Fact-Checking the Campaigns
Wednesday, December 19, 2007; 12:00 PM
Michael Dobbs, author of washingtonpost.com's The Fact-Checker blog, was online Wednesday, Dec. 19 at noon ET to answer readers questions about the front-runners' most-revealing fibs and his analyses of the candidates' statements, and to take suggestions on what he should look into next.
The transcript follows.
Michael Dobbs: Let's get started. The Fact-Checker column has been running for about three months now. I am eager to get your feedback and answer your questions.
Pittsburgh: Hello, and thanks for taking questions. What is your sense of which of the major candidate's campaigns have been most in need of fact-checking (i.e., which campaigns have been most dishonest)? Conversely, which have been most honest?
Michael Dobbs: In the past three months, I have fact-checked all the major candidates running for president, some several times over. All of them have made mistakes of one kind or another. Some make more mistakes, partly because they have a more spontaneous speaking style. Rudy Giuliani is an obvious example. He makes more mistakes than, say, Fred Thompson, but that is partly because he says many more things that are fact-checkable than Thompson. I have used the term "fact-free" to describe some of Thompson's speeches.
Alexandria, Va.: How a about awarding a platypus for a "true but false" statement? It's a highly ambiguous critter.
Michael Dobbs: You are referring to my post today obviously. I will have to look up platypus in the dictionary...
Richmond, Va.: With respect to an icon for your true-but-false category, how about a yin-yang symbol?
Michael Dobbs: That might work.
Fayetteville, Ark.: The Janus god would work for the "True but False" icon. He has two noses.
washingtonpost.com: Janus (Wikipedia)
Michael Dobbs: Another good idea. I will submit all these suggestions to our art director, Mike Keegan, who came up with the Pinocchio icon.
Buffalo, N.Y.: I suggest that instead of your "true but false" category, you take a leaf from my father, who used to note instances of "telling the truth with intent to deceive." That will allow you to distinguish between the uninformed mistake and the sleazy sort of "mudslinging with gloves on so my hands stay clean" method, which has become so common.
Michael Dobbs: The problem with this suggestion is that it goes to intent and motive. It is very difficult for a "Fact Checker" to establish motive. I prefer to focus on whether a statement is true or not.
Oakland, Calif.: You might want to rename your category "Technically True but Actually False" or something like that, to be more precise.
Michael Dobbs: Ok, but a little more wordy than my True but False.
New York: When candidates seem to be contradicting themselves, how often does the following apply? "Inconsistencies of opinion, arising from changes of circumstances, are often justifiable." -- Daniel Webster
Michael Dobbs: Let's move on to a different topic. Sure, it is fine for candidates to change their views on something. I have said somewhere else that I am not trying to monitor or check flip-flops. The question for me is whether a candidate is honest about his record, and his flip-flops.
Washington: Mr. Dobbs -- how about Ms. Clinton's observation that the media is treating her unfairly ... would that qualify as "true but false"? Personally I only know what I have seen in The Washington Post and cnn.com, and I would lean toward saying "false" (I don't follow CNN/Fox News on TV ... just the local news and the paper). So, true or not true?
washingtonpost.com: For Clinton, A Matter of Fair Media: Senator's Camp Insists That the Press Holds Her To a Tougher Standard (Post, Dec. 19)
Michael Dobbs: This is a large topic that I am not sure I am qualified to answer. So much depends on your perspective. Of course Hillary Clinton thinks that the press is treating her unfairly; if you asked any candidate that question, they would probably say the same thing.
Virginia: All the liberal Democratic candidates have or had kids in private schools. How can they preach about public education -- and be anti-school voucher and anti-charter -- when they send their kids to private schools?
Michael Dobbs: The question for me is not hypocrisy, but whether they are being honest. For example, I noted in a speech that John Edwards said his kids attended public schools. I checked that statement out, and it turned out to be true. (I hope I am getting this right, it was a couple of months ago.)
