When you watch tonight’s debate, remember this

Donald Trump (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) | Photos: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Donald Trump (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) | Photos: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

It’s a sign of how bizarrely we journalists have “normalized” Donald Trump — and how unprepared reporters are to tackle the Trump phenomenon — that we’re discussing whether or not the debate moderator tonight should fact-check him.

Baked into the conversation is the unstated assumption (by reporters, not by editorial writers) that Trump will lie, that he will say factually untrue things deliberately over and over.  It’s an assumption based not on political bias, but on what we’ve observed over the last year. Yet journalists don’t clarify this for the audience.

We don’t turn to the camera and say, “We’re struggling with this because we have a candidate here who is behaving in completely new ways, violating long established boundaries not only of decorum and civility, but also of honesty.”

We know factually that Mr. Trump supported the Iraq War. He is on record doing so. The video exists. Yet he continues to claim that he opposed the invasion from the outset, in contrast with Hillary Clinton who voted to support military action.

We know factually that Mr. Trump is perfectly within his legal rights and would suffer no penalty from the IRS if he released his income tax records. Yet he continues to claim that an IRS audit now underway precludes him from disclosing his financial record.

We don’t say bluntly and simply that Mr. Trump is lying when he argues that the President of the United States was born outside the United States or when he says that America’s taxes rank among the highest in the world.

Instead, we reporters have fallen into the habit of talking nervously in our own code speak about Trump and his “whoppers” or his “questionable claims” or, in this case, debating whether or not he should be fact-checked in real time during a debate.

But we shouldn’t be in the business of jargon and code. We should be in the business of reporting accurately on what we observe.

In this case, there is a very real possibility that significant amounts of Donald Trump’s argument tonight will be based on factually false claims, about himself, about the world, about history.

It won’t be the usual spin or fudgery that we expect from politicians. Hillary Clinton has done what we expect from politicians, spinning up her accomplishments as a New York Senator and Secretary of State, while minimizing her errors and missteps.

Did Clinton attempt to downplay the significance of the email scandal? Sure. And journalists should report on that aggressively. Indeed, we have done so.  And obviously, if Clinton tells a whopper of her own tonight – contradicting known facts – she should be called on it.

But what we’ve seen from Donald Trump, steadily and consistently, is different by orders of magnitude. We’ve seen the echoing of out-right lies and conspiracy theories and demonstrably false personal attacks, repeated by the Republican nominee over and over even after they’ve been fact-checked and corrected by independent observers and repudiated by members of his own party.

It’s a game-changer. It’s unprecedented. And I think we reporters should be much, much more transparent about the fact that this will look like a typical debate and sometimes sound like a typical debate, but in fact something very new and different is happening here.

We need to portray this accurately in real time, not because we’re biased against Trump, but because our job is to report on the real world not some artificial version of “balance.”

In the absence of that kind of reporting, voters need to bring their own awareness, skepticism and sharp memories to tonight’s event.

Maybe we’ll see something different. Maybe Donald Trump will speak factually and accurately about his own record supporting the Iraq War or about his role in promoting the racist conspiracy theory known as “birtherism.”

But if Trump lies about these things — or about his philanthropy, his taxes, about Hillary Clinton starting the “birther movement” or about his many factually documented business failures — the audience should be ready to go it alone.

We’ve learned that American journalism is a clumsy and broadly inaccurate tool for telling the story of Mr. Trump.

So tonight’s debate will be an exercise in “viewer beware,” both when it comes to the Republican nominee and his factual accuracy, and the framing of him by our media culture.

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55 Comments on “When you watch tonight’s debate, remember this”

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  1. Pirate Edward Low says:

    Numbers are off Pete, either you are making them up or you need to find a new source.

    and even if trump ties in the north country, that doesn’t mean he was even in the debate..

    he was unprepared, and his flaws were obvious.

    Of course facts don’t always win the debate, but if they did, trump flat out shot blanks and could not find or grasp a fact with his ity bity hands

  2. telfish says:

    Stop being a trumpian wuss Pete. Man up for goodness sake and get real.

  3. Brian Mann says:


    I haven’t monitored this thread closely, but I think it’s a stretch to say that there are expressions of hate here. Some people clearly disagree with you, and that’s their right. But you also have some real support from other conservatives posting here who share your comfort level with Donald Trump’s ideas and character. NCPR reaches a lot of very conservative households and we prize being a good space for folks to share conversation and ideas across the political spectrum.

    Brian, NCPR

  4. telfish says:

    Disagreeing with Pete is apparently hateful. Pointing out Trumps lies and his terrible performance is somehow a crime!

  5. Pirate Edward Low says:

    Now the amazing thing is, fox news is saying that Lester Holtz was too easy on Clinton and was wrong to call out trump on his lies

    I find it unbelievable how trump supporters (and fox) look at the world

    They find Hillary the most reprehensible person on the planet…. and make no doubt about it, she is no angel.

    but she lies once it is much worse than the 30 times trump likes
    if she stays with a cheating husband.. it is 100 times worse than trump being on his third wife.. having cheated on all of them
    because she wants to be president.. she is 200 times worse than trump who is and will say anything to get elected.

    almost everything they think of Hillary, they only think that because trump has done it… (he wouldn’t rent to blacks and doesn’t apologize for it, Hillary has apologized many times for the use of super-predator)

    this short video ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RxHp8Hughd0 ) is an example… everything that trump is, these people say they hate AND ignore about trump

    above and beyond, I have yet to see a single trump person explain why they accept his lies.. even KellyAnne Conway on the trump campaign will not respond to those questions.. she will even deny (like trump) videos showing trump saying something and instead attack Clinton

    In a way that is beyond The Onion parody, Conway will be asked about how trump calls clinton a bigot, asked to defend it, have a video showed to her, of trump saying it and her response is: what about Hillary pointing out how trump says racist things… actually proving the question without answering it..

    You would think if you supported someone, you would have the ability to defend them.

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