Who cares about facts?

From “nation of slaves” to “my teeth are white,” from $100,000 waiters to allegations of stolen elections, nonsense and deception dominate Minnesota’s political headlines in July.

The latest charges that the Minnesota senatorial election was stolen focus on whether or not some felons voted, and right-wing bloggers are quick to conclude that they did and that this means Franken stole the election.  Doug Grow ably dissects this canard, as does Max Sparber, who also calls Margaret Anderson Kelliher’s campaign on the carpet for its latest ad.

Then there’s Michele Bachmann, who already has made two sets of headlines this week, and it’s only Wednesday. The first set focuses on her “nation of slaves” remark and charges that President Obama doubled the deficit, while the second set was generated when she defended the whiteness of her teeth and called Tarryl Clark a liar.

Eric Black points out the error in Michele Bachmann’s “Obama doubled the deficit” charges. The Colorado Independent reported that Bachmann said Obama had more than doubled the national debt, from $5.8 trillion to $13 trillion. Black explains that those figures are misleading and inaccurate.

There are two main ways that the U.S. national debt is expressed. The most common, called the “debt owed to the public,” was, as Bachmann said, about $5.8 trillion at the beginning of 2009. [That debt] has risen, at an alarming pace, to $8.6 trillion. Debt owed to the public basically refers to U.S. bonds owned by creditors outside of the U.S. government.

The second measure of debt, explains Black, is the total debt, including internal debt, such as bonds that make up the Social Security Trust Fund.

You can compare “debt owed to the public” in 2009 and today – $5.8 trillion growing to $8.6 trillion, or total debt in 2009 to total debt today – $10.2 trillion growing to $13 trillion. Either measure is legit, but neither shows a doubling of the debt.

This weekend she claimed that DFL opponent Tarryl Clark “brazenly and blatantly lied about what I said.” As Max Sparber details, Bachmann manages to misstate both what Clark said and what she (Bachmann) previously stated. And if that’s not enough to confuse you, Bachmann also charged that Clark’s campaign staff doctored photos to make Bachmann’s teeth appear less than gleaming white.

How Politifact gets the facts

From PolitiFact’s website: PolitiFact writers and editors spend considerable time deliberating on our rulings. We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories. We then divide the statement into individual claims that we check separately. …

When possible, we go to original sources to verify the claims. We look for original government reports rather than news stories. We interview impartial experts.

We then decide which of our six rulings should apply:

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.

MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.

HALF TRUE – The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

BARELY TRUE – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

Bachmann’s poll numbers show that a strong majority of Sixth District voters like her sleazy style, so she’s keeping it up.  Along with the deficit misstatements came Bachmann’s coy, but headline-making, question about “would we count what has transpired into turning our country into a nation of slaves.” Note: she didn’t exactly say that we are a nation of slaves – she posed it as a question. That’s akin to the email forwarders of racist, sexist and other nasty screeds who say, “I didn’t say this was true – I just forwarded it to ask what you thought of it.”

These forwarded emails arrive as regularly as clockwork – from the birthers’ claims that Obama was born in Kenya (he wasn’t) to the “White Pride” speech by actor Michael Richards during his trial for racist remarks (he didn’t give the speech, and he was never on trial – neither racism nor stupidity is a crime) to today’s prize entry, claiming that “Obama and his regime” will require that all health insurance premiums be taxed as part of gross income (nope – that one’s not true either.)

I don’t mind when someone sends me an email and asks whether I can help them figure out whether it is true. I do mind when people forward the latest outrageous lie to their entire email list without even trying to check on its accuracy.

And I mind a whole lot when public figures lie – either deliberately or because they just don’t feel like checking the facts and figures.

This kind of behavior degrades our personal and political discourse. It increases – and maybe it’s meant to increase – the level of public cynicism and mistrust. The ability to make decisions based on facts is essential to our social and political system. Without it, large numbers of people give up on responsible participation in the political system.

Fact-checking is not easy or quick, which means it often lags behind the lies that hit the headlines. (Take a look at the sidebar, describing Politifact’s process.)

Those journalists who carefully track the facts and expose the lies serve as an essential counterweight to the lies that destroy our social fabric. So does every person who contributes a bit of truth to the debate or debunks another lie – or pays attention to Politifact’s analyses or cross-checks crazy emails with Snopes.com before forwarding.

Tracking the facts and making fact-based judgments is a job not only for journalists, but for all of us.

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