The poll results were alarming, but not unbelievable. They showed, among other things, that 50 percent of Donald Trump’s supporters blamed Barack Obama for not stopping 9/11 and more than 70 percent believed black men were “inherently dangerous.” The poll, reportedly conducted among 500 people in July by Occidental Public Polling, was cited in an opinion piece submitted to The Progressive.
As the editor of the piece, it fell to me to check it out. I quickly found a bylined article that reported these findings, on a website called Business Standard News. But I couldn’t find a site for Occidental Public Polling, which only Business Standard News seemed interested in citing. In fact, it was the only news outlet that had picked up on this poll.
A click on the site’s “About” button delivered the punchline: “The Business Standard News is a satirical site designed to parody the 24-hour news cycle. The stories are outlandish, but reality is so strange nowadays they could be true.”
The site got that right. A credible, verifiable poll taken in December and reported on by The Washington Post found that 52 percent of Republicans believed Trump won the popular vote (he lost by nearly three million votes). Another credible recent poll found that 67 percent of Trump backers said unemployment grew under Obama (it fell from 7.8 percent to 4.6 percent). During the campaign, there was even a legitimate poll that found a third of Trump backers believed Hillary Clinton “has ties to Lucifer.”
We live in what has been called the “post-truth era,” where even the most outrageous falsehoods find a receptive audience, thanks in no small part to the ascendency of a shameless and pathological liar to the office of President. But it’s important, perhaps more than ever, to remember that truth is not an abstract and unknowable concept. There is such a thing as objective reality. Separating fact from fiction can be done. It’s one of the core functions of journalism.
It’s important to remember that truth is not an abstract and unknowable concept. There is such a thing as objective reality. Separating fact from fiction can be done. It’s one of the core functions of journalism.
In recent years, this has given way to what some observers have called “a new kind of journalism,” commonly known as fact-checking. Of course, there is nothing new about checking information to make sure it is correct. Journalists have done it for decades with their own work. Neither is it new for journalists to truth-test the pronouncements of politicians.
But never before has there been so much concerted effort brought to this endeavor. Today, we have established nonpartisan groups including FactCheck.org, PolitiFact, and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker; ideologically affiliated groups including Media Matters for America and Accuracy in Media; and a host of news organizations that assess the veracity of political ads. It is a trend that has spread around the world, and been the subject of international conferences.
Now Lucas Graves, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, has produced “the first in-depth study of the fact-checking movement.” Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism was published last September, but its relevance has been elevated by Trump’s election and subsequent atrocious behavior.
Trump has, in effect, declared war on the press, setting a collision course. And no wonder: The purpose of the press is to enlighten, while his is to deceive. He can and will denigrate and defame it with all of his might, as staffers stand by and clap. But in the end, Trump is vulnerable to the press and what it stands for, and credible fact-checking is one of the many tools that can be used against him.
In researching his book, Graves, a former magazine journalist, enjoyed behind-the-scenes access to the top three nonpartisan fact-check organizations. He even wrote a couple of fact-checks for PolitiFact. The tale he tells is of earnest individuals plunging into uncomfortable and often contentious waters.
“The work of nonpartisan fact-checkers,” Graves writes, “attests every day to the value of a practical commitment to objectivity. On almost every page of this book we find evidence that one argument is not as good as another, that experience and understanding do count for something, and that fair and honest inquiry brings us closer to the truth.”
Graves probes the origins, goals, and methodology of modern-day fact-checking. He explains that while partisan groups generally probe only the assertions of their foes, nonpartisan fact-checkers look for checkable statements regardless of political orientation. And they focus on statements of fact, not opinions. Thus, Fact-Check.org didn’t touch Trump’s ridiculous assertion that Meryl Streep is “one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood” but did discredit his claim, made in the same tweet, that the disabled reporter he mocked had somehow changed an earlier published account.
The fact-checking movement, Graves explains, was born in the early part of this century to counter one of the essential failings of mainstream journalism—the perceived need to present “both sides” without passing judgment. Fact-checking is about passing judgment. Individual claims are probed, often exhaustively, and verdicts are rendered.
PolitiFact, which has blossomed into a national phenomenon with media partners in more than a dozen states, uses a range of designations from “True” to “Mostly False” to “Pants on Fire.” (Initially, “Mostly False” went by another name: “Barely True.” The switch was made after some recipients of this designation boasted that PolitiFact had deemed their statements “True.”)
It soon emerged that truth-testing politicians and others was 1) popular with the public, and 2) not so popular with those being fact-checked. Some Republicans scream bloody murder that statements from their side of the political aisle are deemed factually deficient much more often than those of Democrats. They say this is due to fact-checker bias in deciding which statements to check. Of course, there is another, perhaps simpler, explanation . . .
