Fact Checked to Death?

A friend sent me a New Yorker cartoon by David Sipress which expressed in that magazine’s typically wry manner a frequent thought I have .   In  the cartoon a man and woman are walking down a street and the caption has her saying to him:    “My desire to be well informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane.”

You may have similar thoughts when thinking about our politics, economy and media.   Recently, I have dwelt on the issue of “post-truth politics” (*1)  because our politics are so polluted with misinformation that it is hard to find our bearings in relation to truth.    The creation of a cottage industry of fact checkers helps, but who besides an old bachelor with a limited social life or a younger, obsessive policy wonk is willing to do that?     Most people have lives.

English: icon for smartphone (smart phone) rel...

icon for smartphone (smart phone) related content (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the bright side, you may have heard there is a new smart phone ap that reveals the sponsors of Super PAC ads and their orientation, but at this stage it still depends on also checking with the fact checkers, which puts you smart-phoners back into my old boat.  However, in four years (Two?  Next month?), I bet they have the truth ap down, so one gets an instant truth reading and people like me won’t feel a need to synthesize fact checkers as I did in my previous post.  The only down side I see is that it will compel me to buy a smart phone.

But all of that does not quite get at a lingering anxiety that I have felt while writing most of what I have written lately.   When I dwell on the nuances of truth, I may seem to be missing the big picture, which is not who will be elected, but what will the retained or new President and another likely gridlocked Congress be able to accomplish once they are elected.  I just want you to know that I’m not missing the main point, I’m just not discussing it right now because there is no rush.  Nothing will be done about the “big picture” until this election is over.

Now that the NFL is back in season, I sometimes watch their pundits analyze likely outcomes and feel it no different then watching the political pundits analyze the win potential of the candidates.   There is a difference, however.  In football they are analyzing the real game about to be played.  In politics they are analyzing the potential of candidates to make the team that will play the real game  after Nov 6.   Another difference is it will take longer for us to see whether we picked a losing team or not.

When the real political game begins, the first question will be:  How are we going to navigate through what is often called the “fiscal cliff” which in line with my Titanic theme I envision as a field of  icebergs.    Many economists believe that poor navigation could send our economy in reverse early next year, something I did not see brought up at either convention.   (It’s complicated and doesn’t make for a simple sound bite likely to prompt cheers).

If you don’t know about the fiscal cliff…..you might as well remain blissfully unawares for another football weekend or two.   I’ll get to it soon enough in a post, but until then you might as well stay unawares, especially since our politicians won’t get around to it until some time after Nov 6.

Today I just wanted to make you aware that assessing who is lying more about whom is actually not my central interest, despite being closely tied.  My primary interest lies  in how the new captain and crew will direct our ship of state.  Will we come to feel more or less like passengers on our own Titanic?  I particularly wanted to make one reader/friend aware of this, as he may have gotten impatient with  my trying to parse the truthfulness of Bill Clinton’s speech in my previous post.

As he wrote to me privately:

“Exactly NOBODY addresses the problems.  They all throw out meaningless phrases – “Family values”, “Return the Country to Prosperity”, “Create jobs for everyone”, “live the American Dream”.  They never provide specific programs or how programs are to be funded.  Has anybody once said we have to fix SS and them make specific proposals to achieve that goal.

None of them have any integrity or courage to tell the voters that they can’t have everything, they have to pay more in taxes, and entitlements will be cut.

That is why I have not watched one single minute of either convention.  It is all how to manipulate voters to vote for someone and nothing else.”

I hear you brother.   I hear you….

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(*1)  In an earlier post I suggested that Paul Krugman may have come up with the term “post-truth politics” which is now commonly used.  David Roberts, who writes a blog on “energy, politics and more” claims credit for coining the term and then Krugman popularizing it in this piece.

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What’s Good for the Goose…..

I ended my previous post promising to “lighten up” in this post in response to a reader’s suggestion I do so, but lighter will have to wait until later as it now seems appropriate to fact check the Bill Clinton speech, since I referred to the fact checked criticisms of Paul Ryan’s address at the other convention in a previous post.  As we used to say in what a friend’s daughter calls “olden times”, what’s “good for the goose is good for the gander.”

Bill Clinton and Abel Herrero

Bill Clinton  (Photo credit: qnr)

Especially because this gander, slick Willie, got mostly rave reviews for his persuasive rebuttal of  most things Republican a couple of nights ago.  Well, Rush Limbaugh said the speech was boring, what little he watched, and that it wouldn’t help Obama at all.  So, there is one vote against (not to mention hours of talk show fodder as Rushbo reveals why he alone sees what others do not).

A persuasive speech, but how much was true?  It is too much to cover fully, but having read a handful of fact checkers, I’ll try to give an integrated gist.   Glenn Kessler, fact checker at the Washington Post, gave what he called “an initial take”, which was a quick survey of what he found faulty or misleading.  The Democrat/Obama plan to cut $4 trillion in the budget over a decade, Kessler described as  a “major budget gimmick”  and he called the 4.5 million private sector jobs produced during the last 29 months of Obama’s administration a “cherry picked” figure.   He had several other criticisms, including one mentioned below, not so much of Clinton but of what others said at the convention, too much to go over here.

