When the facts fall between TV news fact-checks

Update: The latter part of this post was rewritten for clarity. The original opinion and facts haven’t been changed. 

Fact checking political ads sometimes seems futile in the onslaught of spin and falsehoods. The ad runs dozens of times, the fact check a few, at best. Still, journalists persist because vetting is what we do.

As a connoisseur of the form, I call your attention to a stark difference in reviews from KSTP-TV reporter Tom Hauser and WCCO-TV’s Pat Kessler.

The ad in question is “Rehab,” from Sixth District DFL Congressional candidate Tarryl Clark. The spot leaves the impression that Republican Michele Bachmann wants to kick everyone off Social Security. The difference is how Hauser and Kessler frame a crucial Bachmann quote.

The Clark spot highlights this statement attributed to Bachmann:

What we have to do is wean everybody off of Social Security.

As in the sentence above, there are no quote marks around any of this, which should be a tip-off that chicanery is afoot. Hauser’s “Truth Test” quotes Bachmann — accurately — from the ad’s source material, the lefty site Minnesota Independent:

So, what you have to do, is keep faith with the people that are already in the system, that don’t have any other options, we have to keep faith with them. But basically what we have to do is wean everybody else off. 

Nowhere in Hauser’s selection is the phrase “wean everybody off,” which is emphasized by both the spot’s narrator and red text in the ad. A KSTP viewer would be forgiven for assuming Clark changed “wean everybody else off” to “wean everybody off.”

Problem is, Hauser doesn’t excerpt Bachmann’s very next sentence:

And wean everybody off because we have to take those unfunded net liabilities off our bank sheet, we can’t do it.

I’ve quibbled with Hauser’s ratings in the past, but unlike my colleague Eric Black, I don’t have a huge problem with KSTP’s “F” here. Hauser should have noted that the ad accurately quotes Bachmann. Still, the reporter gets Bachmann’s essential meaning right and Clark doesn’t. I’m OK with tough grading here.

Eric makes a pretty good case that Bachmann has frequently demonized Social Security and presented no logical “weaning” path, but that’s not the same as ending it for all. Some people currently getting checks still would; they’d never be “weaned.”

(Some of you may protest that Bachmann’s “wean everybody off” undoes her “wean everybody else off” in the previous sentence. The Congresswoman has a rambling style optimized to throw flak in fact-checkers’ faces, but that’s a tortured interpretation.)

If the Clark campaign wanted to convince you that Bachmann hates “FDRCare,” it had plenty of statements to choose from. Instead, it over-reached.

Kessler’s “Reality Check,” meanwhile, only includes the quote that Hauser left out: “Wean everybody off because we have to take those unfunded net liabilities off our bank sheet.”

In this respect, Kessler judges the Clark ad (in Reality Check’s all-caps style) ACCURATE. I think a fair reading — including Bachmann’s specific qualifier — would change that judgment to MISLEADING, a term that also sums up this section of “Reality Check.”

It’s TRUE — er, true — that Kessler later criticizes the Clark ad for converting the weaned into “addicts.” He also quotes Bachmann’s spokesman making the “only some” point. But had he included the specific qualifier, it would’ve made it clearer Clark was playing fast and loose throughout.

It’s also true that TV newsies outsource deeper source material (or at least links) to web versions because there’s only so much time for the on-air report. But just as 30-second ads are optimized to deliver a boob tube payoff, 90-second fact-checks should find time for the fullest reading of a statement at the factual heart of the matter.

Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Mark Gisleson on 10/05/2010 - 12:52 pm.

    Politifact does this kind of stuff all the time. They hyperfocus on part of the ad or quote, while ignoring the context. Sacrificing truth for a neater presentation is not helpful.

    Sorry, I find the news media’s fact checking to be less than worthless, so often adding as it does to the mountain of mis- and disinformation out there.

  2. Submitted by Michael Hunt on 10/05/2010 - 02:25 pm.

    The problem is those lining old Hubbard’s cupboard don’t judge the Right’s “exaggerations” with nearly the same ferocity. Hauser should be embarrassed.

  3. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/06/2010 - 09:43 am.

    We know for a fact that the extreme right wing where Bachmann resides has always wanted to end government “entitlements”. I think it’s safe to say that Bachmann’s dream future is a future without any government run social security system, she’s just not stupid enough to actually say that in most venues. Look, saying you only want to preserve Social Security for some people who are now getting it but only until they die, is the same as saying you want to wean the country off of Social Security, and that’s a plan to dismantle it. That’s what Bachmann’s saying isn’t it?

  4. Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 10/06/2010 - 12:01 pm.

    David, it seems you should have noted that Eric didn’t just say Bachmann hasn’t presented a path to weaning, but has told a bunch of whoppers about Social Security. I agree Clark could have chosen more obviously false statements.

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