narrative control
Weaponized Fact-Checking on Trump and Crime

We’ve noted this pattern before: Despite clear evidence of a rise in violent crime over the past eighteen months, media outlets seem determined to dismiss any expressions of alarm as ignorant at best and bigoted at worst. This is especially true when those claims come from Donald Trump, a figure whom most journalists perceive as, well, ignorant and bigoted.

But Trump’s penchant for trafficking in reckless exaggerations and brazen falsehoods on a number of issues doesn’t change the fact that his statistics about crime in last night’s convention speech were, in fact, entirely accurate. There is no disputing that the official data show a 17 point spike in crime in America’s biggest cities. Even the liberal-leaning Brennan Center, in a report clearly designed to quash stories about a crime boomlet, found a 13 percent increase (using a smaller sample). And yet, this is the first item in CBS News in a story entitled, “here are the debunked claims in Trump’s convention speech.”

TRUMP: “Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement. Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years.”

THE FACTS: A rollback? President Barack Obama has actually achieved some big increases in spending for state and local law enforcement, including billions in grants provided through the 2009 stimulus. While FBI crime statistics for 2015 are not yet available, Trump’s claim about rising homicides appears to come from a Washington Post analysis published in January. While Trump accurately quotes part of the analysis, he omits that the statistical jump was so large because homicides are still very low by historical standards. In the 50 cities cited by the Post, for example, half as many people were killed last year as in 1991.

Similarly, the Washington Post opens its “fact-check” by claiming “Trump cherry-picks data to paint an alarming picture of homicide trends, when in reality, they have been declining for decades.” Again, the fact-checker seems to be attempting to “control the narrative,” rather than grappling with the actual numbers. Yes, crime has declined since the 1990s. But it also has gone up over the last year-and-a-half. Those are not mutually exclusive facts, and the truth of the first doesn’t mean that the second shouldn’t be cause for concern.

Now, while the statistics are (as far as we can tell) irrefutable, fact-checkers could productively contest Trump’s claim that the increase can be attributed to “this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement.” There will probably never be a consensus explanation for the origins of the urban crime spike. But a convention speech isn’t a sociology seminar, and credible criminologists have speculated that changing attitudes toward police officers have caused them to enforce the law less aggressively. To suggest that the Justice Department’s investigations of local police departments have contributed to officers’ decision to retrench is a political argument outside the scope of “true vs. false” fact-checking.

To be clear: The apocalyptic landscape Trump described in his speech is not accurate. Americans are safer today than they were a decade ago, even if they are less safe than they were two years ago. And as Reihan Salam noted, fact that crime has ticked up doesn’t mean police reform isn’t good policy.

But just as with immigration and terrorism, efforts to tamp down fears by denying the very legitimacy of crime problem will almost certainly backfire. And thus far, the media has often been “fact-checking” Trump’s claims with a level of dishonesty worthy of the candidate himself.

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