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Beyond the laughter: a WaPo fact-check of Trump’s U.N. speech

The coverage of Donald Trump’s bombastic, self-praising speech to the United Nations has mostly featured the fact that the audience, representing, in a sense, the world, laughed at him audibly as he exaggerated the accomplishments of his presidency thus far. They laughed at him, not with him, although he took it surprisingly well. It was obviously not a planned deal, and it passed, and he went back to boasting.

My main purpose in noting this tragicomic episode is to pass along a good fact-check of the speech by the Washington Post’s excellent fact-checker, Glenn Kessler.

I’m a big fan of the growing fact-checking industry within journalism. Trump didn’t invent political lying, and pre-Trump the fact-checkers would often elevate our grasp of the kind of self-serving half-truths politicians that long been part of political rhetoric. It used to be that if a politician were called out for a half-truth he or she would drop the claim, or adjust and switch to better version, closer to verifiable reality, perhaps for fear of losing credibility.

But Trump lies pretty much every day, often sticking with lies that have been debunked (as he did at the U.N.) And, although most Americans understand that he is an inveterate liar, which surely contributes to the reason that he has had by far the worst approval ratings (since the advent of approval ratings) of any president during their first two years, those same approval polls tell us that a very large minority (roughly 40 percent) of Americans continue to express approval.

This troubles me, and perhaps you, too, but apparently not those who make up the loyal 40 percent. Some of them must believe his lies. Others perhaps understand that he isn’t a stickler for factual accuracy and don’t care because they have bonded with him at a deep and enduring level. It’s normal and it’s not healthy for a president to have an approval rating that hovers on either side of the 40 percent level but, as he sometimes reminds us, he’s still president and we’re not.

I just passed my 45th anniversary as a working journalist, and I’ve seen a lot of changes, including changes in the ways reporters worship factual accuracy. We always understood that many politicians would shade the truth when it served their purposes, but, when caught in a falsehood, they would usually drop the false claim or make it less clearly false or something.

We’re in new and troubling territory now. Or maybe I’m just an old-fashioned scold about liars, liars, pants on fire. Maybe I’m getting used to the new normal, but I don’t plan to get comfortable with it.

Here’s another link to the Washington Post’s Fact Checkers excellent workup on Trump’s lies to the assembly of the world yesterday. How is this OK?

Comments (17)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/26/2018 - 12:12 pm.

    Some Trump supporters must believe his lies, and others don’t care because they have bonded with him at a deep and enduring level. There is a third category (not that they are all mutually exclusive), composed of those who think it is all a big show put on to “own the libs.” They derive great enjoyment in seeing the President of the United States devote so much time and effort towards infuriating people just for the sake of infuriating them. The outcome doesn’t matter, as long as it gets “the enemy” stirred up.

    When we see politics as a blood sport, or as a form of war, we have to give up any expectation that there is a real purpose to anything the President does, other than causing casualties in that “war.” So much for the American experiment.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/26/2018 - 12:45 pm.

      Yup, they know Don Trump will not bring back the steel mills, or the auto plants, or the pensions they’re parents got that they never will. But by gosh they can stick it to those “libtards” (I guess conservatives don’t have special needs folks in their families).

      If I can’t stop my own pain, I can increase yours.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/26/2018 - 01:03 pm.

    I’m long retired, and maybe it’s my years of teaching American history and American government – even though there’s precious little about American government at any but the most local and parochial level that matches the glowing descriptions in the American government textbooks my school district was using 20 years ago – but I’m not quite as cynical about the American experiment as RB Holbrook seems to be today. I do think there’s some validity to his third category of “sticking it to the ‘libtards,’” and yes, I think there’s also something to the notion that, occasionally, some totally bogus and outrageous lie gets promoted by Trump, who knows nothing of political ideology beyond whatever will suit his individual and selfish purposes, or by some genuine right-winger who does know something, just for the enjoyment of watching fact-obsessed liberals in a frenzy at the latest assault on truth. In those instances, I agree that the outcome is less important than the emotional reaction provoked among that segment of the population to which the liar is currently hostile. I even agree that it seems increasingly unlikely that there’s much purpose to what the President does beyond encouraging applause among his supporters and dismay among the rest of the populace.

