By:
December 16, 2020

What was the biggest lie of 2020?

Poynter’s PolitiFact has made its choice:

Claims that deny, downplay or disinform about COVID-19.

Most of you likely know what PolitiFact is. If not, it’s the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website that rates the accuracy of claims by elected officials and others on its Truth-O-Meter.

For the past 12 years, it has sifted through all the lies told over the course of a year and come up with THE lie of the year.

So how did PolitiFact decide that this year’s lie of the year was about the coronavirus? Why wasn’t it false claims about a so-called rigged presidential election? What other lies were also considered as the lie of the year?

I reached out to PolitiFact editor-in-chief Angie Drobnic Holan to get the lowdown on this year’s choice for “Lie of the Year.” Here’s our conversation:

Tom Jones: Angie, can you take us through the process of how the PolitiFact team selects its “Lie of the Year?”

Angie Drobnic Holan: We review all of our fact-checking from the past year, looking hard at claims that were repeated a lot and rated Mostly False, False or Pants on Fire. We tend to see trends pop out right away … statements that are repeated over and over again, or topics that seem especially prone to misinformation, or people that got a lot of attention for saying something wrong. We narrow it down to roughly 10 potential misstatements and then have a staff meeting to chew it all over. For fact-checkers, it’s a fun process.

Jones: This has been an incredibly newsworthy year and we have a president who is known to lie and mislead often. Was the downplaying of the coronavirus an easy selection for “Lie of the Year”  or was it a difficult choice?

Holan: The coronavirus shot to the top of the list right away because it’s affecting everyone in the country, and on an intimate, day-to-day basis. I can’t remember anything in my lifetime like the coronavirus pandemic with its social distancing and economic disruption. You really have to go back to 1918, before most of us were born, for anything remotely similar.

Jones: It would seem that the other big contender for “Lie of the Year” was Donald Trump and others insisting that the 2020 presidential election was rigged in favor of Joe Biden. Was that ever considered as “Lie of the Year” and, if so, why did you ultimately choose the coronavirus instead of the election?

Holan: Yes, that was our second choice, and a few of us argued for it as first choice. Donald Trump has been making false claims about election rigging for years, but disputing the results of the 2020 election took it to a whole new level. People need to be able to trust elections so that representative democracy can work, and that makes falsehoods about election rigging especially harmful.

Ultimately, we decided on lies about the coronavirus, though, because health and well-being are at the core of what it means to be human. If you can’t keep yourself and your family safe and healthy, you can’t form a government with your fellow citizens. Life itself comes before democracy.

Jones: And, as PolitiFact wrote in the “Lie of the Year” story, despite all the baseless claims of election fraud, the fact is that democracy has held firm. The results of the election were not overturned, while coronavirus continues to rage on. Did that play a role in your choice as well?

Holan: Absolutely. Lies about the coronavirus are being spread right now. It’s still very much in the news. It’s possible that coronavirus misinformation will be a strong contender for “Lie of the Year” in 2021 as well … though, of course, I hope not.

Jones: In the “Lie of the Year” story, PolitiFact writes that Trump was “the conductor, if not the composer” for perpetuating this false narrative that the coronavirus was not that dangerous. There are many examples of that, and you go through them in the story. But was there one moment or one statement that stands out? Was it the interview with Bob Woodward in which he admitted he downplayed the virus?

Holan: The interview with Bob Woodward was definitely an important moment, when it felt like Trump was pulling back the curtain and finally telling the truth. Overall, when Trump talks, it’s hard to tell if he’s saying something that he himself knows isn’t true, or if he actually believes it himself and can’t tell the difference. Sometimes it seems like a bit of both, which is surreal.

The other big moment was when the “Plandemic” video was released. This example was especially disheartening because the technology platforms had said they were on alert to stop coronavirus misinformation. But the people behind the video coordinated their actions in such a way that they were able to overwhelm the system and spread their message virally anyway.

Jones: Other than downplaying the coronavirus and lies about the election, were there any other lies that had serious consideration for “Lie of the Year?”

Holan: We did consider the QAnon conspiracy, specifically that high-ranking politicians and celebrities are secretly Satan-worshipping pedophiles. It sounds utterly ridiculous when you spell it out like that, but we can tell from our site analytics that a lot of people read our fact checks on this topic. (Read our fact checks here, here and here.)

Jones: PolitiFact has been doing a “Lie of the Year” since 2009. Is there any way to quantify where this year’s lie about the coronavirus ranks all-time? Is this the most significant lie that PolitiFact has ever covered?

