The MRC's War on Trump Fact-Checkers
Led by Tim Graham, the Media Research Center spent much of the Trump presidency complaining that Trump was being fact-checked, eager to smear fact-checkers as biased and "liberal" for doing so.
By Terry Krepel
In January 2019, Tim Graham was very mad that Trump was fact-checked during his Oval Office address regarding his government shutdown over border wall funding. He further whined that Trump's statement that Sen. Chuck Schumer "has repeatedly supported a physical barrier in the past" was found to be misleading because it ignored the context that the barrier Schumer supported has already been built. Graham went on to huff:
This underlines that these "fact checkers" are really "context checkers," because the sentence itself is true. Schumer and other Democrats repeatedly supported a physical barrier in the past. It doesn't make Trump's current sentence "un-factual" that he said the fence was too modest as he campaigned. It's an interesting oppositional point, but it doesn't make the sentence "misleading."
Well, actually, yes, Tim, if you do not make the full context of a statement clear, a statement that's "true" on its face can also be misleading. Graham should know this because the MRC he regularly attacks non-conservative media for allegedly taking the words of conservatives out of context.
Graham took offense to another fact-check on Trump's speech, this time insisting that Trump's false statement that "Democrats will not fund border security" should not be judged factually because it is "a political statement blaming the Other Party."
Later that month, Graham again denounced the very act of Trump being fact-checked, complaining about fact-checkers' "one-sided aggression toward Trump" -- seemingly oblivious to the idea that perhaps the president of the United States should be held to a higher factual standard than the "liberal Senators" he thinks should be fact-checked a lot more. Of course, nobody's stopping Graham and the MRC from setting up their own fact-checking operation; it seems complaining makes for a more exploitable narrative than actually doing something about it.
Graham spent an April 2019 post complaining that the Washington Post had counted 10,000 false or misleading claims made by President Trump. At one point he groused that "Trump haters quickly say '10,000 lies' instead of the milder 'false or misleading statements' line. 'Facts First' types messed up."
Of course, Graham may as well be talking about himself -- he's just as sloppy about the distinction between the two. Back in 2008, Graham got mad at ConWebWatch for pointing out that his insistence that Hillary Clinton should have been indicted for making what were found to be false statements in the White House travel office controversy runs counter to the findings of the independent counsel, which brought no charges because there was no evidence the statements were deliberately false.
Graham then expanded his complaint into a column for Brent Bozell to slap his name on. They handwaved Trump's history of lies, then portrayed the count as a liberal conspiracy: "Everyone knows the president can unload a whopper, like when he recently suggested of wind turbines, 'they say the noise causes cancer.' But the Post's 10,000 is a Democratic Party talking point, a marketing strategy to build a liberal subscriber base." Graham and Bozell then provide a list of reasons why the list means we shouldn't take the Post seriously. Most of it is your usual anti-media whining -- two of the five items on the list are about whining that Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler is "nitpicking" -- but this one stood out to us:
4. Lack of transparency. The Posties have dramatically increased the rate of the "false claims" it is finding. In announcing the 10,000 number, it claimed, "the president racked up 171 false or misleading claims in just three days, April 25 to 27." It admits that's a bigger number than it used to find in a month.
Funny, that's the same exact complaint ConWebWatch has repeatedly made about the MRC's so-called "media research" -- it almost never makes public the raw data it uses to reach its almost preordained conclusions.
Graham and Bozell are effectively complaining that the Post's research standards are the same as the MRC's. That doesn't seem like a smart argument to make.
Graham attacked chief Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler in another post that month, complaining that he hasn't denounced then-Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for claiming that Vice President Mike Pence supported anti-gay conversion therapy -- only to admit that "Buttigieg hasn't expressly attacked him for it." He then complained that Kessler said that "Pence could certainly settle this conundrum if he has rejected such therapies in his own words, rather than through a spokesman. Then there would no longer be any question," adding that "It's especially weird for Kessler to diss [then-Pence spokesperson Alyssa] Farah like this. ... Those aides are good enough for him to make a ruling (or avoid a ruling)."
