The Post fact-checking team has a fun look at more than a year of statements by Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. You’ll be startled to hear that they concluded that Trump lies a lot more often than Clinton does — and a lot more outrageously, too. Out of 52 statements by Trump, nearly two thirds were deserving of Four Pinnochios, which is to say that they were absurdly egregious lies. Out of 35 statements by Clinton, a much smaller percentage qualified for that distinction.
Now, in fairness to Trump, the reason the Post fact checking duo — Glenn Kessler and Michelle Lee — evaluated more of Trump’s statements in the aggregate is because he’s more accessible to the press than Clinton has been thus far. That is something Trump deserves genuine credit for.
However, they also made a point that I have not seen made anywhere else, one that sheds light on an important ongoing debate over how Trump and Clinton treat the press. They noted an important qualitative difference in the process of adjudication that goes on between each of their campaigns and the media:
Clinton is a professional politician, with a large staff that will readily respond to fact-checking questions. Often, Clinton’s staff can quickly provide documentation that backs up, or at least explains, the facts and figures that she cites. By contrast, Trump’s small staff rarely responds to fact-checking inquiries and never provides an explanation for his statements.
Trump is also the rare politician who will repeat false claims, over and over, even after they have been debunked by fact-checking organizations. Most politicians will simply stop repeating a claim after receiving Four Pinocchios, our worst rating….
Trump’s Four-Pinocchios claims are too numerous to tally….The volume of his false claims is extraordinary, especially because he so often repeats them. He continued to say that he saw thousands of Muslims in New Jersey celebrate the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when that never happened. He repeatedly says he opposed the Iraq war from the start, when that’s false. He constantly says the Islamic State terrorist group controls the oil in Libya, when that’s wrong. He routinely inflates the unemployment rate from 4.9 percent to as high as 42 percent.
In that sense, the raw numbers do little justice for how cavalier Trump is with the facts; there’s certainly never been a major-party politician with Trump’s Four-Pinocchio score.
There is an important process observation buried in this conclusion. On some fundamental level, Clinton respects the basic role that the press is supposed to play, however grudgingly. Trump does not — in fact, he has utter contempt for it. Clinton’s team accepts that it has a responsibility to at least try to substantiate her claims when inquisitive fact checkers start sniffing around. Trump’s team feels no hint of any such obligation. That, of course, is of a piece with Trump’s extraordinarily high volume of lies, and especially with his continued repetition of them even after he has been called out.
Of course, Clinton does harbor deep antipathy towards the press. She has done so for many years, probably going back to Whitewater and even before that. She views the press as being out to get her, to a degree that is perhaps counterproductive. As Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman have reported, even some of her own advisers believe she nurses an unhealthy inability to distinguish between those media figures who are in fact out to get her and those who are digging into her record very aggressively but responsibly. Perhaps because of all this, Clinton does not hold nearly the number of press conferences that she should.
But, even if you think her motives for stiff-arming the media are absurd, it should be acknowledged that her attitude towards it it simply has no equivalence to Trump’s total contempt for the basic functional role of the news media in our democracy. His entire campaign is functionally an exercise in trying to get it to wither away and drop off of our body politic, like a gangrenous limb or frostbitten finger.
This is important, because this week, two respected journalists — the outgoing and incoming heads of the White House Correspondents’ Association — published a widely-discussed piece arguing that both Trump and Clinton represent a “threat” to the “free press,” because Trump bans reporters from events while Clinton refuses to hold pressers. This produced a lot of somber nodding along from Beltway reporters. But as Erik Wemple pointed out, to argue that the two candidates pose equivalent menaces to press freedom is simply absurd. Wemple provided this list of Trump’s offenses towards the free press:
• Bashing outlet after outlet after outlet in his speeches, often using descriptors like “disgusting” and even calling one reporter a “sleaze” on national television;
• Singling out camera operators at his rallies for failing to pan the crowd. “Look at the guy in the middle. Why aren’t you turning the camera? Terrible. So terrible. Look at him, he doesn’t turn the camera. He doesn’t turn the camera,” said Trump
• Promising to “open up” the country’s libel laws so as to make it easier to sue media organizations;
• Denying press credentials to various news organizations based on unfavorable coverage. They include the The Post, Politico, the Daily Beast, Univision, Fusion, the Des Moines Register and the Huffington Post;
• Suing a former campaign aide for violating a confidentiality agreement by speaking with the media;
• Hassling reporters for not staying in their designated pen at rallies;
• Boycotting a Fox News debate over vague concerns about one of its hosts;
• Hyping a bogus National Enquirer story that spun conspiracy theories about the father of Ted Cruz;
By contrast, Clinton doesn’t hold pressers. That’s the same thing! Or, you know, it isn’t the same at all. As Wemple concluded, Clinton “runs” from the media, but Trump is actually a “hazard” to it. Beyond that, Clinton accepts its fundamental role, while Trump simply does not. If Trump can get elected in spite of that, who knows what sort of implications that would have?
It’s been pointed out endlessly that Trump’s candidacy is rendering the political media’s tendency to ascribe false equivalences — in service of nominally “objective” balance — less and less tenable. It’s more intriguing still that media figures now appear reluctant to acknowledge that Trump has a level of contempt for their own institutional role that Clinton simply doesn’t share.
UPDATE: A slight qualification. My original headline suggested Trump and Clinton both “dislike” the media. But it isn’t really that Trump dislikes the press. It’s more that he has total contempt for it while simultaneously using the whole media “freak show” very effectively towards his own ends, by putting on a show that earns nonstop exposure. So I’ve changed it to “stiff-arm.”