New York Times Editor Gets Called Out for Flimsy Fact-Checking of Trump and Obama...On MSNBC!

December 15th, 2017 6:09 PM

Instead of just having a panel packed to the hilt with liberal pundits, Friday’s Morning Joe brought on some conservative and right-leaning voices during their last half-hour, namely including Washington Examiner Commentary Editor Tim Carney and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. A significant portion of their discussion centered around Thursday’s New York Times piece that concluded that President Trump has lied almost six times more than former President Obama even though Trump has spent less than one-eighth of Obama’s time in office.

NYT columnist and Associate Editor David Leonhardt, the primary compiler of each President’s “lies,” was on Joe to defend the piece. Although both Carney and Noonan brought up serious problems with the Times’s methodology, Leonhardt avoided directly addressing their concerns and repeatedly insisted that he and his colleague’s list was fair in spite of all evidence to the contrary.



The segment in question began as MSNBC senior contributor Mike Barnicle asked Leonhardt to talk about his paper’s presidential lie list:

BARNICLE: You have been charged with the incredible task of cataloguing the number of untruths that this president has trotted out thus far only in nearly 11 months of his presidency. How is it going, David?

LEONHARDT: Well, we actually need a whole team of people to do it. It's not just me and it takes a lot of time. As you know, there are all these fact checkers out there. They’ve totaled up. They say Trump has said a thousand untrue things. We set a much higher standards [sic]. We said it -- look, it needs to just be demonstrably and blatantly untrue. So we didn't count his crazy story about General Pershing. We don’t count it when he gets some economic statistics off by a little bit. We say it needs to be demonstrably and really substantially untrue. And we've counted 103 distinct untruths, falsehoods, lies that he has told in his first ten months in office. So there are a lot of ‘em.

DONNY DEUTSCH: Give us an example of, of your criteria or your top three that fall into the category “pants on fire” lie versus all of the other subtle untruths or, you know, misappropriations of the truth.

LEONHARDT: Oh look, a lot of these we know, right? It’s, it’s, it’s a blatant lie about his inauguration size crowd, it’s the more substantive stuff. It’s the stuff saying that we have the highest taxes in the world, which we clearly do not. So we basically try to take the most favorable interpretation. We say: Is there any way you can justify this and say it's kind of a matter of political debate? And if the answer is no, we count it. And then what we just did was we compared it, at the request of Trump supporters, we compared that pace to Obama's pace of telling falsehoods.

Leonhardt’s standard of what constitutes a lie was not as crystal clear as he seemed to think. When exactly is a statement “demonstrably and blatantly untrue?” What is the difference between a “substantially untrue” lie and one that isn’t? Do reports from journalistic outlets or peer-reviewed academic studies that support a president’s claim discount something from being seen as a lie?

Leonhardt did not address any of these concerns. However, we do know from the list itself that the answer to the last question is a definite “no,” given what the Times sees as one of the first major lies that Trump told as president: “Between 3 million and 5 million illegal votes caused me to lose the popular vote.” While this was very likely an exaggeration of the truth, the NYT lie list bluntly asserts that Trump’s illegal voting claim is false because: “There’s no evidence of illegal voting.” Apparently, The New York Times does not accept the findings of double blind peer-reviewed academic studies as sufficient evidence.

In 2014, researchers from Old Dominion University and George Mason University examined the Cooperative Congressional Election Studies data from 2008 and 2010 to answer the question of whether or not non-citizens voted in those elections. For the 2008 race, they found the following [emphasis mine]:

How many non-citizen votes were likely cast in 2008? Taking the most conservative estimate – those who both said they voted and cast a verified vote – yields a confidence interval based on sampling error between 0.2% and 2.8% for the portion of non-citizens participating in elections. Taking the least conservative measure – at least one indicator showed that the respondent voted – yields an estimate that between 7.9% and 14.7% percent of non-citizens voted in 2008. Since the adult non-citizen population of the United States was roughly 19.4 million (CPS, 2011), the number of non-citizen voters (including both uncertainty based on normally distributed sampling error, and the various combinations of verified and reported voting) could range from just over 38,000 at the very minimum to nearly 2.8 million at the maximum.