    That said, I’m not ready to write off the experiment just yet, though the Current Occupant does go a long way toward illustrating several of the experiment’s weak points. Weak points can be corrected. I’m not so naive as to believe that they somehow automatically **will** be corrected, but at least the possibility still seems real enough to me. I do share some of Eric’s anxieties, as 2020 looms on the horizon, about what the Current Occupant’s childish tenure will do to the tenor and substance of future political campaigns and debates. It’s bad enough to have **one** immature and badly-behaved child in class. If the whole class follows that lead, s/he can potentially bring down the whole system. I just don’t think we’re there yet, and hope we won’t follow the Trump example.

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/26/2018 - 02:08 pm.

    I would like to think that at least some of Trump’s supporters are rational actors who think that they benefit more from Trump’s actions than they are hurt by his lies.
    The alternatives are scary.

    • Submitted by Roy Everson on 09/26/2018 - 11:30 pm.

      “I love my tax cuts” is little more than an echo of a bygone rationalization that went “he made the trains run on time.”

  4. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 09/26/2018 - 10:17 pm.

    From the second-only Presidential news conference today, it is clear that Trump is dangerously unfit for the office–and he is is steady denial of that inability, has not deepened his understanding of issues, and has a pathological need to constantly remind everyone of his centrality to the world….it’s his big brain, the Chinese admire him because of his very, very big brain !!!!

    With him, it is harder to spot the truth than his lies. No, the UN did not laugh at him–they were laughing with him because it was such a wonderful time had by all…

    Good god, where are the white coats and nets…

  5. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/27/2018 - 09:04 am.

    I think the spookiest thing about Trump, far spookier than any particular thing he’s done or said; is that after two years of all this lying and incompetence, we have to assume that HE actually thinks people trust him and believe what he’s saying. What UN reaction (and this was the reaction from a bunch of diplomats trained to politely applaud) tells us is that we have a POTUS who is completely and utterly disconnected from reality. THAT is really spooky.

    I’ll say two things about Trump “supporters”. First, don’t believe the hype. Think back to Jesse Ventura: yes, he shocked the world and got elected, but he would never have got re-elected. There is a well known phenomena in human psychology wherein respondents will portray consistency, rather than appear to contradict themselves, when surveyed or questioned. This is why some Trump “supporters” will never admit that they made a mistake when the voted for Trump. Likewise, you would find voters who would never admit they erred when the voted for Ventura… but they wouldn’t have voted for him again.

    Second- Those Trump supporters who really do support Trump and would vote for him again are simply ignorant or disinterested. I’m not saying that to insult anyone it’s just a fact. I have yet to run into a Trump supporter who wasn’t either horribly misinformed or uninformed, or just plain not really paying attention. However there’s absolutely NOTHING surprising about this observation, we’ve know this for decades.

    For decades we’ve known that Republican’s and Christian Evangelicals who support them have severe intellectual and moral deficits. Combined they’ve created a political black hole with a gravitational pull strong enough to reel in a truly impressive collection of toxic sociopaths and miscreants.

    Beyond that, we’ve know for decades that in general the American electorate is actually rather ignorant and disinterested in general. From installments of “Jaywalking” to actual polls we’ve seen over and over again that substantial numbers of American’s are surprisingly ignorant. American’s tend to be well versed in celebrity gossip, dietary fads, and sports, but woefully ignorant elsewhere. And to be frank, the elite who run this country rely on that ignorance, and it’s long been a Republican policy to promote as much ignorance as possible, hence the constant attack on public education and intellectuals in general.

    • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/27/2018 - 09:45 am.

      There are similarities between Ventura and Don Trump, but there are significant differences, particularly regarding re-election. While Ventura had basically no built-in party base, Don Trump does. And while Don Trump’s base of supporters may be relatively small, it should not be discounted.

