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Why didn't Politifact rate Kyl's Planned Parenthood fabrication 'pants on fire'?

In my experience, traditional journalists are very reluctant to write that a politician "lied." While facts can be judged falsehoods, lying requires premeditation. Given that most liars won't admit to doing so, reporters often refrain from the verdict, absent corroborating evidence.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning traditionalists at Politifact have a clever way around this problem. The fact-checking site's Truth-O-Meter contains a "false" rating. But for especially shameful claims, Politifact bestows the uncoveted "Pants of Fire." It's not quite "liar," but it's as close as the mainstream media get without mind-reading.

This weekend, the federal government avoided a shutdown. While I was goofing off at the Twins' home opener, our own Derek Wallbank was working late to chronicle it. One of the GOP's biggest demands was Planned Parenthood be defunded, a bucket-drop spending-wise meant to cheer the party's anti-abortion base. 

That provision ultimately dropped from the deal, though not before Arizona's John Kyl declared on the Senate floor, " If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that’s well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does."

As Politifact subsequently noted, Planned Parenthood says abortion accounts for 3 percent of services or procedures. By that measure — what Planned Parenthood "does" — Kyl's claim was overblown by a factor of 30.

(Most of what PP does is provide contraception and sexually-transmitted-disease testing and treatment — literally keeping America's pants from being on fire.)

What's more, Kyl subequently admitted to b.s.-ing the American public. In a statement to CNN, Kyl's office said his assertion "was not intended to be a factual statement but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions in taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions."

It would be easy to blow this off as the usual political hyperbole, but the very reason Politifact was founded to was counteract the lies that distort our political culture. Kyl is the second-ranking Senate Republican, and his brazen falsehood occurred at the height of a debate that potentially affected the health care of millions of American women. The issue will come back as the deficit wars drag on, and as we've seen with death panels, "zombie lies" keep taking bites out of our political culture. Why not slap it down with the most force your rules allow?

According to Politifact editor Bill Adair, "[T]wo things kept it from being Pants on Fire. First, there was some uncertainty about Planned Parenthood's numbers, since they come from the organization itself. Second, Kyl's statement acknowledged he was wrong. Overall, we felt False was the right call."

I can understand the journalistic instinct to be wary of anyone's self-reported numbers, but I look at this through the other end of the telescope. It's incumbent on the utterer to prove the statement more than the potential victim to disprove it. Even if you distrust PP's numbers and inflate abortions 100-fold, it still wouldn't equal 90 percent of procedures. Kyl's statement was that big a whopper.

Politifact (which has rated two other conservative slams on PP "pants on fire") bends over backwards to give Kyl a chance, considering the possibility that 90 percent of Planned Parenthood's spending might be on abortion. But Kyl put it in terms of "does," not "spent."

Finally, Adair seems to be giving Kyl a break for acknowledging his hyperbole. But should the statement get a break because the speaker copped a plea? The persistence of political falsehoods argues against it.

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Comments (11)

In this day and age most fabrications by pundits and politicians escape serious scrutiny and seem to become accepted by repetition without need for corroboration. I think the "pants on fire" designation needs to be more widely used to call out those who try to shade the difference between opposing views and outright distortions.

Thank you for bringing this up.

This incident encapsulates, for me, the maddening and breathtaking state of our politics these days.

First Kyl utters an outright fabrication. I suppose we can discuss the semantics of whether he lied, but whatever. Bottom line, he made up the number. It was for political effect; it plays right into the largely unchallenged false rhetoric that taxpayers subsidizes abortion via PP.

Next, the bit about "not intended to be a factual statement" just sent me straight thru the roof. This was arguably even more pathetic and disgraceful. Essentially he's saying that he can spew any old BS on the senate floor and it doesn't matter.

While debating the fate of NPR, the chief author (Hanserling?) of a defunding bill said that, "We can save a program or we can save America."

Pants on fire or too ridiculous to bother assessing?

Next they'll be saying that Barrack Obama might have been born outside the US!

Another reliable source bites the dust!

Will there be any left by the end of the 2012 election season?

Because the more common vernacular term isn’t likely to show up in a “family” newspaper any time soon, or a mainstream media outlet, I’d like to suggest a naming contest for statements similar to Mr. Kyl’s blatant lie. That is, while I endorse Politifact’s intent, and I even enjoy the “Pants on Fire” label, it doesn’t go far enough. When someone of Kyl’s ilk deliberately distorts, plays the role of demagogue, and then blusters something to the effect that “It wasn’t intended to be factual,” the public consequence ought to be something more serious than picking up another dozen votes from people who rarely recognize the difference between fact and fiction.

I’ll start by suggesting “barn scrapings.” If you prefer, when referring to issues around national defense, an area where the right wing has demonstrably been equally hyperbolic and just as untruthful, perhaps we could make the term “traitorous barn scrapings.”

I look forward to better efforts than my feeble attempt.

Read any news report, including many here on MinnPost, and you know how right Michael Moore was when he said we live in fictitious times.

It's absolutely shameful that the media refuse to call out lies and the liars who tell them. There's no need for the media to prove it's a lie; the onus to prove the truthfulness of the statement is on those who make the statement.

Politifact seems to suffer from the same mentality of those in the mainstream media: they hesitate to call somebody out because they're unsure of the truth, or when they know the truth, they conveniently find some "redeeming" statement to avoid doing so.

A lie is a lie is a lie. There's no escaping that fact, but our media are too timid to do their job and report facts.

That's why most people have turned away from the mainstream press for their news: they know they aren't getting news from them.

The point is that repubicans can't argue without telling lies. None of their policy positions are based on fact and reality. John Kyl's statement is a perfect example of the demagoguery repubs must use to support their rhetoric. It's odd that democrats don't call them out more often. Can you imagine Obama going on national TV and saying, "what John Kyl said about planned parenthood is a bald faced lie. He should apologize for making such a farcical statement that polluted rational debate. We need to have a discussion on the budget but it is impossible if we have republicans running around telling lies all the time. Would you like to prove yourself right, John?

I disagree that it's up to Obama calling out John Kyl. That's a trap just waiting to be set and if Obama did that, the news would suddenly be about the president calling a sitting U.S. Senator a liar and how beyond the scope of political debate that was for people of that stature. No, it's not for Obama to call Kyl a liar. It's for US to call Kyl a liar, and Politifact and the NY Times and Washington Post and CBS Evening News and the Star Tribune.

The fact is, far more than the debate on a given issue is harmed by demagoguery such as this and, as we all know, it's now sickeningly commonplace. Our very democracy is harmed by the deterioration of our political speech. It's a large part of the reason that our nation has seemed so impotent for so long at resolving the largest and most complex problems we're facing.

That custom of blatant exaggeration to the point of deliberately lying, and this instance of Kyl's practice of it, ought to bring the strictest condemnation from all across The Fourth Estate.

In scathing terms, people practicing that kind of behaviour ought to be called liars when they lie. We ought to be calling a spade a spade. If it's true that Kyl deliberately lied when he made that statement, then say so. Let his backtracking and excuse for the blatant lie be the second line in the story and let's report that for what it is, too -- a weasel-ey retraction, a clumsy clarification of the indefensible. In doing so, we make life easier for Obama and others to take the high road and steer debate back to the areas of substance.

So I can say that John Kyl eats babies in his basement, with ketchup, and can follow that up with "That was not intended to be a factual statement"?

Yeah. It was my opinion. Home free.!/search?q=%23NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement

If Kyle can spout nonsense with that excuse, it can be spouted about him.