On ‘truthiness’ and the 2016 election


What is truth?” asked Pilate, and washed his hands. Sometimes I ask the same question, because it’s not always as simple as people like to think it is. At least, not in politics. (As a Catholic, I accept that the One of whom Pilate asked the question did trade in actual Truth.)

I had the chance to explore that a bit over at WACH-Fox studios this morning. Cynthia Hardy asked me to participate in a discussion of truth, lies and the current presidential election for the weekly TV version of her OnPoint show. Catch the show on WACH Sunday morning at 8:30. (Hey, you can DVR it, can’t you?)

At this point, I don’t recall precisely what was said during the taped segments, because we were talking about all this before and after the taping, and during breaks. But here are some of the points I made at some time or other while I was there:

  • Someone raised the question of why, with so many of his statements being easily proved to be false, Donald Trump’s followers still accept, and even cheer, them. I mentioned the point, made here so often before, that even though most of us once accepted Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s dictum that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” people today believe they are entitled to the “facts” they prefer, and gravitate toward those who offer them such.
  • Continuing on that point, I said we should think in terms of the Stephen Colbert concept of “truthiness.” Trump regularly says things that are wildly untrue, but his supporters eat it up because his claims strike them as “truthy.” It’s what they want to be true, and they appreciate him for saying it is, and never backing down on the point.
  • I tend to look askance at all these people who propose to do “fact-checking” in real time. First, even if one can determine incontrovertibly whether a statement is true or not, getting the job done frequently takes a lot of time. Not all facts can be instantly Googled. And sometimes — quite frequently — there is no pat answer. Some things are demonstrably untrue — for instance, we are spending tens of billions updating our nuclear arsenal, in direct contradiction of something Trump said in the debate Monday night. On the other hand, some assertions are more slippery, more matters of opinion. For instance, the NYT tried to “fact-check” Mrs. Clinton’s assertion that the U.S. needs an “intelligence surge” to stop homegrown terrorists before they act. The Times said we already collect and share more intel than ever. Perhaps so, but if something happens because we didn’t know something that might have enabled us to prevent it, how can one say we had enough intel? That said, there is the eternal debate over how much we need to protect people from snooping. Since Snowden, we’ve unfortunately erred in the wrong direction on that, but striking a balance will always be difficult. Bottom line, I can give you a pretty good answer to whether what she said was true if you give me 1,000 words or so to do it. Anything less and I’m shortchanging you. But be forewarned that the answer will contain a lot of my own opinion. Why? Because it’s that kind of question.
  • Elaborating on that: People who think it’s easy to separate fact from opinion should try editing editorial pages for a couple of months. The challenge is this: You’re publishing a lot of stuff written by nonprofessionals with strong opinions — letters to the editor and their big brothers, guest columns. If you’re me, you’ll have a rule against letting people make assertions of fact that are false in the course of expressing their opinions. Frequently, in the proofreading process, one of the editors — some of the top, most experienced journalists in South Carolina, when I was doing it at The State — would cross out something in a letter or oped because it was false. But then a terrific argument would ensue as we editors disagreed over whether that point was a matter of fact, or of opinion. In the latter case, we’d allow the writer to say it. These matters were never easily settled, because if you’re intellectually honest and doing your best to be fair to people and not dismissive of their views, it’s complicated.
  • It’s seldom black and white. Even lies have gradations. That’s why The Washington Post‘s pinocchio_1respected Fact Checker feature has levels. A “lie” can earn one, two, three or four “Pinocchios,” with four denoting something that is completely false. Then there is the rare “Geppetto Checkmark” for things found to be completely true. And these judgments are subjective. I forget the “fact” in question, but a couple of months ago, they gave Donald Trump four Pinocchios for something that, having read their findings, I thought should only have earned him two or three. (Of course, even if they had amended that would, Trump would still be the all-time record-holder for four-Pinocchio statements.)

I could go on and on, but there’s real work to be done. I’ll check back in and see what y’all think…

49 thoughts on “On ‘truthiness’ and the 2016 election

  1. bud

    Newsweek just published an article that indicates Trump was dealing with Cuba at a time when such dealings were in opposition to US law. It will be interesting to see how much truth there is to this damning story.

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    When Trump denies saying something, say about China and climate change, and something he tweeted to that effect is immediately re-tweeted, what do his minions believe?

  3. Burl Burlingame

    I’m currently having a conversation on FB about Trumps “blue screen” statement during the debate — is it something he hallucinated, or something he picked up from some obscure source, or something he goofed up the description words for (I do that myself), or was it something that simply hadn’t been revealed yet? No one knows, and I think that’s how he likes it.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I did not get that at all. But then, my mind may still have been reeling from the 400-pound hacker remark, and wondering where THAT came from.