      While Don Trump’s approval numbers are negative, in 2020 it will not be an up or down vote on Don Trump, it will be a choice between Don Trump and someone. And we’ve seen that there are enough people willing to hold their noses and vote for empty suit.

      If I were a betting man, and coincidentally I am, I’d bet more on the re-election of Don Trump than Roosevelt H.S. alum James “Jesse The Body Ventura” Janos.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/27/2018 - 11:30 am.

        So Frank, are you saying you think Trump would be re-elected? Assuming he faced competent democratic candidate?

        • Submitted by Frank Phelan on 09/28/2018 - 10:13 am.

          I have little doubt Don Trump will run again. And I would in no way assume he will lose.

          Early on in the campaign when Keith Ellison was on cable TV and told viewers that Don Trump should be taken seriously, many laughed. I was not among those. I recall fivethirtyeight giving Don Trump a 1 in 7 chance of losing the popular vote and winning the EC. And if you know anything about math, 1 in 7 events happen not all that rarely.

          I’ll not prognosticate this far out. Polls don’t matter that much until the general election candidates are finalized.

          • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/30/2018 - 10:29 am.

            Assuming HRC won’t be on the ballot again Trump won’t win re-election. I’m not basing that assertion of any polling data, I’m just looking around the country that I live in paying attention to stuff. I think what we should prepare for is a scenario wherein Trump loses but denies the legitimacy of the election results and refuses to leave the White House. I seriously think we need to plan for that.

            I’ve always been a critic of 538 methodology and I’ve written some rather technical critiques elsewhere, suffice to say Trump’s victory didn’t really surprise me although I didn’t actually predict it. Where Silver went wrong was in “calculating” that a 3%-4% lead gave Clinton a 70+% chance of winning when in fact she had a 50-50 chance at best.

            All I’m saying about Trump’s “support” is that it’s demonstrably weak on the face of it, and it’s probably weaker than it appears because when those supporters get a chance to vote for Trump again, they won’t turn out. We’ll see a form of this in the mid-term massacre Republican’s are about to experience. Trump wont’ be on the ballot but his presence will be felt nonetheless.

    • Submitted by Edward Blaise on 09/28/2018 - 10:12 am.

      The undying beauty of Jesse is that he pulled the levers of government with remarkably consistent results to the life long politicians who preceded and succeeded him. He showed far more wisdom than Trump in that upon taking office he acknowledged that maybe he is not the smartest person in the room and that trusting reasonable advisers is important. Penny and Weber guided him to commissioners based on skills not political agendas. A neighbor who guided a major downtown law firm said Ventura judges are the gold standard: selected on competence and not politics. With this foundation in place he did run around being Jesse the pro wrestler for 4 years and still did every bit as good a job as Carlson and better than Pawlenty on measures of state performance. Right up there with my McGovern in 72 as my best and proudest votes: You do not need to be a professional politician to succeed in elected office. Of course, Trump has beaten down my conviction on this…

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/30/2018 - 10:34 am.

        Just to be clear, I’m not comparing Ventura to Trump, I’m comparing the experience of their terms in office. The men are obviously very different people, and yes, I would agree that Ventura was a better governor than Trump is a president, but Ventura was not a great governor. For all his bluster and pretense as a “disruptor” he did little more than manage the status quo and most of his “accomplishments” have long since been repealed.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/27/2018 - 09:24 am.

    Regarding the “media” and it’s new-found fascination with factual accuracy. This is all well and good but let us not forget that the media’s disregard for “accuracy” played a huge role in creating the current crises. The practice of reporting what people said, rather than reporting on the accuracy or inaccuracy of what was said, created fertile soil for a corrupt political culture.

    Those of us who were paying attention noted the media’s disregard for accuracy several times over the past several decades. After the Irag invasion I actually argued with a journalist on the MPR about the difference between “accuracy” and “bias”… the journalist was trying to maintain that lack of bias IS the same thing as accuracy. It’s no wonder journalist had so much difficulty recognizing lies and reporting them. For decades journalist were actually trained to promote style over substance as if style produced substance. The irony of course is that for all their dedication to “objectivity” journalism has continually seen it’s own credibility decline over the decades. It seems that misinformation delivered in an “objective” package fails to inspire confidence. Who’da thunk?

