By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions


Fact-checking the fact-checkers on an “act of terror”

In claiming that President Obama was not fully truthful last night regarding when he said he labeled the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, an “act of terror,” the fact-checkers are adopting as their own the manner in which Gov. Mitt Romney wants to frame it. The attack claimed several American lives, including that of Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

When the exchange took place, Romney appeared to be wildly, extravagantly wrong in claiming it took Obama two weeks to utter those words. He never fully regained his composure after moderator Candy Crowley read a transcript in which Obama, in a Rose Garden address the day after the attack, spoke of it in the context of “acts of terror.”

And it turns out that Obama said it again two days later: “I want people around the world to hear me: To all those who would do us harm, no act of terror will go unpunished.”

Hard to be much clearer than that. Yet look at how some of the leading fact-checkers handled it.

PolitiFact, on Obama’s insistence that he labeled it an “act of terror” right from the beginning: “Obama described it in those terms the day after the attack. But in the days that followed, neither he nor all the members of his administration spoke consistently on the subject. There were many suggestions that the attack was part of demonstrations over an American-made video that disparaged Islam. We rate the statement Half True.”, on Romney’s claim that it took Obama withheld the terrorism label for two weeks: “Romney isn’t entirely wrong. Romney claimed Obama refused for two weeks after the Benghazi attack to call it a terrorist attack and, instead, blamed it on a spontaneous demonstration in response to an anti-Muslim video that earlier that day triggered a violent protest in Egypt.”

The Washington Post: “Romney’s broader point is accurate — that it took the administration days to concede that the assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was an ‘act of terrorism’ that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad. (The reporting is contradictory on whether there was indeed a demonstration outside the mission.) By our count, it took eight days for an administration official to concede that the deaths in Libya were the result of a ‘terrorist attack.'”

It’s pretty easy to see what’s going on here. Romney has attempted to frame the issue as though any suggestions from the White House that the attack may have had something to do with the inflammatory video “Innocence of the Muslims” are incompatible with Obama’s statements that the attack was an “act of terror.”

But why should that be so? Why are they mutually exclusive? Obama said from the start that the attack was an “act of terror,” he repeated it and he hasn’t wavered on it. The administration has wavered on what role the video might have played. It’s worth noting that the New York Times, which had people on the ground in Benghazi, stands by its reporting that the anger stirred up by the video actually did play into the attack. The terrorist attack, if you will.

The administration’s response to the Benghazi attack has not been a shining moment, and Romney had plenty to work with. So it was obviously a huge mistake on Romney’s part for him instead to dwell on whether and when Obama labeled it an “act of terror” rather than focusing on the reasons for the security breakdown and shifting explanations for what went wrong.

But thanks to the fact-checkers’ genetic disposition to throw a bone to each side regardless of the truth, Romney’s mistake looks less damaging today than it did last night.

Photo (cc) by Cain and Todd Benson and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Falsehoods too blatant for the media to ignore

Paul Ryan in 2011

When you claim that President Obama was responsible for the closing of an auto plant that actually shut down before President Bush left office, people are going to notice. The question is whether anyone will care.

Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan delivered a speech Wednesday night that was unusual for its deliberate mendacity, even by the rough-and-tumble standards of political combat. Right after he finished, the usually timid souls of CNN praised his address for its tone and approach, but volunteered that the fact-checkers would surely have something to say.

Indeed., nonpartisan and often cautious to a fault, reports that Ryan’s speech “contained several false claims and misleading statements” — the auto-plant closing as well as the Surety Bond cost, of course, but also:

  • Criticizing Obama’s $716 billion reduction in the future growth of Medicare when Ryan himself, before joining the Romney ticket, had embraced those same cuts.
  • Taking Obama to task for the ratcheting down of the federal government’s credit rating even though Standard & Poors specifically blamed congressional gridlock.
  • Blaming Obama for the failure of the Simpson-Bowles deficit commission’s recommendations without mentioning that he himself had a key role in ensuring they would fail.
  • Falsely claiming that none of the more than $800 billion in stimulus money went to American workers.

FactCheck competitor PolitiFact rated Ryan’s auto-plant whopper as “false” and his Medicare claim as “mostly false.”

New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen recently wrote a provocative blog post on the media’s encouragingly aggressive response to a much bigger lie being perpetrated by the Romney-Ryan team — that Obama had loosened the work requirements for welfare recipients.

