A Defense of Continuing to Fact-Check Trump’s Bogus Claims One by One

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On Thursday, PolitiFact published its 1,000th fact check of a claim made by Donald Trump. The publication, which usually refrains from wading into political discussions or weighing in on a politician’s overall character, took the opportunity to release an analysis of those years of work. Its finding? Trump lies a lot.

“American fact-checkers have never encountered a politician who shares Trump’s disregard for factual accuracy,” the authors wrote. “Ever since he descended the escalator at Trump Tower in 2015, we have encountered a firehose of claims.”

The analysis found in particular that Trump’s immigration-related claims tended toward inflammatory falsehoods and that more than 70 percent of PolitiFact’s checks on immigration, foreign policy, crime, COVID, and health care were largely false. It concluded, also, that “Trump’s falsehoods have fueled threats to democracy.”

And yet, the article made it clear PolitiFact’s ambitions are limited. “Readers sometimes ask us what our endgame is with a politician like Trump. They say our fact-checks don’t keep Trump from repeating his false claims, including lies about the 2020 election,” the authors wrote. “It’s not our job to silence Trump or force him to change his rhetoric.”

But we at Slate were interested not just in what PolitiFact found; we wanted to know, for a team so diligently committed to the cause of fighting misinformation with data and passionless expertise, how it feels to operate in a world where objective truth seems to matter so little. Is it not, we wondered, a little maddening to put out such restrained corrections when the Republican Party’s presumptive presidential nominee perpetually just says what feels best to him?

To understand what these years of fact-checking Trump have been like, we called Louis Jacobson, one of the authors of the article and a senior correspondent who has been with PolitiFact since 2009. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Slate: What were the big take-aways from your analysis of Trump’s 1,000 fact checks?

Louis Jacobson: Let me start by saying we have been historically pretty hesitant to jump into the question of comparing truth-telling records. We are very upfront about this not being a scientific process. But I think one of the standout findings for us was that if you look at the median rating of Trump claims that we rated, the median is False. If we do rate a statement, it’ll be rated on a 6-point scale: our Truth-O-Meter, which includes True, Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. Most politicians whom we rate frequently, from both parties, typically hover around Half True for the median. [Editor’s note: There are other politicians on Politifact with a median of False, including Ben Carson and Lauren Boebert.] There are a few politicians—Ted Cruz is one; Ron Johnson is another; Newt Gingrich, the third—who have a median rating of Mostly False. But Trump is the only one that we’ve looked at who has a median of False.

So what was the 1,000th Trump fact check?

Trump, in a speech in New Hampshire, said Democrats “used COVID to cheat” in the 2020 election. It is kind of appropriate, I suppose, in a sense, in that it’s about elections, which has been a huge topic for Trump in the past couple years. And it ended up with a Pants on Fire [rating]. And, you know, he’s had a Pants on Fire percentage of 18.4 percent. Which, not counting Facebook posts and stuff—back in the day, we had a category called “chain emails,” and those tend to get even worse ratings than the human politicians—was the highest of anybody we fact-check.

Donald Trump makes so many patently false claims that are recycled from earlier claims, but with some slight variation. How do you decide whether it’s worth it to fact-check these kinds of endless falsehoods?

Our friendly rivals, the Washington Post Fact Checker, did something like “37,000 questionable claims by Trump” and counted repeated claims in that. And they started to do what they call a “bottomless Pinocchio,” for when somebody repeats something so often.

We will sometimes fact-check something that’s substantially the same as something we’ve talked about before. Usually, if we do that, it tends to be that he said it once in a random speech, but then, at a high-profile event, he said it again. But generally speaking, if Trump or anybody else repeats something that they have said before, we’ll maybe do a social media post. Because it takes time. It takes time to research experts. When a claim comes up in debate, if it’s straightforward enough, it might just require some statistics, and we can get that up within an hour. But if it’s a novel claim that we haven’t looked into and that requires a decent amount of reporting, it’s going to take us, most likely, until the next morning to publish something substantive on that.

Looking back at all these years of covering Donald Trump, have you found that any particular kinds of fact checks have gained traction?

We do have our top 10 most-read fact checks of Trump. There was one about visas for refugees from Iraq, from 2017—that was No. 1. They were largely between 2015 and 2019; I don’t know why. It’s a little bit mysterious to us exactly why certain ones click and certain ones don’t.

Do you, on a more personal level, feel that any fact checks you’ve done have made more of a difference?

You know, we’re in the mission of providing information to voters who want to remain engaged in politics. We want to provide that information to them as best we can, using the most trustworthy sources that we can: Data from the federal government or longtime experts who are not ideologically blinded in a certain way or other reliable sources. And once we put the information out there, it’s there. We’re not trying to push any kind of agenda. We just want to provide people who are open-minded enough with information that we think can be helpful for understanding politics. So we hope people use it. But it’s hard for us to gauge whether it’s really made a difference or not, in our very polarized political time. A lot of people in the electorate are pretty closed-minded, and they’re going to either not trust us at all or just not pay attention to us at all.

You said you’re not pushing an agenda. But I have to think that you do care about promoting the truth. That in itself is an agenda, right? 