    I would caution everyone that the “objective” space is a very comfortable space and there is always a very potent desire to retain and regain comfort levels. Don’t assume that the current preoccupation with accuracy is permanent. Even here on Minnpost a while back editors provoked a backlash of sorts with a headline that referred to Trump’s “dubious” claims rather than his dishonesty. The siren call of the objective comfort zone is eternal and only our continued vigilance will keep our media focused on accuracy.

    Of course the question as to “why” the pseudo-objective (there’s no such thing as “actual” objective) style is such a comfort zone for journalist is a rich and complex discussion in-and-of itself, but that’s for a another day.

    • Submitted by Tory Koburn on 09/27/2018 - 11:42 am.

      It’s difficult for me to disagree with any of that. I would add only that the last few decades have seen the rise of 24/7 cable news networks, the demise of the fairness doctrine, the collapse and consolidation of the newspaper industry, and of course the rise of the internet, with all that has entailed. There’s no room – or appetite, or market, for Walter Cronkites in this environment.

      We of course must be vigilant and hold news organizations to higher standards, which we may be beginning to see. The “both-sides-ism” style of objectivity with which the Times helped usher in the Iraq War has been thoroughly and deservedly ridiculed. When everyone is lying to you, you don’t present both sides of the lie as self-evident truth.

      Surely, journalists’ desire to be perceived as objective is a result of the fact that their credibility hinges upon it. But as you suggest, even Fox News purports to be objective. Surely, even Cyndi Brucato here at Minnpost purports to be objective. Perhaps, to their audience, they are. But even the fact-checkers at WaPo are catering to their audience. Even if they do so with mostly strict adherence to the factual truth, there is always some level of inescapable bias. I think part of it is that as individuals, we resist admitting that we have are biased at all. One of the first things I learned as an English major is that the first step is recognizing that we all have biases, and only then can we begin to strive for objectivity.

      It also wouldn’t hurt if folks were more willing to seek news from different sources, but with so many “satirical” sites masquerading as news and many people still getting their news from Facebook (some of whom I know personally, and admonish for it), there is no easy solution.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/28/2018 - 08:16 am.

        “Surely, journalists’ desire to be perceived as objective is a result of the fact that their credibility hinges upon it.”

        Just to put a finer point on it, one of my points is that this idea that credibility depends on objectivity is itself a falsehood. Bias can never be eliminated, but that doesn’t mean reliable observations can’t be made. At some point the effort to be “unbiased” become it’s own form of “bias”.

        Credibility never depends on being free of bias, that’s a mirror looking for smoke. On the contrary, bias may well facilitate reliable observations more so than the pretense of “unbiasness”.

        At any rate, the idea that journalists assume that “objectivity” establishes credibility is itself the problem, it puts style in front of substance and content. No one can be free of bias, they can only hide their bias, and that’s inherently dishonest. It’s kind of a bizarre assumption that credibility will flow out of inherently dishonest practice. Better to be honest about bias and reliable with your observations and information than to pretend be free of bias while delivering unreliable information through a distorted lens of style.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/28/2018 - 08:30 am.

    And… Looking at a variety of sources is no solution, it’s a waste of time if some of the “sources” your looking at are garbage. Looking at garbage won’t keep you better informed, in fact the more time you spend looking at garbage the more likely you are to be minformed.

    Watching Fox News does not establish the reliability of Wa-Po’s fact checking. Wa-Po’s fact checking is either reliable or it isn’t, and looking at garbage somewhere else doesn’t affect that reliability. You find reliable information and sources by knowing how to recognize reliable information and sources when you see it. The idea that looking at a variety of sources is a substitute for good judgement is just consumerism pretending to be intellectual acuity. The idea that changing channels yields better understanding may well be one reason American’s are so ill-informed to begin with.

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