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Trump's Falsehoods Pose Challenge to Press and Public (But Apparently Not to His Supporters)

Donald Trump. Photo by Michael Vadon
Donald Trump. Photo by Michael Vadon via flickr. Used under Creative Commons license (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Larry Margasak, a retired Associated Press reporter, examines timely news literacy lessons offered by the Donald Trump phenomenon.

During a recent interview with Donald Trump on “On Point,” a political talk show on the conservative-leaning One America News cable network, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin praised the businessman, reality TV star and front-runner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination as “a truth talker.” The description was fraught with irony, albeit unintended by the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee.

In the news media, Trump is widely depicted as anything but a “truth talker.” In fact, as Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi wrote, “it’s a full-time job keeping up with his latest outrages, contradictions and misstatements.”

Yet to Trump’s growing legions of loyalists, this hardly seems to matter.

“It is perhaps quixotic to try to distract Trump’s supporters with the facts, which their leader, who is no stickler for dignity, considers beneath him,” conservative columnist George Will wrote.

In any election season, it is the responsibility of the press to fact-check candidates’ statements, and it is the public’s responsibility to pay attention to how well-informed, accurate and honest candidates are in their pronouncements.

This time around, there’s a second challenge for the public: going beyond the fact-checks to understand how a candidate can rank so low on accuracy and so high in the polls. In this apparent paradox is a teachable moment.

Let’s look first at sampling from various nonpartisan fact-checking websites.

In several posts, FactCheck.org, a project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, reported that according to Trump:

  • “Infrastructure is crumbling. … Our bridges, 59% of our bridges are in trouble.” The Federal Highway Administration says that 24% of the bridges in the U.S. were structurally deficient or functionally obsolete in 2014.
  • The state of Wisconsin — whose governor, Scott Walker, is also seeking the GOP presidential nomination — is “borrowing to a point that nobody thought possible.” Under Walker, the state’s rate of borrowing has actually slowed.
  • “You know, in the case of other countries, including Mexico, they don’t do that” — a reference to birthright citizenship, which in the U.S. is guaranteed under the 14th Amendment. Although the United States and Mexico use different terminology, their policies are similar.
  • “We’re the only place, just about, that’s stupid enough” to grant the birthright citizenship guarantee. While the majority of countries do not have such a policy, 30 do so, including Canada and a number of Central and South American countries.

PolitiFact, a division of the Tampa Bay (Fla.) Times, took issue with Trump’s comment that the United States is “the most highly taxed nation in the world.” Its conclusion: “Depending on the measurement you use, the United States is either in the middle of the pack or on the lighter end of taxation when compared to other advanced industrialized nations. We rate his claim False."

The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog examined Trump’s statement that “Our real unemployment rate is 42 percent.” At the time, the unemployment rate, as determined by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, was 5.3 percent. Glenn Kessler, author of the blog, noted that Trump was including 93.7 million people who were voluntarily not in the workforce — retirees, stay-at-home parents, and others who choose not to work. Fact Checker rates the truthfulness of statements with “Pinocchios.” Trump’s unemployment statement received four Pinocchios, the highest number, which is reserved for “whoppers.”

An Associated Press fact-check analysis challenged Trump’s statement that Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot and Vietnam POW, has “done nothing to help the vets.” The article listed several of McCain’s actions on recent veterans-related concerns, concluding: “McCain has a long record of supporting veterans’ issues in Congress” and “was instrumental in a landmark law approved last year to overhaul the scandal-plagued Department of Veterans Affairs.”

Such misstatements, mischaracterizations and unfair attacks (on a respected Republican senator and war hero, no less) might well have proved politically lethal to other candidates. Instead, they have earned Trump the moniker “Teflon Don.”

Even when spouting inaccuracies or insults, Trump appears to gain ground. Why this happens is the question journalists are scrambling to answer as they create the first rough draft of history, story by story and tweet by tweet. Students of politics, journalism and news literacy should follow along with them.

“Reporters have turned over leaves and pebbles in search of clues, even recently interviewing faculty at Trump’s alma mater, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania,” wrote Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker. “While demurring on Trump’s politics, professors commended his marketing skills — short sentences, simple ideas, control of the conversation and, therefore, the media.”

