A reply to Politico’s Jack Shafer

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In a Dec. 24, 2015 column, Politico’s Jack Shafer wonders why the mainstream media fact checkers have no discernible effect on the presidential race. Republican Donald Trump, for example, pays them about the same heed Godzilla pays the Japanese Air Force.

Shafer writes:

It would stand to reason that the documentation of Trump’s lies—not to mention his rudeness and crudeness—would hobble his candidacy. Yet it appears to have had little to no effect.

What to conclude from this? Perhaps that the fact checkers don’t know what they’re writing about—which I reject—or that Trump supporters don’t know about the fact checker’s findings, which seems wildly unlikely given the saturation coverage his lies have enjoyed. My guess is that Trump supporters don’t believe and just don’t care what the fact checkers say.

How could Trump supporters not care!?


Though Shafer goes on to suggest an explanation through a 2002 column by Michael Kinsley, we suggest he’s already provided the bulk of the answer. Maybe the fact checkers don’t know what they’re writing about. Shafer rejects that proposition. But if Shafer isn’t a Trump supporter then why should he use his own judgment of fact checkers to gauge how Trump supporters view them?

People have reason to mistrust the mainstream media fact checkers. Democrats, remember, were outraged when PolitiFact named permutations of “Republicans voted to end Medicare” as its “Lie of the Year” in 2011. And though that case is perhaps the easiest fact check controversy for journalists to bring to mind, every single “Lie of the Year” to date has provoked legitimate controversy.

We offer two examples.

The Romney Jeep Ad

First, let’s look at the “Lie of the Year” given to Mitt Romney’s Jeep ad in 2012. Romney’s ad said the Obama administration sold Jeep to the Italians (Fiat). True. The ad said Chrysler would build Jeeps in China. True. The ad said Romney would fight for every American job. That’s a promise predicated on Romney winning the presidency, so it’s neither true nor false. The ad implies the U.S. would lose jobs to China The fact checkers condemned the ad, with PolitiFact and the Washington Post Fact Checker giving it their lowest possible ratings. The fact checkers avoided mention of the tens of thousands of Jeep vehicles exported to China to meet a rapidly growing demand. Would a new plant in China take away job opportunities in the United States? The fact checkers only considered that question in terms of whether existing Jeep plants would see jobs cut. They gave no consideration to losing potential growth for American jobs.

Obama’s Two-headed Healthcare Hydra

In 2013, PolitiFact awarded its “Lie of the Year” to a pair of statements from President Barack Obama.

Was this proof of PolitiFact’s even-handedness? Last year the Republican Romney, this year the Democrat Obama? That’s fair and nonpartisan, right?

No, PolitiFact’s 2013 “Lie of the Year” was awarded to diminish the impression the fact checkers blew it in 2012 when rating one half of the 2013 “Lie of the Year” as “Half True.” PolitiFact never rated Obama’s promise, that health insurance policy holders could keep their existing plans, lower than “Half True.”

When the public narrative turned against Obama, the fact checkers hurried after. They condemned Obama for trying to say he had not promised people they could keep their healthcare insurance plans even though that wasn’t what he was saying. PolitiFact combined its two flawed claims, one too kind to Obama and one wildly unfair to Obama, into one crowd-pleasing “Lie of the Year.”

PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year” for 2013 was all about PolitiFact’s public image. With the public viewing the president’s promise as a lie, PolitiFact moved to stay with the popular narrative.

Working Kinsley into the Mix

Shafer’s reference to Kinsley carries some value:

Michael Kinsley got to this topic in a 2002 column about presidential deception. Lying rarely troubles a candidate’s conscience because he considers politics a game, not real life, Kinsley wrote. The distortions, misrepresentations and deceit a candidate sprays on his supporters are the political version of pillow talk, designed to seduce them into voting for him, not prepare them for a final exam on current events.


Kinsley and Shafer gloss over the fact that the media play a similar game. When Shafer goes on to refer to the “band saw” of scrutiny from the fact checkers, Shafer’s playing the same game Trump is playing. In real life, the fact checkers are not neutral referees. PolitiFact targeted Republican Michele Bachmann during the 2008 election cycle. Trump wears a target this cycle. The writers and editors at PolitiFact believe they are doing a public service by feeding a narrative that hurts certain candidates. Columns like Shafer’s express the frustration the fact checkers feel when the people do not move in the direction the media shepherd them.

Why do Trump supporters ignore evidence Trump misstates the facts? We think it’s as simple as this: Trump’s supporters hear him taking positions they support, and they see him as a candidate who will do what he says on those issues. Media attacks that do not bear directly on their reasons for supporting Trump will have no effect. And in that respect, Trump’s supporters are probably not very different from the people supporting the other candidates.


Update Dec. 28, 2015: Belatedly included a link to Jack Shafer’s column in Politico.

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