Holan: When it comes to the “Lie of the Year,” they’re all pretty bad. Still, the 2020 lies about the coronavirus stand out to me because they affect so many people and because they have the potential to cause real harm. This isn’t just political posturing or campaign ads; it’s very serious stuff.

Thankfully, the truth here isn’t all that complicated: Practice social distancing. Wear a mask. Wash your hands. Wait for a vaccine. The coronavirus is bad, but it sure looks like we will get through this, eventually. I’m optimistic for a “better” “Lie of the Year” in 2021.

My thanks to Angie Drobnic Holan for taking us behind the scenes of this year’s “Lie of the Year.” Be sure to check out the detailed and informative story on PolitiFact.com. Now onto the rest of today’s newsletter …

An A-to-Z guide on Hannity’s threat to democracy

Fox News’ Sean Hannity. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Erik Wemple, the superb media writer for The Washington Post, takes strong, but entirely fair shots at Fox News’ primetime pundit Sean Hannity in his latest piece called “Sean Hannity, America’s No. 2 Threat to Democracy: An A-to-Z Guide.”

Wemple writes, “Long a merchant of false and harebrained lines of attack against Democratic politicians, he has moved to a more alarming perch: advocate for disenfranchising voters. With each errant utterance, Hannity pushes his viewership closer to a breakup with U.S. democracy.”

Wemple adds, “So when the next presidential candidate tries to hijack an election, the ‘Hannity’ base will be primed to believe whatever random allegations about fraud and irregularities get tossed into the public square. It’s enough to qualify Hannity as the No. 2 threat to U.S. democracy, right behind his phone buddy in the White House.”

Wemple then goes through the alphabet to describe his A-to-Z guide of Hannity’s dangerous rhetoric, such as A for Ahem, B for Babble, C for Circular Reasoning and … well, you get the idea.

My favorite letter? Wemple writes, “Oops: ‘I don’t vet the information on this program that I give out,’ Hannity said Nov. 30. He later retracted the claim. Apparently, truth emerges on ‘Hannity’ only by accident.”

Wintour promoted at Condé Nast

Anna Wintour, who is already editor-in-chief of Vogue U.S., is now taking over as chief content officer for Condé Nast, the conglomerate that owns Vogue. So now Wintour will oversee the Condé Nast properties that include Glamour and Wired. The New Yorker is also one of Conde Nast’s properties, but as The New York Times’ Edmund Lee reports, “The New Yorker is one Conde Nast publication that is not part of Ms. Wintour’s purview. David Remnick, the magazine’s editor since 1998, will continue to report directly to Mr. Lynch, as does Ms. Wintour.”

As CNN’s Kerry Flynn writes, “The move is part of Condé Nast’s effort to bring together its US and global operations as it seeks profitability. Wintour will stay especially close to Vogue, serving as the brand’s global editorial director.”

Flynn adds, “The promotion comes amid a turbulent year and a reckoning over diversity at Condé Nast that prompted speculation over Wintour’s future. In a staff memo in June, Wintour admitted that Vogue has made mistakes that were ‘hurtful or intolerant’ to Black creators. ‘I take full responsibility for those mistakes,’ she wrote.”

The fighting continues

White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a press briefing at the White House on Tuesday. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Looks like White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany’s relationship with the media is going to be contentious right down to the bitter end. As is her custom, McEnany closed Tuesday’s press conference by getting out prepared notes and ripping the media. It was the usual stuff: complaining about some coverage while calling out the media for a lack of coverage on other stories.

As she walked away, CNN’s Jim Acosta yelled out, “Isn’t it hypocritical of you to accuse others of disinformation when you spread it every day?”

Occasionally, Acosta likes to insert himself into the story. But this question seemed reasonable, especially since McEnany went into condescending attack mode.

Earlier in the press conference, McEnany danced around the question of whether or not Trump was ready to accept that Joe Biden won the election after Monday’s Electoral College vote. McEnany said, “The president is still involved in ongoing litigation related to the election. (Monday) was one step in the constitutional process.”

She also said, “(Trump) has taken all statutory requirements necessary to either ensure a smooth transition or a continuation of power.”

Acosta tweeted a video of that comment and said, “Fact check: There won’t be a ‘continuation of power.’ That’s disinformation.”

I’ll repeat the line that I’ve used perhaps more than any other in this newsletter this year: Kayleigh McEnany is overmatched and unprepared for her job as White House press secretary.

