With Trump and LePage, finding the truth through a demagogue’s haze

CNN anchor Jake Tapper did something that can be hard for journalists to do.

He completely dismantled a lie told by Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

In a new — or, I should say, very old — attack on likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump repeated outlandish and debunked allegations that Clinton and her husband either ordered White House attorney Vince Foster murdered in 1993 or drove him to commit suicide.

Tapper opened his show on Tuesday with a brutally honest takedown of Trump, holding him accountable for his statements to The Washington Post.

“You lent credence to a bizarre and unfounded conspiracy theory … To be clear, the notion that this was a murder is a fiction born of delusion and untethered to reality and contradicted by evidence reviewed in at least six investigations … to say otherwise is ridiculous and, frankly, shameful. Again, this is not a pro-Clinton position or an anti-Trump position. It is a pro-truth position.”

Tapper’s piece has an edge to it that can be uncomfortable for reporters who, despite the criticism they often receive, generally try to be fair and give all sides of a story an opportunity to speak.

Donald Trump and Gov. Paul LePage in Portland in March. Joel Page | Reuters

Donald Trump and Gov. Paul LePage in Portland in March. Joel Page | Reuters

And it is that drive for fairness that creates problems when high-profile people, such as Trump or Gov. Paul LePage, clearly and unapologetically lie, get their facts wrong or use numbers that don’t add up.

Often, it is left to a politicians’ opponents to call them on their untruths, and the news stories that follow use a familiar pattern, relaying the charges and counter-charges.

Readers are left with the idea that there’s a disagreement on the issue or that the facts are in dispute.

But oftentimes there are simply facts — objective and substantiated.

In the case of Trump’s latest lie, Tapper and CNN showed the courage to tell the truth, not as a favor to Clinton — as I’m sure they’re being accused — but as a service to their viewers.

Journalists in Maine have been struggling with this same circumstance since LePage made his statewide debut in the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2010, with varying degrees of success. They could spend all day trying to track down the crazy things he says.

LePage, time and again, has had only a casual relationship with the truth, and he rarely lets the facts get in the way of a good anecdote or dissuade him from an idea that’s become lodged in his head.

He’s a full-employment program for fact checkers.

Editorial writers, bloggers and opinion columnists — including me — have thrown our share of rocks at the governor, but it’s much more difficult for hard news reporters who are held to a different standard of conduct. They’re earning their paychecks trying to find the right balance.

Earlier this month at a town hall meeting, LePage told a scary story about a student at Deering High School in Portland who had overdosed.

“In one week a junior at Deering High School had three Narcan shots. And the third one, he got up and went to class. He didn’t go to the hospital, he didn’t get checked out. He was so used to it, he just came out of it and went to class.”

It’s a lie. It never happened. And, in fact, it’s medically impossible for someone to be brought back from a near fatal drug overdose with Narcan, also called naloxone, and go about their day uninterrupted.

Numerous outlets, including Maine Public Broadcasting, followed up on the story and quickly determined it was untrue.

But the governor stuck with the story, even after being called upon to get the facts right both privately and publicly. Portland’s delegation to the Legislature asked the governor not to repeat the story. When LePage didn’t respond, the Portland legislators were forced to go public and put out a press release defending Deering High School.

“This didn’t happen, plain and simple. He should check his facts. But more than that, he owes the hardworking students and faculty of Deering an apology,” said Rep. Erik Jorgensen, D-Portland, whose district includes Deering High School.

On Monday, during a call-in program on MPBN, LePage still defended the story, saying, “It was not fabricated. This was an actual conversation I had. The police chief was even in the room.”

The Bangor Daily News, the Press Herald and MPBN again followed up, talking to all the sources that the governor gave. Again, the verdict was the same.

The governor isn’t telling the truth.

This isn’t a pro-Democrat column or an anti-LePage column. It’s a pro-truth column.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at dfarmer14@hotmail.com.