Washington: I recognize that tax policy can be murky at times, but have you -- or could you -- focus on the more ridiculous tax proposals and comments out there? In particular, I think someone really needs to address Giuliani's factually incorrect claims that cutting our already moderately low rates means increased revenue for the government (then why not cut taxes to zero?). Another silly one is Huckabee's national sales tax idea, which the most respected nonpartisan analysis shows would result in a 50 percent sales tax or higher. Thanks!
Michael Dobbs: This is an interesting topic. I did a post last week on John McCain's claim that reducing taxes increases revenues. His own domestic policy adviser disagrees with him on that. I was surprised that post did not get much attention.
washingtonpost.com: The Fact-Checker: John McCain's Most Revealing Fib (washingtonpost.com, Dec. 13)
Richmond, Va.: While I am glad that you are there checking the facts, I would think that the most effective fact-checking would be at the very time that the candidates are uttering their respective falsehoods. Surely some of the hosts who have been conducting the debates or interviews know when a candidate is pulling a fast one. In short, The Post is doing a good job of exposing the dubious rhetoric, but you all reach such a small audience compared to the candidates' pulpits that the correct fact is ... well ... after the fact, and doesn't seem to make much of a difference.
Michael Dobbs: I agree with you -- the quicker the better. I am trying to be topical, but finding out about the claim and then researching it takes a little time. This is where readers can help: if you hear a false statement, let me know about it immediately!
Fairfax, Va.: Because process and horse race seems to drive a lot of the coverage, I've enjoyed this new addition to the washingtonpost.com. Can you possibly take closer looks into specific proposals candidates make?
Michael Dobbs: Looking at the mistakes the candidates make is a way of addressing the issues. I can assure you it is a full-time job keeping track of a dozen or so candidates. When the field narrows down to just two, I hope it will be possible to go into greater depth, as you would seem to favor.
Anonymous: I don't know if you already do them, but when the general election campaign starts up will you evaluate the truthfulness and accuracy of independent group ads? (Though that might be asking for too much work on your part!)
Michael Dobbs: Sure, we need to look at the independent group ads as well. If you have any ideas, send them along.
New York: Is this a danger of trusting the campaign promises of the front-runners? "To see and listen to the wicked is already the beginning of wickedness." -- Confucius
Michael Dobbs: Confucius say ... not sure what you mean here, but it sounds profound. Trusting campaign promises is always risky...
Washington: Thanks for your good work Michael. I'm curious, does Fact-Checker ever get applied to staffers in candidates' campaigns, or is it restricted to the words that come out of the candidates' own mouths? If the latter, won't candidates simply react by shifting the task of lying onto their staffers?
Michael Dobbs: I am trying to fact check the "national political debate," broadly defined. Of course I have focused most attention on the candidates, but have branched out on occasion. The other day, I fact-checked a claim in a Washington Post editorial that the GDP of Mexico has quadrupled over the past 20 years, partly as the result of NAFTA. So, yes, everything is legitimate, even if the candidates are my top priority.
washingtonpost.com: The Fact-Checker Fact-Checks The Post (washingtonpost.com, Dec. 7)
Morocco: Hi, I just read the posting on Obama. I sent it around because it helps me explain to my relatives back home (I'm a Peace Corps volunteer) why it's not such a big deal to live next to a madrassa.
washingtonpost.com: The Fact-Checker: True But False (washingtonpost.com, Dec. 19)
Michael Dobbs: Great to hear from you. I am glad that the Fact Checker is read in Morocco! Keep up the good work!
New York: So which presidential candidate is the worst liar?
Michael Dobbs: Too early to tell, and it may be impossible to say. As Tolstoy said about unhappy families, truth-tellers are all the same but liars all lie in their own way. That's what makes them interesting.
Georgetown, Texas: Mine is a statement. What was true several decades ago is still true -- when campaigning, knife thy opponents. Will it ever stop? I don't know. I do think Hillary and Bill Clinton are truly guilty parties of this behavior. As for Obama, I feel he hasn't made it through the dog-and-pony show long enough to become president of the United States yet. Someday maybe! In the meantime it costs millions of dollars to campaign. Why? How much did Abraham Lincoln spend? I thought you became president by an evaluation of the people for your values and ideals? Maybe I'm wrong?
