Fact-checkers in the past year have come to resemble emergency physicians doing triage in a raging epidemic. The amount of work is overwhelming, but they feel more essential than ever.
Volume is not their only challenge. At both national and local levels, the journalists who attempt to hold politicians accountable for telling the truth are finding that many officials persist in repeating debunked falsehoods. On top of that, some fact-checkers, mostly on the local level, say they have been on the receiving end of more combative responses from politicians whose claims are found to be false.
The expectation is that the kinds of challenges seen in the 2018 campaign will carry over into the 2020 cycle, which has already begun — several Democrats have already announced presidential bids and more are expected to follow soon — meaning this is a good time to think about how fact-checkers can and should respond to conflict with their subjects, including in cases where the journalist becomes a target.
Even more so than in 2018, fact-checkers in the coming cycle will be scrutinizing a barrage of rhetoric surrounding some of the issues that most divide Americans, such as immigration and health care — especially from the president. With Democrats now in control of the House, President Trump has already escalated his attacks — often based on falsehoods — on Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other party leaders.
The challenge is that fact-checking has not slowed the pace of falsehoods. Yet that makes the work all the more important.
Trump’s prolific lying poses a unique challenge
Tracking the president’s rhetoric, the Washington Post’s Fact Checker concluded that President Trump in his first two years in office has made 8,158 false or misleading claims. That, The Post said, includes more than 6,000 such claims in the president’s second year.
The issue is not just quantity. The president also “won” a PolitiFact reader competition for the most significant falsehood of 2018: his statement that “Democrats want to invite caravan after caravan of illegal aliens into our country. And they want to sign them up for free health care, free welfare, free education, and for the right to vote.”
A Washington Post poll released Dec. 14 asked about whether Americans see Trump’s rhetoric as inaccurate compared with other politicians and the mainstream media. It found that nearly half of respondents said Trump makes claims that are “flat-out false,” compared with less than one-third who said the same of congressional Republicans and Democrats or of the mainstream media.
The poll also held some encouraging news for fact-checkers. More than 6 in 10 Americans said they believe fact-checking organizations when they conclude that Trump has made a false claim. About half were confident in similar conclusions by newspapers and on cable news.
The challenge presented by the sheer volume of rhetoric goes beyond Trump. In 2018 there was also a flood of material to be checked at the local level, where fact-checkers made a determined effort to examine claims emanating not only from House, Senate and gubernatorial campaigns but also from political action committees whose ads dominated the airwaves in the months before the election.
At PolitiFact, Editor Angie Drobnic Holan said checkers tried to avoid being Trump-centric and focused their efforts on several toss-up races that would determine the balance of power in Congress. PolitiFact was also able to expand its focus to include some competitive House races through a donation from the Newton and Rochelle Becker Charitable Trust, further localizing coverage.
In Sacramento, Capital Public Radio news reporter Chris Nichols, who heads up the station’s fact-checking initiative PolitiFact California, said that given the number of potential claims to check, he settled on a strategy early in the 2018 cycle to focus intently on one race — the state’s contest for governor. He said that because politicians repeat things, he stockpiled fact checks so they’d be available in an information bank that could be quickly tapped in settings like a debate or forum, where they would be needed in real time, and sent out on a social media.
Politicians persist in pushing debunked claims
One theme that emerged in 2018 was a tendency by politicians to repeat claims even if they had been debunked, a pattern The New York Times cited in its year-end analysis of Trump’s rhetoric.
Tom Kertscher, who was a PolitiFact Wisconsin reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for eight years until this month, said the repetition was particularly noticeable in his state’s races for governor and Senate. The Wisconsin GOP, for example, repeated claims that the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, state schools Superintendent Tony Evers, didn’t move to revoke the license of a Madison-area middle school teacher who viewed pornography at school. PolitiFact Wisconsin had already found claims involving this episode either mostly false or half-true, yet the party repeated it the day after Evers sealed his party’s nomination.
Kertscher speculated that politicians stick with such claims because early in their campaigns “candidates settle on a certain, small number of messages they really want to emphasize and it doesn’t matter whether we’re fact-checking them or not. They’re just going to keep doing it. There might be some altering of the message as the campaign goes on. But through polling or whatever, they’ve decided these are the messages that are going to win.”
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker on Dec. 11 even created a new category for recurring falsehoods: The Bottomless Pinocchio, which it awarded to Trump, citing his repetition of false claims on issues like tax cuts, trade and immigration. The Post noted that the president repeated the false claim that GOP tax cuts were the largest in history no less than 127 times.
In congressional races, the echo effect was compounded by a fusillade of negative ads paid for by third-party political action committees, many of which made false or misleading claims about the opposing party’s actions and priorities. The result was the same falsehood repeated not only by one candidate, but by or on behalf of several. Fact-checkers say keeping up with those ads was one of the biggest challenges they faced in the 2018 cycle.