The “adjusted estimate” represents our best guess at the portion of non-citizens who voted. [...] The adjusted estimate of 6.4 percent for 2008 is quite substantial, and would be associated with 1.2 million non-citizen votes cast in 2008 if the weighted CCES sample is fully representative of the non-citizen population.

Other surveys have found lower estimates than the Old Dominion/George Mason study, so there is certainly more room for research and debate, but no honest person puts the number of illegal voters at zero. Doesn’t it seem at least possible that in an election where one of the major candidates was portrayed as the second coming of Hitler out to get illegal immigrants (and Mexicans in particular), more of them might have voted this time around than in 2008, and probably not for Trump?

The Examiner’s Carney did not use this line of criticism, instead preferring to focus on how Leonhardt’s compilation of Obama lies did not include some extremely obvious whoppers:



GEIST: -you read this piece with such intrigue that you sat down and wrote a rebuttal to The New York Times piece.

CARNEY: I did. And I did not question the premise of the piece, that Donald Trump is an exceptional, extraordinary liar, even among politicians, and certainly compared to Barack Obama. But the se- -- I don't think it's a proper use of, sort of, data journalism to say we're going to count up these lies. And part of the way I think-.    


CARNEY: Part -- because I don't think they actually are counting the lies. I looked at The New York Times list, the very short list of Obama lies, and the first thing I did is I searched for my favorite Obama lie. In his first State of the Union, he said: We have excluded lobbyists from policy-making jobs – which was one of his campaign promises. And, there were 36 recently registered lobbyists in policy-making jobs, including a Goldman Sachs lobbyist as a Chief of Staff at Treasury and four former lobbyists in his, uh, cabinet. That was a lie. That was a blatant falsehood that didn't make The New York Times list. And you look at some of this, “if you like your doctor, you can keep your doctor” was counted as one lie even though he said it at least 30 times as president.

And in the -- in my rebuttal blog post, I just went -- I found the first three that came to my mind. Only one of those – “if you like your plan, you can keep it” – showed up in this. I just think that counting lies and charting them and doing this is a silly thing because you're not gonna catch it. You did not have The New York Times, David Leonhardt and his -- and, and your team of journalists did not go through every single statement the President made. And you missed a bunch of Obama's lies. So again, I agree Trump’s a much bigger liar, much more falsehoods, accidental and intentional, than Obama. But why didn't you have in there if, uh, we have excluded lobbyists from policy-making jobs. Wasn't that a significant, clearly false statement?

Amazingly, Leonhardt used the slipperiness of his original standard for defining lies to turn back on Carney and accuse him of trying to apply double standards:

LEONHARDT: It’s -- you want us to apply a different standard to Obama and Trump, and we applied the same standard, Tim. So, wh- -- that's a great example of the kind of thing we didn't include for Trump. We looked at that. They did exclude a lot of lobbyists from jobs.

CARNEY: [laughing, interjecting] Wait, so-.

LEONHARDT: So we said -- under the most generous interpretation, we took all those out for Trump and we said: Look, we're not gonna give Obama a different standard than Trump.

CARNEY: [interjecting] I mea-.

LEONHARDT: And when you do it, what you end up seeing is that Obama definitely said some untrue things. We know ‘em. You know, the fact that, that he said “if you like your health insurance plan, you can keep it,” that was false. Obama said false things about the high school dropout rate. But when you compare the same standard for Obama and Trump rather than doing different standards, you just end up seeing that the two of them are not close at all-

CARNEY: [trying to cut in] I, I think you don't have a standard.

LEONHARDT: -and that Trump just tells many, many more untruths than Obama does.

CARNEY: Again, I agree with that, but I don't think you have a standard for Obama if when he says “we have excluded lobbyists,” that counts as true because there were some lobbyists [starts laughing] who didn't get hired. That's, that’s the, the parsing that the Obama White House gave me when I asked them about it eight years ago, seven years ago. And so you-.

