Just this past Sunday, Rudy Giuliani told journalist Chuck Todd that truth isn’t truth.
Todd asked Giuliani, now one of President Donald Trump’s top advisers on an investigation into Russia’s interference with the 2016 election, whether Trump would testify. Giuliani said he didn’t want the president to get caught perjuring himself — in other words, lying under oath.
"It’s somebody’s version of the truth, not the truth," Giuliani said of potential testimony.
Flustered, Todd replied, "Truth is truth."
"No, it isn’t truth. Truth isn’t truth," Giuliani said, going on to explain that Trump’s version of events are his own.
This is an extreme example, but Giuliani isn’t the only one to suggest that truth is whatever you make it. The ability to manufacture what appears to be the truth has reached new heights of sophistication.
Some of this isn’t new. Presidents have always tried to push messages aggressively with whatever communications tool worked best for them. Think of Ronald Reagan’s televised addresses, or Bill Clinton’s town halls, or Barack Obama’s emotive speeches. President Donald Trump’s favorite platform is Twitter, and he’s adept at using it, sometimes outrageously, to direct or divert news coverage to his liking.
On the Internet, content can be readily manipulated to punch people’s emotional buttons, with more extreme content just a click away. Cable television’s need to fill 24 hours of content, regardless of the news, has over decades turned politics into old-fashioned entertainment. Fox News has made the us-versus-them mentality an art form.
When people are divided on basic facts, they can’t agree on how to solve problems. With the facts up for debate, we end up in a vicious conversational cycle, forever going back and forth over what is or isn’t so -- debating what the truth is -- rather than moving on to solutions and answers.
Some of the divide over facts is reflected in political differences. Surveys and reader feedback tells us Republicans and conservatives trust fact-checkers less than Democrats and independents. Instead of ignoring this, PolitiFact has been working over the past year to reach out to conservative audiences to explain our methods, thanks to a grant from the Knight Foundation, a foundation with roots in journalism and a goal of creating engaged informed communities.
PolitiFact has visited cities that voted for President Trump — Mobile, Ala.; Charleston, W. Va.; and Tulsa, Okla. — to meet with conservative voters and explain our independent fact-checking methodology. We consulted with academic researchers and asked them to study the language we used in our fact-checks to see if we were using biased terms. (They found no bias; we continue to review our work carefully.) We asked a Republican and a Democrat to write critiques of our fact-checks, both for our readers’ benefit and our own, to see if we could improve our work.
Does it help? We think it’s a decent start. These initiatives help keep us in touch with different audiences and outlooks.
Readers often ask me what they can do to help reduce division and encourage fact-based dialogue. Some of the best thinkers on political polarization say that friends are best positioned to help people stay open-minded when we believe things that aren’t true or can’t be proved. Staying connected with people who have opposite political views reminds all Americans that while we may have differences, we are not each other’s enemies.
And yet as affable as I try to be with those who dislike PolitiFact’s findings or sometimes even our very purpose — fact-checking — I don’t believe for a moment that we can pull back from our mission to tell the truth.
As we head into the 2018 midterm elections, mark a dozen years of fact-checking in 2019, and look toward a presidential election in 2020, we are optimistic and excited about our purpose.
Earlier this year, PolitiFact moved from the Tampa Bay Times newspaper to a new home at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to training journalists. We now have a Truth Squad, a membership program for readers who support us with tax-deductible contributions. We continue to fund ourselves with online advertising, grants from nonpartisan civil society groups, and by sharing our content with other publishers. We’re looking forward to a sustainable digital future with a new model for public accountability journalism in the 21st century.
PolitiFact continues to cover the political conversation by writing and reporting fact-checks on a near daily basis. We now have over 15,000 fact-checks archived on our website, and we continue to call out falsehoods wherever we see them. We talk to our readers and share our best fact-checking through a daily email and a best-of-the-week email. We have a TV show on Sunday mornings on Newsy. Our traffic is strong, and our reach is growing.
We keep our reports accessible and concise, because we’re writing for everyday people, not experts or the political class. Our ratings system remains a robust tool to help people understand complex issues and to bring clarity where there is so much muddying of the waters.
Our commitment remains to help people sort out the truth in politics — even when it’s messy, even when it’s divisive, even when it’s frustrating. Now more than ever, the truth matters.