It's worth noting here that NewsBusters, of which Graham serves as executive editor, published a post in 2016 asserting that Bill Clinton's denial that he raped Juanita Broaddrick wasn't "a genuine denial" because it came from spokespeople and not directly from Clinton's mouth.
Graham whined again in a May 2019 post:
Can you say "coup" nowadays? It was fun to recall this week that liberal TV news stars like Dan Rather described the impeachment trial of President Clinton that "this is in fact a kind of effort at a quote, ‘coup’?" Some liberals like Whoopi Goldberg on The View are using it right now for Bill Barr: "When the top law man in the country can't give you a straight answer, it makes me uncomfortable. It feels coup-y. Like, it's like a coup of some sort."
Yes, Graham is demanding that a talk-show host be held to the same factual standards as the president of the United States.
Graham also tried to justify Trump's statement at a rally about laws protecting the right to abortion that "The baby is born and you wrap the baby beautifully and you talk to the mother about the possible execution of the baby" was somehow true because the statement was "borrowing from what [Virginia] Gov. [Ralph] Northam said in an awkward radio interview about how a baby 'unsuccessfully' aborted would be treated." But Northam's spokesperson pointed out later that the governor misspoke and was not endorsing infanticide but, rather, "the tragic and extremely rare case in which a woman with a nonviable pregnancy or severe fetal abnormalities went into labor." Shouldn't Graham have given Northam the benefit of the doubt here because of the spokesman's statement, just like he demanded Pence's spokesperson be treated as the real thing?
Later that month, Graham was similarly mad that Trump's overheated Biden-bashing rhetoric was called out:
The liberals at PolitiFact are so touchy about President Trump mocking Democrats that they slap a "Mostly False" on things that just make them angry. Take this statement: "Don't forget Biden deserted you. He's not from Pennsylvania. I guess he was born here, but he left you, folks."
And Graham is invoking classic subjective anti-fact-checker-speak because he's angry that Trump is being put into context -- something he only selectively cares about.
In a June post, Graham stuck the right-wing narrative while grousing that a fact-checker pointed out that there's "little evidence" to support Trump's claim that the real Russian collusion was done by Democrats and not with the Trump campaign, further whining that "he won't explicitly acknowledge the Russian cooperation in the Steele dossier, where an ex-British spy dug up salacious dirt on Trump from Russian sources. He only mentioned it to deny it had any importance (and forget the fact of the FISA warrants spawned by it)." But as others have pointed out, the Steele dossier was not the basis for the FISA warrant to investigate onetime Trump campaign official Carter Page.
Graham joined (read: ghostwrote) with his boss, Brent Bozell for a July 2 column complaining that Democratic presidential candidates aren't fact-checked as much as they demand:
PolitiFact actually boasted on Twitter during the debate: "We've been fact-checking @ewarren since 2014. She has never received a rating lower than Half True." How is that possible? Easy. For one, PolitiFact has never issued a Truth-O-Meter ruling on Warren's claim of being part Cherokee Indian.
Perhaps because there's no evidence that Warren ever deliberately lied about her heritage -- she was simply repeating family stories about it that were ultimately found not to be true. Graham and Bozell presented no evidence whatsoever of deliberate deception.
Raging against Trump fact-checks
One of Graham's major obsessions in the Trump years was to rail against fact-checkers who keep proving that President Trump is a lying liar who lies. For instance, he whines in a January 2019 post:
We've made it a routine point that the media's "independent fact-checkers" spend most of their time fact-checking President Trump, and the rest of the politicians (especially Democrats) get far less attention. This was confirmed in a recent article in the British leftist paper The Guardian. The headline on Adam Gabbatt's piece was "The 'exhausting' work of factcheckers who track Trump's barrage of lies."
