Fact-checking is all the rage right now. Just hours — okay, half a day — away from the first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the topic du jour is whether, how much and when moderator Lester Holt should fact-check Clinton and Trump when they veer from the truth.
A large part of that conversation is a belief within Democratic circles that the media has failed in its responsibility to hold Trump accountable for the many and various misstatements and outright untruths he has peddled in this campaign. If the media was doing its job, the argument goes, then Trump would have never come so close to winning the Republican nomination, much less be within striking distance of Clinton at this late date.
Let's fact-check that indictment of fact-checking.
The Washington Post's Fact Checker — now of "Doonesbury" fame! — has fact-checked 75 of Trump's statements, the most of any candidate for president in 2016. Of the 75 claims it has fact-checked, 49 (65 percent) have been given a four-Pinocchio rating — meaning that they are totally false. Then there's this from Fact Checker Glenn Kessler: "Trump's average Pinocchio rating is 3.4, which is extraordinary; the highest average rating in the 2012 campaign was Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), who earned 3.08. Clinton has an average Pinocchio rating of 2.2, which is slightly higher than President Obama and slightly lower than Mitt Romney in 2012."
The story is the same with other major fact-checking operations. PolitiFact has fact-checked 260 Trump statements going back to 2008. (It has fact-checked 255 from Clinton.) Of that 260, 53 percent were given a rating of either "false" or "pants on fire." Seven in 10 were rated "mostly false," "false" or "pants on fire."
Given all of that, I rate the claim that Trump has not been adequately fact-checked by the media in this campaign as Totally False. Here is my Fix Totally False symbol:
So, what is really going on here? What are Democrats trying to say when they continue to claim — facts be damned! — that the media isn't doing its job fact-checking Trump?
I think I know. What I believe people are saying is "Why doesn't the fact that independent fact-checkers keep finding Trump lying not change people's opinions of him?" Or, put another way: How can someone who isn't telling the truth two-thirds of the time possibly be in contention to be president of the United States?
I've got two potential answers for that question — one my own and one borrowed from my friend Steve Kornacki.
The first is that a relentless campaign by the right — and the left — to disqualify the media as neutral arbiters is paying dividends. As in, if you think the media is fundamentally corrupt and populated with the worst people, why the heck would you believe anything we say? You are just as likely — actually, more likely — to believe that Trump's facts are superior to the media's facts. And that's if you even listen to or read the mainstream media at all! Lots and lots of Trump backers don't get their news from any mainstream news sites. And the sites from where they get their news put far less emphasis on Trump's casual relationship with the truth.
The second — and I am paraphrasing Kornacki here — is that most non-base voters pay only the slightest attention to politics and, therefore, their impressions of the two candidates are shaped by broad perceptions, not intricate details. Clinton is the lawyer who almost always sounds as though she is thinking about how something plays in a courtroom rather than in the court of public opinion. Trump is the truth-telling salesman. How could someone who says the stuff he says possibly be lying, people think. No one would court controversy like Trump does if he wasn't telling the truth.
Some combination of both of those factors is why Trump, despite the massive number of documented falsehoods he has spun in this campaign, is still seen as more honest and trustworthy than Clinton. Just 33 percent of voters in a new Washington Post-ABC national poll said Clinton was honest and trustworthy while 42 percent said the same of Trump.
It's easy to blame that disparity on the media. But, like many facile explanations, it's also wrong. Trump's ability to weather so many blatant falsehoods is far more complex than simply shouting at the media to "do its job!" It's about the increasing tribalism of our politics, the partisan siloing of our media and the result of years of committed efforts to discredit the neutral media referees.