Why Trump Is the Most Fact-Checked President

For The Atlantic, I wrote an essay about why fact-checkers report and write about so many of President Donald Trump’s statements.

It’s astounding even now, two years into Donald Trump’s presidency, how many things he says on a daily basis that just aren’t true.

Here are some of the president’s most frequent falsehoods: U.S. Steel is opening six plants (it’s not); Barack Obama’s administration had the same policy as Trump’s of separating children from adults at the border (it didn’t); Trump signed the largest tax cut in history (Ronald Reagan, among others, has him beat); a caravan of migrants was stirred up by Democrats offering health care and food benefits paid for by taxpayers (not quite); other countries owe the U.S. a lot of money for nato (this is false); the building of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border is well under way (nope). None of this is true.  

Other presidents have spun whoppers to the American people for political advantage before Trump, and some of those untruths—regarding the realities of the Vietnam War, for example—were hugely consequential. READ MORE …

Andrew Bird’s Kennedy Center Pops Concert plus my personal Top 5 Andrew Bird albums

Me: “I’m going to see Andrew Bird!”
You: “Who is Andrew Bird?”
Me: “He’s an indie rock songwriter who plays the violin.”
You: “Oh.”

Andrew Bird usually plays in late-night clubs, but in October he appeared with the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center for a pops concert; also on the bill was singer-songwriter Gabriel Kahane. (Kahane orchestrated Bird’s songs for the performance.) I bought tickets months in advance.


The performance cast Andrew Bird’s songs in a new light with the full orchestra filling out the songs and giving them a symphonic largeness. Some of the accompaniment was a little atonal for my taste — I would have preferred more melodic orchestration — but it still brought out the real beauty of great songs like “Pulaski at Night” and “Scythian Empires.” I love classical music and I love indie rock; I’d like to see more match-ups like Andrew at the Kennedy Center.

The night made me reflect on the five times I’ve seen Andrew Bird in concert … An earlier band called Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire in Austin at the South by Southwest music festival, probably around 1997 … At Tampa’s Straz Center in October 2012 for his album Break It Yourself … For his album Are You Serious at the 9:30 Club in Washington, D.C.,  in April 2016 … At Maryland’s Merriweather Post Pavilion in 2017 … At the Kennedy Center Pops Concert in October 2018.

Here is my ranking of Andrew Bird’s Top 5 albums (or EPs).

5. I Want to See Pulaski at Night (2013) – The pop song perfection of “Pulaski at Night” with its lilting violin hook is nestled between soothing instrumental variations. This is a great EP for just chilling.  

4. Break It Yourself (2012) – Andrew Bird doesn’t really have “hits” per se, but the song “Eyeoneye” is a real rocker, and he played it on a late-night show or two when this album came out. The other songs are more leisurely and melodic, call it music for the planet Earth: the fragility of the natural world (“Hole in the Ocean Floor”), staving off climate change (“Desperation Breeds”), or traveling by boat (“Lusitania”) to Australia (“Fatal Shore”).

3. Armchair Apocrypha (2007) – This album has my second most-favorite song ever of Andrew BIrd’s, the thumping disco lullaby “Plasticities” with its warning to never let life’s slow unfolding lull you to sleep intellectually: “We’ll fight, we’ll fight for your music halls and dying cities/ They’ll fight for your neural walls and plasticities … precious territory.” There’s also the adventure story opening song “Fiery Crash,” the environmental warnings (again) of “Spare Ohs” (“What remains of the small flightless birds that you failed to protect?”) and the mythic galloping horse riders of “Scythian Empires.”

2. Noble Beast (2009) – So many great cuts on this one, from the mysterious sadness of “Oh No,” to the memory games of “Anonanimal,” to the pastoral longing of “Souverian.” It’s an album for sitting on a front porch at twilight on a summer’s night, sipping a cold drink.  

1. The Mysterious Production of Eggs (2005) – This is the Bird album I go back to again and again and again, because just about every song on it is so memorable and sweet. There’s my No. 1 favorite song of his, “Tables and Chairs,” a wistful love song for when the end of the world arrives. There’s the elegiac and soothing “Sovay,” there’s the pulsing syncopation (and whistling) of “A Nervous Tic Motion of the Head to the Left,” there’s the child’s play marching song “Measuring Cups.” I could go on, but better that you listen yourself.

PolitiFact’s 2018 Lie of the Year

Here’s how this year’s ‘Lie of the Year’ story starts:

In the days after 17 people were viciously gunned down at a high school in Florida, the state’s Republican governor called for tighter gun laws and President Donald Trump hosted victims’ families in the State Dining Room.

