Fact-Checking the Media’s New Passion for Fact Checking
While President Barack Obama was in office, the media’s official “fact-checkers” rarely checked Obama administration policies and narratives for truthfulness or accuracy. In fact, they often published stories based almost entirely on administration talking points or press releases, and disregarded obvious evidence that contradicted the administration’s narratives. But now that President Donald Trump has gained office, the media’s fact-checkers have whipped themselves into a frenzy, reporting on each and every minor misstep that our new President might make during his press conferences, rallies, or in his tweets.
For example, Trump recently tweeted that “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” The press was quick to point out that Trump had gone too far in his statement, even suggesting that he was inciting violence.
“And every time that Donald Trump uses this kind of language,” said Game Change co-author John Heilemann on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, “I always worry that it’s an incitement to elements of our country that might go ahead and do something when the President of the United States calls the press the enemy of the people, that they might take that seriously.”
In response to Heilemann’s comments, Joe Scarborough said that “this is very, very dangerous” because there are unbalanced people on the left and the right. In other words, Trump could be blamed for future violence.
But, as Accuracy in Media’s (AIM) chairman Don Irvine notes, Trump is not the first to say that the media are the enemy of the American people. Democratic pollster Pat Caddell made similar comments during our ObamaNation—A Day of Truth conference in 2012: “When they [the media] desert those ramparts and they go to serve—to decide that they will now become active participants—when they decide that their job is not simply to tell you who you may vote for, and who you may not, but, worse—and this is the danger of the last two weeks—what truth that you may know, as an American, and what truth you are not allowed to know, they have, then, made themselves a fundamental threat to the democracy, and, in my opinion, made themselves the enemy of the American people.”
The two weeks Caddell was referring to were those after the attacks in Benghazi, when it was already obvious that the Obama administration was lying about the cause of the attacks, and the media were rolling over so as not to damage Obama’s chances at re-election a few weeks later.
Trump was not referring to the institution of the free press as an enemy, but rather to how biased and one-sided our mainstream media are when it comes to politics and issues of national importance. AIM’s Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi confirmed that, and much more, regarding Benghazi.
The February 20 MSNBC segment also sought to fact check Trump’s quote of Thomas Jefferson about the press, pointing to Post reporting which argued that Trump took Jefferson out of context.
“Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, and Abraham Lincoln: many of our greatest Presidents fought with the media, and called them out, often-times, on their lies,” said Trump on February 18 at a rally in Melbourne, Florida. “In fact, Thomas Jefferson said: ‘Nothing can be believed which is seen in a newspaper.’”
The UK Daily Mail ran with the headline that “Trump takes Thomas Jefferson quote out of context to bash the media…” Similarly, the Post’s Fact-Checker, Glenn Kessler, wrote that “Trump selectively quotes from Jefferson here, who, for most of his life, was a fierce defender of the need for a free press.” Jefferson was, at the time he made those comments, Kessler writes, “embittered” about reports of him having relations with his slave. Politifact piled on with “That quote checks out. But it’s not the whole story on Jefferson.” By the way, AIM has fact-checked the stories of Jefferson’s supposed relations with Sally Hemings, and found them to be baseless.
That Trump had taken Jefferson out of context has become an article of faith for the media, as they dig for as many misstatements of Trump’s that they can find. But is Trump really taking Jefferson out of context if he cites a quote that Jefferson actually made? Trump is hardly going to explain the entire history of Jefferson’s thoughts on the media while making a stump speech. This appears to be the media playing little more than a “gotcha” game with the President.
“And, in any event, Jefferson’s saying something different on another occasion does not render Trump’s quotation ‘out of context,’ misleading, or in any way inappropriate,” writes John Hinderaker for Powerlineblog.
The media continue to fact check and mock many of President Trump’s statements. They should fact-check him, and he should make a greater effort to be more precise in his choice of words. If these media outlets had applied the same standard to President Obama, then there might have been some accountability for his administration. But it is clear that it is of no benefit for Trump to lie to the press or to his supporters, for that works against his ability to advance his agenda.
Whether the Trump presidency succeeds will depend on his ability to deliver on his campaign promises regarding border security, jobs, trade deals and Obamacare, to name a few. As long as he keeps those promises, many in the public will likely continue to support him.
By focusing on the trivial, the media undermine their own legitimacy. Take, for example, Politifact’s takedown of Trump’s statement that “Look at what’s happening to every poll when it comes to optimism in our country…It’s sweeping across the country.” Politifact counters with polls on America’s low favorability of our “standing in the world” and Trump’s low approval rating. Polls can be used to show many things. This week, Trump’s approval rating is up two points in the Gallup Poll, to 42 percent, and Rasmussen has Trump down two points to 51 percent approval.
Another example is fact checking Trump’s claim that Meryl Streep is overrated as an actress. That clearly falls into the category of opinion, and is one of four examples cited by Mollie Hemingway of The Federalist in an excellent analysis of the sorry state of media “fact checks.”
We have often pointed out that fact-checking shouldn’t be the domain of a particular columnist in a newspaper, but should be part of every article published. The subjective choices of which comments should or shouldn’t be fact-checked, and what criteria to use, usually end up demonstrating the political bias of the publication or the journalist doing the fact checking.
The media, and fact-checkers, are grasping at straws in their attempts to contradict President Trump and reduce his influence. They tried it all throughout the presidential campaign, and obviously did not succeed. But it may be that the support for Trump will continue to swell: he has momentum, and may just surprise the pollsters again in 2020.
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