Fact Checkers are Under Assault. As They Should Be.

Glenn Kessler, AKA The Fact Checker, bemoaned that “Fact checkers are under assault!” and defended his colleagues at Politifact in Politifact’s decision to give Democrats the Lie of the Year award for saying Republicans voted to end Medicare. Mr. Kessler makes a good argument but I don’t buy it.

According to Politifact’s Bill Adair (via CBS News), the house “voted to protect Medicare on people who are 55 or older, but to privatize it and restructure it in a dramatic way for people who are younger”. Saying they voted to protect Medicare is less accurate than saying they voted to end it. All they did was vote not to “restructure it in a dramatic way” for people 55 and over. For the rest of us, Medicare would be a new program with an old name. The old program will have ended.

Politifact is trying too hard to seem fair and balanced. Five of their finalists for lie of the year were things that right wingers said and five were things that left wingers said. What are the chances of such an even split? Almost nil. But in order to seem unbiased, they came up with a list of five each. One of the items on the list was something Debbie Wasserman said but immediately retracted and admitted was a mistake, on the same day she said it. Politifact explains:

At PolitiFact, we do not typically fact-check statements that are quickly retracted by the speaker. However, we made an exception in this case because we expect voter identification laws and other election-process issues to remain a significant and divisive issue in the 2012 election.

That doesn’t ring true to me. Wasserman’s mistake was saying “… literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow” when describing Republican tactics to restrict voters. She shouldn’t have said “Literally” but was ( pretty obviously, I think ) just exaggerating for effect, not to actually mislead. That’s supported by her immediate retraction. Just because Politifact feels that voter identification will be an important issue doesn’t give them the right to call Wasserman a liar.

Another item on that list is, of course, the one that got the prize. That statement is at best debatable, since the program will still have the same name. But it’s not a lie to say that something has “ended” when, as Igor Volsky says, “everything that has defined the program for the last 46 years” has been eliminated.

None of the right wing lies were such flimsy candidates as Wasserman’s statement or even the Medicare characterization, but obviously Politifact didn’t want to seem biased by including fewer left wing lies than right wing lies.

And since a right wing lie was the winner last year, it was obviously time honor the left. And that’s the truth.

Like OMG, Four Troops in Libya!

The first paragraph of a Fox News story:

Despite repeated assurances from President Obama and military leaders that the U.S. would not send uniformed military personnel into Libya, four U.S. service members arrived on the ground in Tripoli over the weekend.

Well, then, I guess we invaded Libya after all! Not quite. The rest of the story is more sane then the opening paragraph. It explains that these four military members are being sent to the U.S. embassy to disable explosive traps and provide general security. The article even quotes John Bolton, saying this is “No big deal”.

Nowhere in the article is Obama accused going back on his word. But the phrase “Despite repeated assurances from President Obama” is very suggestive. As I’ve said before, most readers won’t get passed the first paragraph. So Fox can lead with a harsh sounding teaser, nullify its own words in the following paragraphs, and claim to be as innocent as a cherub after triggering an army of keyboard reactionaries to spread the word that Obama is a lier.

And the keyboard army is, indeed, in motion. From the comments on a you-tube video:

sorry that facts bother you HA HA HA
so many ignoramuses on YT so little time!!
Obama Lies Yet Again!: ‘No U.S. Ground Troops In Libya’
Pentagon Confirms U.S. Troops on Ground in Libya…
Despite repeated assurances from President Obama and military leaders that the U.S. would not send uniformed military personnel into Libya, four U.S. service members arrived on the ground in Tripoli over the weekend.

So popular is this story that as of this morning, if you type “Ground Tro” in Google, it will auto-fill “Ground Troops in Libya”, and the Fox news article will be the first hit.

I’ll say it again and again: You have to read the story, not just the headline, and not just the first paragraph. And you have to read critically, and consider alternative views. That’s true if you’re a Liberal or a Conservative. I know we’re all busy and it’s Football season again, but if you’re going let yourself be led around by the nose from any agenda-driven news source, you’ll be even worse off than you would be if you imposed a news-blackout on yourself.

Read carefully and critically, then vote. Don’t do one without doing the other.

All you need to know won’t fit in this post

Daniel Mitchel wrote a post a few months ago, but I just came across it recently. Although it’s old news now, it illustrates something important enough to bring up: Simplistic factoids which are replacing real news.

