Thursday, June 30, 2011

Factual or flaky? No apologies for asking politicians -- June 30, 2011


Chris Wallace’s impertinent question to Michele Bachmann – “Are you a flake?” – landed him in hot water. He apologized both to viewers and to the Republican presidential candidate.

So, OK, let’s stipulate that the question was poorly worded. But the underlying point is worth pursuing.

We are entitled, the saying goes, to our own opinions but not to our own facts. But politicians -- from the president down – have mastered the art of blurring spin and fact. This isn’t new, of course, but the increasingly emotional tenor of our so-called policy debates makes it harder than ever to know straight stuff from fluff.

Fortunately, online tools make it easier to mine for truth. More on that in a minute.

Bachmann, a U.S. representative from Minnesota, is known for shooting from the lip. Wallace, host of “Fox News Sunday,” said, “The rap on you here in Washington is that you have a history of questionable statements, some would say gaffes, ranging from talking about anti-American members of Congress on this show – (to) a couple of months ago, when you suggested that NATO airstrikes had killed up to 30,000 civilians.”

Then he asked the flake question. Bachmann’s parry was quick and spirited.

“Well, I think that would be insulting to say something like that, because I'm a serious person,” she declared.

People can argue whether Wallace was sexist, trying to be provocative for ratings’ sake or had some high-minded journalistic motivation. It doesn’t help his credibility that his network continues to pay Sarah Palin, a potential GOP presidential contender, as a commentator.

At the same time, Bachmann’s full-throated Obama bashing and conservatism make her a tea party favorite. As a presidential candidate, she’s facing scrutiny as never before – from her claim that she and her husband raised 23 foster children -- some of the kids reportedly stayed with them only briefly – to her unusual takes on public policy and history.

Fact-checkers at the Pulitzer Prize-winning Web site have analyzed 26 statements by Bachmann since 2009. These are more substantive remarks than whether she said John Quincy Adams for John Adams or got wrong John Wayne’s birthplace. PolitiFact found only one statement of the 26 to be True. One was Mostly True, two Half True, five Barely True, 10 False and seven such whoppers they earned the Pants on Fire designation.

And yet, Bachmann says she’s gaining traction nationally because voters trust her. This says a lot about how angry and disaffected the electorate is.

“They feel like they can trust me because I was very strong when I was in Congress and now the message is, I’m taking that same voice – I’m not changing it – I’m taking it to the White House,” she told the Washington Post this week. “I say what I mean and I mean what I say.”

Well, not exactly.

On CBS’ “Face the Nation” last Sunday, the ever-professional Bob Schieffer also tried to get Bachmann to explain some of her kookier statements. In 2008, she said she was very concerned that Barack Obama may have “anti-America views.”

Is Obama unpatriotic? Schieffer asked. Not at all, Bachmann said. She deflected his other attempts to draw her out. Then he asked if she wished she’d put it differently about Obama.

“Oh, sure there’s a lot of things I wish I would have said differently, of course,” Bachmann said. “But I think the most important thing right now is that we keep the main thing the main thing. And that is, we’ve got to turn the country around because it’s really about the American people. It’s not about us in Washington.”

Nice try, but elections are definitely about politicians. Elections are about choosing who to believe. That’s where robust, nonpartisan fact-checking sites are helpful. PolitiFact, and the Washington Post’s The Fact Checker blog also put Democratic leaders, including President Obama, to the factual test.

Obama’s news conference this week was fact-checked by The Fact Checker’s Glenn Kessler. He gave Obama two Pinocchios (of a possible four) for statements with significant exaggerations that were misleading.

In one case, Obama repeatedly mentioned closing the tax loophole for corporate jets as a fiscally responsible move. He sometimes pitted the jets against student loans and food safety.

A “potent image,” Kessler said, but in light of the $4 trillion goal, “essentially meaningless.” He noted that the item is so small the White House wouldn’t even provide a savings estimate.

“The president should be careful about veering into Michele Bachmann-like hyperbole,” Kessler wrote.

Whoa. That’s a low bar. Citizens should expect more.

© 2011 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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