The New York Times gets it wrong: Donald J. Trump has uncorked some groaners and howlers in the past two days.
This morning, the New York Times took an unusual approach to this rather obvious fact. The Times reported this state of affairs as a fact, in a front-page news report.
In that front-page news report, Martin and Burns described Trump's speech about immigration. But doggone it! Even as they reported Trump's "misstatements and exaggerations," they seemed to maybe possibly make a few of their own:
MARTIN AND BURNS (6/14/16): Mr. Trump carefully read his remarks from a teleprompter and offered more detail than his stump speeches generally contain, but his speech was still rife with the sort of misstatements and exaggerations that have typified his campaign.Did Candidate Trump really describe the gunman as "an Afghan?" As far as we know, he did not—and the Times provides no link to this alleged statement by Trump.
He repeatedly stretched the facts, for example, in describing the United States as overrun by dangerous migrants. He claimed the country has an “immigration system which does not permit us to know who we let into our country,” brushing aside the entire customs and immigration enforcement infrastructure. And he asserted that there was a “tremendous flow” of Syrian refugees, when just 2,805 of them were admitted into the country from October to May, fewer than one-third of the 10,000 Syrians President Obama said the United States would accept this fiscal year.
Mr. Trump described the gunman in the Orlando shooting as “an Afghan,” though he was born an American citizen in New York City to parents who had emigrated from Afghanistan to the United States over three decades ago.
Meanwhile, were all those "stretches" by Trump fairly regarded as "stretches?" On cable news, Martin and Burns would almost surely encounter a fight about their characterizations.
It seems to us that Martin and Burns skipped some of the more obvious bogus statements from yesterday's speech. At the same time, they possibly took some liberties in their assessment of Trump's alleged misstatements and exaggerations.
That said, establishing the truth is hard. For better or worse, the New York Times' Timothy Egan doesn't seem to understand this extremely basic fact.
We refer to Egan's column from last Saturday's Times. It carried the exciting headline, "Lord of the Lies."
The headline was exciting. But early on, its author made a remarkably foolish suggestion:
EGAN (6/11/16): Trump lies about big things (there is no drought in California) and small things (his hair spray could not affect the ozone layer because it’s sealed within Trump Tower). He lies about himself, and the fake self he invented to talk about himself. He’s been shown to lie more than 70 times in a single event."Setting up a truth referee" for the fall debates "wouldn't be difficult?"
Given the scale of Trump’s mendacity and the stakes for the free world, it’s time that we go into the fall debates with a new rule—an instant fact-check on statements made by the candidates onstage. The Presidential Debate Commission should do what any first-grader with Google access can do, and call out lies before the words hit the floor.
Setting up a truth referee is not difficult. And while doing such a thing is unlikely to ensure that the debates would be substantive, it could at least guarantee a reality foundation at a time when fact-free speech is the language of the political class.
In fact, doing so would almost surely be completely impossible! The fact that Egan doesn't know this helps us see the remarkable cluelessness of our journalistic elites.
Let's start with the obvious. There is no way the two campaigns would ever agree on an instant fact-check commission! It's astounding to think that Egan doesn't know this.
In recent cycles, the two campaigns have fought for months about the simple question of who should moderate the fall debates. In this especially disputatious year, there is no way the campaigns would ever agree to "set up a truth referee."
Nor should they try to. Here's why:
First, we already have a pair of "truth referees" at our fall debates. We refer to 1) the moderator and 2) the opposing candidate.
In recent fall debates, each of these parties has occasionally served as a "truth referee." When such disputes arise, our TV pundits and our big newspapers immediately start 1) ignoring these factual disputes or 2) bungling their discussion of same.
That said, it isn't obvious that there's room for some additional instant replay official. What would be wrong with a "truth referee?" Let's start with this:
Most disputes don't take the simplistic form which can be easily settled. If a candidate says, "Boise is the capital of Utah," it can quickly be established that his or her statement is false. But most groaners by major candidates don't adopt this simple form.
Has Timothy Egan ever read an actual "fact check" post? They often go on at considerable length. Establishing the truth is hard. As a general matter, it couldn't be done in a crawl across the TV screen in real time during debates.
Egan's remarkable lack of cluefulness is obvious throughout his piece. For starters, he seems to use the term "lie" interchangeably with the term "misstatement."
Few conflations are dumber. At least in theory, you can settle a dispute about a mere misstatement. You can never settle a dispute about a "lie."