The post is titled “The Chart That Tells You Everything You Need to Know About Whether Public Workers Are Over-Compensated”, and refers to the following diagram:

Chart showing monthly quit rate of 1.6 for private sector and about 0.5 for gov't

This “chart” consists of two big blue rectangles. This chart tells more about what Mitchell thinks of his target audience’s mental capacity than it does about anything else. It’s just two numbers, people. Does Mitchell’s readership really need a big blue and yellow diagram to explain two numbers? Do these two numbers really tell you everything you need to know?

Here’s a few things that the chart doesn’t tell you:

1) A lot of government workers do their jobs because they want to serve the public, even when it’s a public that doesn’t appreciate what they do. Government workers place special needs children in loving homes, defend innocent people who wouldn’t otherwise get a fair trial, help people find jobs, pull people out of burning buildings, remove dangerous people from society, and carry out other vital functions. They do these jobs because it makes them feel good, even though they might make more money fighting their way up a corporate ladder.

2) Almost nobody takes a government job expecting to get rich, but many people take government jobs expecting stability. They hope to do their jobs, get fair pay and benefits, and eventually retire. This kind of person doesn’t quit one job seeking a better opportunity in another.

3) As Sam Hananel, of the Associated Press noted, “A disproportionate number of federal employees are professionals, such as managers, lawyers, engineers and scientists. Over the years, the federal government has steadily outsourced lower-paying jobs to the private sector so that blue-collar workers cooking meals or working in mailrooms now make up just 10 percent of federal employees.”

4) Some private sector jobs really suck. Crazy, abusive bosses and business models that make a point of treating workers poorly because they want high turnover affect the size of the big blue box, but shouldn’t be counted as the standard against what any job should be measured.

You can agree with me or disagree. You can even bring up facts that you feel contradict mine. But at least admit that an intelligent person doesn’t need a bar graph to compare two numbers and, more importantly, two numbers isn’t all the information you need to know if you want to understand the appropriate compensation for government workers.

It would be nice if all of our questions could be answered with a “yes” or a “no”, or if policies could be substantiated with three-word-chants, or if everything we need to know about a subject could be illustrated with two pretty blue boxes on a yellow background. But some things can’t be properly understood without knowing the details. That’s why Herman Cain’s pledge not to sign any bill longer than three pages is an outrageous celebration of simple-mindedness.

All I need to know about astrology might be summed up in a little chart, because I don’t do anything that requires any knowledge of astrology. But if I was planning on making decisions based on the stars, I would read up on the subject. If you’re actually going to vote, or support political causes, you need to know more than what’s being told to you by people who don’t respect your intelligence. Don’t trust anyone who shows you a simple diagram and tells you that it’s all you need to know.

Gotcha Journalism Doesn’t Even Need a Gotcha Anymore

Update 2011 06/06: I was wrong. And Fuck Weiner for giving Breitbart a win, and for screwing the people who defended him, and for putting his wife at risk of public humiliation.

Andrew Breitbart is making headlines talking and posting about Congressman Anthony Weiner. I personally think Weiner’s account was hacked, as he claims it was. Mediaite posts a good for-and-against analysis. I think it’s unlikely that he sent a lewd photo of himself to a woman he doesn’t seem to know. There is no evidence of any raunchy conversation preceding the photo, so the congressman would have sent it with no provocation. Even Favre seems to have had a history of sexting. Weiner does not.

If I’m wrong, I’ll admit it. I doubt Breitbart will if he’s wrong. But considering the amount of evidence currently available, he’s crowing pretty loudly and getting a lot of attention from this. How would the media act if Weiner was a right winger? Much more low key. Salon has a good explanation of that point of view.

Andrew Breitbart’s biggest stories have all been discredited. The Sherrod tape was doctored. The ACORN tapes where a hoax. The tapes he shows are edited for distortion, like something out of a movie where the cops get a guy to turn on his buddies by playing a chopped up recording that sounds like his buddies conspiring against him. Mr. Breitbart’s friends provide excuses for his erroneous reporting. But even if you have real good reasons for continuously reporting false information, that doesn’t make you a reliable news source, does it?

Of course Breitbart’s accuracy deficiency is common among right wing pundits. Maybe some day science will provide an answer to the question of why the right wing is so often wrong.

