Opinion

A New Year’s resolution for covering big-lie campaigners

Martin Schram
Martin Schram

Today, we are marking the official start of the 2016 election year by providing a list of vital New Year’s resolutions for my colleagues in the political news media.

The good news is we won’t be wasting anyone’s valuable time – our list has just one item.

We have assembled this sufficiently extensive list after watching a preliminary year in which candidates campaigned primarily by bombarding voters with big-lie politics – and primarily got away with it. Media fact-checkers figure this way-too-early campaign has already set new lows for distortions and false statements.

All candidates, Democrats as well as Republicans, have bent the truth one way or another. But one Republican clearly dominated the Grand Old Party’s pandering pack that has been telling fed-up voters what they want to hear without regard to accuracy or veracity.

Republican front-runner Donald Trump has wooed conservatives by stretching the truth liberally. Also by seemingly making up whatever facts best fit his sales-pitch need. And he has gotten wall-to-wall coverage on all-news cable channels, broadcast news, dead-tree print, and seemingly every website and blog. News execs were quick to figure out they could lure eyeballs (see also: advertisers) by skewing coverage toward all-Trump, all-the-time.

A campaign news coverage pattern emerged: Trump would make one false or distorted claim after another in prime-time debates or events – and they’d be heard and read by millions who wanted to believe. Later – often days later – fact-checkers at leading media outlets would discover Trump’s facts were wrong. Sometimes a separate fact-check story would appear, buried on an inside page or in a campaign news roundup, where thousands would hear or see it, far fewer than the millions who heard the original report.

No wonder Trump figured out campaigning with cons and falsehoods were his keys to winning.

So now we come to our one 2016 resolution for my campaign-covering colleagues: Get it right the first time.

This isn’t easy, but it’s vital. News organizations need to assign reporters who are experts on the key beats being debated (economics, national security and so on) to cover debates and speeches, not generalists who mainly cover the political horserace.

And here’s a corollary: If a news organization discovers belatedly that its original coverage included a prominent quote that later proved false, the editors and TV news deciders are obligated to put the facts out there for people to see by playing them as prominently as the original false statements were played. Page 1, prime time.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning site PolitiFact, created by Bill Adair for what was is now the Tampa Bay Times, has checked 77 of Trump’s most prominent campaign assertions and found that 76 percent of those statements were either “mostly false,” “false,” or merited the “pants on fire” designation reserved for the most flagrantly false statements. (Note: I originally urged my friend Adair to start his fact-check effort years ago; but I’ve always felt it was a mistake to use a humorous term for the most blatant lies; I think deceiving voters merits straight reporting and voter condemnation, not mirthful mockery.)

Trump’s long list of voter-deceiving claims that proved flagrantly false included: his claim that he saw “thousands and thousands” of people cheering as the World Trade Center towers fell in 2001 and that the Mexican government was encouraging its criminals to enter the United States illegally.

And some of Trump’s false claims were dangerously inflammatory, as they pandered to people’s worst instincts and hatreds. Trump once shared an image on Twitter that falsely claimed that, of white homicide victims in the United States, 16 percent are killed by whites but 81 percent were killed by blacks. PolitiFact reported the correct number is quite the opposite – 82 percent of white victims were killed by whites in 2014; just 15 percent of whites were killed by blacks.

Trump is running for president with the same verve he favored to close all his business deals. In his 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” Trump wrote, “People may not always think big themselves, but they can still get very excited by those who do. That’s why a little hyperbole never hurts … I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration – and a very effective form of promotion.”

But the Manhattan multibillionaire would do well to heed the wisdom that is famously attributed to his own former senator, the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y.: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at martin.schram@gmail.com.

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