When Daniel Dale started as a reporter at the Toronto Star in 2008, there was no way he could envision the extraordinary political landscape he would cover.
As the Star’s city hall reporter in 2013, Dale and former mayor Rob Ford wound up in a public feud after Ford implied that Dale was a pedophile and trespassed on his property. After Ford’s claim proved baseless, he issued a public apology and retraction.
In 2015, Dale took the position of Washington bureau chief for the Star. Donald Trump just exploded into the United States political scene in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, campaigning partly on false claims. Dale highlights and debunks most of these in the Trump lie-tracker he updates weekly.
His coverage of Trump made Dale into a household name, resulting in 275,000 Twitter followers and a spot at the table among Washington’s top political correspondents.
The Ryerson Review of Journalism spoke with Dale about what it’s like to work in what is potentially one of the strangest current political climates.
RRJ: Your career has been established by reporting on two of the most boisterous, controversial politicians in North American history: Rob Ford and Donald Trump. Do you feel blessed or cursed to have reported on such divisive figures?
Dale: (laughs) Honestly, I mostly feel blessed. It’s been a great privilege to report on both Ford and Trump, with some temporary exceptions—especially during the Ford era when I was personally under attack.
When [Ford] was trying to get me arrested, that was unpleasant. Other than that, and then the mayor smearing me and a couple other stressful moments, it’s been amazing. What more could you ask for as a reporter?
You are currently followed by 275,000 people on Twitter. Do you remember what the number was when you first began covering Trump?
I might be wrong, but I think it was about 30,000 at the time of the Republican convention last year. That’s just under a year and a half ago, so it’s been a big acceleration.
You’ve spoken a lot about how engaged and active you are with the Twitter community. As we all know, the Twittersphere can be a bit of a rabbit hole at times. How do you navigate that reality?
You have to remember that tweeting is not your job. It’s not what you’re getting paid for. My paper and other papers encourage it. They want us to engage with people, but it’s easy to tweet a couple good tweets, see people retweet them, engage with people, read on Twitter, and then find out that the day is over and you haven’t written an article. You have to avoid the time suck that it is.
You have arguably become the most famous Canadian journalist reporting on the White House. On a personal level, what’s it been like going from a local reporter in Toronto to a journalistic celebrity?
(laughs) I wouldn’t say celebrity. I’ve been recognized a total of one time during these three years, so I’m not a celeb—absolutely not. But it’s remarkable to me that almost anyone in U.S. politics knows who I am.
When I got to the U.S., like a lot of foreign correspondents, the people who took calls were often outside the inner circle of Washington politics. I was speaking to political science professors, historians, very low level political strategists, or former aides. Now, especially with Twitter, I can direct message someone like [former U.S. president] Obama’s former chief speechwriter or former Republican aides, and they will often comment to me because they are aware of my name.
I’ve learned that renown can flatter you, but I don’t really care about that. What I care about is that people who know who I am have been helpful in terms of the product I am able to produce.
Does it negatively impact your mental health to have all the work you do put under a large microscope?
I’m totally good. My mental health is fine. I actually get strangers emailing me occasionally asking if I’m okay, and I always am. I think it’s a privilege, it’s fun, and it’s interesting. But there have been times in the past year or two where I go back to check in my mentions, and people are saying vile stuff. It’s not a mental health thing, but it affects my mood.
It’s a downer. It’s not something I think any of us are really used to—just having strangers say terrible stuff to you all the time. For the first time, I’ve had to block people on my email. I’ve done stuff like that to try to protect myself.
You reported as of December 7 that Trump made 907 false claims since he took office, on an average of 2.9 false claims per day. What journalistic work goes into fact-checking the president of the United States on a daily basis?
It’s basically standard journalistic work. It’s doing web-based research, database searches, calling experts, and using multiple sources to make sure that you have the facts right. Everything we do in journalism 101—it’s just applying it to the president’s claims.
It takes a while because there’s so many of them. He’s averaging three a day. He’s calmed down a bit in the last couple weeks, but for a while, he was frequently over 25 to 30 [per week]. I think he had 57 one week in the last couple months.
The more wrong stuff he says, the more time it takes. It’s just a physically demanding task. It’s kind of like writing a book—you have to force yourself to be in the chair doing the work even if it’s stopped being fun.
On a practical level, how do you ensure you hear every single word the president speaks?
It’s honestly not that hard. It was harder during the campaign when he was doing four rallies per day. Now there are official transcripts on the White House’s website of all his official remarks—speeches, exchanges with reporters at the White House, etc.
He does so few interviews now that it’s easy to catch him, and the rest of his speaking is on Twitter, so it’s right there in written form. Occasionally, I’ll miss some interview or some press scrum that I didn’t know happened, but for the most part, it’s pretty simple.
The president continues to consistently put forth false claims. Is there any evidence that he is doing so any more or less than he was at the beginning of his term?
Statistically, he is making more false claims in the last few months than he did to start. I’ve been meaning to post a graph demonstrating the increase, but his average for a long time was about two per day. With averages, it takes a while to increase, but now he’s up to almost three a day. It’s getting worse for sure.
What’s the reason for the increase?
I honestly don’t know. Some of it might be that he’s under pressure of various kinds. This is total speculation, but he may be under pressure with policy, he’s not getting much done, or he’s under pressure from the Russia investigation. We know that when he’s under pressure, he often lashes out and reverts to his natural personality, which tends to be dishonest. But mostly, it’s so hard to understand why he does what he does.
If you had to guess, would you say he will serve his entire four-year term?
I don’t want to predict. One of my resolutions after the election was to get out of the prediction game because I thought Hillary Clinton was going to win. I felt like my biggest mistake during the campaign was writing so many stories that contained, at least implicitly, predictions about what would happen. And I think we’ve learned that we just don’t know.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.