I decided to wander to the dark side and take a look at what Big Government had to say about the ACORN tapes. What I found was continuing attacks against ACORN. Most of the attacks that Big Government lodges against ACORN have not been about the ridiculous pimp scandal, but about falsified voter registration forms. Despite all the hot air about the falsified forms, these forms could not have resulted in any invalid votes. For example, in Nevada, voter cards were turned in with the names of the Dallas Cowboys. But even if these cards where never identified, none of the Cowboys were ever going to show up and vote in a Nevada election. So the falsified records served no advantage to ACORN or any political party or candidate. This is a key fact. ACORN did not gain, could not have gained, and could not have assumed that they would gain anything by turning in falsified forms. That’s explained pretty well by Chuck Ardo. What likely happened is exactly what ACORN says happened: people that ACORN hired to canvass turned in falsified forms in order to look like they were doing what they were hired to do. Breitbart took down an organization by posting false information, he’s proud of it, and continues to operate in the same fashion.

Listening to Breitbart means you enjoy shocking and lewd stories about Liberals and don’t even care if they’re true. It’s like a bully who, before picking a fight, comes up with some sort of pretext like “Hey, you looking at me!” or “Don’t you owe me fifty bucks?” It apparently makes no difference that nobody really believes the pretext as long as it’s fun and you get beat somebody up. What other excuse can there be for having a repeatedly discredited journalist on a news show? This is a real sorry state of affairs in journalism and the American public’s thirst for entertainment that looks like news.

Much of what the media is telling you is wrong, especially if you’re getting your information from the likes of Andrew Breitbart. The right wing continuously cries about how the Union is in danger. They’re right. And we won’t be safe until We the People start double checking the assertions of our news people and holding them accountable for their mistakes and their lies.

A Crazy Wingnut Mistake

Doug Ross, a wingnut blogger, misunderstood a tweet and thought Obama had a U.S. flag removed from Ground Zero because he hates America. Then his stupid mistake was repeated by Malkin and Drudge. Malkin later acknowledged the mistake. Ross did too, sort of. He says his mistake was Obama’s fault for making him think such a delusional accusation could be true.

In justifying his hair-trigger overreaction, Ross linked to a video of Obama standing with his hands clasped during the National Anthem, to prove that Obama hates the flag. A little bit of Googling reveals photos of Bush and other presidents also failing to put their hands over their hearts during the National Anthem. A little more Googling led me to videos of Bush sitting, bored, fiddling with a hand-held American flag and drumming it against his thigh, and a photo of Bush stepping on a floor mat with the U.S. flag printed on it. I also remember (because I’m old enough) Bush Sr. draping a flag over his shoulders like it was a bath towel.

People make gaffs and every president has done things that appear to be disrespectful. These are either due to a deficiency in knowledge about ceremonial etiquette or due to being distracted by other things, like running the country. I can find gaffs committed by Republican presidents and Democratic presidents, but I can’t find swells of lunatic reactions from the left that come close to spreading as quickly as those on the right, or which contain the same amount of murderous and hysterical accusations.

I wish the hateful nonsense would stop, but Republicans are at a low. Their obstructionist tactics almost lead to a government shutdown, their plan to kill Medicare didn’t quite slip by without the people noticing, the birther movement is pretty much dead, Bin Laden was caught and killed on Obama’s watch, and the Republicans can’t seem to produce a leader who excites their base without sounding like a lunatic or a moron. Brace yourselves, folks, for a tidal wave of accusations against Obama that are hateful, racist, and most of all, unbelievable, at least to a thinking person.

Calling for NPR to Support Themselves Misses the Point

I started reading Fox News so I can develop my own “fair and balanced” opinion of how biased their reporting is. Now WHRO, an NPR affiliate, has Fox to thank for getting me to renew my membership this year.

Fox News illustrates two good arguments for supporting NPR. One, as you might guess, is that Fox is such a source of misinformation that it’s important to have professional news sources to counter their right-wing spin. But Fox actually illustrates another good reason, and it’s one that you might not expect.

Most of Fox’s reporting is factual, with a right wing bias but not so distorted as to be untrue. Unfortunately, many of their articles are so distorted. An example of an article so misleading that it’s basically untrue is Fox’s reporting of Democrats opposing a troop funding bill. Democrats didn’t oppose troop funding, they opposed the anti-abortion and anti-environmental riders that were attached to the bill. The story didn’t mention the riders, and that information was too integral to the story to be left out without dishonest intent.

If Fox eliminated the overtly dishonest articles, they could still have a right wing bias. They could concentrate on the positive aspects of U.S. military actions, report gaffs made by Democrats, and point out the downsides providing medical care for poor children. But their reporting could still be factual and there agenda would, as it does now, lead them to occasionally pick up stories that other news agencies miss. Thus, even a news organization with an agenda can be a valuable asset to keeping the public informed, as long as the reports were honest.