In a mid-August piece for The Atlantic, Connor Friedersdorf asked Trump supporters to write him and explain why they backed him. After receiving “dozens” of replies, he came to this conclusion: “Broadly speaking, the men and women who wrote fall into two categories:Those who earnestly believe that Trump is the best choice to lead America and those who are motivated by giddyness at the chaotic spectacle of his
success.”

While one respondent cited concerns with illegal immigration (a subject Trump expounded upon in announcing his candidacy), others gave answers that had little to do with specific issues.

Trump, one said, “represents hope. … And how much damage can he really do?” Another said Trump will inspire people to be better. One cited his leadership, defining it as “different from knowledge.” One said he’s tired of supporting losers. Then there was this response: “Like the joker from ‘The Dark Knight,’ I just want to see the world burn.”

But perhaps the most telling explanation was this: “it’s not about trusting Trump; it's a collective middle finger to the establishment.”

To be sure, one of the appealing things about Trump is that, in contrast to the professional politicians he’s running against, he appears utterly unscripted and unmanaged. There seems to be no filter between his mouth and his brain.

Moreover, he is a “truth talker” in some respects: As a wealthy businessman who has donated to a number of campaigns, both Republican and Democratic, and who is not compelled to raise money to fund his own candidacy, he has put a spotlight on the corrosive effects of money in politics. And some of his unbridled critiques of other candidates in both parties appear to be hitting the mark with biting effectiveness.

Then there’s the undeniable factor that Trump is seemingly on the air all the time because his appearances make great television (and Web videos). Any show featuring an appearance by Trump sees a ratings bump. As David Bauder, the AP’s television reporter, put it: “Opinion polls are one thing, but Nielsen numbers speak more loudly to television executives: Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump's ability to pull in viewers makes him catnip for news programs and wins a level of coverage that feeds on itself.”

In The New York Times, Michael Barbaro, Nate Cohn and Jeremy W. Peters contended that Trump’s surge is built around personality, not policy. “His support is not tethered to a single issue or sentiment: immigration, economic anxiety or an anti-establishment mood,” they wrote. “Those factors may have created conditions for his candidacy to thrive, but his personality, celebrity and boldness, not merely his populism and policy stances, have let him take advantage of them.”

In Iowa, Trump led the Des Moines Register/Bloomberg Politics Iowa Poll in August after getting the highest “unfavorable” rating from the same poll in May. According to the Register’s Jennifer Jacobs, “Respondents might not know many specifics about Trump's positions, but they don't really care. The majority of likely Republican caucusgoers say they’re willing to put trust in their top candidate to figure out the issues once in office (57%).”

The Trump phenomenon is also a classic case of confirmation bias: People are willing to believe him because he reaffirms their beliefs, no matter what the facts might be. Washington Post columnist Parker put it this way: “Trump is instinctively brilliant … as narcissists tend to be. He intuits what people want and gives it to them. When people say they like Trump because ‘He speaks his mind,’ they really mean they like him because he speaks their mind.”

Finally, all candidates try to use the media to their advantage, but Trump does it better than most. Farhi, the Washington Post media writer, contrasts setting up an interview with Trump and one with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton:

“Trump grants interviews (to favored reporters, at least) with a minimum of bureaucracy and delay. Most of his media requests —‘I have hundreds,’ he claims — are answered promptly by Hope Hicks, 26, his campaign communications director. She connects her boss with reporters with minimal vetting of topics to be covered. No adviser sits in on the conversation.

“Contrast this with the often tortured negotiations between other presidential candidates and journalists. New York Times Magazine reporter Mark Leibovich described his lengthy efforts to land an interview with Clinton for a profile in July. His eventual meeting with the candidate was ground-ruled and caveated to near suffocation by Clinton’s staff; one demanded that Leibovich treat Clinton’s entire 40,000-square-foot campaign headquarters as ‘off the record.’”

Thus, even as he confounds detractors and pundits alike, Trump’s candidacy underscores the importance of checking the accuracy of all candidates’ statements, along with the potential disconnect in politics between telling the truth and building support. This makes the Trump saga not simply a daily news literacy lesson, but a case study in the need for a news-literate electorate.