Martin Schram: Democracy’s watchdogs face new challenges

Martin Schram - Chicago Tribune

Columnist Martin Schram is an MCT op-ed writer. (MCT)

Columnist Martin Schram is an MCT op-ed writer. (MCT)

Now more than ever: If daily journalism in America was really doing its job, important facts you’re about to read here — facts proving you’ve just been deliberately deceived — wouldn’t seem like news at all.

It would seem like old stuff because it had been page-one, prime-time news, big-time reporting on your favorite newspaper or news-screen.

But you may well have missed the real news facts that were the real big story at the White House last Tuesday. Because the real story was that the so-called facts that President Donald Trump told us all during his televised meeting with the Democratic congressional leaders weren’t factual at all.

It used to be that all of us in journalism considered the reporting and verifying of factual claims by officials and politicians to be one of the basics of Reporting 101. But increasingly, the challenges of covering the factually-elastic Trump presidency has led my colleagues in journalism to increasingly nudge the job of fact-verification into its own news-niche, complete with its own journalistic label: “Fact-checking.”

At first, I thought that was great — but it’s turned out that this reform had a downside: It led many of our news deciders (see also: editors) to treat fact-checking as a journalistic sideshow — a nonessential frill that they might bury on inside pages or way down in your news-screen scroll.

The result: Government officials seeking to brush away failures and politicos seeking adoration think they can assert anything and it will be reported — and maybe later fact-checked and maybe not. Meanwhile, reporters are now pressured to instantly report all newsbreaks so they can get the most clicks on the Internet. And editors may not ask reporters to verify official claims, because newsroom staffs were depleted by cutbacks.

Make no mistake: Government officials and political movers and shakers of all persuasions try to con people and get away with it. Especially when they want to say things people want to believe (even if they are lies). Which is what happened Tuesday when Trump met with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer.

President Trump proclaimed he will proudly shut down the U.S. government this month if Congress doesn’t approve $5 billion for him to build his border wall — the one Candidate Trump promised he’d make Mexico would pay for. Trump told Pelosi, Schumer and a world of live news-screen watchers that “tremendous amounts of wall have already been built… we’ve done a lot of work…. And one way or the other it’s going to get built.”

Say what? The next day, The Washington Post website ran an excellent piece of what has become its niche reporting. The Post’s Fact-Checkers reported Trump had descended to a new low of distortion:

“This is a Bottomless Pinocchio claim, which is our worst rating — worse than Four Pinocchios! No segment of Trump’s wall has been built. Trump has sought $25 billion for the wall since taking office. But Congress has not given it to him.”

Trump also proclaimed: “A lot of the wall is built. It’s been very effective.” He then read some percentages showing that “illegal traffic” had dropped by as much as 96 percent in Yuma, Tucson, San Diego, and so on.

But the Post fact-checkers reported on the website the next day that those numbers weren’t about Trump era enforcement or any wall construction. They were comparing today’s figures with those from the mid-1990s and early 2000s — and that immigration into the United States had declined sharply since then due to “a variety of socioeconomic factors.”

Unfortunately, the Post found no room in Tuesday’s or Wednesday’s print editions for its excellent fact-checking reporting. And that’s a shame because the Post and New York Times are among America’s news-agenda setters. If the Post had displayed its fact-checked truths with front-page prominence — summarized in the paper’s lead story and detailed in a separate analysis, you and most folks would have been aware of this latest example of official deception.

So it goes in our news biz, these days. Sometimes we can be great — then they make movies about us and celebrate us as democracy’s watchdogs. But plenty of times, we aren’t even good.

Sadly, in this era when enemies half a world away are spreading lies on social media to shatter our faith in ourselves, America’s democracy is sometimes being underserved by its own watchdogs.

Columnist Martin Schram is an MCT op-ed writer. (MCT) Martin Schram is an MCT op-ed writer. (MCT)

Martin Schram

Chicago Tribune

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at

Martin Schram, an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service, is a veteran Washington journalist, author and TV documentary executive. Readers may send him email at

Post navigation