Trump’s shameful legacy includes 30,000+ false & misleading claims

Last year, in my “Go Figure: Making Numbers Count” numeracy programs, I focused on the 2020 U.S. Presidential campaign. Anchoring the session each time was my “GOlympics” quiz, in which each letter (G-O-L-Y…etc) covers a mathematical principle that intersects with the art of story-telling.

One of those queries:

“Since Donald Trump became President, the Washington Post has tracked false and misleading claims that he has made. In coverage of prior administrations, the Post has tracked a number of previous presidents’ per-day lying habits. How many other presidents’ false and misleading claims have been tracked?”

Usually, people would guess anywhere from two to five prior Presidents. Once or twice, an alert individual would give the correct answer: zero.

Although it’s obvious that prior U.S. Presidents had fibbed in a multitude of manners, it is safe to say that none had ever done so with as much frequency or flagrancy as Trump. But without a more exhaustive analysis, we have no way of knowing with any precision by how many times our 45th President eclipsed his predecessors in the Liar, Liar Pants on Fire department.

About That Number 0

Quick aside about that “zero” answer: my point in crafting what some might consider a “trick” question is that it should not be seen as tricky at all–zero is not only a bona fide number, but it’s immensely important. One reason for its outsized significance is that it can be embedded into misleading or murky communication.

To wit: “The city council member noted that his vote came because a number of people have been complaining about the issue.”

Each time I covered this question during my Go Figure program, I would pose another one that goes to the heart of journalistic ethics: Do you believe the Post should continue this false/misleading tracker with future Presidents? My students, I am glad to report, would answer in the same manner that I would emphatically argue: absolutely yes!

For one thing, Trump has given all future Presidents a benchmark against which they can be measured. Do they have the gall (and stamina and outright detachment from honesty) to utter false or misleading claims upwards of 21 times a day?

Beyond that, though, it’s only appropriate that, in fairness and balance, Biden (and future Presidents) ought to be held to the same standard of forthrightness that we seek in our leaders.

In Praise of The Post

The task of tracking politicians’ statements, and checking them against the truth, is herculean. The Washington Post deserves the highest praise for its effort, as do all others who tackle such a monumental challenge. It is also notable that the Fact Checker’s editor in chief, Glenn Kessler, points out that his team does not fact-check “to influence the behavior of politicians; we write fact checks to inform voters. What voters — or politicians — do with the information in our fact checks is up to them.”

You should check out the Post Fact Checker’s database of Trump’s false and misleading claims. While charting it along a daily and monthly timeline, the newspaper breaks it down by topic, from terrorism and trade to the coronavirus, his own biographical record, and a host of other categories. It is horrifying to behold–and that’s no lie.

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Who’s Vetting John Hughes’s Pen Pal?

It is fascinating to learn that the late, great director John Hughes apparently had a teen-aged pen pal, Alison Byrne Fields, for a two-year period in the mid-1980s.

(To the left, that’s his signature from one of his missives to Fields, according to her blog.)

But another intriguing element of this story is the blazing speed with which the media are hopping all over the story. And, of course, that raises this basic question: Who is fact-checking all of this?

Fields posted her wonderfully told journey on her blog, “We’ll Know When We Get There,” on Thursday, the same day that Hughes died.

According to the time stamp on her blog, she began writing her piece at 4:41 p.m., about 45 minutes after she Tweeted that she would do so. The first comment on her post came shortly after 9 p.m., meaning she produced it in about four hours.

So her swift turn-around suggests:

A. Fields had already crafted much of the story, including the scanned images of Hughes’s letters to her, not to mention the fan club photos of actors like Molly Ringwald and Judd Nelson that she had received through her friendship with Hughes.

Was she simply waiting for an opportunity to share her experience, and Hughes’s death opened the door?

Or…

B. In a flurry of creativity amid her grief over Hughes’s death, Fields managed to whip up this moving blog post.

In either event, the timing of her blog, let alone the content, should spur on this question in any skeptically trained mind:

How do we know her account to be true? Has anyone independently verified Hughes’s handwriting? Did he ever talk about this pen pal with any of his family or friends?

I’d be interested in reading that story. And Fields, as a media-savvy individual who understands the tenets of journalism (check out her bio here), may well welcome such scrutiny.

For what it’s worth, if I had to bet a dollar, my gut instinct is this: I believe Fields is being truthful. Further, I believe she is a most insightful, gifted communicator. She is among a select group of people who would have the literary and technical ability to “write on deadline” in this manner.

But don’t take my word for any of that. As I commented at the end of the Washington Post Celebritology Q & A in which Jen Chaney interviewed Fields:

“This all has an authentic air, but I wonder how various media types are confirming the accuracy/credibility of Alison? That, to me, is a story unto itself–the process of confirming her pen-pal relationship actually occurred. If your mother tells you she loves you…check it out!”