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!
Trump’s Rampant Lying Creates a Benchmark
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. (P.S. In fact, the Washington Post, has done so, such as this “Fact Checker” overview of Biden’s first 100 days.)
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.