Fact-checkers wandered into false equivalency territory Tuesday night after President Trump’s Oval Office address on immigration and Democrats’ response to it.
The Associated Press was clobbered on Twitter after it anointed the Democratic claim that Trump was at fault for the shutdown “false,” saying that the Democrats are at fault too. As the AP put it on Twitter: it takes “two to tango.”
The New York Times, meanwhile, attempted to fact-check a “should” claim made by Democrat Chuck Schumer — the kind of statement that doesn’t really lend itself to a fact check at all.
Fact-checking has evolved during Trump’s time in office — mainstream news outlets are far more likely to call a lie a lie than they used to. Even on Tuesday night, big outlets relied on policy expertise to clearly dispute Trump’s false claims.
But the night also revealed that outlets still feel the urge to find fault on both sides or assign neutral blame for political problems. The political press has long wanted to cover politics like a sport, to cover the plays of each party as if they are morally and ethically the same. On a night when the president looked the public in the eye and lied about why the government has been shut down for weeks, the press needs to not fall into the false equivalency trap.
The Associated Press tried to fact-check who is to blame
Following Trump’s speech, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer delivered a rebuttal in which they placed blame for the shutdown squarely at Trump’s feet.
“The fact is, on the very first day of this Congress, House Democrats passed Senate Republican legislation to reopen government and fund smart, effective border security solutions,” Pelosi said. “But the president is rejecting these bipartisan bills, which would reopen government over his obsession with forcing American taxpayers to waste billions of dollars on an expensive and ineffective wall — a wall he always promised Mexico would pay for.”
Blaming Trump is entirely reasonable. The shutdown began last month, when Republicans still controlled both the House and Senate, and after the Senate unanimously passed a funding bill that would’ve kept the government open but didn’t fund Trump’s wall.
But in response to criticism from his far-right supporters, Trump at the last minute decided not to support the Senate bill. During an Oval Office event with Pelosi and Schumer, Trump even said he was “proud to shut down the government” and vowed he wouldn’t blame Democrats for it.