The Washington Post’s Philip Bump added his two cents with “McEnany Isn’t Leaving the White House Without a Few More Lazy Attacks on the Media.”

Speaking of which …

While it’s not surprising to see Kayleigh McEnany and others close to Trump continue to push the idea that the election is not over, such baseless claims by TV hosts, pundits, commentators and guests are becoming tired. But, more importantly, do these TV folks realize the serious damage they’re doing to their own credibility?

Look, television is loaded with personalities who push a political agenda, such as many of the conservative and liberal hosts you see on cable news during primetime. But if you’re a TV personality who constantly tells viewers that the election is rigged and is going to be overturned when there’s no proof that it’s rigged and it is not going to be overturned, why would viewers continue listening to you?

For these people, this isn’t about politics. This is about credibility. And if you lose your credibility in the TV news business, what else do you have?

Newsmax gives in … sort of

Newsmax, the cable news network that is trying to make a name for itself by kissing up to President Trump, is ready to admit that Joe Biden is the president-elect. In a statement Tuesday, Newsmax said, “As a result of the Electoral College vote, Joe Biden is the president-elect and will be referred to as such on Newsmax. We also recognize President Trump continues to contest the results and we will cover aspects of that news story.”

Apparently, you CAN do that on television

Carolina Panthers wide receiver DJ Moore wears a pair of cleats painted with characters from the Nickelodeon cartoon “Hey Arnold!” prior to a game in October. (AP Photo/Brian Westerholt)

SpongeBob FootballPants?

In what could be a brilliant move, it was announced Tuesday that the kids network Nickelodeon will simulcast an NFL playoff game on Sunday, Jan. 10 at 4:30 p.m. ViacomCBS, which owns Nickelodeon, announced the game will feature kid-focused content and Nick-themed elements throughout the game. Announcers will include Noah Eagle, CBS analyst and former NFL player Nate Burleson and Gabrielle Nevaeh Green, star of Nick shows “All That” and “Nickelodeon Unfiltered.” The pregame show at 4 p.m. will be called “The SpongeBob SportsPants Countdown Special” hosted by NFL star Von Miller of the Denver Broncos.

It’s not coming cheap. Reports are that CBS paid $70 million for the game. But it clearly thinks it’s worth it — a way for CBS and Nickelodeon to cross-promote programming. And it’s a good way for the NFL to introduce the game to younger viewers.

Check out this really fun clip from CBS Sports that shows what could be in store.

Not a conflict

More NFL news: The Detroit Lions have hired Fox Sports NFL analyst Chris Spielman as a special assistant to Lions president Rod Wood and chairman Sheila Ford Hamp. Spielman, a former Lions player, will help the Lions select a new head coach and then will continue to have a role in the organization. Because of that, he will no longer be a broadcaster on NFL games for Fox.

And that’s good. In the past, we’ve seen some broadcasters who also are being paid to work in front offices of sports teams. ESPN baseball analysts Alex Rodriguez and Jessica Mendoza come to mind. To be clear, after much criticism, Rodriquez and Mendoza no longer are paid or hold official titles with the organizations they once worked for while also broadcasting.

That’s how it should be. You can’t be paid by a team and then serve as a TV analyst where you’re often called up to comment about that team, as well as that team’s rivals.

Politico’s playbook

Axios’ Sara Fischer reports that Ryan Lizza, Politico’s chief Washington correspondent, and The Washington Post’s Rachael Bade, who used to be with Politico, will join Politico Playbook in 2021. Fischer also reports that “the company plans to add several other high-profile names to the roster in the coming weeks.”

Fischer also wrote, “Sources tell Axios that Eliana Johnson, a former Politico White House correspondent and current editor-in-chief at the Free Beacon, as well as former Politico reporter Tara Palmeri, have also been in talks with the company about roles.”

These moves are to replace Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer, who are leaving Politico Playbook, along with Politico congressional bureau chief John Bresnahan, to start a competitor to Playbook.

The bad news about Mayor Pete

Pete Buttigieg has been chosen by Joe Biden as his nominee for transportation secretary. A downside to that? Because of his new role, Buttigieg will no longer be a TV commentator as he was on Fox News in recent months. That’s too bad because Buttigieg is really good on TV, as CNN’s Kerry Flynn wrote about in October.

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

Correction: In the item about Anna Wintour, it has been edited to explain Wintour’s promotion does not include overseeing The New Yorker. 

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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