In North Carolina, much of the messaging was driven by state parties, or by the general assembly caucuses’ organized political arms, which fed the repetition, said Mark Stencel, co-director of the Reporters’ Lab at Duke University, which tracks the spread and impact of political fact-checking.
That kind of repetition can make it easier to get fact-checks out to readers because claims have already been checked, so fact-checkers can just resurface previous work when a politician reverts back to a talking point that’s already been dissected.
On the national level, Duke’s Tech & Check Cooperative is working on ways to make that resurfacing of previous fact checks easier. Already it has worked with the Washington Post, PolitiFact and Factcheck.org to use its FactStream app to help fact-checkers quickly surface previous fact-checks so journalists can provide real-time analysis on live events like the State of the Union.
It is also developing a tool, which could ultimately be applied at the local level, to automatically surface previously published fact checks on TV and in live stream. “In other words, if two local candidates are debating, and one of them repeats a statement the fact-checkers found false or true, we could pop-up an alert that would briefly remind the viewers that we’ve heard this one before and here’s what we found,” Stencel said.
The Post encountered the repetition when it found that a number of House candidates were mischaracterizing the paper’s fact checks on the 2010 health care law — and ended up fact-checking ads about the misuse of its own product. The candidates running the ads had been accused by their opponents of opposing protections for people with pre-existing conditions. The candidates falsely asserted that The Post had assigned four Pinocchios (its rating for “whoppers”) to their opponents’ accusations.
Wrote Kessler, the Post’s chief fact checker: “Somewhere, somehow, a memo must have gone out to Republican lawmakers who voted for the American Health Care Act (AHCA), the Republican bill to repeal and replace Obamacare: If you are attacked for undermining protections for people with existing health problems, jab back by saying the claim got Four Pinocchios from The Washington Post.”
After being fact-checked, some officials are taking a more combative stance
The same brazenness that inspired the misuse of fact checks also characterized another response by some campaigns to fact checks they didn’t like: Several fact-checkers said the resistance from campaigns was stronger than in past years. This was more pronounced on the local level.
In Wisconsin, Jessica Arp, assistant news director and reporter at WISC-TV in Madison, which has had a fact-checking operation for more than two decades, said that on two occasions she had to end phone calls with campaign officials who disagreed with the judgments she reached in her fact checks–even though she had gone to great lengths to document her sources and back up her work.
“Some of the pushback I got from campaigns this year was more aggressive than it has been in past years,” she said.
In Nevada, then-Sen. Dean Heller’s campaign placed an ad on Facebook objecting to a PolitiFact judgment about Heller’s assertion that his challenger, Democratic Rep. Jacky Rosen, “skipped work” on a day the House was voting on a measure to expand funding for Vietnam veterans. PolitiFact concluded that Heller’s claim was “mostly false.”
The fact-checker dissected Heller’s claim that “Rosen went AWOL on Nevada’s veterans once again when she skipped work to attend a publicity stunt,” referring to a trip the congresswoman made to the U.S. southern border on the day the House voted on the veterans’ measure. PolitiFact concluded that while Rosen was not present for the vote, she did not “skip work” because she was making an official visit to sites near the Mexican border as part of her work regarding family separations there. Furthermore, it noted, her absence did not come at the expense of veterans because the legislation passed unanimously under a procedure usually used for non-controversial bills. Her non-vote had no impact on the outcome.
Heller’s Facebook ad linked to a story on a conservative website, the Daily Wire, calling PolitiFact’s conclusion “nitpicking.” That message was driven home among conservative readers — the Republican base — with further criticism in other conservative media. The right-leaning Daily Caller called the fact-check “oddly rated” and said a more accurate assessment would have been “mostly true” because there is no way PolitiFact could know whether the border trip was a publicity stunt. In the Washington Examiner, Becket Adams did an opinion piece saying PolitiFact bent over backwards to justify Rosen’s trip. (Rosen, by the way, won the Senate seat.)
The ad purchase attacking the finding was a new twist, said PolitiFact reporter Jon Greenberg, who wrote the piece.
“I don’t remember another instance in the 2014 midterms when a campaign made an ad attacking a finding that we reached,” he said, adding that it suggests the campaign felt they were getting some kind of leverage out of criticizing the fact-checkers.
In a report for API in 2015, Mark Stencel wrote about the weaponization of fact-checking, and the attacks against fact-checkers by politicians who didn’t like their conclusions.
Today, he says, the references to fact-checking in Facebook’s political ad database show that that politicians and their supporters are still happy to cite fact-checks that either reinforce their positions or, better still, undermine their opponents’.
At the same time, Stencel noted, polling about the press consistently shows that voters on the right trust the news media less than other sources of information, meaning it may be easier for a politician on the right to “shrug off” a fact-check — or hit back at the fact-checker.
