Why the Media Can’t Tell the Truth About Donald Trump’s Lies
On Sunday afternoon, Donald Trump retweeted an objective lie. The lie claimed that 81 percent of murdered white people are killed by black people. In truth, 84 percent of murdered white people are murdered by other white people, almost the exact opposite the claim. Not only were the statistics wrong, but the tweet cited the “Crime Statistics Bureau—San Francisco.”
This organization doesn’t exist.
The bureau was the creation of a white supremacist on Twitter, advancing a racist meme with a lie. Trump hasn’t taken down the tweet, apologized, or even acknowledged it.
But because of the way the Internet values its information, Donald Trump lied again, and he will once again get away with it.
Here were the headlines from mainstream outlets about Trump’s entirely made up piece of information:
“Trump Tweet on Black Crime Sets Off Firestorm,” wrote Fox News.
“Fact Checking Donald Trump’s Questionable ‘USA Crime Statistics’ Tweet Broken Down by Race,” wrote the New York Daily News.
“Trump Takes Heat for Tweet About Black Murder Rates,” wrote The Hill.
Noticeably absent from these headlines was that Donald Trump’s tweet was entirely fabricated. The Hill’s doesn’t even dig into the credibility of the statistics until the ninth paragraph.
Donald Trump lied. And yet traditional news organizations can’t or won’t call him that in the name of “objectivity”—appearing to favor one party over another—even if one candidate is spreading a rumor that unfairly maligns an entire race.
“The incentive for candidates [to lie] is that most media outlets don’t have the resources to check for accuracy immediately, but since the U.S. news media is based on the commercial model—and more eyeballs on the page or the screen is good for business—the networks love it when someone like Donald Trump says outrageous stuff,” Michelle Amazeen, an assistant communications professor at Rider University, told The Daily Beast.
“Fact-checking rains on the parade of that revenue model.”
Amazeen co-authored a study for the American Press Institute that largely had great things to say about fact-checking. Prevalent fact-checking operations like Politifact or FactCheck.org do, in fact, serve as a deterrent for candidates who are thinking about lying during an election cycle, she and her co-authors found.
But when a candidate figures out that he can say whatever he wants in order to advance a narrative and can have immediate benefits—and knowingly exploits it—all bets are off.
“Beyond being ineffective, correcting claims about a highly controversial issue can actually backfire. People who are diehard believers hold their beliefs even more firmly when those beliefs are challenged,” Amazeen wrote earlier this year in The Washington Post.
“We know that a lot of people don’t even read past the first sentence, so the initial information gets passed around and, unfortunately, there’s not much stopping them,” Amazeen told The Daily Beast. “Fact-checking is spreading, but not nearly as fast as that first information.”
As Poynter’s Craig Silverman once put it, “Initial, inaccurate information will be retweeted more than any subsequent correction.”
Trump’s candidacy turned misinformation into ammunition in just four easy steps.
First, say or tweet an incorrect piece of information, knowing any network that calls you on it will be dubbed partial by one of the two political parties.
Two, watch as mainstream news outlets write about the controversy of your statements—as the right and left line up on predictable sides—but not call you out on it. The stories will often present an objective fact-check, placed with seemingly equal weight to what one of your supporters feels is true. “Objectivity” and “balance” means treating someone who is factually wrong, even lying, the same as the person who is right and honest.
Three, fire up your base when one news organization dares to disobey the second rule. Call them “biased,” “failing,” or “unfair.”
Four, watch your Q rating soar!
And Trump’s campaign is built on lies more than any other in recent memory.
“This cycle is very different with the number of flat-out wrong claims,” said Angie Drobnic-Holan, editor-in-chief of Politifact. “Some of our fact-checks are not all clear cut. Some are in the mostly true range, and that’s fine. But this year, the amount of things that did not or could not have happened? Just go through our ‘Pants On Fire’ section. You’ll see way more examples than in previous years.”
Politifact’s “Pants On Fire” designation is reserved for the most severe, unbelievable lies told by politicians on any side of the aisle.
“Take Donald Trump’s scorecard and compare it to Michele Bachmann or Mitt Romney at this time [in the election cycle]. Bachmann is probably the closest parallel, because she said some very provocative things that turned out to be completely wrong,” she said. “It’s not even close. And she only won the Ames poll, then that was it. He’s different.”
Even by 2016 standards, Trump is lapping the field in “Pants On Fires.”
“Tell you what: Look at Jeb Bush’s scorecard. Look at Marco Rubio’s scorecard. Anybody’s. If you’re a politician, and you’re talking about controversial things, odds are you’ll say something wacky at some point,” she said. “But they don’t look anything like Donald Trump’s.”
On a basic human level, too, Drobnic-Holan can see how this kind of thing goes uncovered by beat reporters and mainstream media. Journalists are tired. They can’t check everything right away when they’re on deadline. But writing a story about a controversy over a piece of misinformation one already knows is untrue, and not reporting it that way?
“If you’re repeating information that you know to be wrong without letting your readers know, then you’re doing them a disservice,” she said. “That’s the most vital service we provide, don’t you think? Is that controversial?”
It shouldn’t be, but it is.
The radio silence on Trump’s lies may have a direct and lasting effect on the country, too.
“These claims get repeated down ballot,” said Amazeen. “Governors, judges, dog catchers.”
So how can we stop it?
“We need to re-examine what our news media are doing. We need to find a way to get readers to value the content,” she said.
That means driving news outlets away from placing objectively true information next to feelings about what happened in an effort to shield themselves from the ridicule of one side. That ridicule, in the current economy of the Internet, could lead to a loss of unique visitors—the thing that matters most to advertisers on the Web. News companies, one way or another, need to keep the lights on.
A better way of monetizing the news is coming (like paid subscriptions), but until then candidates like Trump can revel in a mostly controversy-first, fact-second news cycle.
“Fact checking is spreading, but not nearly as fast as the misinformation before it. This is what journalists are supposed to be doing,” said Amazeen. “Journalism has been gutted over the years because it’s not making the money that it used to make. We’ve had a hollowing out of journalism.”
Drobnic-Holan sees a better future. She says her site is being cited more frequently this time around, that there’s a real appetite for it in the 2016 race.
“I really take seriously we’re independent, that we’re not taking sides, that we’re not making a judgment on the overall candidacy of a specific candidate, just their facts,” she said. “We’re trying to provide information for voters to inform the voters, then let the process play out.”
But shouldn’t everybody be doing that? Isn’t that just what journalism is? Isn’t fact checking the whole thing—not just the eighth paragraph underneath the controversy?
“I think so. I think people are starting to see how powerful this form of journalism is,” she says. “That if a journalist’s not fact checking, they’re not doing their jobs.”