In concentrating only on the flaws in the speech Kessler  gives no sense of much that was true, more or less.   My guess is after carving up Paul Ryan he didn’t want to be seen as soft on Bill Clinton.

One of  Kessler’s major criticisms – crediting the ACA with slowing down the growth rate of health care costs –  seems most shared by other checkers.  As Factcheck.org wrote:  “The worst we could fault him (Clinton) for was a suggestion that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act was responsible for bringing down the rate of increase in health care spending, when the fact is that the law’s main provisions have yet to take effect.“  The causes of this decrease are somewhat debatable, but there seems general agreement not to credit the ACA for it.

However, it is noteworthy  that Factcheck.org viewed that as the worst exaggeration of the speech, calling “other exaggerations and missteps …. minor by comparison.”  In fact, they said despite running down Clinton’s many statistics and factual claims, they found  little to write about.

CBS checked out seven claims made by Bill Clinton and found most of them more or less correct, while giving the Obama administration more credit than  Kessler does in creating that $4.5 million jobs.

From reading these three sources (and a couple others as well), my impression is that, considering all the facts and figures Clinton mentioned over the course of his speech, he remained mostly in the ballpark of truth, implying some things that may not be true and are unlikely, but in this age of misinformation not bad at all.  Especially given all that he talked about.

That’s my sense of it all, and I am happy to report that  Melanie Mason of the LA Times seems to agree with me.   She did her own survey of the fact checkers and concluded:  “Bill Clinton courts fact-checkers, earns mostly praise.”  Check it out as she offers additional insights.

Obviously, I think highly of Ms. Mason’s ability to analyze and synthesize.  Next time I want to check something out, I’ll Google to see if she already has.   It could save me a lot of time and energy.

Say Anything……. And if it Works Say It Again

I could comment on a number of incidents and events at the just finished Republican Convention, but I don’t think most of it holds much significance in the grand scheme of things election-wise,  If I’m wrong I’ll get back to it later.  However, I do want to say something about the Paul Ryan speech Wednesday evening and the media reaction because it relates to the central issue this blog is concerned with which, in case I’ve confused you, I’ll reiterate:   “….this blog is about becoming an informed citizen in the age of misinformation (as stated in my HEY! page above).

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 10, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We’ll get to Ryan vs. the media in a moment, but  in terms of “post truth politics” (*1) more significant than Ryan’s speech was what Romney pollster Neil Newhouse said at an ABC News/Yahoo panel in Tampa on Tuesday. His comments regarded an ad accusing Obama of cutting the work requirement in welfare.   This attack ad was harshly criticized by several media fact checkers, but that didn’t phase Newhouse.  According to the Huffington Post he said  ” that the campaign doesn’t care its ad attacking Obama’s waiver policy on welfare has been labeled false by several media outlets.”

As Newhouse elaborated:  “We stand behind those ads and behind the facts in those ads…. And you know what? What these fact-checkers — fact-checkers come to this with, you know, their own sets of, you know, thoughts and — and beliefs. And you know what? We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”

Of course, what he’s saying is the fact checkers are all too liberal to be believed- i.e. the enemy – so if we Republicans think some talking point is true, we’ll go with it (or more cynically, if we think we can convince others it’s true, we’ll keep going with it).  In other words, a research tradition “sifting and winnowing” in search of truth going back centuries was just cut off at the knees when it comes to politics.   In terms of the notion of post-truth politics, Newhouse has crossed the Rubicon into no-truth politics.

In other words, we have entered the wild, wild west of political knowledge and thought.  There are no sheriffs or judges we can rely on to referee accusations, no honest brokers, arbiters with sufficient impartiality to make a judgement worth listening to.  All of that is implied in what Newhouse said.   One thing he neglected to say is that the Republicans themselves have referred to those same fact checkers when it has suited their purposes, in the primaries and in the general election.

Now to Paul Ryan’s  speech Wednesday evening that got media fact checkers buzzing around like hornets trying to sting him with accusations of falsehoods.  It is just a guess, but perhaps the checkers were even more vigilent than usual after Newhouse called them irrelevant the day before.   In a Huff-Po piece Michael Calderone captures the gist of this fight nicely, including several links for those who want to delve deeper into yet another issue that could require a book to really sort out.  For the truly obsessive, you will find additional sources by Googling:  Fact checking Paul Ryan’s speech.

Here’s a couple of things to keep in mind if you wish to explore the issue further.   Most of the media opinion sides with the idea that Ryan took liberties with facts and made misleading statements in his speech.  The handful defending his speech are on the political right and their defenses tend to be narrow ones, meaning they defend him from charges he “lied” at various times.   I would say they are often right literally, but wrong figuratively.   He may not have lied strictly speaking as often charged, but he was often misleading enough to have the same impact.

Ah, but I’m spending too much time parsing this issue of truth when the real issue between now and Nov 6  is whether either side can sway enough voters to dislike or fear the  other candidate more than their own.

So, truth be damned!   The operative rule is:   Say anything………………………And if it works say it again.

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(*1)  Maybe Paul Krugman came up with “post truth politics” as he used the term in an editorial last December.  There he attacked the Republicans for their distortions, but I would say the Democrats have come to match them on occasion since then.   And they still have time to catch up.