A fact-checker joins the debate
By John Stodder
The toil fact-checking requires is paying off.
No doubt chastened by post-first-debate reports that they have been fibbing, President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney mostly told the truth during Tuesday’s debate, although the fact-checkers criticized them for leaving out the context that can turn a black or white truth gray.
In modern U.S. politics, however, arguing over context instead of truth is considered progress.
An example of the fact-checkers’ late-night scramble: PolitiFact, the renowned fact-checking service of the Tampa Bay Times, took issue with this Romney statement: “Oil production is down 14 percent this year on federal land, and gas production is down 9 percent. Why? Because the president cut in half the number of licenses and permits for drilling on federal lands and in federal waters.”
Writing for PolitiFact, Becky Bowers said, “The statistic, from fiscal year 2011, cherry-picks the most unflattering oil production numbers under the Obama administration and ignores the impact of events well outside the president’s control: changes in technology, decades of presidential policy, and most importantly, the Deepwater Horizon spill,” the BP oil platform explosion that took place in 2010 and led to a six-month moratorium on offshore oil leases. Romney’s claim was ruled “half true.”
But Bowers’ half-true meter also nailed Obama for his assertion that Romney was willing to “let Detroit go bankrupt.” She wrote: “Romney did use the words about letting Detroit go bankrupt in a CBS TV interview, but his meaning was more nuanced and he emphasized that he was not referring to liquidation.”
Politicians, even those whose words will be examined endlessly, seem compelled to talk about money without providing rudimentary context, even context that voters, without the help of fact-checkers, know is necessary.
Calvin Woodward of the Associated Press criticized this statement by Obama: “Let’s take the money that we’ve been spending on war over the last decade to rebuild America, roads, bridges, schools.”
Clearly, that cannot be a lie; but Woodward pointed out that “much of the money that has been paying for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was borrowed. In fact, the government borrows nearly 40 cents for every dollar it spends. Thus using money that had been earmarked for wars to build schools and infrastructure would involve even more borrowing, adding to the federal deficit.”
Few taxpayers needed Woodward to tell them that.
Romney tried a little less obvious fiscal ploy, saying, “A recent study has shown that people in the middle class will see $4,000 a year (in) higher taxes as a result of the spending and borrowing of this administration. I will not let that happen.”
Glenn Kessler, fact-checker for The Washington Post, said that claim was misleading because the study in question, a report by the American Enterprise Institute titled “A Simple Measure of the Distributional Burden of Debt Accumulation,” “shows how much lower taxes could be if the nation did not keep adding to the debt load; it does not show… that Obama has some sort of secret plan to raise taxes.”
One fact-checker did ferret out an actual false statement.
Brian Bennett of the Los Angeles Times observed that Romney got a fact wrong when he said automatic weapons are “already illegal.” In fact, Bennett said, they are legal, although “tightly regulated.”
“Purchasing one requires submitting fingerprints and photographs to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, going through an FBI criminal background check, and paying a $200 tax, among other requirements. Only automatic weapons manufactured and registered with the federal government before 1986 can be bought, owned and sold,” Bennett explained.
But if Romney had the only out-and-out misstatement, Obama took the Halloween prize for dressing up a fact in the most outlandish costume.
In responding to Romney’s criticism of Obama’s decision to block the Keystone XL pipeline that would move crude oil from Alberta to the Gulf Coast, Obama said, “We’ve built enough pipeline to wrap around the entire Earth once.”
Although technically true – from 2008 to 2010, total oil and gas pipelines in the United States increased by 27,899 miles, about 4,000 miles more than the circumference of the Earth – Kessler had a problem with the grandiosity of this claim. “The total number of pipelines in 2008 was about 2.38 million miles. So that means that Obama’s gain over two years amounts to a little over 1 percent of that total. That sounds much less impressive than ‘circle the Earth.’”
As context was mostly missing on Tuesday night’s stage, it is fitting that the evening’s biggest semantic skirmish ended in what the scorekeepers deemed a draw.
For a moment, fact-checking reached a new apogee when moderator Candy Crowley, a CNN journalist, actually stopped the debate to fact-check a dispute between the two candidates.
First, Obama said that the day after the deadly Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, “I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror.”
Immediately, Romney expressed doubt, saying, “I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror.”
Obama, as if ordering an underling to assist him, replied, “Get the transcript.” Obama was referring to a transcript of his own remarks on Sept. 12, which he apparently assumed Crowley had at her fingertips.
Crowley, surprisingly, decided not to let the dispute fade into “he-said-he-said” limbo. The Federal News Service transcript of the debate records what happened next:
CROWLEY: He did call it an act of terror. It did as well take — it did as well take two weeks or so for the whole idea of there being a riot out there about this tape to come out. You are correct about that.
Crowley said after the debate that she had consulted a transcript of what Obama said on Sept. 12 and noted that he had said, “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”
However, Crowley also told her CNN colleagues that Romney was “right in the main, he just used the wrong word.”
Kessler, of The Washington Post, referring to what he called his “definitive time line on the administration’s Libya statements,” said Obama on Sept. 12 “did not say ‘terrorism’ – and it took the administration days to concede that that it (was) an ‘act of terrorism’ that appears unrelated to initial reports of anger at a video that defamed the prophet Muhammad.”
Kessler’s view, that Romney was correct and that Crowley’s fact-checking was misapplied, was disputed by another high-profile fact-checker, the Associated Press’ Woodward. His opinion was that Obama’s words on Sept. 12 amounted to an acknowledgement by the president that the Libyan attack was a terrorist incident.
Obama did use the word “terror” the day after the Libyan attack. Enough pipeline was built in the U.S. during the Obama administration to circle the globe. On a strictly factual level, there is no arguing with either assertion.
But context is what matters. Despite what Obama said on Sept. 12, the fact is, his administration pushed a storyline about the Libyan attack that downplayed the connection to organized terrorism. And the combined length of the pipelines built during Obama’s first term no doubt sounds impressive to the tens millions of Americans who don’t study the pipeline industry.
Sometimes, the best way to mislead is to tell the truth and hope the context remains as buried as many of those millions of miles of pipe.
John Stodder is the roving Web editor for The Dolan Co.