“That’s particularly going to be true in social media channels and at events where politicians are speaking directly to core supporters,” Stencel said. “Public distrust in the press potentially shields a lot of politicians from fact-checking — at least among the voters who feel that way.”
Midterm elections tend to be about the base, with politicians targeting their most loyal supporters because they are the most likely to show up at the polls in the absence of a presidential race. That makes it hard to say whether 2018 marked a high-water mark for the volume of claims to check and the repetition of those that have been found false. Politicians may just have been speaking to their hard-core supporters with hard-core messages.
But amid the combat, there were some heartening signs. Some fact-checkers said there were cases in 2018 in which politicians’ misleading claims about their opponents did not help push them into the win column — and could possibly have backfired.
Kessler pointed to a fact check by his colleague Salvador Rizzo in the New Jersey Senate race, where the Republican challenger Bob Hugin sought to revive an unproven claim that the FBI had evidence that Sen. Bob Menendez engaged in sex with minors in the Dominican Republic. The Fact Checker gave Hugin’s ad four Pinocchios and Kessler noted that the rating was widely cited in New Jersey media. (Menendez retained his seat.)
Other fact-checkers noted that for all rhetoric from Trump around the migrant “caravan” heading toward the southern border, the two Senate seats Republicans lost were in southwestern states. In addition to Rosen’s win in Nevada, Arizona Democrat Kyrsten Sinema narrowly defeated Republican Martha McSally for an open seat vacated by retiring Sen. Jeff Flake.
Is this environment a permanent state?
Moving into the next cycle, all indications are that fact-checkers can expect the trends of repetition and confrontation to continue.
The polarization in American politics shows no signs of abating. The standoff over the recent government shutdown, and the rhetoric used, suggests fact-checking must continue to be part of a new reality. Facts are not meaningless. But they contend in a marketplace where some in the political arena, and in the public, discount them. And fact-checkers are likely to be dismissed or lashed out at.
We saw this recently when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took after fact-checkers on Twitter when asked by Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes about a Washington Post fact check awarding her four Pinocchios for a tweet about Pentagon spending. Ultimately that fracas came to an amiable end, but others have emerged since, including her disputation of a three-Pinocchio rating of the congresswoman’s comments on the living wage.
From their experiences in 2018 and before, fact-checkers have a range of responses they can turn to when they are confronted by a politician challenging their work.
One, said PolitiFact’s Holan, is to ignore it and just stand by the original fact check. Another is to go back and re-check the claim, just to ensure that it was the right conclusion in the first place. Or, the fact-checker can publicly respond to the challenge by saying they stand by their rating.
Holan said she often encounters people who have the false notion that somehow in order for fact-checking to “work,” everyone would agree on the facts and not argue about them. “That’s not the real world,” she said. “You don’t say we still have fires, so firefighters have failed.”
Kessler said if someone writes a thoughtful critique of a fact-check, he will update it with a note and link. If it’s not thoughtful, he said, he will ignore it.
“We never try to pretend we have the patent on wisdom, and some of the ratings are judgment calls open to dispute,” he said. “My feeling is fact checks are never done and can always be updated with new information or additional details – and there have been a few times we have changed the Pinocchio rating in response to new information.”
In the case of Ocasio-Cortez, he said, he engaged with her on Twitter because she tagged him in a tweet.
After an election, many fact-checkers advance their accountability journalism through “promise checks”: assessments of the degree to which officials have fulfilled pledges made on the campaign trail.
But 2019 has already brought a number of high-stakes political battles — a divided government, and president whose tendency to avoid the facts led to a robust discussion of whether the networks should even carry his recent live address from the Oval Office.
They eventually did, and fact-checkers worked through the speech to identify the falsehoods. But the debate surfaced the question of whether Trump has so flouted the norms around truth-telling that he has made fact-checkers’ jobs, at least in real time, almost impossible.
Trump, wrote James Fallows in the Atlantic, doesn’t care and can’t be shamed.
“It is very hard for the press to fact-check or otherwise cope with a figure of this sort,” he wrote. “In exposing someone’s lies, they rely on the fact that he or she would care about being caught — much as religious or ethical leaders rely on the power of the guilty conscience.”
One worry is that in 2020, other politicians will adopt Trump’s practice of simply ignoring fact-checkers. Factcheck.org Director Eugene Kiely said he got more pushback from past candidates — including Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — than from Trump. Like Kessler, he said thoughtful responses can help make a fact-check more accurate.
“I don’t mind being challenged because it makes the story better, ultimately. It always makes me nervous when I don’t hear back, because I might be missing something,” he said.
So while some fact-checkers may have to deal with the complaints from politicians who don’t like their conclusions, at least such pushback can be taken as a grudging sign of respect, an indication that the politicians are paying attention, and recognize that voters are, too.
Being challenged, in other words, may be preferable to being ignored.