Armies of fact-checkers massed around the State of the Union Address, seeking to evacuate truth from the encroaching rhetorical perils of Donald Trump. We'll now see if they slowed the perilous advance of his exaggerations and outright falsehoods.
As Trump spoke for nearly 90 minutes, with Vice President Mike Pence and House Speaker Paul Ryan sitting behind him and serving as the traditional nodding bobbleheads, a notable partnership of The Washington Post, PolitiFact and FactCheck.org combined for a running dissection of Trump statements.
What's called FactStream was under the aegis of the Duke University Reporters' Lab. As if one needed to underscore the challenge it and other fact-checkers face, one right-leaning site had already preemptively inveighed against "Liberal Foundations Behind State of the Union Fact-Checking."
At 8:18 p.m. (Central time) came this from the truth-seekers: "Donald Trump: Since the election, we have created 2.4 million new jobs. Our Quick Take: In Trump's first 11 months, employment increased by 1.84 million — 12% lower than the 2 million jobs that were created the previous 11 months."
At 8:22: "Donald Trump: We enacted the biggest tax cuts and reform in American history. Our Quick Take: It is not the biggest tax cut. It is the 8th largest cut since 1918 as a percentage of gross domestic product, and the 4th largest in inflation-adjusted dollars."
In obvious ways, the hour-long instant analysis was remarkable in its speed and sophisticated concision. I thought back to sitting in the House of Representatives for many State of the Unions, in the balcony above the rostrum, a paper copy of speech in hand, jotting notes in margins, underlining phrases, sticking question marks here and there. And waiting to make calls later at the office, perhaps assisted by an Associated Press analysis of certain claims.
Now a confluence of forces — most accelerated by Trump's pugilistic battle with veracity — prompts new systems melding journalists and technology. There's no need to wait hours until morning newspaper editions, or initial wire service stories. Cadres of single-minded analysts are in place, unleashed on every presidential declaration.
For sure, this was never likely to be a Trumpian atrocity, and it was not. Dozens in the White House and across multiple Cabinet departments typically vet the State of the Union Address. The new armies will be better off dissecting spontaneous Trump tweets and interviews in coming days, as underscored in the eviscerations by Stephen Colbert and others of his most recent unbridled interview, in Davos, Switzerland, with bombastic British talk show host Piers Morgan.
"This speech was way too pre-filtered for fact-checking to play an important early role in its analysis. MSNBC did a fact check segment at 8:50 pm. They make a few good points, but they’re not really helpful in assessing the speech," said Bruno Cohen, a retired broadcast network executive who ran major network stations.
"Trump’s writers managed to keep him on task — i.e. reach for some form of unity. The truly divisive stuff was minimized. Only a short mention of the wall. No attacks on the press. But, of course, he couldn’t help himself — and so we get the lines like standing for the national anthem."
But there remained grist for the new candor-driven mills now personified by the rollout of FactStream. Had Trump eliminated, as he claimed, more regulations in just a year than any administration in history? Well, not necessarily.
Have 3 million workers received tax cut bonuses? Yes, "with most getting $1,000 or less," said the Duke trio. That construction (as opposed to perhaps saying "nearly $1,000") might prompt an inference that it constitutes small potatoes. Many Americans, if not the same elite journalists who by and large missed the partly economics-driven unrest propelling Trump's stunning election victory, would surely dispute that.
Had the Empire State Building been constructed in one year? Well, no, it was actually 13 months, but that check seemed a difference without a real distinction. Is Diversity Visa a program that randomly distributes green cards without regard for skill? Not quite since, among green cardholders, a high percentage hold professional jobs and have a low unemployment rate.
Had Trump quickly responded when street protests broke out in Iran against the government? True, said the trio; the administration quickly and strongly condemned the arrests of protesters.
The impact? It might be negligible, given these ideologically charged times and the paucity of the beyond-the-pale sentiments that can be uttered by Trump. One was reminded early of those as Trump entered the chamber and shook hands, with at least superficially mutual conviviality, with Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, who was at the famous "shithole countries" meeting and was unrelenting in his subsequent derision of Trump.