Michael Dobbs: Abraham Lincoln did not have the Internet to contend with...
San Diego: Well, according to the results of the new CNN poll, Bill Shaheen's comments may have worked very well for Clinton. I'm an Edwards supporter, but have always thought I would wholeheartedly support whichever candidate ends up winning the Democratic nomination. The various things coming from Clinton supporters/advisors over the past few weeks (the Manchurian Muslim e-mails, the drug-dealing suggestion, the Kerrey dog whistles) make me question whether I can do it. Sure, they aren't coming from her directly, but it is hard to believe that these are just coincidences. I guess I just have come to the conclusion that if a Democrat is using another candidate's race or ethnicity against him, I can't vote for him or her. So, if Clinton wins, at this point I'll have to stay home. It's a matter of principle.
Michael Dobbs: I can assure you that politics can get a lot more vicious than this. It has been a tea party so far, in comparison to some past campaigns.
Charlottesville, Va.: Nice that you do Fact-Checking on those in public office or running for it. However, there are times when the media so slants a story by leaving out facts, just to make the story look good for either sales or for a favored cause. Would you also dare to fact check your own colleagues?
Michael Dobbs: I am not the newspaper ombudsman, and my job is not to monitor for fairness. However, on occasion, I will look at what the media, including The Washington Post, is saying. I did it the other day on the Mexican GDP claim.
New York: How about a fact-checker on The Post? Today's article on Bernard Kerik, by John Solomon and Matthew Mosk, ties Kerik to Giuliani with mere "former New York City Police Commissioner." Actually, as Solomon knows, Kerik became a full partner with Giuliani in "Giuliani and Partners," Rudy's high-dollar post-Sept. 11 consulting firm. Solomon is a reliable Republican hack, and the fact The Post continues to run his nonsense on the front page suggests The Post has sworn off objectivity this campaign season.
washingtonpost.com: Giuliani's Kerik Woes Resurface Through Informant (Post, Dec. 19)
Michael Dobbs: I do not claim to know the details on this story, but it is ridiculous to call John Solomon "a reliable Republican hack." If you disagree with a reporter (or anybody else), disagree with them. But this kind of ad hominem attack is absurd and degrading, mainly to you yourself.
Princeton, N.J.: I am a mathematician. I have some mathematical issues to talk about: Why do you trust long-term economic projections, particularly those about Social Security? Why do you use them as if they were predictions? A projection is based on unknowable assumptions. These assumptions are unknowable because they are event-driven, and nobody can tell the future. Always keep in mind the projection in 2000 of "surpluses as far as the eye can see."
Also, why don't you present the facts comparing our health care system with those of other wealthy countries? Other countries get much better health care as measured by all the basic public health statistics and pay less than half per patient than we do. Why don't you explode the myth that high medical malpractice payments have caused high malpractice insurance premiums, as claimed by by politicians? There is simply no correlation.
And why don't your examine the Republican creed that high taxes inhibit growth? Besides comparing Clinton who raised taxes with Bush who cut them, we can look at other countries. Sweden has almost double the total tax rate as we do (50.2 percent vs. 26.4 percent), but their average per capita growth in GDP 1995-2005 is larger than ours (2.5 percent vs. 2.1 percent). For Spain the figures are tax rate 35.6 percent and growth 3.1 percent. For Japan, 25.8 percent (lower than ours) and 1.0 percent (also lower). I'll stop here but there are many others.
Michael Dobbs: I can't address every issue that interests you. But I have dealt with the health care systems of other countries, in talking about Giuliani's prostate cancer claims. I have also examined the claim (often made by Republicans) that lower taxes automatically lead to higher revenues.
washingtonpost.com: The Fact-Checker: Rudy Wrong On Cancer Survival Chances (washingtonpost.com, Oct. 30)
New York: Michael, why should we take you seriously here, since The Post does not hold itself to a factual standard? Perry Bacon's hit piece on Obama two weeks back neglected to mention the "madrassa" smear was debunked. And today, John Solomon's piece on Bernard Kerik omits mention of the fact Kerik and Giuliani were business partners.