Graham's attitude requires him to be oblivious to two things: 1) If Trump wants to be fact-checked less, he should lie less, and 2) No evidence has been presented that any single Democratic politician -- or even a large group of them -- lie as much as Trump does.
Further, Trump is a target-rich environment -- he lies often and blatantly. Graham can't seem to even admit that Trump has lied (though he doesn't actively dispute it).
Graham followed up with more whining a couple weeks later, this time trying to paint fact-checker PolitiFact as biased because it fact-checks Trump a lot. First, he insists PolitiFact is lying about not basing fact-checks on ideology because "PolitiFact has been sustained by large grants from liberal foundations including the Ford Foundation, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and the leftist Craig Newmark Foundation." Graham seems to think -- without evidence, of course -- that liberal donors to nonpartisan organizations demand the same ideological loyalty that donors to the MRC do.
Then, Graham threw some numbers around (boldface in original):
Let's take a quick check of 2017 and 2018 to see what happens when you actually care about who is fact-checked more and less.
Graham never explained why, for instance, the Obamas or the Clintons should have been fact-checked in 2018, given that none of them had any central role in that year's elections, let alone held political office. Nor does he explain how, exactly, PolitiFact could have examined Warren's claim about her heritage without, say, obtaining her DNA.
Graham concluded with one last whine: "Like the rest of the Liberal Media, PolitiFact treats conservatives as much more likely to lie and mislead." But he offers no evidence to the contrary; he cites not one single example of a claim by a Democrat that PolitiFact should have fact-checked but didn't.
If Graham really wants to do other than try to make cheap political points and actually prove his thesis correct, he should put his money -- or, more to the point, the Mercers' money -- where his mouth is: a MRC fact-checking operation that goes after the things PolitiFact purportedly won't. On the other hand, running one's mouth is much easier.
Trump falsehoods vs. Biden falsehoods
The MRC had no problem with the multitude of falsehoods President Trump peddled. But when a Democrat made allegedly false claims, the MRC was ON IT, and is quick to play whataboutism.
When the Washington Post found in 2019 that a story Joe Biden had been telling on the campaign trail about an Afghanistan veteran to whom he awarded a medal had numerous key details wrong -- something the MRC largely avoided giving the Post credit for, since doing so would undermine its narrative of the Post being a wildly biased "liberal media" outlet -- the MRC got mad that the media was, essentially, treating this the way the MRC handwaves Trump's torrent of falsehoods.
Nicholas Fondacaro whined, "If President Trump got as many details wrong about a story, the liberal media would declare that he was intentionally trying to 'gaslight' the country," complaining further the "ABC and NBC helped him rationalize it" while "Biden’s crafted tale wasn’t even a priority for the CBS Evening News."
Mark Finkelstein ranted that "Joe Biden might have set a personal record last week for the most gaffetastic gaffe of his storied, fact-mangling career," while Trump has had only "alleged tangles with the facts." Finkelstein was enraged when commentator said that Democrats "pride themselves on fact-checking and making sure that things are right," sneering, "spare us the notion that when it comes to the truth, Democrats are some paragons of higher-standard virtue!"
Alex Christy spun away in portraying Trump as victim of a factual "double standard":
Perhaps one reason why Trump has over 12,000 lies and misstatements attributed to him is because of a double standard that this story illustrates. When Biden tells a misleading story, the media decline to unequivocally condemn him, when Trump engages in obvious hyperbole to say that 1,000 hamburgers would reach a mile high, fact checkers are on the case. Even humor gets a "fact check."
Graham -- who has fact-checked humor -- complained that New York Times columnist David Brooks "came rushing to Biden's defense, that unlike the president, he's not 'mendacious' or 'irresponsible' with the facts."
Fondacaro returned to grouse about the "double standard" the media allegedly has, refusing to admit his own in giving Trump's whoppers a pass. He also grumbled that on NBC's "Meet the Press," "the mostly liberal panel swooped in on Biden’s behalf to argue that President Trump’s lies were insidious, while the former VP’s were about American heroism" and that they were more Reagan-esque. Of course, Fondacaro never actually conceded that either Trump or Reagan told falsehoods.
