Tag Archives: fact checking; Michelle Obama

The DNC, True Lies And The Twitterverse

My unscientific sampling of the twitterverse tweets during the Democratic National Convention’s first two nights of speechifying revealed what seemed like a distinctly lower frequency of instant fact-correcting than what I observed during the Republican convention.  That may be because Democrats are an inherently more truthful group of speakers than are Republicans – or it may indicate that my twitterverse feed is dominated by left-leaning pundits.  I’ll let you decide.

Despite the relative lack of prodding from the twits, however, the main stream media fact-checkers such as Factcheck.org  and Politifact.com gamely persisted in informing us about what the former labeled “Democratic Disinformation from Charlotte.”  At the top of their list of misinformation? The claim during the first night by keynote speaker San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and other speakers that Romney would “raise taxes on the middle class”, followed close behind by a misleading claim of job growth under Obama.  (The list of false assertions is actually longer, but these two will suffice to make my point.)  Factcheck is correct that Romney has made it clear that, contrary to the assertions by the Democratic convention speakers, he will not raise taxes on the middle class.  However, as Greg Sargent points out, Romney has promised across-the-board tax cuts in his budget plan while insisting it will be revenue neutral (that  is, it will not increase the deficit).  It is possible, of course, that he could fulfill both promises, but to do so would probably require an unlikely combination of rapid economic growth and a significant alteration to the tax code that eliminates or changes many current exemptions, deductions and loopholes.  The problem for fact-checkers is that Mitt has yet to specify what those changes to the tax code might be. A study by the independent Tax Policy Center that tried to reconcile the competing claims in the Romney budget plan, while stopping short of endorsing the Democrats’ charge that Romney must raise taxes on the middle class, concluded that the only way for Romney’s budget to include tax cuts for all and not add to the deficit is by eliminating current tax exemptions for the middle class.  That sounds suspiciously like a version of a tax hike.

So, did the Democrats really misstate the facts?  Or did they highlight inconsistencies in Romney’s budget proposal? Or both?

A similar argument can be made regarding the Obama job growth claims. Castro, the keynote speaker on the first night, asserted that since Obama took office, “we’ve seen 4.5 million new jobs.”  That claim, however, uses February 2010 as the starting point – “the low point for private sector jobs” – rather than the date at which Obama took office.  Moreover, as Factcheck.org points out, “if you include all jobs — including the hard-hit government job sector  — there remains a net decrease of 316,000 jobs since the start of Obama’s presidency. Total employment has gained about 4 million since February 2010, not 4.5 million. It’s all in how you slice the data.”

Not surprisingly, Republicans and Democrats slice that data differently. Like Paul Ryan, Castro might not have been “lying”, but clearly he was shading the facts in a way to make Obama’s job creation record look better.  But isn’t that the point of a convention speech?  In defense of Castro’s spin, the economy is creating jobs and has been for many months (albeit more slowly than one might like.)  And one might argue that Obama’s policies prevented an even worse job loss – most economists argue that without the stimulus bill the number of jobs lost would be even greater.  Shouldn’t Obama get some credit for this? Isn’t that the point Castro was trying to make?

Look, I have nothing against the efforts by independent factcheckers at sites like this to police politicians’ statements in order to catch the most egregious errors.  But as I hope I’ve demonstrated in these last few posts, once the factcheckers move beyond simple factchecking and attempt to compensate for partisan-induced “misleading statements”, they enter a deep thicket of half-truths, spin, and rhetorical excess that makes it almost impossible to locate the “truth.”   Moreover, we are naive if we think the partisan bloggers living in the twitterverse will, through the wonders of “crowd sourcing”, hold politicians’ feet to the fire and elevate the accuracy of political discourse.  Instead, the evidence so far suggests that the twits in the twitterverse are largely reinforcing the partisan spin that characterizes political debate today.  They are awfully quick to point out the other sides’ misleading statements, but perhaps a bit slower to hold their own side accountable. It is a reminder of the old adage that there are three sides to every story: yours, mine and the truth.

A final thought: if Factcheck and Politifact really want a challenge, I dare them to enter the twitterverse and try to hold participants there to some standard of “truth” in real time!  As the journalist Herbert Agar reminds us, “The truth that makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear.” The denizens of the twitterverse, it turns out, are particularly hard of hearing.

P.S. Sorry about the last-minute decision to live blog last night, but Clinton is such as charismatic figure that I fell under his spell and couldn’t help myself.   I realize some of you wanted a deeper analysis of the particulars of his speech, but I was trying to view it not as a partisan supporter, but as an undecided voter who might be tuning into the convention for the first time.  First impressions can matter. (Also, I was trying to put together a course syllabus while tweeting and listening to the Big Dog Bark.  There’s a reason I caution my students not to multitask!)  I’ll say more about Clinton’s speech in a later post.

