When Is a Fact Check Not a Fact Check?
Fact checkers, like others who work in media, are competing for their share of the dwindling American attention span. Even my local newspaper in a town of 8,000 residents has started to offer its readership multimedia options like video segments in an effort to accommodate contemporary sensibilities. So it is not surprising that fact checkers have also gone multimedia.
Since 2015, FactCheck.org has teamed with Jake Tapper, host of CNN’s “State of the Union,” to produce regular video segments based on its traditional written fact checks. At RealClear’s Fact Check Review, we evaluate these segments just as we do written fact checks. We are able to do so because Tapper, true to journalistic form, provides sourcing on both the claims he is evaluating and the evidence he uses to make determinations. This allows viewers to critically engage with the pieces, evaluating the evidence themselves, and ultimately subjecting Tapper’s verdicts to the crucible of reason. It also allows us to apply our methodology to the segments.
A segment from April is a typical example of FactCheck.org’s joint work with CNN. Viewers are able to access the segment via a post on FactCheck.org’s blog, “The Wire.” The post presents a summary of the claim and evidence evaluated by Tapper, including links to original sources. Also provided is a link to the full-length piece upon which the video was based. This thoroughness carries through to the video itself, which is embedded in the blog post.
In this instance, Tapper examines a claim by President Trump that the United States Postal Service is losing money by shipping packages for Amazon. Tapper plays a video clip of the president making this assertion. For each piece of evidence cited, Tapper articulates the source, and in several instances, graphical inserts are placed upon the screen to emphasize key quotes or pieces of data and their sources. The viewer is able to verify these sources, if so inclined. Tapper notes that the post office declined to supply data that would have been helpful in making a more definitive determination. Despite that caveat, he ultimately concludes that the president’s claim was incorrect. The viewer is left not only with Tapper’s verdict, but a clear road map explaining how it was reached.
Contrast this exercise with a video from the Washington Post, released in June under the title “One rally, one hour, almost 30 Trumpian claims.” The video was produced by Meg Kelly, who creates visual content for the Post and also writes standard fact checks. In the few descriptive paragraphs that accompany the video, Kelly writes that Trump made at least 29 false claims during a rally in Duluth, Minn. She notes that 20 of these claims have been “covered extensively in our project cataloguing all of the president’s false or misleading claims.” Of the president’s speech, she writes that “[b]y the end of the hour, the president made a false or misleading claim almost once every two minutes. The video above fact-checks a handful of these claims.”
Unfortunately, the video doesn’t deliver on this promise. Instead, a clip of Trump’s speech is played as a buzzer sounds when he makes a statement the Post deems false. On screen, a contrary assertion or fact is displayed for each claim, but no sources are offered for them. The video runs through only a few of the 29 claims referenced by Kelly, advancing to each one via a clever fast-forwarding effect. A counter ticks off which claim we are watching – No. 7, No. 13, and so on. But nowhere is a comprehensive list of the 29 claims given. Even the Post’s catalogue of all of Trump’s false claims lists only 20 of them, according to Kelly’s own report.
The first false claim identified by the Post (although it is listed as No. 7, the audience not being privy to the first six) in what the newspaper called a “Pinocchio-filled rally” was the president’s assertion that the Obama administration-brokered Iran nuclear deal resulted in the U.S. sending $1.8 billion to Iran. The Post corrective reads this way: “The $1.7 billion settled a decades-old claim between the U.S. and Iran. It was not a ransom.”
The newspaper is apparently quibbling with two parts of Trump’s statement. The first is his $1.8 billion estimate, which he’s used before. According to the Congressional Research Office, the correct figure was $1.7 billion. Is this really a Pinocchio-like lie? PolitiFact didn’t characterize it that way: It termed that slight exaggeration “reasonably accurate.”
The second sentence in the Post video takes the president’s remarks out of context. For starters, Trump did not use the word ransom. His allusion to the “$1.8 billion” is made in passing while he boasts about North Korea. “We got back our hostages,” he said. “And I didn’t pay $1.8 billion to get back our hostages. … They stopped shooting missiles over Japan. They stopped all nuclear testing. They stopped nuclear research.”
The president went on like this for a while. Maybe North Korea is doing these things, and maybe it isn’t, but implying that American citizens held captive in Iran were released as part of the larger negotiations between Tehran and the Obama administration isn’t necessarily a stretch. The first payment of $400 million to Iran was announced by the administration on the same day Iran released five Americans held on bogus charges. State Department spokesman John Kirby explained it this way: “While there is no connection between the $400 million and the return of our American citizens, we did, however, in those endgame hours, hold back that payment until we knew that our Americans were safe and sound -- and on their way out of Iran.”
Glenn Kessler, editor of the Washington Post’s fact-checking blog, takes issue with these conclusions. He quotes Trump as saying, “We got back our hostages. And I didn’t pay $1.8 billion.” Kessler says, “If that is not a reference to ransom, what is it? ‘Ransom’ is perfectly acceptable shorthand in a video.”
More broadly, he says that video is different from the standard fact-checking format and suggests that the Post audience would understand that. “No one is going to sit through a video on every single claim,” he said in an email. “It was not designed to be comprehensive.” He added that the video made it clear that most of Trump’s questionable assertions were not new and that those previously debunked by the newspaper can be found in the links provided.
Trump lie No. 23, according to the Post, is the president denying “collusion” with Russia in the 2016 campaign. “The investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia is ongoing,” the Post asserts. Kessler doesn’t see a problem with that. “We are saying the investigation is ongoing, where he says it’s a nothing burger from the start.”
But is that really a politician running afoul of the facts? The paper’s implication here is that, unless and until Robert Mueller clears the president of wrongdoing, Trump can’t even say aloud that he thinks he’s innocent without earning the “Pinocchio” awards the Post slaps on those found telling untruths.
That seems like a novel view of the doctrine of “innocent until proven guilty.”
This video is also a novel approach to fact-checking. It video opens by noting that Trump “hosted a campaign-style rally in Minnesota.” Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that this “fact check” more closely resembles an election-year attack ad than a dispassionate attempt to separate fact from fiction.