The problem is that though the media have deviated from their usual he-said/he-said/you-decide formula in frankly labeling the welfare claim a falsehood, the Republicans keep using it on the theory that it’s working. And there’s little evidence that the media’s diligence will make any difference with the public, which is likely to chalk it up to politics as usual.

As for the notion that “both sides do it,” well, they do and they don’t. I think Rosen gets it exactly right:

If you’re wondering: do I recognize that the Obama forces have also used deceptive, depraved and untrue claims? Yes. I do. These stand out: Romney didn’t say he likes firing people in the way some Democrats and TV personalities have suggested, so that counts as a kind of lie. The Priorities USA ad that suggested (without quite saying it) that Bain Capital was somehow responsible for the death of a steelworker’s wife: that goes in the depraved category. When the White House claimed it knew nothing about the case that was clearly untrue — pathetic, really. The refusal to condemn the ad was a black mark, as well. Obama ads calling Romney “outsourcer in chief” were over the top and relied on false or overblown claims.

In my view these are serious transgressions. And in my view they do not compare to the use of falsehood and deceptive claims in the Romney 2012 campaign. Nor is there anything coming from the Obama machine that is like the open defiance of fact-checking we have seen from Romney and his team.

Romney delivers his acceptance speech tonight. It will be interesting to see whether he takes the high road, content to let his running mate do the dirty work — or if he will dive into the muck himself.

Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore and republished under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Pro-Obama cancer ad may be sleazy, but it’s not “false”

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The Paul Ryan announcement has made Joe Soptic seem like yesterday’s news. But before we let go, I want to take a look at a truly miserable job of fact-checking done by on the pro-Obama ad in which Soptic appears to blame his wife’s death from cancer on Mitt Romney.

My purpose is not to defend the ad, produced by Priorities USA, a Super PAC aligned with President Obama. I agree with just about everyone that it’s over the top, though I take it as kind of a warning shot for Romney to ease up on his own false claims (see this and this for recent examples).

Last December, I wrote a piece for the Huffington Post on the downside of the explosion in fact-checking. FactCheck’s attempt to knock down the Soptic ad is a good example of what I found troubling about the phenomenon. I would have no problem with calling it a toxic bit of sleaze, because it is. But false? Not by any standards I’m aware of. Essentially, the ad omits the sort of factual statements that could be subjected to a binary true/false test.

The FactCheck fact-check, by Robert Farley (click here and scroll down for bio), is rife with distortions. Let me take a few.

First, and most important, FactCheck is sticking with its insistence that Romney had nothing to do with Bain Capital in February 2002, when Bain pulled the plug on the steel mill where Soptic worked. (The back story on the plant closing, reported by Reuters last January, is well worth reading.) “As we’ve reported before, when the plant closed Romney was running the 2002 Winter Olympics,” Farley instructs us.

But as the Boston Globe and others have reported, Romney — who says he left Bain in 1999 — was chief executive of the company until well into 2002. Whether he was hands-on or not, he was in charge and he benefited financially from the decision that left Soptic unemployed.

The idea that Romney shouldn’t be held accountable because he was running the Olympics is mystifying. As someone else said (I wish I had the link), imagine that Obama owned an apartment building in Chicago, and that rats and cockroaches were discovered there. Do you think anyone would be inclined to let him off the hook because he was an absentee landlord and had hired a manager to look after the property?

FactCheck’s Farley also finds the ad “misleading” because Ranae Soptic “didn’t lose coverage when the plant closed. Mr. Soptic told CNN that she lost her own employer-sponsored coverage a year or two later. She had no coverage after that.”

Seriously? This isn’t hard, folks. If Joe Soptic hadn’t lost his health insurance after Bain shut down the plant where he worked, his wife could have slid over onto his coverage after she lost hers — assuming she wouldn’t have been rejected for having a pre-existing condition. I have absolutely no idea what point Farley even thinks he’s making.

Finally, Farley wants us to know that the ad is “misleading” because Mrs. Soptic “died in 2006 — five years after the plant closed.” Good Lord. I’m not even going to attempt to comment on that except to point out that uninsured people tend to let things go.

Interestingly enough, the ad has never even appeared on television as an ad, but it’s been shown numerous times for free so critics could denounce it. That’s cost-effective advertising.

Voters should feel free to judge the candidates on the tenor of their campaigns. Fact-checking has its purposes. But it has real limits as well.

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