Step aside, Pinocchios and Pants on Fire. “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central has entered the fact-checking world with ratings such as “a puppy snorting cocaine” and “a John Travolta.”
“The Daily Show’s” “What the Actual Fact?” segments can sometimes seem as substantive as PolitiFact or The Washington Post’s Fact-Checker. But they also contain the kind of silliness you expect from a show on Comedy Central.
Each segment includes several clips of politicians making statements on the screen, followed by Daily Show correspondent Desi Lydic presenting legitimate evidence to explain why the statement is false.
She displays the same bar graphs and data tables that any other fact-checker would use, but instead of ending the fact check with an ordinary “False” rating or a slightly less ordinary but still G-rated “Pants on Fire,” she gives the statement something like “one Katherine Heigl f—ing Seth Rogen,” while a visual representation of that, uh, rating, is stamped on the screen.
The fact-checking segments, which first aired in November 2015 after a Republican primary debate, deliver the gags you expect. But they also have substantive content about what really happened at Benghazi, or whether Donald Trump is right that the United States is one of the highest-taxed countries.
“The Daily Show” has long taken facts seriously for a comedy show, a sentiment that former correspondent John Oliver carried with him when he left the show to host “Last Week Tonight.” But even Stewart never set aside a recurring segment devoted to substantive fact-checking like new host Trevor Noah has done this election cycle.
“We’re legitimately checking the facts, and I believe doing a good job of it, but on the other hand, that’s not the point of what we’re doing the way it is with those other outlets. We’re using it as a framework for comedy,” said Daniel Radosh, a senior writer for “The Daily Show” who oversees “What the Actual Fact?”
‘Falling into his trap’
Donald Trump has provided plenty of fodder for fact-checkers in the last year — including the team at “What The Actual Fact?”
Lydic has awarded Trump “a puppy snorting cocaine” for claiming he was “stablemates” with Vladimir Putin when they appeared on the same “60 Minutes” show; “a virgin margarita” for saying he would protect LGBTQ citizens as president; “a John Travolta” for saying 14 million Americans have left the workforce during Barack Obama’s presidency and “one co-worker talking nonstop about CrossFit” for saying Americans should not pay a death tax.
Radosh said Lydic, who has a background in improvisational comedy, is great at sounding serious while slowly slipping into comedy.
“It helps to parody the way that news people will deliver facts because she’s sort of 30 degrees off of how someone would really do this on television,” he said.
Trump has been seemingly unfazed by false ratings from serious fact-checkers throughout his campaign, but “The Daily Show’s” creativity may be just what it takes to get under his skin.
“Donald Trump doesn’t tell lies the way other politicians do. I think that’s part of the problem that real fact-checkers have with Donald Trump,” Radosh said.
“He just wants people to hear his bullshit at the moment that he says it, and when you try to check him the way that you check Hillary Clinton or 90 percent of anyone else in public life, you almost end up falling into his trap.”
Fact-checking the other side
Although “The Daily Show” generally leans left, “What the Actual Fact” segments have also targeted Democrats.
The show’s fact checks of Hillary Clinton do not quite rival that of Trump, but her ratings have included “a bathroom scale” and a “paw-stika” — a Nazi logo with a paw in the middle instead of a swastika.
The bathroom scale resulted from Clinton’s claim in January that one in three African-American men may end up in prison. The show’s fact check showed that the data she used was from 15 years ago. The up-to-date statistic is about one in four African-American men, so Clinton’s claim was “slightly inaccurate, but not as much as you’d hope.”
The reference to Nazi Germany came after Clinton claimed in a November debate that most of her donations came from small donors. Lydic showed a graph that proved most of her money still came from big donors, explaining, “Her statement is true but meaningless, like how Hitler was nice to dogs.”
(For viewers wondering about the accuracy of this fact check, a brief Internet search revealed mixed information. Adolf Hitler did supposedly treat his dog Blondi well, but he had his doctor test his cyanide capsules on the German Shepherd the day before he committed suicide, leading to her untimely death. In PolitiFact parlance, Lydic’s claim would probably be Half-True.)
‘We have to keep people entertained’
Despite the serious fact-checking, “What the Actual Fact” has plenty of silliness.
Ted Cruz said in a December debate that the Obama administration is “searching for these mythical moderate rebels. It’s like a purple unicorn. They never exist.” Lydic said his point on moderate rebels was inconclusive but deadpanned that purple unicorns do in fact exist.
In the same segment, Lydic gave Carly Fiorina a “B for Bullshit” for her claim that she has been called every B-word in the book, perusing the “Big Book of “B” Words” to find words such as breezy, bubbly and believable, which she said nobody would ever use to describe Fiorina.
A January segment fact-checked Martin O’Malley’s bold assertion in the January democratic debate, “My name is Martin O’Malley… I’m running for president.”
Jessica Williams — who stepped in for Lydic for one segment — nitpicked at the specific claims in the segment, investigating whether the former governor of Maryland was really named Martin O’Malley and whether he was actually running for president. She eventually awarded the claim “a Sean Penn” because “Martin O’Malley takes himself seriously but no one else does.”
“We don’t want to get bogged down in serious analysis of data,” Radosh said. “Unlike PolitiFact, we have to keep people entertained, so if we’ve done that for a little bit, we throw in something a little bit more lighthearted to give the viewer’s mind a rest for a second before we ask them to follow us on another data dive again.”