Fact-checkers wandered into false equivalency territory Tuesday night after President Trump’s Oval Office address on immigration and Democrats’ response to it.
The Associated Press was clobbered on Twitter after it anointed the Democratic claim that Trump was at fault for the shutdown “false,” saying that the Democrats are at fault too. As the AP put it on Twitter: it takes “two to tango.”
The New York Times, meanwhile, attempted to fact-check a “should” claim made by Democrat Chuck Schumer — the kind of statement that doesn’t really lend itself to a fact check at all.
Fact-checking has evolved during Trump’s time in office — mainstream news outlets are far more likely to call a lie a lie than they used to. Even on Tuesday night, big outlets relied on policy expertise to clearly dispute Trump’s false claims.
But the night also revealed that outlets still feel the urge to find fault on both sides or assign neutral blame for political problems. The political press has long wanted to cover politics like a sport, to cover the plays of each party as if they are morally and ethically the same. On a night when the president looked the public in the eye and lied about why the government has been shut down for weeks, the press needs to not fall into the false equivalency trap.
The Associated Press tried to fact-check who is to blame
Following Trump’s speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered a rebuttal in which they placed blame for the shutdown squarely at Trump’s feet.
“The fact is, on the very first day of this Congress, House Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation to reopen government and fund smart, effective border security solutions,” Pelosi said. “But the president is rejecting these bipartisan bills, which would reopen government over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall — a wall he always promised Mexico would pay for.”
Blaming Trump is entirely reasonable. The shutdown began last month, when Republicans still controlled both the House and Senate, and after the Senate unanimously passed a funding bill that would’ve kept the government open but didn’t fund Trump’s wall.
But in response to criticism from his far-right supporters, Trump at the last minute decided not to support the Senate bill. During an Oval Office event with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump even said he was “proud to shut down the government” and vowed he wouldn’t blame Democrats for it.
But following Pelosi and Schumer’s rebuttal on Tuesday event, the Associated Press published a “fact check” in which it tried to blame both sides for the shutdown because Democrats refuse to give Trump what he demands.
AP FACT CHECK: Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango. Trump's demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another. https://t.co/9IWnqUgl2d— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) January 9, 2019
First off, the question of who is to blame for something is not the sort of thing that lends itself to fact-checking. Facts can be independently verified, whereas assigning blame is a matter of debate.
But beyond that, the AP’s analysis of the situation is at odds with the underlying facts. Democrats, to use the AP’s language, have attempted to tango, offering Trump various concessions and deals before the shutdown. Trump wouldn’t budge; now he’s offering Democrats nothing in return for his demand. That’s not a negotiation.
Plus, Trump admitted, on tape, that if a shutdown happened, he’d be fully responsible.
Predictably, the AP’s “two to tango” tweet was widely mocked.
AP FACT CHECK: Critics claim that cigarettes cause cancer. But it takes two to tango. Cigarettes do not cause cancer unless somebody smokes them first.— Bobby Lewis (@revrrlewis) January 9, 2019
On Wednesday morning, the AP similarly posted another tweet pitting Democrats’ factual claim about the border against Trump’s unsupported claims about a “security crisis.” Later in the day, it tried to clarify its widely criticized fact check of Trump with a statement that didn’t help anything.
The New York Times fact-checked a “should” statement
Following Pelosi and Schumer’s rebuttal, the New York Times attempted to fact-check a claim that wasn’t even intended to be a factual statement.
Schumer’s claim is a “should” claim — it’s normative. He’s making a case that the president of the United States shouldn’t hold the federal government hostage to his demands.
Not only is the Schumer claim in question not the sort of thing that lends itself to fact-checking, but the Times’s comment about how “millions of Americans are not being directly harmed” is in itself incorrect. About 800,000 federal workers — many with families — are about to miss paychecks because of the shutdown. Of course millions will be affected.
Fact-checking is in a weird place now that norms about lying have gone out the window
To say that Trump has challenged the business of fact-checking is a bit of an understatement. The New York Times has devoted a number of words to the subject of when to call “a lie a lie” in its pages.
Trump has done more lying in his public statements than any recent president. According to the Washington Post’s Fact Checker, by the end of last year, Trump had made 7,645 false or misleading claims since taking office. The New York Times reported that Trump told six times more lies in his first 10 months as president than Barack Obama did during his entire eight years in office.
In an interview Vox’s Tara Golshan did with fact-checking expert Lucas Graves during the 2016 presidential election, Graves explained that the problem goes far beyond the literal facts:
Trump is really unusual in his style of speech. Imagine, if the race right now were between Clinton and Bush, how different the political discourse would be. That is not to say that Clinton and Bush don’t exaggerate, don’t mislead, or don’t engage in all the routine political distortions that are a part of political life — they absolutely do — but with Trump, it is not only a question of being misleading; it is that a lot of his discourse is just free of factual claims.
He makes insinuations, he makes suggestions, he draws associations, for instance between President Obama and radical jihadists. What is the factual basis for the association? What is he actually saying about anti-American terrorists? He doesn’t tell whether Obama is secretly sympathetic to them or is secretly on their side. He doesn’t lay out his claims, so that makes fact-checking him a special challenge.
Vox did its own fact check of Trump’s speech, pointing out the entire basis of his case for the border wall is rooted in two false premises.
Yet inherent in the mainstream media’s fact-checking is a sense that they need to even the score. This was the subject of some tweets from Democratic superstar Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pointed out the Washington Post’s fact-checking team assigned the same number of “Pinocchios” to false claims about the military budget as they did to Trump’s flat denial of the death toll in Puerto Rico from Hurricane Maria.
Or why did @washingtonpost give my confusing tweet on military accounting offsets the same “Pinocchios” as Trump’s flat denial of how many Americans died in Puerto Rico?— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) January 7, 2019
These are legitimate questions not intended to attack. Who makes these decisions? How? Is there a rubric?
Ultimately, that prominent news outlets are now struggling to “fact check” claims that don’t even try to express facts suggests that a certain model of “calling strikes and balls” isn’t really working anymore. Trump has changed the rules of the game, but in some cases, the umpires still haven’t figured it out.