Democracy Dies in Darkness

Erik Wemple | Opinion

Trump supporter on MSNBC: Facts don’t matter

September 10, 2018 at 7:40 PM

President Trump at a rally with supporters in Billings, Mont., on Sept. 6. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)

For years now, commentators, journalists, political scientists, philosophers and people with Twitter accounts have been discussing Donald Trump’s strained relationship with the truth, along with journalism’s role in smoking it out. There are piles and piles of gasbaggery on the matter.

Now there’s one tidy cable-news segment that cuts through all that.

On Monday afternoon, MSNBC host Katy Tur welcomed Matt Schlapp, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, to discuss all things President Trump. Some of the discussion was rote cable blather, such as Schlapp’s contention that, no, the White House really isn’t as chaotic as Bob Woodward and others would have you believe.

Fine. He can say that.

At a certain point, however, Tur veered into the topic of truth. Smart move: When TV hosts chat with officials allied with Trump, they need never move from the topic of the president’s prolific mendacity. The Post has counted 4,229 false or misleading claims from Trump from his inauguration through Aug. 1, and even though The Post’s fact-checkers are hesitant to accuse the president of lying — an offense that requires the intent to propagate a falsehood — surely a decent chunk of that tally qualifies. However you may categorize his irresponsible statements, they poison every discussion of policy, of diplomacy, of leadership, of decency.

Lying is our ongoing national crisis.

And if Trump’s supporters agree with Schlapp on this matter, it’ll stay that way for a while. On Tur’s MSNBC show, she kicked off the truth discussion by telling Schlapp that the “president himself . . . it’s not as if he’s just trying to change policy. The president himself is lying on a daily basis.”

“I don’t think that’s right,” responded Schlapp, as the two engaged in some crosstalk about The Post’s tally. “I’ll show you examples where the Washington Post is getting things wrong, so it goes both ways.” At this point, Schlapp credited Trump for communicating extensively with the “whole globe.” “If you want to know what he thinks about something, just turn to his Twitter feed,” said Schlapp.

Then this: “As far as the lying is concerned, every single one of these supposedly independent outfits that are determining whether or not the president is lying or telling the truth are funded by left-wing donors like George Soros. And I’m sorry, I want NBC News and other media outlets to rely on their own reporting and not on the reporting of these websites and these blog sites that say he lies 9,000 times a day.”

Appropriately fatigued by this nonsense, Tur slapped on the screen a recent false tweet from the president. This one:

Nope. “That is factually incorrect,” said Tur, noting that this economic scenario occurred back during the George W. Bush administration. “Is he just not aware of how those numbers work?” asked Tur of Schlapp.

“What’s the point of the tweet?” replied Schlapp. “The point of the tweet is that for all Americans — liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, no matter the color of your skin — there’s greater economic opportunity today than before Donald [Trump].”

If that’s the case, Tur protested, then why doesn’t Trump just tweet things that are true, instead of forcing “everybody to fact-check him?” Tur hypothesized that Trump, perhaps, enjoys the fact-checking “because then he can make it look like we’re his foil. Is that intentional, what he’s doing, or does he just not understand the numbers and does he not care about being correct when he’s talking to the American people?”

Schlapp then attempted to turn the tables: “When the press gets it wrong, are they lying?” No, we correct mistakes, countered Tur. And then Schlapp dropped a rhetorical bomb in the midst of afternoon cable: “You are making a moral determination when you say a politician lies. There are times when politicians get it right and politicians get it wrong. On that tweet, I don’t know how many years it’s been, but I do know this: For Americans, it’s historic to have the unemployment rate be below the GDP rate. And that’s a good thing for all of us, so what you do is you try to find the one little way in which there’s a flaw and you miss the general point.”

Tur: “Just say something that’s true, and that would be the end of it. And we’d report that that is true.”

Schlapp: “He did say something true. Is it true that the unemployment rate is historically low and the economic growth is historically high?”

Tur: “It’s not true that it’s the first time in over 100 years.”

Schlapp: “How many years is it? Twenty-five years?”

Tur: “2006 is not a hundred years ago.”

Schlapp: “Okay, but the point is this: The economy is doing well, and you should cover that.”

Would adore covering that, Tur countered, but there’s too much fact-checking to do. Thereupon, Schlapp scolded her and others in the media for taking the “next step by saying he’s immoral and a liar.” To which Tur noted that, during the campaign, Trump was made aware many times that he was misinformed about his supposed real-time opposition to the Iraq war, but kept lying about it.

And then Schlapp said something terribly helpful: “The country’s split, unfortunately. And if you look at poll after poll after poll, we’re very polarized politically . . . And if you want to be viewed, and your show wants to be viewed as just calling the balls and strikes and the facts: When you take the extra step to say the president is a quote-unquote liar, and that even when he’s corrected he’s continued to lie, do you understand why people who have a conservative or Republican point of view and actually see the facts and come to a different moral conclusion — why they have trouble understanding why you have to make the moral step — why do you have to say he’s done something immoral? You could have a disagreement on what the truth is, and I think that’s what’s happening in our society more and more. I actually think Donald Trump was against the war in Iraq.”

Let’s look at two towering takeaways from this interview: One, Schlapp asserts that facts don’t matter — gists matter. By contesting Tur’s insistence that the president of the United States stick to actual history when tweeting “history,” he has shown that he is concerned only with the general message that the president might be trying to send. And we just adore Schlapp’s ability to tiptoe around facts: He thinks Trump was against the Iraq war, despite mounds of evidence to the contrary.

Two: Schlapp equates an allegation of mendacity to a moral judgment. But it is actually a factual determination. If it can be determined that the president knew something, yet said the opposite, that’s a lie. Have a look at how The Post’s Glenn Kessler reached this determination regarding Trump’s statements on the Stormy Daniels payment — by comparing the president’s words to the public record. His conclusion was one of fact and analysis, not morality.

People who lie frequently are bad people, by contrast, is a moral judgment.


Erik Wemple, The Washington Post's media critic, focuses on the cable-news industry. Before joining The Post, he ran a short-lived and much publicized local online news operation, and for eight years served as editor of Washington City Paper.

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