Graham returned as well to attack Snopes for accurately pointing out that Biden's story was a mixture of true and false claims and not the "complete factual collapse" he would like you to believe it is. Graham also huffed that "Snopes is building an unmistakable record of cravenly serving up liberal-excusing and Democrat-excusing reports" -- which, of course, is a part of a key right-wing narrative to discount fact-checks of Trump as supposedly biased.
The headline on this piece reads "FACTS or FLACKS?" As if Graham doesn't care more about flacking than facts.
Graham and his boss, Brent Bozell, served up a column attacking the alleged "excusing frenzy" over Biden. But the two essentially excused Trump's falsehoods by being silent about them other than to rehash commentators pointing out that Biden isn't being as mendacious as Trump. They whined: "This whole energetic frenzy of excuse-manufacturing once again underlines the fraudulent media boast that they are 'facts first' and care most deeply about 'the truth.'"
If the MRC had treated Trump's falsehoods as harshly as it treated Biden's, there wouldn't be an issue.
Graham's idea of a fact-check
Graham's idea of what a "fact-check" should be apparently involves cutting out the middleman of actual research and just pushing Trump talking points directly and without question. He wrote in a November 2019 post:
Democrat presidential front-runner Joe Biden granted an interview to PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff for Friday night's program. The Trump campaign sent around an e-mail decrying "Two Big Lies" in the interview.
Graham did try to frame things as the kind of fact-check he claims other fact-checkers don't do, but at no point did Graham closely examine the Trump propaganda he was repeating.
One of the things Graham said the Trump campaign apparently claimed was a "big lie" (Graham didn't supply the email in question, so it's unclear what the exact claim is) was when Biden said he "didn't know" his son Hunter was on the board of the Ukranian company Burisma:
Biden confirmed on CBS's 60 Minutes that he told his son Hunter "I sure hope to hell you know what you’re doing" after learning he'd joined Burisma, and said "What I meant by that is, I hope you've thought this through." Biden claiming that he never discussed business with family members is very hard to believe, especially because foreign companies would hire Biden's relatives as a way of gaining influence with Biden.
So Graham is simply speculating that Joe Biden is lying when he said he "never discussed business with family members," saying only that it's "very hard to believe" without providing any evidence it's true or not.
Graham used to complain about "stenographers" in the media -- now he is one.
Graham kept trying (and failing) to dunk on fact-checkers as the 2020 presidential election approached. He ranted in a Sept. 4 column:
Apparently, the proper role of the "independent fact-checker" during today's presidential campaign is to present the consistent opinion that Joe Biden is a force for truth and light, and President Donald Trump is a rampaging liar who never says anything true.
As usually happens when he makes this complaint, Graham offered no evidence that Biden tells falsehoods at the same rate as Trump, or that there was any reason to fact-check Biden at the same rate as Trump beyond his demand for false equivalence. Nevertheless, he persisted:
Some might suggest this is just about a serious aversion to Trump's casual relationship with the truth. So let's take a broader view. Take the dates of the party conventions, from the start of the Democratic one, on Aug. 17, to the aftermath of the Republican one, on Aug. 28. Over those 12 days, PolitiFact checked Republicans and their affiliated PACs and pundits 32 times and only checked Democrats and their equivalents 11 times. The disparity of checks alone implies a partisan tilt.
Again, Graham offered no evidence that Democrats told falsehoods at an equivalent rate to Republicans. The only thing being "implied" here is that Graham cannot be bothered to do even the most basic research to lend any kind of factual basis to his biased, partisan rantings.