LEONHARDT: [interrupting] Oh no, you -- look, if you wanted us to do a diff- -- if, if you could find ones that we excluded from Trump that were similar to that or included for Trump, I agree that would be fair. But there are dozens and dozens of the ones, just like that lobbyist one for Trump, the crazy story about General Pershing, that’s clearly false, but we didn't include it, ‘cause under the most generous definition, you could see someone defending it. So we did the same standard for Obama and for Trump. And you’re right, you could say: Look, these ten things about Trump you should have included, and these ten about Obama you should have included. But when you do the same standard, you really see there's no comparison between the two of them.

So according to Leonhardt, Obama misrepresenting at least 36 lobbyists being hired as zero lobbyists does not qualify as a “falsehood.” However, in the Times’s lie list, one of the first given examples is based on the NYT writers excoriating Trump for saying that he had been on 14 or 15 Time magazine covers when the real number was...11!

Oh my god! Stop the presses! The Republic is doomed!

But seriously, where does the Times get off thinking that they are objective journalists? If making such a minor mistake is a big enough lie to roast Trump over, then Carney’s argument about Obama’s lobbyist lie appears to be perfectly on-point.

Later in the segment, Carney tried to bring another Obama lie to Leonhardt’s attention, but was again dismissed:

CARNEY: [O]ne of the central critiques of Romney in the 2012 campaign -- remember the, the motto from the Obama campaign: “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.” And so then, he would go from the GM and say: “You said let Detroit go bankrupt.” And he said in one of the debates, you, s- -- I, I, I wanna get the exact quote beca-, to prove that it’s a lie, I think,-

DEUTSCH: We don’t worry about exactness here.

CARNEY: -by, by, by any standard, [...] Romney had said: “The Federal government should provide guarantees for post-bankruptcy financing and assure car buyers that their warranties are not at risk.” But Obama then said: “You were very clear that you would not provide government assistance to the U.S. auto companies, even if they underwent bankruptcy.” You put those two statements side by side, it's very clear Romney said we should have government guarantees. Obama said: You said there won't be any government guarantees. That doesn’t show up in The New York Times lie list. That was at the heart of Obama's criticism, along with the fact that “if you like your plan, you can keep it” was the single most frequent defense of Obama’s central piece of legislation. So, I could make the argument that the heart of Obama's campaign was built on standard political lies.


LEONHARDT: Look, we can go back: Obama told falsehoods, Bush told falsehoods, most famously about Iraq and weapons of mass destruction. Trump tells falsehoods about everything. He lies about the crime rate. He lies about immigration. He lies about where Barack Obama was born. He lies about how taxed we are as a nation. He lies about what his health care bill would do. And so, I don't think Trump's lies are just the sort of off-the-cuff funny stuff about what someone said. They very much are about policy and they’re central to his strategy. To me, the main difference is this – when George W. Bush was made aware of something he said that wasn’t true, he stopped saying it. When Barack Obama was made aware of something that wasn’t true, he stopped saying it. People could argue about it, but blatant untruths, they stopped. What Trump does is he tries to discredit the people who are pointing out his falsehoods, whether those people are FBI agents, CIA agents, federal judges, scientists, you name it. And I think that's really dangerous to our democratic culture.

If grossly misrepresenting what an opposing politician has said is just “off-the-cuff funny stuff,” and thus somehow not a “substantially untrue” lie, then why were the following Trump “lies” included by the Times:

“Chris Cuomo, in his interview with Sen. Blumenthal, never asked him about his long-term lie about his brave ‘service’ in Vietnam. FAKE NEWS!”

“Sen. Richard misrepresents what Judge Gorsuch told him?”

“Former Homeland Security Advisor Jeh Johnson is latest top intelligence official to state there was no grand scheme between Trump & Russia”

“Democrats purposely misstated Medicaid under new Senate bill — actually goes up.”

“If you look at President Obama and other presidents, most of them didn’t make calls.”

“Democrat Congresswoman totally fabricated what I said to the wife of a soldier who died in action (and I have proof).”

Despite Leonhardt's rampant dishonesty, it was good to see Morning Joe having some intellectual diversity on their broadcast, if only for a brief period of time.