The nation seemed steadfast in seeking answers and finding solutions.

“It’s not going to be talk like it has been in the past,” Trump said. “It’s been going on too long. Too many instances, and we’re going to get it done.”

But in the shadows, the internet engine of hoaxes and smears had started.

READ MORE

We also debuted the Lie of the Year on MSNBC. Here’s video

Visiting Walden; Reading Walden

A lovely day trip from Boston, Walden Pond is a large, crystalline lake, surrounded by tall trees and walking paths. Henry David Thoreau lived alone near its shores in the 1840s and was inspired to write his famous work, Walden. Today, many families visit to spend time outdoors and swim in the lake, and the Massachusetts park service runs a visitors’ center nearby with information about Thoreau’s life.  A replica of the tiny house Thoreau built for himself sits close to the center; a reminder of his call to live simply.

I visited in September with friends and was captivated by Thoreau’s house. It looked surprisingly like the tiny houses of recent social movements, aimed at either helping the homeless or getting stressed-out city dwellers to downsize and simplify. Suddenly I was envious of his project to live alone by the lake. I’d never read Walden; it was time to pick up the book. 

A reproduction of Henry David Thoreau’s house at Walden. 2018 Photo by Mark Holan

Walden is a first-person account that’s part nature study, part self-help, part political critique. Thoreau meanders for long passages but then makes a sharp point that seems right on target for 2018. Most pointedly, he talks about how quests for money, property and prestige tend to complicate our lives with pointless worry.

In passage after passage, he discusses the way we mindlessly accept society’s conventions and how poorly it serves us. He calls for truth in all things; even when others disagree:

“Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth. I sat at a table where were rich food and wine in abundance, and obsequious attendance, but sincerity and truth were not; and I went away hungry from the inhospitable board. The hospitality was as cold as the ices.”

He emphasizes the tremendous value of reading and thought and how it strengthens the mind:

“To read well, that is, to read true books in a true spirit, is a noble exercise, and one that will task the reader more than any exercise which the customs of the day esteem. It requires a training such as the athletes underwent, the steady intention almost of the whole life to this object. Books must be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.”

Even though he was alone in the woods, Thoreau did not hunt. Instead, he makes an explicit pitch for vegetarianism:

“Whatever my own practice may be, I have no doubt that it is a part of the destiny of the human race, in its gradual improvement, to leave off eating animals, as surely as the savage tribes have left off eating each other when they came in contact with the more civilized.”

He sees personal health as both holistic and spiritual, which moved me deeply:

Every man is the builder of a temple, called his body, to the god he worships, after a style purely his own, nor can he get off by hammering marble instead. We are all sculptors and painters, and our material is our own flesh and blood and bones.”

Henry David Thoreau, 1856. Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxim.

Almost eerily, he seems to forecast the dangers of climate change. Thoreau made detailed studies of the pond and its depth. In his day, workers would come each winter to harvest ice by cutting away the top layer of the pond and packing the ice in straw to send to the city. Thoreau saw how the pond itself seemed to react by melting faster as its top layer was cut away:

“Who would have suspected so large and cold and thick-skinned a thing to be so sensitive? Yet it has its law to which it thunders obedience when it should as surely as the buds expand in the spring. The earth is all alive and covered with papillae. The largest pond is as sensitive to atmospheric changes as the globule of mercury in its tube.”

Later, he notes the ultimate power that the natural environment has over human life:

“The earth is not a mere fragment of dead history, stratum upon stratum like the leaves of a book, to be studied by geologists and antiquaries chiefly, but living poetry like the leaves of a tree, which precede flowers and fruit — not a fossil earth, but a living earth; compared with whose great central life all animal and vegetable life is merely parasitic.”

Thoreau is philosophical, but he alternates big thoughts with charming observations of the surrounding forest life.. Here he describes the foxes and wonders about  their motivations:

“Sometimes I heard the foxes as they ranged over the snow-crust, in moonlight nights, in search of a partridge or other game, barking raggedly and demoniacally like forest dogs, as if laboring with some anxiety, or seeking expression, struggling for light and to be dogs outright and run freely in the streets; for if we take the ages into our account, may there not be a civilization going on among brutes as well as men? They seemed to me to be rudimental, burrowing men, still standing on their defence, awaiting their transformation. Sometimes one came near to my window, attracted by my light, barked a vulpine curse at me, and then retreated.”