Desperate to spin away any suggestion, no matter how well documented, that Trump is an inveterate liar, Graham spent a Sept. 13 MRC post whining that Trump's claims of mail-in voting being massively fraudulent were being fact-checked. In devising a new spin on Trump falsehoods, he insulted a Washington Post fact-checker as not smart enough to tell the difference between a fact, and a prediction," going on to huff: "This is one of the most annoying dirty tricks of the 'fact checking' trade. Smear your target as a 'liar' because you don’t like the predictions they’re making."
There is a long history of mail-in voting not being fraudulent, but Graham didn't want to talk about that. He was still in campaign-style spin mode as befit the MRC's status as the media arm for the Trump campaign:
That's not to say that everything Trump says about mail-in voting is impeccable. Constantly predicting the election will be "rigged" or fraudulent is inflammatory, but it's in the future, so it's not factual/unfactual. Rizzo and his bosses don't care. They want the "fusillades of falsehood" headline and all the clicks that come from the trash talk.
Graham clearly has an emotional investment in trying to discredit fact-checkers because they threatened Trump's re-election by telling the truth about him.
Graham managed to appear even more desperate in a Sept. 17 appearance on the right-wing safe space that is Newsmax TV:
NewsBusters Executive Editor Tim Graham appeared on Newsmax on Wednesday night to hammer the liberal media for fake and misleading fact checking. Talking about the grilling Donald Trump endured during his Tuesday night town hall on ABC, Graham dismissed the efforts of host George Stephanopoulos as “I'm a Democrat. I'm going to stick up for the Democrats.”
That's not a "zing" -- that's flailing spin from someone who might as well be on the Trump campaign payroll (if he isn't already).
He demonstrated that again in a Nov. 2 post about a CNN article on "Facebook fact-checkers and how Trump voters just don't trust them," which he claims "just means they're noticing that 'facts' have a liberal bias, according to the slippery rules of the 'independent fact checkers.'"
Graham then feigned offense that the article quoted a fact-checker stating that "there is more misinformation posted from right-wing sources than by the left":
The "math" from PolitiFact has been extremely slanted against Trump over September and October. Trump's True-to-False ratio was a staggering 52 to 1. They weren't even trying to locate anything Trump said that was True. There was one "Mostly True," on October 1.
Again, Graham failed to make any logical case to support his attack: He didn't prove that Biden lies as much as Trump, nor did he document that any fact-check of Trump used any of those "biased" facts he claims exists. That means he, once again, was demanding false balance from fact-checkers.
Graham concluded by whining that the CNN article featured "one of eight CNN veterans doing "fact checks" for Lead Stories. We found they tilted four to one against the conservative side." As we pointed out when it first attacked Lead Stories, the MRC similarly offered no proof that Lead Stories was pursuing an anti-conservative agenda or that its purported imbalance of fact-checks didn't reflect reality or weren't accurate in and of themselves.
After the election
Graham's whining continued after the election in a Nov. 25 MRC podcast:
I always put air quotes around the notion of independent fact-checkers. It's really important to understand that most of the people who do fact-checking are liberal journalists working for liberal outfits. So the fact-checker at the Washington Post, under the motto "Democracy Dies in Darkness," is going to be a fact-checker who counts Trump lies and doesn't count Democrat lies. So the other day, when some liberal Hollywood celebrity -- like Barbra Streisand, I think in this case -- said Trump's lied 22,000 times, and you ask, where would the get a stat like that? The Washington Post fact-checker. And now, of course, liberals always mangle this number, because if they say there are 22,000 lies, that's not accurate, because the way they do it at the Washington Post is to say Trump has committed or uttered 22,000 false or misleading statements. So misleading statements and lies are not the same thing.
In fact, the Post did not cite the fact that black unemployment statistics weren't kept until 1972 as a reason Trump's statement is misleading (or at least the sole reason; it did note times in which other government statistics claiming black unemployment was lower in 1953). Rather, it pointed out that Trump does not deserve the amount of credit he is taking because it was (pre-pandemic) the continuation of a black unemployment rate drop that started in 2010 under President Obama.
In short: Graham was once again complaining that Trump is being fact-checked at all.