It is thus also worthy of note that, as FactStream did its thing, the White House press office was cranking out its own stream of press releases on multiple Trump statements with divergent, supporting arguments.
It does, one is reminded, still have a pretty big megaphone as it seeks to drown out the dissonant refrains of the fact checkers in a time of unsettlingly low approval ratings for the press. And, of course, one watched the speech and inspected the fact-checks while confronting a likelihood nicely distilled by Peter Hamby in Vanity Fair.
Nothing that Trump would say would be as memorable as one of many Trump tweets. He's probably right: Even more in the Age of Trump, an increasingly inconsequential ritual is even more hollow. Dissections, no matter how well-intentioned and accurate, may go for naught.
No sooner had President Trump concluded than the cascade of analysis began — dozens and dozens of voices.
Chris Wallace of Fox News didn't buy the pre-speech spin — and there is always White House pre-speech spin that proves to be largely baloney — about a bipartisan speech and found Trump offering Democrats various deals "he knew they couldn't accept."
And Fox's Megyn Kelly — wait, she's on NBC now and was a member of a secondary MSNBC panel that included NBC eminence grise Tom Brokaw — opined that if Trump gets billions for his wall, that will inevitably help him politically. The substance of the claim seemed less telling than the ancillary role she played compared to days of big event stardom at the House that Ailes Built.
If only NBC had inserted Jane Fonda next to her for Round 2 (or is it Round 3?) of their duel, so far most vividly marked by Kelly's gratuitous shots at a figure whose cultural impact she can only dream of replicating. On this night, Kelly was a bit player lost amid the strong first-team and bench of new colleagues.
The new post-speech analyses
The old way of doing business was personified by CNN, whose production structure can make it difficult to watch, with too many people talking, too many panels, no one person seemingly in charge (though Anderson Cooper does try), no cohesive approach. Once again, there were far too many people on the set competing for time, as if this were a U.N. General Assembly meeting. Why not just take a few people — including Jake Tapper, John King and David Axelrod, among others — and focus on their takes? The few really informative moments included Tapper's interview of California Sen. Kamala Harris, touching on Black Caucus reaction and what's up in the Senate Intelligence Committee
If you had doubts about the new media competition, you just had to turn to Stephen Colbert's show, which is usually taped in late afternoon-early evening, and Comedy Central, which both had live shows. Colbert's effort was especially impressive in quickly and satirically editing speech video to mock Trump, then his mocking it all in a seamless monologue that came off as if meticulously rehearsed multiple times. Even for a professional stand-up comic, this error-free performance was rapier sharp and impressive.
One of many examples came as he showed Trump noting some of the natural disasters experienced in the past year, notably "floods, fires and storms." Colbert then declared, "And Stormys. Don't forget her. She was one of the most expensive disasters for you, personally."
When a former Obama speechwriter-guest later noted the plodding delivery of the 5,000-plus words, Colbert noted Trump seemingly slowing down near the end. "It seemed like somebody should pull the string in his back one more time."
Richard Engel's toughest story
Richard Engel, a terrific and nervy NBC reporter, was covering the North Korea missile mess last fall, embedded with South Korean troops, when he was contacted by his 2-year-old son Henry's doctor and informed of the explanation for some developmental challenges. Genetic testing showed Rett Syndrome, a rare and pretty awful disorder that guarantees significant physical and cognitive impairments.
Engel, 44, and his wife, Mary, realized, “My son is probably not going to walk, probably not going to speak, probably not going to have any mental capacity beyond the level of a 2-year-old,” as he tells People magazine in an upcoming story. Imagine returning to your seat in a convoy after that news, even if the saga involves a dictator with dangerous weapons dueling with a mercurial U.S. president.
“It was the middle of the night, and the public affairs officer was talking to keep us awake, telling us about her son joining the football team, and taking the SATs. I was thinking, ‘There’s going to be no football team. There’s going to be no SATs.’ I started to really mourn the future I thought we were going to have with Henry.”
A genetic draw has dealt them an awful card. You may know people in a similar situation. We should think about those cases more often. I was pissed at a bunch of ultimately insignificant matters yesterday when an NBC publicist brought this tale to my attention. I realized how damn lucky I am.