      Didn’t chroma key screens, which are now usually green, used to be blue? Could it have been a reference to that? I mean, it still wouldn’t make sense, but since we’re trying to guess what he was trying to say…

      One of the more interesting phrases to enter common usage this year — entirely due to Trump — is “word salad.” It really describes his speech pattern, or lack of a pattern. He just tosses together words (or almost-words like “bigly”) without any effort to string them together into coherence…

      1. Kathryn Fenner

        and yes, they used to be blue….

        and “word salad” was also extensively applied to the utterances of Sarah Palin. It is an actual medical thing that refers to the speech of a neurological or mental disorder.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          You mean, like aphasia? I did not know that. I thought someone was just being clever and evocative. The first time I noticed it, I said, “that’s perfect!”

          1. Brad Warthen Post author

            And I’ve done a pretty good job of making myself forget the things Sarah Palin has said. I find it easier to remember things Tina Fey said lampooning her, possibly because the sentences were better constructed…

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    I think there is “fact-checking” of the sort that is more “is this a good policy” and “fact-checking” that is more “did s/he actually say something to the contrary.” The latter is quite easy to do, and yet strangely missing from earlier coverage.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I thought it was odd that the NYT didn’t differentiate. They treated Trump’s assertion that we’re not updating our nuclear arsenal (when we are) on the same plane as Hillary saying we need more intel. As though they were both just as checkable.


  5. Doug Ross

    Which is worse? Hillary’s scripted lies or Trump’s off the cuff lies? Hillary was well prepared for the debate, right? So her lies were practiced.

  6. Harry Harris

    A lie oft repeated or oft tweeted or oft forwarded is false, but often believed because of repetition and the will of many to believe it. Trump repeated the truth-stretch that President Obama doubled the national debt. He increased it by 77 percent through FY 2014, with the 2015 deficit of 439 Billion not taking it beyond an 83% increase for the 8 years. It reminds me of the “trillion dollar stimulus package” phrase repeated so often by Obama’s opponents. The package was passed at 787 billion and totaled 831B when spent out. Not a trillion. I wish Obama’s deficits hadn’t totaled that high, but they were what they were. He did inherit a 1.017 trillion budget deficit from President Bush 2 and the ongoing interest on a National debt of 10.024 Trillion of which over 8T was piled up under Republican Presidents – yes, 80%. Bush 2 added 76% to the debt in 8 years after inheriting a 17 billion deficit from Clinton with a projected surplus and no recession. Bush 1 only added 56% to the debt (in 4 years), much better than his predecessor Ronald Reagan who added 186% to the national debt (notice I didn’t say he tripled it, though close). Bush 1 grew the annual budget deficit by 58%, besting Reagan’s 210% growth and Bush 2’s 5,579% deficit growth (Yes, over 5000%). Obama’s deficit reduction from the previous President’s last deficit was 52% Carter only reduced it by 6.95%, while Clinton reduced it by a respectable 95.52%. These are official Treasury figures calculated with Microsoft Excel. Read ’em and weep. But, of course, “a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
    Unfortunately the stark repulsiveness of many of Trump’s personal statements and the nature of his campaign against even his Republican challengers has gotten Democrats and media members into fact checking whether or not he called someone a “pig” instead of checking the falseness of his economic claims or the outrageousness of his calling for “taking the oil” from Iraq.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        When it comes to the national debt, here’s my standard offer to my country:

        Delegate balancing the federal budget to me — lending me some qualified staff to make sure I do my sums right — and I’ll take care of it, for only a tenth of a percent of the amount of savings.

        Of course, Congress and the president would just have to vote it up or down, no amendments…

          1. Douglas Ross

            Your bonus is offset by 10% of the amount you increase taxes. That’s the easiest way to balance a budget. We should start with cuts first THEN once we’ve got the government down to its core functions, we can talk about raising taxes.

            1. Brad Warthen Post author

              I take a nonprejudiced, nonideological approach to balancing the budget. I have no prejudices about tax increases or decreases, or spending increases or decreases, as being inherently “good” or “bad.” With me, it’s whatever gets the job done.

              As it happened, as as you can see, when I did it two-thirds of the balancing was done with spending cuts, the rest with tax increases….

  7. Burl Burlingame

    It seems that many Trump supporters believe that Clinton doesn’t actually appear at speeches, she’s actually a kind of hologram projected on a blue screen behind the podium. Apparently that’s where the blue screen reference came from.

    1. Lynn Teague

      Well, that will go into my inventory of truly strange beliefs, along with the cargo cult and alien abduction.

    2. Norm Ivey

      There are rumors of her wearing an earpiece as well (with EVIDENCE!!!). Though what a hologram needs an earpiece for is beyond me.

    3. Kathryn Fenner

      Wow, but she’s also sending hand signals to Lester, or she’s got an earpiece, or it was all scripted in advance and no one sent the Donald his pages….

      Buy tinfoil futures, folks. The lining on a lot of these people’s hats is wearing thin.

  8. Mike

    It’s a measure of how surreal this election has been that I read your comment and cannot decide if it’s a tongue-in-cheek joke or truth.

    Where’s the NYT fact-checking squad when we need them?

    1. Harry Harris

      Right wing cartoonist Henry Payne (oft printed in the Sumter Item) cartoons that the fact-checkers are on Clinton’s team. Who will be blamed next for the hole Trump continues to dig.