Michael Dobbs: Neither The Post, nor anybody else, is perfect. We all make mistakes. Perry's piece probably should have been more explicit in saying that the madrassa story had been debunked. But it is ridiculous to call it a "hit piece on Obama."
Newport News, Va.: Do you plan on continuing your service to the American public by fact-checking the eventual elected president? It would be nice to have a single source to go to when attempting to see if they remain true to their word once in office. Thanks for your efforts. "The high-minded man must care more for the truth than for what people think." -- Aristotle
Michael Dobbs: I do not know what will happen to the Fact Checker column after next November. At the moment, my plan is to fact check the 2008 presidential election campaign. This is something of an experiment for The Post, and for me. What happens later depends a bit on how readers respond.
Centreville, Va.: Richmond, Va., raised a good point about candidates' utterances. Now that Huckabee is a serious candidate, someone needs to see if his explanation of the dog cruelty story is correct. This is what he said on Larry King on allegations that his son David was involved in abusing a stray dog at a Boy Scout camp in '98 and that he used his influence to keep the state police from investigating:
"Well, let me categorically say that is absolutely not true. I never used my influence. In fact, if anything, I said treat it like you would anything else. I don't want special treatment for him or against him. My son was a minor at the time. It was not a criminal issue. It was an issue that was dealt with. But I'll tell you, if it was that bad, why did he get his Eagle Scout award within months of this? He's now a member of the Vigil, which, Scouts know, that's the highest honor you can have. You know, my son may have not handled the situation as well as he should have."
CNN's L. King: "Did he harm a dog?"
Huckabee: "There was a dog that came in. It was mangy. It looked like it was going to attack. He was a staffer at the camp. They put the dog down. They didn't do a good job of talking to the leaders. The way it was handled was not ideal, but there was no criminal activity. And, more importantly, Larry, my son -- all of this was thoroughly vetted 10 years ago -- 10 years ago, when he was -- again, he was under 18. But he got his Eagle Scout. And my son is an honorable kid. ... There's a lot of political dumpster-diving that goes on in the campaign. There are people from campaigns going back to my hometown of Hope. They're all over Little Rock. They're looking for any dirt they can find. And usually they'll find it. I always say this -- check the source. When the source is somebody that I fired from their job, when the source is someone who didn't get reappointed, you have to wonder, do they have an ax to grind more than they have a country to save?"
washingtonpost.com: Transcript: Huckabee on Larry King Live (CNN, Dec. 17)
Michael Dobbs: I do not think that what Huckabee's son, aged 17, did to a dog 10 years ago is pertinent to the presidential election campaign. Perhaps I am wrong, but you have to draw the line somewhere. We can't investigate everything.
New Berlin, Wis.: I believe "true but false" would be one of the meanings of "truthiness," the neologism created by Stephen Colbert.
Michael Dobbs: Perhaps I should put Colbert's face on the icon. But he gets enough publicity already...
New York: Respectfully, the issue isn't David Huckabee, a proven lowlife who went on to be arrested recently for trying to carry a loaded handgun onto a plane. It's Mike Huckabee's use of his office. The Post expended a lot of effort investigating Whitewater, which occurred roughly 10 years before Clinton took office.
Michael Dobbs: Of course we will look closely at Huckabee's record. You will find some posts on Huckabee in The Fact-Checker, including one yesterday on his support for in-state tuition for illegal immigrants. But I prefer to focus on him, not his son.
Winnipeg, Canada: My father once told me "A lie is not what you say; it's the impression you create." Sound advice then, and it removes the need to have a true-but-false category.
Michael Dobbs: The impression you create also can be very subjective. Something can sound fine to one person, but another will take deep offense. I prefer to use a more objective criteria.
Michael Dobbs: Thanks, everybody, for an interesting discussion. Join me online and send along your suggestions.
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