If you do want to reach out to Engel, or just learn more about the topic, go here. And next time you see one of his inevitably solid reports, you might just consider his incredible challenge in compartmentalizing so much personal pain.
Now that's counter-programming!
Oh, click the clicker during the State of the Union and, la voila!, one found "King Kong" (1933) on TCM. You could now watch it knowing the Empire State Building that Kong scaled was built in 12 months. Oops, 13.
Bankrupt in Charleston
It's a painful West Virginia story to report about yourself: "The owners of the Charleston Gazette-Mail agreed Monday to take the company into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Wheeling Newspapers is currently the high bidder to assume ownership of the company. … In April, the Gazette-Mail and reporter Eric Eyre received the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for coverage of the state’s opioid crisis."
It's a good paper, with a good editor and hard-working staff — none of which guarantees success amid the industry implosion. One can only cross your fingers on their behalf.
Trafficking in children
On the heels of national attention for the paper's work on sexual assault in gymnastics, Indianapolis Star columnist Tim Swarens has started a 10-part series on the lucrative enterprise of abusing and buying and trafficking in children. It's not a brand new topic and there have been new laws put in place, but there are horrendous shortcomings, as he details. This was supported by a $75,000 fellowship from the Society of Professional Journalists, and added help from Google, Indianapolis powerhouse Eli Lilly and Co., and Indiana Wesleyan University.
"About 10,000 children a year suffer the horrors of commercial sexual exploitation in the United States. Globally, according to the International Labour Organization, buyers pay to abuse more than 1 million children a year. Yet the buyers are seldom held accountable. Most leave behind their victims to blend back into their families, jobs and neighborhoods. Until the next time."
The Post (non-Hollywood version)
Negotiations are underway on a new union contract at The Washington Post, with newsroom employees changing their avatars (to "WAPO UNION") Tuesday in support of the union and specific items that, in their minds, have not improved during the paper's editorial renaissance under Jeff Bezos' ownership.
A lot of folks are tweeting their feelings, which clearly mix with pride in that editorial turnaround.
Tweeted reporter Ashley Parker: "I started at the Post last Jan. and I cannot overstate how much I love working here. However, during orientation when I learned about the 1% 401K match, I was convinced I'd misheard — and emailed HR to double check. @PostGuild is fighting for that and more this week. #WaPoStrong."
Reporter David Nakamura wrote: "I grew up reading the Post, worked here in college and have been here ever since. It’s part of me and vice versa. I’m also old enough to remember when we had a 4% match and a generous pension I spent more than 20 years accruing before it ended."
Post reporter Monica Hesse wrote: "I love working for the @washingtonpost, and I've been extremely proud of our journalism. However, there's no pension for new hires and we only have a 1% 401K match. The @PostGuild is bargaining for all of us this week. Wish us luck #WaPoStrong."
Here's where you can find all their tweets.
The Morning Babel (State of Union edition)
"Trump & Friends" was ebullient, hailing a justifiable "victory lap" taken by Trump in the address, intoned Ainsley Earhardt, and could be summed up thus: "America, America, America." It wasn't just a laundry list, said her colleague Steve Doocy, "but last night we heard so much about the people and it was so interesting."
CNN's "New Day" conceded the speech was "for him well delivered" and that he will continue to be "unpredictable and impetuous," as Chris Cillizza put it in a succinct reflection of the overriding conventional wisdom on Trump himself.
And "Morning Joe" on MSNBC pivoted quickly from the speech — seemingly realizing it didn't really provide the usual Trump outrages — to the show's recent red meat of wayward Republicans, notably the House Intelligence Committee voting to reveal a classified memo.
"It's just disgraceful," said analyst John Heilemann. "This is so mind-boggling, what the Republicans are doing," interjected Joe Scarborough. Everybody on set agreed. Quelle surprise, as the French would say. It then broke for commercials, including ones for Cadillac, "The Shape of Water" and, yes, Trump's impeachment as urged by Tom Steyer, a billionaire hedge fund manager and environmental activist. Politics and commerce melded neatly only minutes after the sun rose in the East.
Correction: An earlier version of this story cited "facecheck.org" instead of "factcheck.org" (Facecheck.org is years away). We apologize for the error, it has been corrected.