On Tuesday night, as Donald Trump and Democrats delivered competing speeches on immigration and reopening the government, news outlets sprang into action to assess the validity of their claims. Reporters scratched over every word with a fine-tooth comb to split truth from falsehood and the tell public which was which, a longstanding practice that has taken on renewed urgency in the era of QAnon. The Associated Press ran an "AP FACT CHECK" that challenged the truth-challenged president far more than it did the Democrats, but what caught everyone's eye online was this tweet:
It immediately got ratio'd by angry members of the Resistance who compared Trump to a bank robber or a murderer and noted that the president himself had said on camera he would shoulder the blame for a shutdown. It also inspired some commentary about the nature of fact-checking itself: "The fact-checking genre is fine and useful in certain circumstances," tweeted MSNBC host Chris Hayes, "but it is *woefully* under-theorized as an undertaking, which leads it into all kinds of weird, shoddy, and dubious territory."
This debate gets ontological in a hurry, because what counts as a "fact," anyway? When Trump says the wall "is absolutely critical to border security,” how do you fact-check what sounds an awful lot like opinion? (The AP tried anyway, finding that "the evidence is inconclusive." Thanks, guys!) Picking which facts to check, and how minutely you check them, and how you formally rate statements containing splashes of truth and falsehood, is a process shot through with value judgements; anyone who has ever gotten high or majored in the humanities can tell you objective truth is often sought but rarely obtained. The AP ended up checking its own fact-check and finding it lacking, conceding in a statement the tweet "could have done a better job explaining the dynamics that have led to the shutdown."
In practice, public fact-checking depends less on the often-slippery facts and more on the response of the public figures being scrutinized. For fact-checking to be useful, everyone—both the public and politicians—must first agree that facts are useful things and false statements should be condemned and apologized for. The problem is that's not the country we are living in.
The prime example of this is Trump, who has been the target of a barrage of skeptical fact-checking for years now and has mostly ignored it the way he ignores most criticism and correction from the media. Though the president constantly denounces the press—up to and including calling journalists "the enemy of the people"—he rarely makes substantive arguments about why the media is wrong, instead issuing vague blanket denouncements of "fake news."
That might be because Trump's administration is not well-equipped to dispute stories written about it—at the very beginning of his term, the White House spent an inordinate amount of time arguing unsuccessfully about the size of his inauguration crowd. But Trump also knows he doesn't have to try very hard to convince Republicans the media is out to get him. Every Republican president since at least Richard Nixon has painted the press as elitist, liberal, and biased, a charge that may have contained a kernel of truth but quickly became a convenient way to dismiss facts that displeased them. In an effort to fight back against this supposed bias, conservatives have spent decades building an alternative media structure largely disconnected from the mainstream while pushing back on what they see as liberal bias. (That includes complaints about fact-checkers unfairly targeting conservative sites, with Snopes often being singled out.)
The left has its own partisan outlets, of course, and its own complaints about right-wing or pro-corporate bias in the media. If conservative sites and email lists have long spread falsehoods, it should also be said that liberals are not immune from misinformation. Politicians of both parties shade the truth, cherry-pick statistics, and sometimes outright lie. The difference is that conservative media have increasingly merged with the GOP itself, and the elites on the right are less interested than those on the left with good-faith arguments about the truth.
This is most obvious in the case of Fox News, the most influential right-wing media outlet in the country. It's been linked with Trump ever since the network allowed the then-reality TV host to muse racistly about Barack Obama's birthplace in 2011. With Trump in office, it's become difficult to tell where Fox News ends and the administration begins: A disgraced Fox executive and a former Fox host scored jobs under Trump and disinformation machine Sean Hannity has become a presidential adviser in all but name. Trump has at times embraced even fringier figures, as he did when he made an appearance during the 2016 presidential campaign on Alex Jones's Infowars show. The membranes separating nonsense from fact-based opinion, and opinion journalism from political power, are extremely thin on the right.
That's not to say the right-wing media always gives Trump a free pass—this week, Fox anchor Chris Wallace admirably challenged White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders on apparently bogus claims about terrorists slipping past the US southern border. But it does seem like misinformation spreads more easily on the conservative corners of the internet, perhaps partly because older people, who are more likely to vote Republican, are also probably more susceptible to online fake news. And claims of mainstream media bias—warranted or not—have led conservatives to dismiss legitimate stories while excusing outrageous behavior in their own ranks. Many right-wing outlets rallied around Roy Moore when the 2017 Alabama Senate candidate was accused of sexually predatory behavior toward teenagers (Moore ultimately lost). When Republican congressional candidate Greg Gianforte body-slammed a Guardian reporter, some conservatives managed to find room in their hearts to defend him; after Gianforte won his race, Trump praised him at a rally. (The trend toward dogmatism in right-wing media has been denounced by some conservatives, among them radio host Charlie Sykes.)