  9. Bill

    Why do Trump supporters support Trump despite … all the stuff he says?

    Because their hate for Hillary is greater than their love their country.

    In their mind, Trump may stretch the truth, but Hillary is a liar by nature (just see Doug’s comment above). Which is very odd given that the person who ghost-wrote The Art of the Deal and spent a year observing Trump off and on said lying is second nature to the Donald; he practices “situational truth” — whatever serves his interests at any moment in time is “true.”

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t know about that, Bill. I think despising Hillary is the excuse of Republicans, and possibly some independents, who don’t much like Trump, or actively DISlike him, but have hated Hillary for so long that they’ll vote for him anyway.

      The true Trump believers, I suspect, go along with the “Crooked Hillary” stuff because their man says it, and she’s the one running against him. They are people who would exhibit the same hostility to Joe Biden, or for that matter Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, especially if Trump gave them the cue to do that.

      I’m intuiting here, but I think what I just said applies to quite a few of them, especially those who haven’t been particularly interested in politics in the past…

      1. Bill

        Well, my comment was based on actually talking and listening to a few Trump supporters. They simply cannot stand the idea of Clinton being elected. That’s what they mention first and foremost.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, if you’re gonna go back and use actual legwork to obtain information, then I’m afraid I can’t help you.

          Imagine, polluting the extrapolative process by actually talking to people. I’m reeling here…

    2. Douglas Ross

      Yes, I believe Hillary is a liar by nature. Nearly every statement she has made about her email server has been proven to be false. Even their biggest excuse “Colin Powell did it” was proved to be a lie and Powell’s email showed he told them not to do it.

      I don’t want Hillary or Trump as President. I don’t care if one is less bad than the other. Both of them will be terrible Presidents.

      1. Harry Harris

        We.re all probably liars by nature – lying when we think we have to or it’s expedient. I’m a sinner, but not everything I do is sinful. One’s set perception usually kicks in when evaluating the “truth” of a statement unless one makes effort to use judgement rather than prejudice. The “truth” we believe is most often the one than we want to be true. Your statement about both being terrible Presidents is nothing more than prejudicial speculation. In my view, they could both be vying for a job leading a nation that is terrible to lead. I happen to believe the directions and policies each would pull toward matter very much.

        1. Douglas Ross

          Of course I’m prejudicial – my prejudices are based on experience and observation. Hillary isn’t some new entity that we have to learn about. She is what she is — going back to her days as the First Lady. She has a track record that can be assessed. And my assessment of her performance is that it was not very good. Experience doesn’t matter as much as the results. How she handled Monica Lewinsky, Benghazi, and the email server alone bring into question her demeanor and capability. Throw in the fact that she’s past retirement age and doesn’t appear to be physically fit and it’s enough to allow me to form a judgment of her ability to be a good President. It’s an opinion just like yours.

          1. Mark Stewart

            I don’t think Hillary handled Monica. It’s an odd statement. (Also, I don’t think I get what exactly Clinton as Sec of State did wrong about Benghazi. Maybe that’s just me; but that’s another point anyway.)

            I do think it unbelievable that she gets hit with diatribes because Hillary obviously wanted her marriage to remain intact regardless of Bill’s actions. It kind of makes me incredulous, actually. The Clinton’s are still together… so their marriage works for them. Probably a heck of a lot better than most people’s.

            Now, if you want to continue to unload on Bill about the Monica malfeasance – go ahead, rip away to your heart’s content.

            1. Kathryn Fenner

              ad exactly how does Hillary not appear to be physically fit? She’s wearing pants suits. You can’t judge anything under a pants suit. I just saw Bryan Caskey, who was wearing business casual–a sport coat, and I would not have been able to determine that he could do a number of lunges with 145 extra pounds atop him, by looking at him.
              You can’t judge fitness by size, dude.

              1. Doug Ross

                I didn’t judge her fitness by her size, dudette. I judge it by how she moves, how she holds onto things for support, how she has frequent coughing fits and a history of blood clots. She is about average or worse for a 70 year old. She’s not going to magically get in better shape in the next four years.

                1. Doug Ross

                  Do you think she could walk a mile today in under 15 minutes? Do not reference Trump in your answer.

            2. Doug Ross

              Hillary has attacked the messenger in every case of Bill’s infidelities. She could have asked him to resign. She never did anything related to his horrendous behavior that would impact his or her political ambitions. She’s an enabler. He raped a woman and she took his side. She’s a cold, calculating person. Unfit for office.

  10. Brad Warthen Post author

    Dang. My wife had wanted to see the TV discussion I taped the other day, and I forgot to record it Monday morning.

    One of several things I did not get done over the weekend.

    However, I DID manage to add more than 60 people to my family tree Saturday, bringing me to a total of 1,824. I don’t think I’ve ever before added that many in one day So there’s that.

    This, by the way, is NOT an accomplishment that impresses my wife. She said the “family tree” that fell in our backyard recently is still waiting to be cut up and carted off.

    But you know, once I get on a roll with discovering people for my genealogy hobby online, it’s hard to stop…

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