Graham then read from his and Brent Bozell's pro-Trump, anti-media book "Unmasked," huffing about how PolitiFact "gets large grants from liberal foundations like the Ford Foundation -- which is the biggest, most massive, most leftist foundations out there -- the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the leftist Craig Newmark Foundation." He then declared, "This is one of the reasons we got into the sort of 'fact-checking of fact-checkers' project we do here at NewsBusters. Because when you use categories like true, mostly true, false, mostly false, pants on fire lie, it has that image or proclamation of some sort of great, scientific statement. And I think we've discovered over the years there isn't science, there's a lot of opinion."
Graham went on to deny he's been spending years effectively demanding fact-checking parity: "Liberals can argue they shouldn't have to observe some quota in which everyone gets an equally true and false rating. We understand that -- we don't expect you to give Donald Trump an equally true and false rating. But we would expect to some extent that you would apply the same standards to Republicans and Democrats, and they have a really bad habit of not doing that." This from the guy who wants you to think Democrats are all liars and Trump merely "exaggerates" and "makes things sound as good as they possibly can" and that shouldn't he held accountable for it. And, of course, he went on to rant about Trump and conservatives were rated as liars much more often than Democrats as liberals. So, yes, Graham absolutely expects and demands fact-checking parity.
Continuing to read from his book (which is a surefire way to pad a half-hour of podcast time), Graham also complained that PolitiFact fact-checked Hillary Clinton's campaign memoir and didn't find anything false in it, and "that includes blaming the news media for her loss (they were 91 percent anti-Trump)." In fact, "the media" -- as defined by the MRC's extremely narrow description of "explicitly evaluative statements" on the evening newscasts of CBS, NBC and ABC -- was anti-Hillary, and Graham and the MRC knew it. As ConWebWatch documented, the MRC found in the same 2016 "study" that claimed a 91 percent negative rating for Trump that "the media" was 79 percent negative against Hillary. But it downplayed those results in order to push the "media hates Trump" narrative.
Graham also denied that he and that MRC are trying to destroy fact-checking, citing a call from what he derisively called "the dopes at Snopes" worried that the MRC's anti-fact-checking jihad meant, in his words, that "we were going to declare all of, you know, every fact-check is a fraud, or that there is no such notion or facts or truth. You know, I think part of the problem here is that we disagree on what facts are sometimes, and there's so many times that on these matters of evaluation that liberals confuse their own opinions with the facts." Of course, Graham will never admit that he's doing the exact same thing.
Again: All this whining from Graham is because Trump keeps being exposed as a serial spreader of falsehoods and misinformation, and not only doesn't he think Trump should ever face any consequences for that, he doesn't want Trump's lies to taint the rest of the right-wing media. So fact-checkers must be brought down.
Needless to say, Graham never finished complaining. With Trump out of office, Graham turned his whining to whataboutism in a Jan. 23 post grumbling that Washington Post fact-checkers won't at this time do a running tally of President Biden's falsehoods the way it did for prolific liar Trump:
Glenn Kessler and his Washington Post “Fact Checker” squad celebrated their end-of-term count of President Trump’s “false and misleading statements” 30,573. Their level of aggression clearly increased as the term went on, since they announced on January 21, 2019 they had arrived at 8,158 of those or 26.7 percent of the four-year total.
Yet again, Graham offered no evidence that Obama, Hillary or Biden have ever told falsehoods at the same rate as Trump, whom Graham has previously handwaved as merely having "a casual relationship with the truth." Graham then got mad that the Biden White House quickly responded to the Post's questions about evidence to back up the claims it has made:
On January 15, Kessler signaled his new approach in fact-checking Biden's address on the coronavirus. He boasted that Biden's team responded to him immediately. That's because Democrats care about their home-team newspapers, and Biden's team knew he would be sympathetic.
Oddly, Graham seemed to think it was OK that the Trump White House had little interest in proving what they said was true.