I guess you could say that our only agenda would be that we want all politicians of all stripes to be more truthful. And I’ll also say that about a third of our ratings are either True or Mostly True. And I kind of see that as pretty good. No one’s perfect, but a third of the time, they’re basically accurate. And there’s probably a little bit of a bias in our selection for statements that we know are wrong going in. So if you’re still ending up with about a third of them being True or Mostly True, that’s not bad.

Have there been any sort of lessons learned from the past Trump presidency that you would apply to fact-checking a potential second Trump term?

I’m not sure that we would do anything dramatically different. I know that we’ll plan on keeping on doing what we’ve been doing. I think we’ve got a pretty durable model in what we do. Obviously not everybody agrees with that. But we just have to tune out the people who were never going to listen to what we had to say, because they’re too set in their minds that we’re a problem. So we have to hope that there is a large enough portion of the American public that is still open-minded to hear what we have to say. I am hopeful about that. And I think that sometimes it’s easy to assume that because the most active people on the extremes are most active on social media platforms, that they actually represent a disproportionate number of people in the country. But a lot of people are either not paying attention to that or certainly not taking part in that. Those are the people we’re trying to reach.

This is, I’ve got to say, a remarkably not-beaten-down perspective. I feel like if I were in your shoes, and I was constantly dealing with lies all the time, I would just be exhausted. Are you really not exhausted?

I think all of us here at PolitiFact have developed thick skins. And we’re used to the criticism. I can speak for myself in saying that my kind of orientation as a journalist is old-school. Neutral, curious. I’m not somebody who necessarily has strong opinions on things. Telling falsehoods bugs me. But I’m pretty open-minded about policy, and so I tend to think of things as kind of an intellectual journey, as I do these fact checks. I’m learning; I like explaining things. And so that gives me a little bit of sense of being removed from the ugly fray out there.

I understand neutrality on policy matters. But there are things that are not about policy: A huge portion of the population believes that the election was stolen, based completely on misinformation and falsehoods. I just don’t see how that wouldn’t drive you a little crazy when you’re a journalist dedicated to facts.

I’ve been in this a long time. I just think that I’ve developed enough of a distance that I am able to function without getting personally involved.

You’ve alluded to the criticism you’ve gotten. Has PolitiFact been on the receiving end of misinformation and conspiracy theories?

I suspect we have, but nothing comes to mind immediately. There can certainly be misunderstandings about how we operate. People think that we’re overly soft on Democrats. But our second-, third-, and fourth-most-checked [politicians] have been Obama, Biden, and Hillary Clinton. So we’re not just picking on Trump. And it’s not like Joe Biden’s median is a True. His median is Half True, as is most of the other politicians’ that we fact-check often. That means that he’s typically exaggerating or spinning, but it doesn’t mean it’s false. Most politicians are either cherry-picking the best statistic and leaving out others or exaggerating the degree that something is true.

Until very recently, part of my job was to read every email that came in from our readers. I did that from 2009 until late last year. And over the years, there’s been a consistent level of conservative opposition to what we write. It’s part and parcel of the longtime trope of The media is liberal, etc. So that’s at a consistent level, but a fairly low and stable one. Where historically we’ve had the biggest spikes of outrage from liberals, when we go against the sort of liberal orthodoxy.

Were there any particularly intense moments for that kind of criticism?

In the Georgia [special election] Senate race in 2020, Raphael Warnock ran an ad with a dog. And one of his opponents said [later, ahead of the 2022 Senate election] that the dog from the commercial was not actually Warnock’s. That’s accurate. It was not his dog. So I did a fact check on this. And we got just a mountain [of criticism] attacking us. There are so many important issues in this race. Why are you wasting your time on a fact check about a dog? What they weren’t paying attention to was that we’d done lots of fact checks on that Senate race, including many that were critical of Herschel Walker.

You, more than most people, have been steeped in these questions around the nature of truth in politics for so long. Have you seen any evolution in society’s relationship with the truth since, say, Kellyanne Conway defended her and Trump’s statements as “alternative facts” in 2017?

When I came here in 2009, our first Lie of the Year was Sarah Palin’s comments about death panels and Obamacare, which was a pretty outlandish statement. So it’s not like we were in some golden age back in 2009 either. What I think has changed is that truth has become more central to political discourse and debate. It’s become a larger part of the conversation. And I think that Trump has something to do with that. Partially, it’s the frequency with which he gets things wrong. Partially, it’s because he’s been pretty unguarded over the years about what he says. And sometimes he says stuff you can’t even really kind of parse grammatically, and you’re not even sure how to fact-check it, because you’re not sure what he means.

But I don’t necessarily know, if you did a cross section of all politicians and how accurate they are, if that has necessarily changed much over time. I do think that the centrality of truth and the importance of truth in the political realm has gone up significantly.

And now, obviously, I think the development of social media has really changed how truth operates in politics, and certainly the way we operate. It’s hard to get dissenting views into your echo bubble. It makes the risks of false information that much worse, because you’re not getting a broad diet of political information. So I think that social media and the algorithms and the self-reinforcing nature of echo bubbles have really made the existing issues over truths and falsehoods in politics that much worse.