On the day of our visit to Walden, I spent a pleasant day on its shores with my friends and their children, eating a picnic. My partner, a serious swimmer, swam across Walden and back and wrote his own thoughts on it. Though Thoreau’s life in one way seems very long ago, in another way it’s quite immediate. Many things about Walden, both the book and the place, will stay with me.

Marketplace: Fact-checking Facebook

I appeared on the radio program Marketplace recently to discuss PolitiFact’s fact-checking of Facebook. It was a good conversation; we talked about the persistence of false information and the historical challenge of fact-checking. Click below to listen to the program or visit the Marketplace website.

10 things I like about George Washington

I made a new friend this summer: George Washington, the first president of the United States.

We got acquainted through Washington: A Life, Ron Chernow’s 900-plus page biography that  makes Washington seem so real, so human, and so appealing that I got excited about America’s democratic experiment all over again.

And obsessed with all things George Washington. I should note that I decided to read Chernow’s doorstopper of a book after reading and loving the much shorter (at 352 pages) Washington biography, His Excellency George Washington, by Joseph J. Ellis. Both are fantastic reads that I recommend, so you have both long and short options.

Here’s my list of 10 things I like about George Washington, in no particular order:

  1. He believed public service should be done for the public good, not to get rich. He often refused salary or other compensation he was due.
  2. He didn’t like being famous and tried to avoid pageants and public displays in his honor. Sometimes he would sneak out of town early to avoid a farewell parade.
  3. At a time when slavery was widely accepted in his home state of Virginia, he freed the people he held in bondage when he died, taking measures in his will to establish their care.
  4. He liked women a lot and had many female friends. Elizabeth Willing Powel, the wife of the mayor of Philadelphia, gave him political advice and was a close confidant.
  5. He was an emotional person, prone to outbursts, but he worked hard to restrain himself in words and deeds.
  6. He was athletic and liked to ride his horse and dance.
  7. He was a researcher, studying up on business and politics. He consulted widely before he made decisions and considered all sides.
  8. He didn’t have his own children, but he was generous and kind to his step-children, nieces, nephews and children of friends. He offered them good advice through his letters.
  9. He had high standards for his friends, advisers, and staff, and he was very loyal to those who met his expectations.
  10. He was charmingly self-conscious about his false teeth.

The Atlantic’s Humanity + Tech event: How can we combat fake news and digital misinformation?

I was on a panel recently in The Atlantic’s Humanity + Tech event, underwritten by Google and in collaboration with MIT Media Lab. We had a fascinating discussion about combatting misinformation and fake news. Here’s the video via YouTube.

Bots & Ballots podcast

I was pretty sick with near laryngitis when I recorded this podcast last month for Bots & Ballots. But I’m glad I did it because I thought it was an interesting conversation. This is what I said is the problem with politicians saying things that aren’t true: “It distracts the conversation from reality and addressing real problems in a constructive way. That’s a huge part of the negative consequences of political lying — you never get to the real issues because you’re too busy trying to establish what’s actually real.”

Listen to the podcast or read a Yahoo News summary.

The fake news of George Washington’s era

I know some people don’t like the term “fake news,” but I still tend to use it to describe intentionally fabricated information masking as a legitimate news story. “Fake news” does not mean “any news I don’t like.” (See this story for more on that issue.)

My interest was piqued recently when I learned that President George Washington had to deal with phony reports claiming he had actually been sympathetic to the British during the Revolutionary War. It’s a conspiracy theory that actually doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it was a real thing in Washington’s day, and one of his final acts as president was to lodge a formal rebuttal — really a type of fact-check — with the secretary of state’s office. Here’s the story I wrote about the episode for PolitiFact:

Politics in 2018 can seem so relentlessly negative, it’s tempting to seek escape in reading stories of the Founding Fathers.

Take George Washington.

Far from the staid-looking fellow on the $1 bill, Washington was a tall and athletic man, a skilled soldier, an avid horseman and a graceful dancer. Known for his eloquent silence, he instinctively deflected attention from himself so as to emphasize the birth of a new country and government by the people.

Still, there were ways in which George Washington’s life is like today. Here’s one: He had to fight fake news.

Forged letters from before his presidency claimed to show in his own words that he privately sympathized with the British monarchy and thought the American cause was doomed. The letters also suggested that Washington thought Americans weren’t ready for democracy. MORE …

Gallery

Global Fact V in Rome

This gallery contains 5 photos.

Fact-checkers from around the world gathered at the end of June in Rome for Global Fact V, the international fact-checking conference. It was a smashing success, with many great panels and discussions. (Read coverage of the conference events via Poynter.org.) … Continue reading