All of which brings me to my ultimate point. You may not be aware of this, since you’re probably not a navel-gazing, self-important journalist type, but the world of journalism was apparently altered forever on the morning of Saturday, Sept. 17.
That’s the day the lead story in The New York Times was “Trump Gives Up a Lie But Refuses to Repent.”
There have already been several articles written about this, most of them praising the Times, which was really proud of this piece about the “birther” controversy in which they used the word lie for the first time to describe something a politician said. Dean Baquet, the executive editor, has done interviews about it. Apparently there were internal deliberations prior to publication. Apparently they knew they were departing from precedent, which would have used phrases like “widely assumed to be a false statement” or “unproven allegation” or “called a liar by his critics.”
“Newspapers struggle with terms like ‘lie,’” Baquet told an interviewer. “We struggle with them too much.”
In other words, they wanted to say “Trump is a liar”—on the day he was saying that Obama was born in the United States.
Even if he was lying before, he wasn’t lying on the day he was called a liar.
You would have to get inside the head of a Timesman to know exactly what’s going on here—and, believe me, that’s a place none of us wanna go—but it was sort of the ultimate extension of the “I’m Gonna Fact-Check Your Ass” culture that started around the time Trump became the Republican nominee. It’s especially interesting that they used the religious word repent in the headline, as though Trump was an apostate flirting with outer darkness by refusing to apologize.
A week later, the Times devoted a full page to “A Week of Whoppers from Donald Trump.” (The reason they were called “whoppers,” by the way, is that Times op-ed columnist Thomas L. Friedman had written a whole column explaining why Hillary tells “fibs” but Donald tells “whoppers”—in fact, “Double Whoppers”—and the theme was later taken up by other writers until, believe it or not, “fibs vs. whoppers” became an actual standard of evaluation throughout the summer.)
I was hoping that the Donald Whopper Page would turn into a regular feature—“We’re gonna fact-check your life, dude!”—but apparently the 31 alleged lies they found during the week of Sept. 18 were simply an in-house celebration of their liberation on Sept. 17.
“We’re allowed to say he’s a liar! We’re allowed to say he’s a liar!”
On closer examination, they were double-dipping. Five of the 31 items were variations on “I opposed the war in Iraq.” Others were Trump statements like “We have cities that are far more dangerous than Afghanistan.”
Here’s the Times’ reasoning on that one: “No American city resembles a war zone, though crime has risen lately in some, like Chicago. Urban violence has fallen precipitously over the past 25 years.”
I would quibble about the “resembles a war zone” thing—been to downtown Camden, N.J., or East St. Louis, Ill., or Laredo, Tex., lately?—but the important thing is this:
The Times reporters and other media outlets insisted on taking Trump literally.
You and I know that “far more dangerous than Afghanistan” is not a literal statement.
We know that Trump had not consulted any academic studies of living conditions in Afghanistan and then compared them with living conditions in various American cities.
You and I know that Trump talks like a guy in a bar, not a lawyer establishing a legally defensible court record.
You would think that street-savvy New York Times reporters would understand this as well. You would think anyone who had ever interviewed a politician would instinctively understand this.
It’s a good thing the authors of the “Donald Whoppers” page weren’t with him in 2005 when he started talking about grabbing women by the crotch, because they would have followed up with “When you touch the vagina, do you do it in an invasive way, or is it more of a surface feel?”
(Quick digression: Billy Bush was absolutely right to agree with Trump and egg him on. When you’re interviewing someone, that’s what you do. If I had been interviewing him, I would have said, “You do that too? I like to grab ’em when they’re not looking.” You do whatever you have to do, and say whatever you have to say, to establish rapport with the guy you’re interviewing—because what you say doesn’t matter, but what he says matters a great deal. I never understood why Mike Wallace and other reporters at 60 Minutes would embarrass people on camera. The moment you do that, you lose all access to information. There’s apparently something of the same culture at the Times, a group decision to “make him squirm” instead of the more effective technique—cozying up to him to glean more information.)
All through the presidential debates, there were demands that the moderators “fact-check” Donald Trump. In the second debate, Lester Holt gave in to the pressure and challenged Trump on remarks he’d made about the New York City stop-and-frisk policy—and it was Holt who got the whole thing wrong, not Trump! At about the same time, CNN started using chyrons—those little text fields that scroll across the bottom of the screen—to supposedly “fact-check” Trump while he was speaking.
Look, people, I know you’re all geniuses. I know you couldn’t work at the Times or the Post or CNN unless you had a 180 IQ, a photographic memory, and clairvoyance. But that fact-checker you just hired is paid to watch you, not the Donald.
I know, I hate it too. I hate it every time they call me or send me a memo or tell me they think I screwed up. I hate it every time a fact-checker saves my ass.
Using fact-checking as a weapon is like using your own Breathalyzer results to say somebody else is drunk.
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