Last night President Trump delivered his address to the nation about the current government shutdown and why it’s actually not his fault but the Democrats’. The speech contained the expected mix of exaggerations, bizarre rhetorical flourishes, and of course outright lies. Leading Democrats were granted airtime after to respond.
Events like these are a playground for Journalists Who Believe in Truth, and so dozens of newspapers and websites considered it their civic duty to live fact-check every word that Trump said. (One may wonder who this incessant fact-checking is for, but, alas, that question is for another post.)
There is, of course, nothing wrong with holding the president accountable. Trump spouts lies probably more often than he drinks water, and it is good to inform the public about this. But often hidden in these attempts is also the antiquated notion that, in order to remain neutral, you must signal that both sides are equally at fault. Thus we have the Associated Press’s Politics Twitter account, which tweeted this bizarre post:
AP FACT CHECK: Democrats put the blame for the shutdown on Trump. But it takes two to tango. Trump’s demand for $5.7 billion for his border wall is one reason for the budget impasse. The Democrats refusal to approve the money is another. https://t.co/9IWnqUgl2d
— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) January 9, 2019
There’s a lot to unpack here, but let’s start with some of the basics. Essentially, the AP is making the claim that while Trump has shut down the government because he is demanding funding for a border wall, the Democrats are also at fault because they aren’t acquiescing to his will. The “tango,” then, is the inability to pass a budget, and the AP explains that both the left and the right just don’t want to dance.
This characterization, however, is misleading. As the New York Times points out (which is, of course, found on its very own live fact-check page) the Democrats have offered “$1.3 billion in funding for border security measures like enhanced surveillance and fortified fencing.” True, they don’t support a wall, but the AP’s framing infers that they are not trying to compromise, which is simply not true.
If we’re to continue with this awful tango metaphor, the AP is saying that the Democrats are at fault for not dragging Trump’s limp body across the dance floor while the music plays.
But larger than the pesky facts the AP is trying to report yet failing to contextualize (as well as the poor imagery) is this idea that the only way to remain objective is to find equal and opposite flaws in dissenting views. Sometimes, that’s simply just not the case–and more often than not, these cases involve Trump. The AP here is trying to make itself look neutral (likely in an attempt to seem palatable to people on the right), but in the outlet’s very pursuit of fair journalism, it’s skewing facts.
Needless to say, many people on Twitter weren’t thrilled with this tweet:
— Xeni Jardin (@xeni) January 9, 2019
“Some people blamed the mugger for the stabbing but it takes two to tango. The mugger demanded your wallet or else. By refusing to give the mugger your wallet, the stabbing is also technically your fault”
— Mike Drucker (@MikeDrucker) January 9, 2019
This is a dumb, almost comically bad tweet — but it’s also the logical endpoint of making “fact-checking” into its own form of writing, rather than as part of the reporting process. pic.twitter.com/PNxQEzfZaX
— Peter Sterne (@petersterne) January 9, 2019
The AP’s tweet is symptomatic of a pervasive trend plaguing journalism: a knee-jerk reaction to create a false reality that there’s a more centered middle opinion, when sometimes there just isn’t. This saga is also an example of how fact-checking as a stand-alone form of journalism–as opposed to being part of the process–can actually degrade truth.
Let’s try and use this as a lesson for when pandering to both sides hurts your original intention. Or at least to do away with hackneyed figures of speech like “it takes two to tango.”