Trump, unsurprisingly, has an abysmal record on truthfulness. PolitiFact has rated more than two-thirds of his checked pronouncements as “Mostly False” or worse; only about 4 percent have been “True.” FactCheck.org in late 2015 anointed Trump its first-ever “King of Whoppers,” saying “He stands out not only for the sheer number of his factually false claims, but also for his brazen refusals to admit error when proven wrong.” Graves observes in his book that “Fact-checking appears to do a good job of catching out politicians who exhibit a flagrant disregard for the truth.”
But fact-checking is not an exact science. Judgments about what is true are often contentious, drawing flak from liberals as well as conservatives. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has been especially acerbic in her condemnation of PolitiFact, which has rated more than two dozen of her statements over the years and deemed about half “Mostly False” or worse.
“PolitiFact, you are fired. You are a mess,” she said in 2012. “You are undermining the definition of the word fact in the English language by pretending to it in your name. The English language wants its word back. You are an embarrassment. You sully the reputation of anyone who cites you as an authority.”
In this case, Maddow was reacting to PolitiFact’s decision to ding President Obama for saying in his State of the Union address that the economy had gained three million jobs. It rated this claim “Half-True,” and revised it upward to “Mostly True” after getting blowback from the public. Maddow felt the statement should have been rated completely true, because the economy gained this many jobs. But PolitiFact concluded that Obama appeared to take too much credit, “which runs counter to the reality that no mayor or governor or president deserves all the blame or all the credit for changes in employment.”
Graves, in his analysis, agrees with Maddow: “How can a claim that’s perfectly accurate not be rated completely true?” In other circumstances, he argues, Politifact has been blasted for letting its commitment to literal-mindedness block it from seeing a larger truth, such as when the group dinged Democrats for saying Republicans wanted to “end Medicare” when they were merely seeking changes that would make the program largely unrecognizable.
The value of credible fact-checking outlets, even if they are not infallible, is greatly magnified by the advent of fake news. When a sizable share of the population believes things that are demonstrably untrue, that presents an existential crisis in American democracy.
It is time for an intervention, conducted by citizens armed with truthful information and schooled in how to make discerning judgments about the news they consume, before they pass it on.
The widespread disregard for what is verifiable shocks even the purveyors of fake news. The number-one fake news story of 2016, attracting more than two million Facebook shares, was a report on a fake news site (using the name ABC News) that President Obama had banned the Pledge of Allegiance in schools nationwide. In a post-election interview with The Washington Post, the site’s proprietor, Paul Horner, lamented the gullibility of those who have helped make him rich.
“Honestly, people are definitely dumber,” Horner said. “They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore. I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary.”
“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore. I mean, that’s how Trump got elected."
Horner’s pain runs even deeper. He told the paper “I hate Trump” and that he had set out to trick the candidate’s supporters into spreading obviously false news to make them “look like idiots.” Instead, revealing these stories as false made no difference to Trump’s fans. “They just keep running with it!” he exclaimed. “Now he’s in the White House. Looking back, instead of hurting the campaign, I think I helped it.” Credit the Russian government with an assist, for using social media to spread fake news stories to further Vladimir Putin’s goal of electing Trump.
Now, in an especially audacious distortion, the right has set out to rebrand the term “fake news” to mean any news it doesn’t like. In December, the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones unveiled a list of fake news sites. The top five: The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, NBC, and MSNBC. Trump has taken up the cudgel, berating CNN in his first post-election news conference as “fake news” for reporting on an unflattering U.S. intelligence report that raised the possibility that the Russian government has compromising information it could use to blackmail him. And his administration has inaugurated the bizarro-world concept of “alternative facts.”
Getting the public to stop believing untrue things, especially in the hyper-dishonest era of Donald Trump, is going to take more than a handful of news operations devoted to fact-checking. Graves notes that “many experimental studies have shown that people prove surprisingly resistant to new information that cuts against their political views and may cling even more tightly to false beliefs after reading a correction.”
So it is important to see fact-checking for what it is: a flashlight, not a magic wand. Graves pegs fact-checkers as “journalistic reformers” whose “unifying mission has not been to clean up politics—seen as obviously futile and possibly inappropriate—but rather to change journalism.”
Politicians and other people with their own interests to advance are never going to become paragons of honesty. But journalists can hold them accountable for the falsehoods they concoct, and empower the public with the truth. As Graves puts it, “What is the role of media if not to press for some semblance of reality amid the smoke and mirrors?”
After that, it’s up to the people in this democracy to decide whether or not truth matters.