Pinocchio, the Washington Post fact-checker

A few weeks ago I saw an article proclaiming that a public statement had received a “three Pinocchios” rating. Intrigued, I clicked through and discovered a phenomenon I do not remember seeing before the 2016 election, with its “alternative facts” and “fake news.” The Washington Post has begun grading statements by elected officials according to their degree of falsehood, using a cute image of Pinocchio (click here to see). The news organization does not use a series of images with increasingly long noses to indicate worse falsehoods, but rather this image repeated 1-4 times. They also make use of a “Geppetto checkmark” for truths and an upside-down Pinocchio image for “flip-flops” on positions.

The linking of the titular character from an Italian children’s novel, The Adventures of Pinocchio, to lying comes straight from the book. The memorable visual of the growing nose was of course popularized in America by Walt Disney Company’s 1940 film version of the story.

The reference to Pinocchio here works precisely because of its connection to children’s literature. Everyone in the audience has had to learn not to lie, and the story of a young boy learning not to tell falsehoods highlights the fact that this is (at least constructed as) a simple task that young children can master. Facts are facts. “Alternative facts,” “fake news,” and anything “not intended to be a factual statement” are lies, pure and simple. The Pinocchio rating is The Washington Post‘s way of bolstering the public’s confidence in traditional news media.

The site’s clear statement of their criteria for judgment goes a long way toward building their credibility. They judge prepared statements more harshly than statements made off-the-cuff, and both of those are mitigated if the speaker later recants or qualifies any honest mistakes. The rating scale is, in brief, 1 Pinocchio) mostly true, 2 Pinocchios) significant omissions or exaggerations meant to mislead, 3 Pinocchios) factual error or interpretations grossly out of context, and 4 Pinocchios) “whoppers.” They acknowledge that these can be subjective and that they strive to explain any fence-straddlers.

An example of the Pinocchio rating scale comes in the article “Trump’s facile claim that his refugee policy is similar to Obama’s in 2011,” which states within that “The Pinocchio rating has been updated in light of new information.” The story now has a 3-Pinocchio rating.

Since this discovery, I have discovered several news articles using “Pinocchio” references to describe Donald Trump or other public figures related to him:

The fairy-tale reference is, of course, one that every reader should understand and connect to. The editors making these headlines as well as the Pinocchio scale understand that most Americans in their audience will understand the connection between Pinocchio and the lesson that lying leads to negative consequences. The implication here is that our elected officials have made such a habit of lying that they are now equated with the bad habit. “Pinocchio” is an adequate enough nickname for readers to understand who is under discussion. And that, we understand, makes the 70-year-old President as ripe for chastisement as a boy so young he was very recently an inanimate puppet.

Trumplethinskin

Through my social media feed, several weeks ago I came across the name “Trumplethinskin.” The satiric portmanteau’s meaning is clear: President Donald Trump has thin skin. The phrase appears as a Twitter hashtagFacebook hashtag, and Facebook profile page under the category of “fictional character.” K. S. Wiswell has written a modern-day revision of “Rumplestiltskin,” casting Trump as the titular character, Congress as the ruler, and the American citizenry as the queen required to spin straw into gold. My favorite iteration of the trend comes in this (far more detailed than I am used to) political cartoon by Debbie Spafford:

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I was delighted at the viral spread of political critique couched in the terms of a fairy tale reference. If nothing else, this gives me a contemporary parallel to consider when contextualizing my dissertation on Cold War fairy tales and the subtle political critiques I see within. I love how ripe the fairy tale genre is for political critique. Both politics and fairy tales are elements of popular culture. It is commonly accepted that “everyone” knows fairy tale references, so they easily connect readers to each other using a common mythology. Politics, too, is well-known to everyone. Even the percentage of the population who knows little to nothing about the wonkier aspects of political work knows who the President is and that he retaliates with angry, aggressive Tweets on Twitter when he feels that he has been insulted by others. (This, of course, is a symptom of having figuratively thin skin.)

But why connect Trump and Rumplestiltskin? It may be as simple as the fact that “thin skin” and “stiltskin” rhyme and so may easily be substituted, and the same goes for “Trump” and “Rump.” In fact, I think that this is the primary reason I have seen the phrase disseminated as widely as I have.

However, I immediately see connections between the Grimms’ fairy tale hypotext and the contemporary phrase that could indicate a deeper reason for the term’s resonance. Both the figure of Rumplestiltskin and the figure of Trump, archetypes as they are in the popular imagination, bring to mind deal-making, self-destructive behavior, and the power of the name.

Rumplestiltskin is the story of an imp who appears to a woman stuck in an impossible situation. She must spin straw into gold or else be murdered by her husband; Rumplestiltskin is able to perform this labor for her in exchange for her firstborn child. After the child comes, she begs for a chance to redeem her child, and he agrees on the condition that she guess his name. When she does name him and deny him her child, Rumplestiltskin tears his body down the middle and disappears.

Donald Trump has been in the public spotlight for decades. He has been such a well-known public figure, even before he became the 45th President of the United States, that his IMDB profile lists him appearing as himself in every one of his credited acting appearances (with the sole exception of his appearance in Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, where he actually seems not to actually appear). This shows that he has attained status as the archetypal businessman, in order for these cameos to hold meaning for the audience. This business acumen is reinforced by the title of his personal growth book, Trump: The Art of the Deal. In this deal-making capacity, he makes sense as a Rumplestiltskin figure.

As President, Trump has behaved in certain ways to turn public opinion against him. 538 shows his approval rating as 45.5% approval/41.3% disapproval on his 4th day of office, 44.8% both approval and disapproval on day 14, and 50.2 disapproval and 42.9 approval on day 40–approval ratings are dropping while disapproval ratings are increasing. Gallup shows the same trend: approval and disapproval were both 45% on 1/22/17, but by 2/27/17 disapproval ratings are 54% while approval ratings are 42%. His executive decisions that seem to put “the swamp” in charge of the nation instead of cleaning it out has acted against his administration’s self interest. In this and the way his new position has affected his name brand, he is behaving self-destructively.

Ultimately, all of this has come to harm the Trump brand. In the beginning of February, The New York Times wrote that several major companies have been pulling away from Trump-branded products. This is in response to consumer trends; consumers do not want to support the Trump family as they rule the country. This continued nearly two weeks later, specifically with Trump’s daughter Ivanka’s brand. NPR, by contrast, reports that the brand name’s value has increased, but this is only within his core base. Either way, consumers are reacting to his branded properties according to how they feel about his performance as President because his name on those properties makes their private economic choices a political statement.

Because this moniker is so catchy and descriptive on its own, I expect this new nickname to become permanently attached to Donald Trump. With the added context of the “Rumplestiltskin” fairy tale as well, the nickname shows how fertile fairy-tale references are for political critique for an audience like America. We share very little in terms of a common mythology, and since we overwhelmingly want our commentary immediately understandable, fairy tale references are the best way to connect audience to argument with a generally-understood shorthand.