Lies, Liars and America, Part 1


The late Robert Heinlein, writing in Time Enough for Love, said that there were three kinds of lies: (1) the simple statement of an untruth, by far the most common lie; (2) telling part of the truth and stopping, creating a lie by omission, and (3) the most difficult and least common, telling the truth but doing so unconvincingly so that people think you are lying. Heinlein also lamented the increase in clumsy, stupid lies.

It’s against that background that WC wants to visit the role of truth and the lost art of lying in current politics. This will be a series of blog posts. The specific triggers for this series are

  1. Mark Hemingway’s article in The Weekly Standard in which he calls fact-checking – discovering lies – “the liberal media’s latest attempt to control the discourse.”
  2. WC recently completed reading James Stewart’s excellent Tangled Webs: How False Statements Are Undermining America: From Martha Stewart to Bernie Madoff.
  3. WC probably made a mistake and listened to one of the recent Republican presidential wannabe “debates,” where apparently the statements of the debaters are “not intended to be factual.”

WC has some pretty strong feelings about these three aspects of lying. This first post examines Mark Hemingway’s attempt to characterize fact-checking as “an attempt to control the discourse.”

Mark Hemingway: Speaking of Attempts to Control the Discourse

Mark Hemingway attempts to trash fact-checking as “the liberal media’s latest attempt to control the discourse.” WC supposes that an effort to insist upon truth, accuracy and historicity might be seen in some circles as “controlling the discourse.” But those aren’t circles in which WC thinks American democracy can operate. The essence of Hemingway’s extended whinge is that sometimes the fact checkers – gasp – get it wrong. Assuming that’s true, Hemingway has to reach for a pitiful few examples in the face of the countless instances where the fact checkers got it exactly right.

Hemingway saves most of his spleen for the Pulitzer Prize winning Politifact and the Associated Press. He struggles to find a few examples where, in matters of opinion, the results weren’t crystal clear. He ignores whoppers like:

  • Michelle Bachman’s claim that vaccination for HPV can cause mental retardation.
  • Rick Perry’s claim that kids can’t celebrate Christmas or pray in school.
  • Newt Gingrich’s claim that in New York City, “an entry level janitor gets paid twice as much as an entry level teacher.”
  • Newt Gingrich’s claim that the congressional ethics investigation against him was conducted by “a very partisan political committee” in a way that “related more to the politics of the Democratic Party than to ethics.”
  • Senator John Kyl’s claim that abortions are 90% of what Planned Parenthood does.

WC isn’t defending Politifact; it doesn’t need his defense. And there’s, you know, the Pulitzer. But to troll through the hundreds of fact checks to find two or three arguable calls, while ignoring the shocking fabrications like those bulleted above doesn’t prove anything to anyone sensible.

Hemingway also claims that Politifact has an anti-Republican bias, citing to a Minnesota study:

While there’s been little examination of the broader phenomenon of media fact checking, the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs recently took a close look at PolitiFact. Here’s what they found:

A Smart Politics content analysis of more than 500 PolitiFact stories from January 2010 through January 2011 finds that current and former Republican officeholders have been assigned substantially harsher grades by the news organization than their Democratic counterparts. In total, 74 of the 98 statements by political figures judged “false” or “pants on fire” over the last 13 months were given to Republicans, or 76 percent, compared to just 22 statements for Democrats (22 percent).

You can believe that Republicans lie more than three times as often as Democrats. Or you can believe that, at a minimum, PolitiFact is engaging in a great deal of selection bias, to say nothing of pushing tendentious arguments of its own.

Are we talking about teabagger claims here? The three to one ratio sounds about right to WC. Maybe a little low. Or, perhaps, if we look at more recent data, Mr. Hemingway is overlooking that the Republican presidential candidates are having debates three times a week all winter, and trip over themselves in their grotesque claims. if you are running for president, and trying to attract attention, you are going to get attention. If you look at Politifacts finalists for 2011 Lie of the Year, it turns out to be pretty balanced.

WC applauds fact checking by anyone willing to work hard enough to do it. A whiff of fresh air in the thick, stinking haze of distortion that’s todays political environment seems worthwhile.

Until Mark Hemingway can come up with something better than the truth, well, WC thinks his pants are on fire.Truth-O-Meter Pants on Fire

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3 thoughts on “Lies, Liars and America, Part 1

  1. WC- This is one of your best posts, if not the best, on so many levels I have to go away and think about all the whys and whats and all.
    Thank you

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