Lies, Damn Lies and Nail Polish

In what is likely the peak for his post-convention polling bump, Mitt Romney yesterday edged ahead of Barack Obama in the composite polling at the Pollster.com website by a scant half a percentage point, at 46.6% to 46.1%.  This is the first time Romney has led in Pollster’s aggregate poll against Obama dating back to June 2011 and the start of the election cycle.  While perhaps symbolically important to some, however, Romney’s “lead” does not represent much if any real change in the election polling – the race continues to be close to a dead heat.  It is also further evidence that Romney received a smaller than historically average polling bump from the Republican Convention.  The RealClearPolitics composite poll, where Obama’s “lead” has shrunk to .1%, tells a similar story.

Romney’s Pollster.com “lead” may prove short lived, however, as President Obama is likely to get his own small bump from the Democratic Convention, which began yesterday with a night of speechifying headlined by Michelle Obama.  For what it’s worth, I thought the First Lady gave a very impressive performance.  Most of today’s punditry, however, focused more on her dress and her nail polish.  These are, evidently, issues of national importance.

Tonight we get to see the Big Dog himself, as former President Bill Clinton takes the stage.  I don’t expect him to be given a very long leash by the Obama team – they will want to make sure he sticks to the convention schedule (always a worry with Bill), and doesn’t talk to any chairs.  There has to be some trepidation among the Obama people that Bill is going to steal some of the convention thunder.  It is a sign of just how close this race is that despite these worries, Team Obama is asking Clinton to help out.  Frankly, they need him, and his ability to rally working class Democrats back into the fold.

One thing I am interested in seeing is how carefully his, and other convention speeches, are “fact-checked” by the denizens of the twitterverse and national media.  It is clear to me that the partisan pundits are now using twitter to conduct an initial fact-check of speeches in real time.  In so doing, they are establishing a first-take news narrative that the mainstream media, including the various fact-checking sites, feels obliged to respond to. Several of you, in your comments to a previous blog, argued that this instant “crowd sourcing” is a useful check on politicians’ tendency to stretch the truth both by embellishing their own record and distorting their opponents’.  This is a point that bloggers are making as well.

I confess that I remain skeptical.  As I noted in my discussion of the media reaction to the Ryan speech, it would be one thing if the ‘fact checkers” limited themselves to catching obvious errors of fact.  But in Ryan’s case they went beyond that to correct “misimpressions” created by his speech.  This is a worrisome trend, I think, because it presumes there is a “truth” out there that the often partisan fact-checkers can unambiguously identify.   So, many of my colleagues were up in arms when Ryan, in his convention speech, criticized the President for not actively supporting the recommendations of the Bowles-Simpson bipartisan deficit reduction commission.   As they correctly pointed out, Ryan was a member of that commission, and he voted along with the other Republican members against its recommendations.   My fact-checking colleagues think Ryan should have pointed this out in his speech.  But while what Ryan said may have been hypocritical and self-serving, it wasn’t factually wrong.  “Fine,” you respond, “but it is important that we identify self-serving and hypocritical statements.”  It seems to me, however, that fact-checkers are stepping onto a slippery slope when they go from identifying clear falsehoods to taking on this additional interpretive task.  Last night Ted Strickland gave a rousing speech defending Obama’s decision to bail out the auto companies. He also noted that “Mitt Romney proudly wrote an op-ed entitled, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’  If he had had his way, devastation would have cascaded from Michigan to Ohio and across the nation. Mitt Romney never saw the point of building something when he could profit from tearing it down. “  It is true that Romney wrote an editorial opposing the auto bailout.  But I suspect he would argue it is misleading to claim that “if he had had his way”, economic calamity would have resulted.  Should someone correct the misleading impression created by Strickland’s assertion?   Or should we chalk it up to the usual rhetorical excesses of convention speeches?

Or, consider the question “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?”  I can think of multiple, factually correct but quite different answers to that question.  For instance, do you think – as many economists assert – that the Obama-backed stimulus bill averted a worse economic calamity?  If I’m Obama, I’m going to argue yes.   But is that the “truth” – or a self-serving claim?  Or both?  I don’t see how the fact-checkers can expect to rule on this one.

My point is that I’m not sure I want a bevy of partisan-motivated tweeters telling me what is the “correct” answer to this, or other,  political questions.  But that’s exactly what we invite when we fall prey to the notion that there is an undeniable ‘truth” out there, and that it is the fact-checkers job to tell us what it is.  Perhaps the one undeniable fact is that when it comes to political claims, one person’s “truth” is often another’s self-serving assertion.

By the way, that was a Tracy Reese dress the First Lady wore last night, and it worked perfectly with her bluish-grey nail polish.   And that’s a fact.