I guess I picked the right year to take up fact-checking.
I had been in journalism for a very long time. I had run a national magazine, overseen news operations at newspapers in many cities, covered Washington during the Watergate era, written columns about the media for a national newspaper. But this assignment was new.
Sure, I had written columns about the phenomenon of news outlets checking the assertions of political figures and ascertaining which were true and which were false. And I was a fan. For too long, I felt, news operations would run stories saying X said this, Y said that — and leave it there. And leave readers, viewers and listeners completely unenlightened about what was true.
I have long believed that taking that next step — figuring out where the truth lies, and reporting it — was an important public service. As long as that judgment was based strictly on facts, with absolutely no connection to the political leanings of the writer and/or the fact-checking outlet.
So when I got the opportunity at FactCheck.org — a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania that has been checking facts since 2003 — I jumped at it.
And what a time to do it. With President Donald Trump on the ballot.
I started in February and am wrapping up at the end of the month. So I was on the roster for an unforgettable presidential campaign in the midst of a pandemic.
Trump is a fact checker’s dream, or nightmare, depending on how you look at it. A nightmare for his off-the-charts indifference to the truth. A dream for the same reason. There are just so many nonfacts to check.
Trump’s disregard for the truth kept us and other fact-checkers very busy. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, which maintains a cumulative total, found that as of Sept. 11 Trump had made 23,035 false or misleading statements in 1,331 days. That amounts to a full employment act for fact checkers.
Day after day, I read transcripts of Trump’s appearances at rallies and White House briefings. Two things stood out: First the sheer volume of falsehood, misinformation and sheer nonsense in so many of them. Second, the fact that no matter how many times many of the false claims were debunked, by us and by other fact checkers, they would show up again and again and again.
Which leads to one of the disheartening aspects of the fact-checking business. No matter how many times false information is discredited, if the the perpetrator doesn’t care that it’s wrong and enjoys repeating it, not much can be done.
A related frustration: Ours is a bitterly polarized world where people on each side of the divide get their news from different sources. Someone who reads the New York Times and watches CNN and MSNBC will be encountering information very different from those who read Breitbart and watch Fox News or Trump favorite One America News Network.
And Trump, of course, has waged continuous war on the traditional news media, dismissing their work product as “fake news” and deriding the press as an “enemy of the people.” And many Trump loyalists now accept that false characterization as gospel. So many of them tend to disregard the work of traditional media. And proponents of the president too often put the findings of fact checkers in the same bucket.
In our current political climate, there is a tendency for too many people to believe what they want to believe. Al Schmidt, a Republican city commissioner in Philadelphia who helped oversee the ballot counting there, told CNN’s John Berman, “One thing I can’t comprehend is how hungry people are to consume lies, and to consume information that is not true.”
The late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” But he did not and could not have anticipated a world where some people clung to “alternative facts.” That is a serious problem for a democracy.
There were also times when President-elect Joe Biden needed fact checking, just not as many. While he made mistakes, he did not share Trump’s flagrant disregard for the truth. And he wasn’t around nearly as much.
There was a period when Trump did daily briefings, ostensibly about COVID-19. And there were the rallies and, of course, the tweets. Meanwhile, Biden maintained a low-profile, often staying in his basement, as Trump liked to say. That was, of course, because of the pandemic. But it also turned out to be a smart political strategy. Rope-a-dope, if you will. Stay out of the line of fire and let Trump wear himself out throwing roundhouse right after roundhouse right, often punching himself out in the process.
In October we did twin pieces examining the false and misleading statements the candidates made on the hustings between Oct. 12 and Oct. 16. There were 46 from Trump, we reported in “Trump on the Stump.” Trump had spoken for more than eight hours at six rallies over the five days. By contrast, we wrote about nine false claims in “Biden on the Stump.” During the same period, Biden had spoken for about 2 hours and 46 minutes at six events.
Writing for FactCheck.org meant a couple of big adjustments. One, the rigor was exceptional. Almost everything in a story had to be supported by a link to the source. And whenever possible to an original document, not a news account.
I was no stranger to stringent standards. I had been an editor at the Washington Post and the Miami Herald and USA TODAY. When I ran American Journalism Review, a now defunct national magazine, I read everything at least five times before it was published. So did other editors. But this insistence on links and original documents, on backing everything up, was impressive to me. I used to say that you couldn’t say “a” or “the” without a link.
And I had to watch my language. When I was a columnist at USA TODAY, my mission was to express opinions, to take strong positions, to be provocative, to have attitude. And to write with color and flair, maybe occasionally with some snark. But FactCheck.org plays it straight down the middle. There is no room for loaded language, even barely loaded. I learned this early on when I described a certain property in Florida as “Trump’s beloved Mar-a-Lago.” The “beloved,” it was gently suggested, needed to go.
And the commitment to fact-checking carried over to our own work. We checked each other’s stories before we posted them.
As I examined the claims of the candidates, I learned a lot about obscure topics I hadn’t anticipated researching, such as the Puerto Rican pharmaceutical industry and the Maine lobster harvest. One of my favorite recurring sagas was what transpired when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi traveled to San Francisco’s Chinatown neighborhood in late February.
Here’s the back story: As we have written, Pelosi went to Chinatown on Feb. 24 in an effort to bolster the neighborhood’s restaurants and shops. Their business had fallen sharply in the wake of the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, which originated in Wuhan, China, late last year.
The visit came three weeks before six Bay Area counties implemented shelter-in-place restrictions. On the day of Pelosi’s visit, Trump tweeted this about the virus: “The Coronavirus is very much under control in the USA.”
Later, Pelosi’s visit became a recurring target of criticism at Trump appearances. He variously said Pelosi held a “rally” in Chinatown, was having or wanted to have “parties” or a “street party” there and encouraged people to go to a “big parade.” In fact, Pelosi never mentioned parties or rallies, and the “big parade” — the Chinese New Year Parade — took place on Feb. 8, two weeks before Pelosi went there.
In May, Trump shifted to references to Pelosi “dancing in the streets of San Francisco in Chinatown.” She didn’t.
I’ve had a great ride at FactCheck.org. My colleagues are terrific. I’ll miss the place, and them. And I might need some reprogramming. After reading all of those Trump transcripts, I find myself repeating snippets in conversation. I’m hoping that after treatment, I’ll stop saying things like, “We built the greatest economy in the history of the world before China sent us the plague.”
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