Similarly, while we can debate NPR’s so called liberal bias, it’s still true that they pick up on stories that other agencies miss. No news source can report every story; editors have to make choices. And while some news agencies actually to try to be “fair and balanced”, it is impossible for any agency to block out self-interest from the decision making process. Thus, the source of funding in any news agency has an affect on the stories that agency chooses to cover. NPR’s unique funding model doesn’t make them liberal (imho), but it makes them different from news sources that rely solely on commercial funding.

Most news agencies are competing for the same corporate dollars. This doesn’t mean that commercial news cannot be trusted at all, but it means that the need to stay afloat will have an affect what stories they choose to report. Since the same wealthy companies advertise on different stations, it’s unlikely that any of the ad-funded news sources will put their heart into investigating a story that will upset their biggest sponsors. Additionally, newspapers and news stations are being gobbled up by corporate giants, so in reality there aren’t that many sources of news out there anymore. Thus, if we rely solely on commercially funded news, some important stories will go unreported or under-emphasized.

Another problem with commercial news is America’s shrinking attention span and addiction to entertainment. Today’s potential news customers need to have their attention grabbed by headlines, and the headlines that promote fear and anger are the ones that grab attention. Consider a scenario where a foreign leader makes vague remarks which may indicate hostile intent. The headline, “Foreign Leader calls for Destruction of America” grabs attention better than “Foreign Leader’s Words Constitute Possible Threat to U.S.” It is clear that in order to stay afloat with commercial funding, news agencies are forced to exaggerate threats and make people fearful or hateful of foreign nations, local crime, or poor people scamming the system and stealing tax dollars.

The solution is to have at least one news source that has an alternate funding model. Unfortunately, NPR depends so much on commercial funding that they’re not independent from corporate sponsors, but the money they get from contributers and the small amount of money that they get from the government has the effect of splitting their loyalty. They are obliged to serve the public good, not just to support commercial interests.

People who call for NPR to alter their content so they can fund themselves completely miss the point. As Donald Kaul notes, NPR can survive without government funding, “It’s not that much money”. But public funding “enforces a responsibility that private institutions don’t share.”

Even those who feel NPR has a bias know that NPR’s news staff is among the best in the industry. NPR doesn’t just reprint news releases; they send reporters out in the field and get eyewitness accounts. They run polls, examine documents and conduct extensive interviews. They analyze data, and produce the most in-depth reports of any news organization, such as their explanation of Mideast protests. Their funding model, part donation, part commercial sponsorship, and part public support, allows them more flexibility than any other news agency to follow information and report as they see fit.

A lot of stories that you’ve heard were originally broken by NPR, and might not otherwise have been picked up by other news agencies. As Paul Glickman wrote in the OCRegister, “NPR broke the story that the Obama administration was grossly underestimating the amount of oil flowing into the Gulf each day.” In that same article, Mr. Glickman quotes Ted Koppell, “I have been an unabashed fan of NPR for many years and have stolen untold excellent ideas from its programming.” Only NPR was brave enough to break the story about Trent Lott’s support for Strom Thurman’s presidential campaign (during which Thurman said, “… there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigger race into our theaters …”), and NPR was the first news agency to explore illegal employment practices in the U.S. Justice Department. NPR just received awards for reporting on Pakistan, the injustices of the bail bond system, and an epidemic of rape on college campuses.

The politicians who call for defunding NPR are, for the most part, the same politicians who’s popularity depends on same fear and hatred that commercial news agencies depend on. They are the first to call for military action; the first to call for eliminating aid to the poor; the first to call for deregulation, etc. Sometimes those viewpoints are correct. Sometimes war is necessary. Sometimes aid programs cause more harm than good. Sometimes regulations are too restrictive. But military action might be ill advised, and mire us in long wars in nations that were never really much of a threat to begin with. Pulling aid to the poor is not only mean, it’s sometimes short-sighted and self-destructive. Enforcing regulations might prevent environmental or financial disasters. If we’re going to make intelligent decisions, we should hear different points of view.

You don’t have to like NPR to acknowledge the professionalism of NPR’s staff. You don’t have to agree with NPR’s choices to understand that without an alternatively funded source of news, many important stories will go unreported. We are smarter when we have more viewpoints to consider.

The bottom line is, politicians who call for defunding NPR are trying to make us more ignorant by eliminating one of the only news agencies not funded by the same sources that fund the others. We would all suffer from the loss.