The Trump speech was a nothing: no state of emergency, no hour-long rant, just one more reminder that the real story of the presidency by now is his inability to put any effort into any part of his job. But the press had geared up for it to be a big deal. Platoons of reporters were ready to live-blog the night as fact-checkers, making sure the president didn’t drown the public in a torrent of unexamined lies.
Since Trump only spoke for nine minutes, and the lies were the usual old ones, the fact-checkers needed to justify their night somehow. So they turned their attention to the Democratic response. Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, had said, “No president should pound the table and demand he gets his way or else the government shuts down, hurting millions of Americans who are treated as leverage.”
The New York Times flagged that claim as suspect. “This needs context,” it wrote, in the bold type it uses for verdicts on factualness.
What the Times‘ fact-inspection shop objected to was the mention of “millions of Americans”:
An estimated 800,000 federal workers are furloughed or working without pay due to the shutdown. While millions of Americans are not being directly harmed, there is a multiplier effect when considering family members. This also spills into the broader economy.
The premise—coming from the bureau at the Times that covers the operations of the federal government—was that the only people affected by the government shutdown are the people who have government jobs. The sole function of the federal government, as the Times sees it, is to give out paychecks to federal government workers.
Meanwhile, here’s some context: 1,150 federal rent-subsidy contracts with landlords who provide poor people’s housing have already expired with no money to renew them, with another thousand on their way to expiring, in a program that serves 1.2 million people. The federal food-stamp program, which serves 38 million people, is due to run out of funding before the end of February. Funding for other USDA food benefits has already been cut off, with state and local governments stuck covering the shortfall. The Bureau of Indian Affairs can’t pay for basic services on tribal land—as the Times itself reported.
Apparently, the Washington bureau of the New York Times doesn’t know many people who use federal government assistance in their daily lives. Less fraught with class conflict, but still fundamental to its understanding of the entire subject it covers, the Times bureau also seems not to know how much federal spending goes to outside contractors, who use that money to pay their own employees. (The paper later amended the last sentence to add that the loss of federal paychecks was also “harming business owners whose customers must cut back, tourism and travel,” which still treated the whole problem of the shutdown as nothing but a multiplier on the problem of government employees not personally having money to spend.)
If the Times needs more information on the many things the federal government does, and on the millions of people who depend on the government doing them, CBS put together a nice brief roundup of shutdown effects in advance of the speech. It’s never too late to learn!
But it is too late to redeem the whole fact-checking project. The Associated Press made its own contribution, with a tweet fact-checking the notion that the shutdown is Trump’s fault:
AP FACT CHECK: Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango. Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another.
It was a tremendously stupid argument—the president’s extraordinary demand for a wall and the Democrats’ response to the demand aren’t two opposing reasons, they’re the same reason, which originated with the president—but it was also not a fact-check at all. It was what conventional politics reporting would call a piece of news analysis: Who is to blame for the shutdown? Only it had been reduced to a true-false question, or a true/some-might-say-not-necessarily-true question.
And, like the Times‘ pettifoggery over whether the number of people affected by the government shutdown was really in the millions, it arose from the political press’ hopeless, chronic insistence on balancing everything. Donald Trump is a shameless, chronic liar; his lies about immigration—which is the subject of the shutdown and the speech—are the foundation of his presidency, going all the way back to his campaign kickoff address. In his brief remarks last night, he said two things the Times flagged as “false” and another it called “misleading” (five more of his statements got “needs context”).
American political journalism, however, requires politics to be a contest between two opposing sides, in which the press is a neutral referee. And, axiomatically, a referee can’t be neutral if it only calls a penalty on one side. So under the rules of politics reporting, the Times had to hit Schumer with a “This needs context.”
So what if the complaint was wrong? Here was a preview of how the 2020 presidential campaign will go, if Trump holds on that long: the incumbent will insist that the sun is the moon, the border is in flames, and hordes of criminal aliens are surging toward the polls; his challengers will object to this; the fact-checkers will interject to say that while the sun is not the moon, the light of the moon is, in fact, reflected sunlight. Nor will Trump’s opponents have mentioned that sometimes the moon can be seen in the daytime sky, like the sun. Needs context.
Third-party fact-checking, as the establishment press does it, is the opposite of providing context. It is a process of breaking things apart—like Schumer’s completely accurate and lucid statement, or like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s criticism of the fact-checking process itself—till they lose their meaning. It purports to be an endpoint or resolution, but the fact-checks become more facts, hastily and indifferently reported ones, to be fed back into the news cycle and misused or misrepresented. Everybody gets Pinocchios; nothing gets to be real.