Monday, November 30, 2015

Trump and Truthiness

The media has taken a brief pause from scaring the living shit out of Americans with hyperbolic reporting on terrorism to return to their political bĂȘte noire - the debunking of whatever slur-du-jour uttered by Donald Trump. Two recent examples illustrate the power of "truthiness" - the Stephen Colbert dubbed term generally defined as an idea having the "feeling" of truth, evidence to the contrary. 

The first had to do with Trump's re-tweeting of a debunked statistic regarding murder in America:



While the numbers were well off the mark, there was a patina of "truthiness" embedded in the bogus graph. To wit, it is not true that 97% of African-Americans are killed by other African-Americans, but according to PolitiFact, that figure is around 90%. [1] Everything else in the graph is way off base, [2] but if you are a Trump supporter who thinks the Black Lives Matter movement is undermining law enforcement or fails to focus on the pandemic of black-on-black violence, the inaccuracies are less important than that kernel of truth.

The media has also freaked out about Trump's statement that "thousands" of Muslims in Jersey City, New Jersey celebrated on 9/11. Again, this idea has been widely debunked but Trump has clung to a Washington Post article from a week after the attacks that talked about the FBI investigating claims that a couple of people had engaged in such behavior. Here again, the "truthiness" of Trump's claim is more important than whether what he said was literally true. If you are a Trump supporter suspicious of Muslims and fearful of terrorism, whether Muslims celebrated in Jersey City, Paterson, or the West Bank (where they actually *did* celebrate) is less important than the fact that some people cheered the fact that we were the victims of a terrorist attack. Arguing over the number of people who celebrated or where is not nearly as important to Trump supporters as whether it happened or not. 

And the media scrutiny is also curious. Most cable and Sunday talk shows are content to simply allow politicians and their surrogates to spout easily debunk-able talking points without pushing them to defend their statements. Indeed, while Chuck Todd cross-examined Trump on his 9/11 claims, he blithely allowed panelist Hugh Hewitt to repeat lies about Planned Parenthood selling "baby parts" later in the same episode. [3] More generally, there are gaffes and policy claims that go largely unreported, from the tax plans that tilt heavily to the wealthy to Marco Rubio's off-handed comment that the Paris terrorist attack was "good" for his campaign. This is not to say that the media should let Trump off the hook, but rather, why it is that they are not holding other candidates to the same standard.

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Notes

1. http://www.politifact.com/florida/article/2015/may/21/updated-look-statistics-black-black-murders/

2. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2015/nov/23/donald-trump/trump-tweet-blacks-white-homicide-victims/


3. http://www.nbcnews.com/meet-the-press/meet-press-november-29-2015-n470871. Hewitt appears to conflate "baby parts" with "fetal tissue." A lengthy exegesis can be found here: http://www.snopes.com/pp-baby-parts-sale/

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