Is this typical President Trump hyperbole, exaggerating his ratings power to impress people? Or is it a straight-up lie?
On Thursday morning the president said the 45.6 million people who watched Tuesday’s State of the Union was “the highest number in history.”
That’s not true. And it left observers wondering where he came up with such a claim.
The presidential misstatement immediately called to mind the inauguration crowd size controversy of 2017. The White House made faulty claims about inauguration attendance, triggering days of debate over basic facts. It’s how the phrase “alternative facts” was born.
In this case, too, the president’s defenders searched for some way to prove him right. Commenters on social media wondered if Tuesday’s address ranked No. 1 with web live-streaming factored in.
But there is no data to back up his boast, and plenty of data to contradict him.
Here’s the thing: The numbers Trump cited in his Thursday morning tweet are accurate. “45.6 million people watched,” he said, which is precisely what the ratings company Nielsen announced on Wednesday.
But his interpretation was inaccurate. Several State of the Union addresses in the past were higher-rated, including Barack Obama’s first address in 2010, which had 48 million viewers.
Trump’s joint address to Congress last winter, while not officially a State of the Union address, also had almost 48 million viewers.
Nielsen’s data counts Americans who watched at home via traditional TV, either live or on a DVR. There’s no reliable data for live-streaming, but research indicates that the vast majority of people still watch big events on TV, not the web.
Trump’s tweet about the ratings doubled as a promotional message for Fox News. He said Fox “beat every other Network, for the first time ever, with 11.7 million people tuning in.”
That’s accurate — Fox ranked No. 1, likely reflecting its status as the favored network of Trump supporters.
Where did Trump hear the numbers? Maybe from a “Fox & Friends First” segment on Thursday morning that mentioned the 45.6 million total for all networks and the record 11.7 million total for Fox.
But the Fox segment did not suggest that Tuesday was the highest-rated State of the Union ever.
Trump has a long history of hyperbole about his ratings and other measures of popularity. He used to call his show “The Apprentice” No. 1 long after it had slipped out of the top ten.
Television executives and critics snickered about his salesman tactics and chalked it up to “Donald being Donald.”
Presidential statements are a different matter. Fact-checkers pounced on Thursday’s claim.