. As an unnamed “Republican close to the White House” recently told Gabriel Sherman of Vanity Fair: “Trump doesn’t like The New York Times, but he reveres it because it’s his hometown paper. The Washington Post, he has zero respect for.” Sherman reported that the people around Trump have been plotting other actions against Bezos as well — such as canceling a contract for Amazon to supply cloud computing services to the Pentagon and mobilizing Republican state attorneys general to investigate Amazon’s business practices.

All of this is, needless to say, deeply transgressive. If a Democratic president acted like this, the Republican majority in Congress would be calling for hearings, and whispers of impeachment would be in the air. And if this were an isolated instance, it would be a major news story for many days, if not weeks. But because Trump lurches from one outrage to another, often over the span of a few hours, the latest eruption in his ongoing war against the Post has been all but drowned out.

Take, for instance, Trump’s latest obsession: demanding information on the FBI’s investigation into his campaign’s contacts with Russia. His improper interference in an investigation of himself (you could call it obstruction of justice, in the lay sense if not necessarily the legal sense) has already resulted in the outing a confidential informant, possibly at some risk to his life, and to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s twisting himself into a pretzel to avoid resigning and thus to keep special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation on track. “It’s an incredible historical moment,” Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School, told Charlie Savage of The New York Times. She added that Trump’s latest action was “the culmination of a lot of moments in which he has chipped away at prosecutorial independence, but this is a direct assault.”

Or consider a Washington Post column by Max Boot, a leading anti-Trump conservative, who attempted on Monday to document the political norms Trump had violated in just the previous week. It’s a breathtaking list, ranging from Trump’s lifting of sanctions against the Chinese cellphone firm ZTE right after China provided a $500 million loan for a Trump business venture in Indonesia to a Times report that the Trump campaign was offered help by the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“Trump’s assault on democratic norms is all the more dangerous because the response is so tepid,” Boot wrote. “Republicans approve of, or pretend not to notice, his flagrant misconduct, while Democrats are inured to it. The sheer number of outrages makes it hard to give each one the attention it deserves.”

Perhaps the best way of looking at all of these incidents was expressed by Adam Serwer in The Atlantic. Rather than multiple Trump scandals, Serwer wrote, there is really just one mega-scandal: “the corruption of the American government by the president and his associates, who are using their official power for personal and financial gain rather than for the welfare of the American people, and their attempts to shield that corruption from political consequences, public scrutiny, or legal accountability.”

That strikes me as a good way of thinking about Trump’s assault on the media in general and The Washington Post in particular. He has no respect for the First Amendment or for the role of a free press in a democratic society. It’s all about his needs and wants, and nothing else matters.

Sexual harassment and The Boston Globe

In case you missed it, Emily Rooney, Adam Reilly, and I discussed on “Greater Boston” Tuesday an accusation that Boston Globe editor Brian McGrory sexually harassed Hilary Sargent, a former top editor at the Globe’s free Boston.com website. On Monday, Sargent tweeted out a copy of an inappropriate text she said McGrory had sent her. You can watch our discussion and read Emily’s synopsis by clicking here.

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No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”

Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.

1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.

But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.

2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.

3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.

In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.

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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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