The Fact Checker’s Worst Nightmare
Why facts, and the misuse thereof, matter in our political discourse
Fact checking — defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary as “to verify the factual accuracy of” — is a thankless but necessary task, often assigned to younger employees or interns in a supporting role to more senior people. I did it early on in my journalism career and have first hand experience with how tedious, frustrating, and thankless it can be.
Politicians have been bending, stretching or breaking the limits of credibility probably since the beginning of time. Citizens have to make decisions on who to vote for (or not) based on these comments. History has shown that, if left unchallenged or uncorrected, a misstatement or falsehood can have lasting implications. In the 1960 presidential election, Senator John F. Kennedy made a campaign issue out of the so-called missile gap — the erroneous idea that the United States stockpile of missiles had fallen behind that of their Soviet counterparts. In 1961 shortly after the Kennedy administration had taken office, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara said, “there is no missile gap today.” If this information had been known or made public during the 1960 election, the result might have been very different.
On the other hand, a fact check in real time can have an enormous impact. When moderator Candy Crowley called out Governor Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential debate over his comments about Benghazi, it shook him off his game and pretty much took the hot button issue off the table for the rest of the night. According to the book Double Down: Game Change 2012, Romney had not been made aware of Obama’s original comments or reviewed the transcript during debate preparations. This was an instance where incomplete or inaccurate information backfired on the candidate and the campaign.
The political force of nature that is Donald Trump has tossed conventional norms about fact checking and acceptable discourse out the window in this election cycle. Washington Post fact checker Glenn Kessler calculated seventy percent of his Trump fact checks were rated four Pinocchios — the publication’s worst rating. By comparison, other politicians get that rating ten to twenty percent of the time. Politico followed Trump for a period of 4.6 hours. During that time, they calculated more than five dozen statements he made as “mischaracterizations, exaggerations, or simply false.” That breaks down to an average of one misstatement every five minutes.
This information is not new, nor was it suppressed from voters. The Politico article was published in March, while several candidates were still in the race for the Republican nomination. The Washington Post has been tabulating Trump’s Pinocchios going back to the launch of his campaign last year. His base simply doesn’t care. In 2012, Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said, “We won’t let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers.” Four years later, Donald Trump has made that the centerpiece of his campaign, from the Republican primaries to the present day.
The sad reality is that, at least as far as Republican voters go, fact checks don’t matter in this election. A regular fixture of Trump’s stump speech is telling voters the media is dishonest or not trustworthy. In doing so, he is preemptively conditioning his audience to not believe the press when they challenge his falsehoods. He almost completely rewrote his history of supporting wars in Iraq and Libya by saying otherwise. He brought up a National Enquirer story trying to tie Sen. Ted Cruz’s father to presidential assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. Regardless of the dubious nature of the article, he introduced it into the political discourse and gave it much more attention than it would have gotten otherwise.
Trump’s truthiness works because Republicans are so conditioned to not believe anything they hear or read from the media, and they have no one but themselves to blame. However, in doing so they have placed a man with a big ego, short temper fuse, and a penchant for saying anything within striking distance of the Oval Office. While gaffes, flip flops, or outright lies might have seriously damaged or ended political ambitions of more conventional candidates, Trump has unfortunately set a precedent where facts no longer matter in our political discourse. He has made obsolete Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quote about everyone being entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts. Moreover, the problem with precedents is that it leaves a template for others to follow or expand on.
It is well past time for voters and the media to demand more honesty and accuracy from Trump. If they don’t, the thought that should keep them up at night is what would President Trump lie or mislead them about if he gets the keys to the Oval Office, and with that, the considerable powers of the federal government?