THE BLOG
06/23/2016 05:01 pm ET Updated Jun 24, 2017

Trump vs. Clinton, True, False or "Pants on Fire"

"This is Washington. They've got fact-checkers.''

-- Chris Thile, bluegrass virtuoso and incoming host of public radio's popular "Prairie Home Companion,'' offering a playful joke about a partner's questionable comment on stage at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

.Just because someone says it's so, doesn't make it so. And the combative presidential election contest of 2016 has inspired the mass media equivalent of a Gold Rush of fact-checking.

Yet so much of the rhetorical crossfire that Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are exchanging reaches beyond the realm of the immediately verifiable. It's also difficult for any deeply detailed truth-squad reports to compete with the reverberation of rumor and explosive but unsubstantiated assertions that bounce around social media.

"Hillary Clinton is a world-class liar,'' Trump asserted this week in a speech from New York televised nationally on cable news. "Hillary Clinton may be the most corrupt person ever to seek the presidency of the United States.''

"If Hillary gets in,'' Trump said in a closed-door session for evangelical leaders reported by Yahoo News, "we know exactly what's going to happen... We're going to end up being a Venezuela.''

"He is not just unprepared,'' Clinton said of Trump in her opening salvo of the general election contest in San Diego. "He is temperamentally unfit to hold an office that requires knowledge, stability and immense responsibility... Donald Trump's ideas aren't just different -- they are dangerously incoherent. They're not even really ideas -- just a series of bizarre rants, personal feuds, and outright lies.''

And so they go, these allegations served high and fast without fault and echoed throughout the Facebook and Twitter feeds of a nation watching and wondering. Trump needn't even make a speech to launch a scorching projectile.

"A bigger reality to me is TV,'' says James Warren, chief media columnist at The Poynter Institute. "Just think of those hours and hours of cheap local news programming at major stations. It starts in late afternoon, then evening newscasts...You don't think there are tons of mistakes? But they just regurgitate the national news and don't feel the slightest need to independently verify.''

Warren lauds The New York Times for mobilizing a team of real-time fact-checkers for Trump's broadside against Clinton. "Five reporters came flying out of the gate,'' he wrote in Poynter's "Morning MediaWire'' today.

Among the Times crew's catches: "Mr. Trump defended his business record, recalling that he began his career in Brooklyn with a small loan and built a business worth more than $10 billion... This substantially understates the financial assistance that Mr. Trump received from his father, Fred, a major real estate developer in New York City. The decades-old 'loan' was for $1 million.''

The St. Petersburg, Fla.-based Poynter Institute, which sponsors media studies and seminars for journalists and educators, owns the Tampa Bay Times, which along with partnering newspapers operates a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking venture, PolitiFact and its "Truth-O-Meter.''

Examing several dozen of both candidates' comments in the course of this campaign, PolitiFact has deemed 23 percent of Clinton's true, 28 percent mostly true, 21 percent half-true, 15 percent mostly false, 11 percent false. And just 1 percent earned the ignominious rating of "Pants on Fire.''

"I'm the only candidate in the Democratic primary, or actually on either side, who Wall Street financiers and hedge fund managers are actually running ads against,'' Clinton said in April. "Pants on Fire,'' PolitiFact concluded.

PolitiFact has found just 2 percent of the Trump comments it parsed to be true, 7 percent mostly true, 14 percent half-true, 16 percent mostly false, 40 percent false -- and 19 percent, nearly one in five, "Pants on Fire.'

"For the amount of money Hillary Clinton would like to spend on refugees, we could rebuild every inner city in America,'' Trump said this week. "Pants on Fire,'' PolitiFact concluded.

One of Clinton's "Pants on Fire'' assertions from her 2008 campaign is still resonating in the 2016 contest: "I remember landing under sniper fire,'' she had said of landing in Bosnia on a trip as First Lady in 1996. The fact-checkers found video of a girl presenting the arriving Clinton flowers on a peaceful airstrip.

Early last summer, as Trump was launching his campaign, PolitiFact noted that it had been running his comments through the Truth-O-Meter since 2011, when he was stirring "Birther'' rumors about President Barack Obama.

"The people that went to school with him, they never saw him, they don't know who he is,'' said Trump, questioning the authenticity of Obama's Hawaiian birth. That earned him a Pants on Fire rating.

"Media accounts and biographies are filled with on-the-record, named classmates who remember Obama,'' PolitiFact reported. "We even tracked down one of his classmates and talked to her ourselves.''

In December, PolitiFact announced its "2015 Lie of the Year'' award. It couldn't settle on only one. It chose "the campaign misstatements of Donald Trump.''

National Public Radio has taken to annotating the candidates' speeches online. In calling Clinton a "world-class liar'' this week, Trump resurrected the 1996 Bosnia landing. "Look, this was one of the beauts -- a total and self-serving lie,'' he said. The Washington Post's "Fact Checker'' had done "excellent'' work on this, NPR noted of the video from the time showing Clinton holding a bouquet of flowers.

Yet none of this is likely to heel anyone closer to the facts in the contest ahead.

"After more than a year, it's important that (Trump) be held accountable for what he says he'll do as president,'' Clinton said this week. This time, Clinton was citing a new report of Moody's Analytics in stating that her rival's economic proposals would cost the nation 3.5 million jobs and lead to a "Trump recession.''

Trump ran afoul of the Times' fact-checkers this week when he said Clinton had accepted $58,000 in jewelry from the government of Brunei as secretary of state. As is standard, she turned the jewels over to the General Services Administration.

Still, it's all out there -- gems of misinformation, tweeted, retweeted and recycled in the loop of cable chyrons -- the value of their damage inestimable.

"If only television had the reflexive will (and staffing) to be as comprehensive as The Times in as expeditious a fashion each and every day,'' Warren wrote today. "Alas, reliance on punditry is cheaper and more entertaining. And, come to think of it, one can't be sure how many people are actually moved by facts these days.''