Story by Monica Kast, audio edited by Helen Gibson
Listen to more of our discussion with Michelle Lee about the importance of fact-checking politicians and the unique challenges that come with covering the Trump administration by clicking on the audio files below and throughout the story.
While in Washington D.C., Fleischaker/Greene scholars spoke with a reporter and former fact-checker at The Washington Post about fact checking politicians and handling claims of fake news.
“It’s really unfortunate that fake news as a term has now become politicized in the way it has,” Michelle Lee, a political enterprise and investigations reporter, said. “Because there is actual fake news out there that people with ill intention have created out of nothing for the sole purpose of creating misinformation.”
On Friday, Oct. 20, students in the Fleischaker/Greene Scholars in First Amendment Studies class, The White House & the Press, had the chance to sit down with Lee at The Washington Post. Lee talked about the differences between covering the Obama and Trump administrations, as well as fact checking the White House in an era in which “fake news” is a charge frequently leveled by the president at legitimate news outlets.
Lee, who worked for The Washington Post’s Fact Checker before recently joining their political enterprise and investigations team, said there are several differences between working with former President Barack Obama’s administration and current President Donald Trump’s administration.
Lee described the Obama White House as “very disciplined.” Lee said under the Obama administration, there were “specific contacts in the White House…divided up by topics.” She said the Trump administration does something similar, but things are different because of the quantity of content that Trump and his administration put out.
As for Trump, Lee said “the way that President Trump speaks is very different from the way that Obama spoke.” Lee said Obama spoke similarly to how most politicians spoke, and said “it was rare to find Obama to say something that’s totally false.”
Lee referenced the scale that the fact checkers use, ranking politicians’ statements on a scale of one to four Pinocchios. One Pinocchio means the statement is selectively true, and four Pinocchios means the statement is completely false. A Geppetto Checkmark means the statement or story is true. Lee said politicians like Obama, Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney all tend to stay around two to three Pinocchio ratings.
“Donald Trump tends to make stuff up or say things that are so exaggerated that it’s like four Pinocchios,” Lee said. “That’s very different.”
Lee said Trump’s administration also is different just because of the large amount of communication that comes from Trump himself.
“He speaks a lot, he tweets a lot and there’s just a lot, like greater volume of things that he puts out there,” Lee said.
Lee said during the Obama administration, all of his appearances were scheduled and all statements were cleared by the White House before they were released to the public. Under the Trump administration, Lee said things are much less regulated. Lee pointed out that because of his use of social media, “we have such crazy access to the president.”
“We have real-time access to what he’s thinking, what time he’s waking up,” Lee said, later adding that “we have a lot of content coming out of the White House and the president now.”
Lee said that The Washington Post fact checkers have created a database of claims Trump makes, which now contains over 1,300 false claims he has made since his inauguration, or about five false claims made per day.
Lee also talked about how fact checkers work with the administrations to try to figure out if a claim is true or false. She said with both the Obama and Trump administrations, there are specific people you contact depending on the topic. Lee said at the beginning of Trump’s presidency, the contacts would pick and choose what claims to respond to, as opposed to the Obama administration, where they may work until 10 or 11 p.m. to find an answer. Lee said now in the Trump administration, the contacts in the White House seem to understand that “the more they interact with us, the more they can help clarify the record.”
“What I’ve tried to tell the Trump campaign from the beginning is it helps you, it helps us, it helps the public if you interact with us on a regular basis,” Lee said. “Because all we’re trying to do is we’re trying to explain to the public what you’re doing, and if you don’t tell us what you’re doing, we can’t explain to the public what you’re doing.”
Lee said the Trump administration will sometimes choose not to respond to claims, but said she has seen a significant increase in their interactions.
Fleischaker/Greene Scholar Adam Sims asked Lee how they handle claims of fake news and respond to claims of fake news.
Lee said that type of fake news is the “polar opposite” of what journalists strive to do.
“Journalists make mistakes, but when we make mistakes we try to correct them,” Lee said. “And if we make stuff up, it is a firing offense. So when the president calls us fake news, when he calls the media fake news, it’s just a political attack and we understand that’s a political attack. I think what we do as reporters is just continue to do our work and make sure that our work is bulletproof and that when we make mistakes, we correct them, we try to be transparent with our errors and try to correct them as quickly as possible.”
Fleischaker/Greene Scholar Emma Austin asked Lee about how they determine which claims are worth fact-checking, considering the amount of content released on a regular basis.
Lee said their goal is to give readers a deeper understanding of policy issues and to “find the fact behind the rhetoric.” Lee said they focus on false claims in order to “set the record straight.”
“Part of it is functional,” Lee said. “But the other part is, me, personally, I’ve always thought that if you’re in the public, if you’re a politician, the public elected you and you’re being paid by taxpayer money, you should be speaking the truth…I expect you to do what’s right.”
Lee said they “focus on people in power,” not just the president, because they are working for the public.
“We focus a lot on the powerful because it’s what they say that really matters,” Lee said.