A great deal of this dynamic has to do with Trump. Supporting him means, to use conservative journalist Salena Zito's memorable phrase, taking him "seriously, but not literally"—in other words dismissing or discounting the metric tonnage of untruth that comes out of his mouth. When a big part of your job is defending Trump's nonsense, or explaining how actually Trump meant something different from what he said (as billionaire right-winger Peter Thiel was doing as far back as 2016), it's hard to simultaneously maintain a rigorous adherence to reality.
But non-Trump Republicans also have a tendency to push aside inconvenient truths and wave off arguments against their policies rather than grappling with them. The most obvious recent example of this was congressional Republicans claiming the experts were wrong about their tax-cut package increasing the deficit, and then, after the experts were largely proven correct, pivoting to demanding government spending be cut to reduce the deficit their tax cuts had helped increase.
This sort of denialism is largely absent from the other side of the aisle. Democratic voters seem to both take their politicians literally and trust the mainstream media to be accurate, and as a result actually care what journalists think. And Democratic politicians spend much more time engaging with fact-checkers on the merits of their arguments. This was on display last summer, when Bernie Sanders got into a dispute with CNN's Jake Tapper and others over the cost of his Medicare for all plan and how much the government would realistically pay hospitals under such a scheme. Whichever side you were on, the argument was firmly grounded in the (fairly technical) details of how one estimates the cost of Sanders's proposed system.
Similarly, when rising left-wing star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got dinged by the fact cops for falsely claiming Defense Department accounting errors could fund most of Medicare for all, she initially suggested fact-checkers target the left more often than they do conservatives, but rather quickly turned churlishness into lavish praise of the fact-checking profession:
It's worth pausing to think about the incentives at work here. No conservative in Ocasio-Cortez's position would ever praise the press—in the Trump era, rising right-wingers instead cry fake news and spread dark conspiracy theories. But Trump's constant attacks on the journalists investigating his administration have made the Democratic base think of the press as symbols of virtue. Not even Ocasio-Cortez can get away with decrying the practice of fact-checking.
This restrains the conversation on the left—to an extent. Progressive politicians need to be cautious about backing up their ideas with data: If they say the wrong thing, not only will conservatives jump down their throats, but the same fact-checkers largely trusted by the liberal base will come after them with a barrage of Pinocchios and Pants on Fire. Trump and his allies can always cry fake news and have the support of millions who simply trust their leaders more than journalists. Democrats have no such bailout option.
The question isn't what could make conservatives trust the media again, because it seems clear that a large subset of them never will. Instead, we should ask whether the left will one day follow the right's lead and denounce any journalism that isn't useful to them. Ocasio-Cortez may have inched down that path when she said on a 60 Minutes interview, "I think that there’s a lot of people more concerned about being precisely, factually, and semantically correct than about being morally right.” In this line of criticism (expounded upon by Eric Levitz in New York), nit-picky discussions over the exact cost of Medicare for all obscure the larger truth that our current healthcare system is immoral.
This is where the limits of fact-checking become apparent, because facts are not quite the same thing as truth. Facts can tell us that over 27 million Americans lack health insurance, the US spends more per capita than any other country on healthcare, and the expenses are often passed on to people who can't afford to pay their bills. But those facts do not point toward a solution. It's clear that Medicare for all would at least provide insurance to everyone, while shifting the cost of healthcare from individuals and employers to the government. Whether that would save money in the long run—or whether a different model of reform would be more effective—is a matter for competing wonks and studies, not fact-checkers.
Truth is something different, at least to many people—something instinctual rather than reasoned, a feeling that doesn't care about your facts. A truth might be: It is a travesty that people are needlessly bankrupted or killed because they lack access to healthcare that the US, the richest country in the world, could provide if it had the will. Politicians are elected because they speak such truths, not because they have photographic command of the facts. Evidently, enough Americans felt Trump gave them that kind of truth despite his evident disregard for the humdrum stuff of reality for him to be elected president, albeit without even a plurality of the popular vote. To beat Trump in 2020, the left will need to speak an equally powerful truth and convince enough of the country that the government has failed to provide for its citizens and that the wealthy have too much power.
What both sides ought to demand of our politicians is that they construct their truths out of facts, and that they do the hard work of explaining why their proclaimed crises are worthy of urgent solutions. Conservative media failed to do this in Trump's case, instead enabling him to climb to the top of a crowded primary field on demagoguery alone. As the left raises its own champions, it's up to media both mainstream and partisan to take these figures both seriously and literally. This means fact-checking specific claims but also not reducing every debate to whether something is technically true. Moral certainty is no excuse for getting things wrong, but at the same time pointing out factual errors is an insufficient response to Trump.
Fact-checkers thoroughly pointed out Trump's falsehoods before the 2016 election, and here we still are. To beat him, Democrats will have to make arguments that make use of the facts, but also have the ring of truth.
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