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‘Fact-checking’ memories

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Professor Elizabeth Loftus of the University of California, Irvine, is one of the country’s recognized experts on memory. Her Ted Talk on false memories is a must-watch for every analyst trying to chart the public’s reactions to both Donald Trump’s recollections of the aftermath of 9/11 and to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s claims of coming under sniper fire in the Balkans or of having explored joining the United States Marine Corps as a young lawyer in Arkansas.

Memories cannot usually be “fact checked.” The exception is when those memories have been differently stated by the same person at different times. People remember what they remember, and often they “remember” that which did not actually occur. That is the point of Professor Loftus’ work. It is why I cited her on “Meet the Press” Sunday. My guess is that pretty much everyone has some false memories which they believe to be true.

Nor is the public much interested in “fact-checking” memory. The public — both the Left and Right — believes the process of “fact-checking” to be agenda-driven by the authors of the various claims to objectivity. “Fact checkers” have been guests on my radio program, most recently the dean of the group, Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post. All are fine reporters and journalists, but very few folks put much faith in them or cite their work as important to the opinions of voters. Many people don’t trust fact-checkers. I know because many people have told me so.

The process of making truth claims is inherently fraught with subjectivity. I don’t believe that hundreds or even scores of people in New Jersey cheered the downing of the towers on 9/11, but I don’t doubt that thousands of people remember such a thing. I don’t doubt the latter because so many people have emailed or tweeted me with their testimonies, and I could run whole shows of callers swearing to it. These folks are not making up their recollections. They are recounting things from memory.

What critics of Donald Trump are arguing is that he ought to allow for the possibility that he is misremembering — that he has the classic “false memory,” where an individual conflates events. Trump refuses to do so. And that’s where the controversy sits and that’s where it will stay.

And it will not matter to Trump voters who believe the mainstream media is on a mission to destroy Trump. Those voters can point to many other instances of would-be presidents’ false memories and fairly argue that there is a double standard at work here. Journalists might reply that they checked those old false Clinton stories out, and Trump supporters — again, rightly — respond, “Not with anything like the same degree of intensity and repetition!” They are right. Hillary basically gets a free ride.

Be assured, though, that Trump’s memories of 9/11 are no more going to decide the race for the GOP nomination that Hillary’s recollection of running for cover as snipers fired away at her. That is going to be decided on a still unfolding calculus of national security and electability issues. GOP primary voters are smart. They are taking it all in and recalibrating their assessments in real time.


This column was originally posted on


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