People like Egan prefer the first term 1) because it's exciting and 2) because they're unintelligent. That said, disputes about "lies" rarely move past the question of motive to the ultimate question of fact.
Misstatements aren't necessarily lies! Everybody understands this fact except our upper-end journalists! That said, our major journalists typically know almost nothing. As an example of what we mean, Egan continues like this:
EGAN: Professional truth-seekers have never seen anything like Trump, surely the most compulsive liar to seek high office. To date, the nonpartisan PolitiFact has rated 76 percent of his statements lies—57 percent false or mostly false, and another 19 percent “Pants on Fire” fabrications. Only 2 percent—2 percent!—of his assertions were rated true, and another 6 percent mostly true. Hillary Clinton, who is not exactly known for fealty to the facts, had a 28 percent total lie score, including a mere 1 percent Pants on Fire.Let's start again with the obvious. Neither of those fact-check sites has ever rated any Trump/Clinton statements as "lies." That said, Egan is so unsophisticated that he seems to think that those percentages represent scores for all of those candidates' statements.
The Washington Post’s Fact Checker has dinged Trump with 30 of its Four Pinocchio ratings—lying 70 percent of the time. Trump cares so little about the truth that when the Fact Checker reaches out to him for an explanation, he never responds, the paper noted.
Duh. A fact-check site only checks certain statements. You can't assume they're being "fair" in the statements they choose to review for a range of candidates. For that reason, using their overall ratings in the way Egan does is a very shaky procedure. If our fact-check sites were a bit sharper (and they aren't), they wouldn't present such data.
No, Virginia, there will be no "truth referee" this fall. You have to be as dumb as a rock to imagine such a thing happening.
When Candidate Trump starts to spout, it will be up to Candidate Clinton and the moderator to challenge or correct him. It will then be up to our major newspapers and broadcast orgs to continue the discussion.
The history isn't encouraging.
The most striking factual dispute in modern debate history happened in the first Bush-Gore debate. Gore challenged Bush, again and again, about Bush's claims about his own prescription drug plan.
The dispute went on and on and on, at remarkable length. At one point, Gore correctly told the moderator, Jim Lehrer, that you can just go to Bush's web site to see that Bush's statements about his own drug plan were wrong:
LEHRER (10/3/00): One quick thing. Gentlemen, these are your rules. I'm doing my best. We're, we're way over the three and a half [minutes]. I have no problems with it, but we want—do you want to have a quick response, and we'll move on? We're already—we're almost five minutes on this, all right?This was the longest, liveliest factual debate in modern debate history. Trying to stave off Candidate Gore, Candidate Bush dropped both his "fuzzy math" and his "invented the Internet" bombs.
GORE: Yeah. I mean, it's just— It's just clear. You can go to the Web site and look. If you make more than $25,000 a year, you don't get a penny of help under the Bush prescription drug proposal for at least four or five years, and then you're pushed into a Medicare—into an HMO or an insurance company plan. And there's no limit on the premiums or the deductibles or any of the conditions...
The dispute lasted much longer than Lehrer's reported five minutes. Calmly, Gore noted that you could go to Bush's site to see that his claims were wrong.
Who was right on the facts? Inevitably, Gore was right and Bush was wrong about Bush's prescription drug plan! As a result, Timothy Egan's New York Times took a total pass on this striking dispute.
The Times never reported who was right in their fact checks of this history-changing debate! Reason: The New York Times was a major architect of the twenty-month war against Gore. Also, the Times was full of clueless wonders like Egan.
Today, Egan wants an instant truth referee—an utterly silly suggestion. "Setting up a truth referee is not difficult?"
Dearest darlings, riddle us this: Where do they find these life-forms?
Did Trump call the killer "an Afghan?" As far as we know, he did not. And yes, the killer was actually born right in New York City.
That said, Chris Matthews routinely refers to native-born American citizens as "Irishmen." For better or worse, many people speak that way.
Are Martin and Burns aware of this fact? We'll guess that Egan is!
Might we add a final point about those instant fact-checks? Beneath today's report by Martin and Burns, this correction now appears:
Correction: June 13, 2016Errors like this would be constant with an instant "truth referee." We'd end up discussing the ref, rather than Trump's misstatements.
An earlier version of this article misquoted Hillary Clinton during her speech in Cleveland on Monday. She called for vigilance in the fight against homegrown terrorists inspired by the Islamic State and said the response to the Orlando massacre required “clear eyes, steady hands, and unwavering determination and pride in our country and our values.” She did not say the response required “unwary determination.”