Hey, journalists: Give the pedantic, pointless Donald Trump fact-checking a rest

Journalists need not line up to kiss the ring of the president. But the churlish impulse to fact-check Trump to an extreme ultimately harms the cause of journalism.

Fact-checking loses its value if it is perceived as a petty partisan exercise

A curious sort of literalism has seized the media, with every one of Trump’s words picked apart at face value (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

Energized after a contented eight-year slumber, America's news organizations are finally ready to put the president's feet to the fire. While the root of their newfound rigour is suspect — arguably stemming from little more than plain indignation that Donald Trump is now president — it is nonetheless a positive change from the fawning of the media corps during the Obama years.

Yet as the media takes its first furtive steps after ditching its cheerleading togs, there appears to be a significant overcorrection in the tenor and content of reporting. Indeed, a curious sort of pedantic literalism has seized the media, with every one of Trump's words picked apart at face value. This sort of petty nitpicking makes for bad journalism and will only serve to further harm the reputations of news organizations across the country.

Cheap points

There is tremendous value in journalists fact-checking the statements of politicians, of course, but we are a long way from the halcyon days of the early-2000s, when pioneering websites like factcheck.org provided in-depth looks at substantial matters of policy  — even drawing praise from Dick Cheney during the 2004 vice presidential debates. Nowadays, fact-checking has devolved into a way for journalists to score cheap points against America's 45th president by poring over every line of statements coming out of Trump Tower and the White House. 

Back in October, NBC News' fact-checker crowed "Nope!" at Trump's accusation that Hillary Clinton "acid-washed" her email server, noting that Clinton had not actually used a "corrosive chemical" in deleting her emails.

When Trump called actress Meryl Streep "overrated" following her speech at the Golden Globes, The Associated Press was quick to fact-check this by noting that Streep is, in fact, highly rated.

The fact-checking of Daniel Dale at the Toronto Star also spins into the realm of incredulity. When Trump accused Clinton of destroying her iPhones with a hammer, Dale tut-tutted this as a lie — Clinton's team had in fact destroyed her BlackBerrys with a hammer. When Trump lamented Chicago's "record-setting" murder rate, citing the more than 4,300 killed or wounded by gunfire in 2016, Dale was quick to point out that the murder "rate" was actually not a record. 

While technically correct, these fact-checks take Trump's opinions, rhetorical flourishes and metaphors as literal and ignore the obvious points being made. This approach does the media no favours; it is akin to the self-satisfied undergrad waiting on tenterhooks to smugly correct his professor over the slightest inaccuracy. In an age when distrust of the media runs high, it does not serve journalists well to be "that guy."

Not helping matters is that such pedantry appears reserved exclusively for Trump. When Barack Obama referenced Russian President Vladimir Putin as the former "head of the KGB," for example, there were no smug fact-checks — outside of one by Moscow-funded Russia Today — pointing out that Putin was actually head of the KGB's successor agency, the FSB.

Fake news era

Resisting the urge to fact-check Trump over the most inconsequential of matters might also serve journalists well as the media continues to struggle with its own issues of "fake news." A result of the relentless pursuit of likes, shares and views is that stories that fit a particular narrative — reports of Russia hacking Vermont's power grid or Trump removing an MLK bust from the Oval Office come to mind — are breathlessly reported or tweeted out with little regard for accuracy. The penchant for report first, verify later, makes for bad journalism, and even worse politics.

Most troubling is that the value of fact-checking is undermined if used as a petty political cudgel, and checks on actual substantive issues risk being waved off as the "liberal media" at it again.

Journalists need not necessarily line up to kiss the ring of the president. But the churlish impulse to fact-check Trump to a pedantic extreme ultimately harms the cause of journalism.

By all means: call Trump out over his statements on the number of illegal ballots cast during the election. But perhaps give it a rest when it comes to quibbling over electronics' brand names. If fact-checking is seen as a petty partisan exercise, it loses its value, particularly among those already suspicious of the media. While it may drive less traffic, a more thoughtful, considered approach to correcting the record is needed if journalists hope to get through the next four years.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Allan Richarz is a privacy lawyer in Toronto.


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