Why don’t politicians apologize when caught telling a whopper?

If there was room, I would headline this post: “Everything I needed to know I learned in kindergarten but I forgot it when I went into politics.”

And it’s not about Michele Bachmann, at least not really or not only, although it is inspired by one of her recent misstatements. My plan is to risk being willfully naïve and raise a question that has often occurred to me covering politics namely, why don’t we hold elected officials and candidates to a standard of truthfulness and integrity that we would hope to meet ourselves, teach to our kids and demand from those whom we are thinking about trusting?

Rep. Michele Bachmann
MSNBC
Rep. Michele Bachmann

At the Values Voters Summit two weeks ago, Bachmann said that “Speaker Pelosi… has been busy sticking the taxpayer for a $100,000 bar tab for alcohol on the military jets that she is flying.”

Of several arguable or questionable things she said, this one had a factier quality, so it got the fact-checkers going and it turned out to be a whopper. Politifact, the Pulitzer-winning fact-checking organization, gave the statement its lowest rating, “Pants on Fire,” which is somehow reserved for statements that are falser than “false.” (“False” is the second worst rating on Politifact’s scale).

Read the Politifact piece if you want the full details, but Pelosi doesn’t drink alcohol and although some alcoholic beverages were purchased for someone on some of the many overseas flights taken by the speaker on official business, the documentable “bar bill” was “$560.28, purchased at what appears to have been a no-frills base exchange at Maryland’s Bolling Air Force Base near Washington, D.C.

Neither Bachmann’s congressional office nor her campaign returned calls to Politifact when they were looking into the accuracy of the statement, nor to me nor to MinnPost D.C. guy Derek Wallbank.

But back to the kindergarten bit. My own query (submitted by e-mail to her campaign spokester who has not responded in two weeks) was specifically to ask whether Bachmann had retracted the statement and/or apologized to Pelosi for maligning her.

As a journalist, I was taught then when I make a factual error, correct it. As a kid, my mom and my kindergarten teacher taught me that if I say something both false and hurtful to someone else, to take it back and say I’m sorry. I guess this is the willfully naïve bit, but I wonder why we don’t hold those who or seek great power through public office to that simple kindergarten standard.

I called Bill Adair, editor of Politifact, and ask him how often, in his fairly extensive experience with these cases, has a public official, when confronted with evidence that something they said was false, retracted and apologized.

Adair laughed.

Yes, he laughed. At first, I assumed he was going to tell me a funny story along those lines. Then I realized he laughed because he assumed my question was a joke.

He’s had very little experience with the “retract and apologize.” OK none.

“I’ve never seen that happen,” Adair said, at least not in response to a Politifact factcheck..

Sometimes, when the official or candidate or their spokester is presented with evidence that they have been circulating a falsehood or a pernicious half-truth, they will tell Politifact, “OK, we’ll stop saying it.” In a couple of instances involving the 2008 Obama campaign, the campaign would revise the details of the questionable statement they had been making to reflect what Politifact had found.

President Barack Obama
REUTERS/Jim Young
President Barack Obama

(Example: President Obama was regularly claiming that gas prices were at their highest level ever. Confronted with the evidence that, on an inflation-adjusted basis, it had been higher in other periods, Obama changed the reference to say that gas prices were among the highest they had ever been.)

Just the other day, Adair said, after being fact-checked on a statement that a campaign had on its website, the campaign revised the website. But that’s still different from doing what my mom would’ve made me do, which is to state clearly that I had been saying something untrue and that I apologized for any damage I had done.

Adair’s reaction (I think he may have feared that the laughter hurt my feelings): “You can dream for that, Eric. But I’m surprised enough when they just admit to us that they made a mistake and stop repeating it. (Adair estimated that occurs in about 5 to 10 percent of cases.)

How a campaign pro sees it
I also spoke to an experienced Republican campaign tactician, whom I promised not to identify in order to get a candid explanation of what goes on inside a campaign in case like these. He was very pragmatic.

Some candidates (he acknowledged that Bachmann seemed to be in this category) seem to be gaffe prone, in part because they will casually repeat something they have heard without checking them out. This isn’t good, but in most cases, the staff would not recommend a retraction or apology, for fear it would only call more attention to the matter, which would otherwise pass as an obscure, momentary embarrassment.

In my Bachmann example, he said, the staff’s attitude would be that the difference between what Bachmann said and what Politifact wrote was “so nuanced,” and that 98 percent of the audience the campaign cares about (the voters of the district) don’t know that Bachmann ever said it or that Politifact ever wrote about it.

It would be more serious if the inaccuracy occurred in a TV ad, but the campaign goes to considerable trouble to make those scripts at least defensible.

The most serious cases are not usually just misstatements but one in which the candidate has been caught in a huge embarrassment, where he was unfaithful to his wife or embezzled funds or violated campaign laws or perhaps got caught in a big untruth about his own biography. (Seems like a couple of candidates this year already have been caught claiming falsely to have been Vietnam vets.) In those, the campaign team may recommend a big apology session where the candidate will answer every media inquiry in hopes of putting an end to the embarrassment.

That all makes sense, if you are thinking pragmatically. In a sense, the pragmatic approach starts from the assumption that voters don’t really care that much about being deceived. This makes no sense, but it does have the ring of truth and, if it is true, we the electorate bear substantial responsibility for creating a culture in which politicians feel able to play fast and loose with the facts.

I had pretty much drafted this post yesterday when I took a break to finish reading the newspaper and found that John Helgerson of Victoria was thinking along the same lines and put it better than I could.

In a letter to the editor headlined “What kind of Message do campaigns send to kids?” Helgerson wrote:

“Nearly all candidates and their advocates conduct political campaigns laced with wildly distorted false claims, accusations not based on facts, impossible promises and, sometimes, outright lies. Is this the standard our youths ought to follow and emulate?

“After all, we preach to our kids that they should always tell the truth, not cheat in school, treat others with respect and avoid all manner of questionable behavior. How do candidates reconcile doing whatever it takes to get elected, even when that involves bending the truth, lambasting opponents with false accusations and essentially resorting to trickery? Furthermore, how can we trust people who forfeit integrity in order to win an election?”

Good question, Mr. Helgerson.

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Comments (24)

  1. Submitted by Tim Walker on 09/30/2010 - 10:35 am.

    I could write a long answer with details and examples, but it would all boil down to just this:

    Journalists not doing their jobs.

    (O.K., I’ll write a little bit more.)

    And the reason journalists don’t do this crucial aspect of their jobs is because they are afraid of having their access to newsmakers cut off.

  2. Submitted by Ralf Wyman on 09/30/2010 - 11:15 am.

    Well, here’s the deal, Eric. Journalists have to start calling pols on this tactic. Be persistent. Report ion the falsehoods, ask (as you have) for corrections, and then report the silence.

    It may take a while for the public to realize that this is what real journalism is, rather than breathless stenography of “he said” and then “she said”.

    As the Elk Run story shows, reporters have a role to play in providing context, and that includes challenging assertions that turn out to be false. And this applies to app parties and pols.

    I think the collective press corps did a huge disservice to itself and to readers and viewers when they went ahead and covered the media circus around Palin as VP candidate without having a single press conference, a single unscripted open-press availability.

    We’re seeing this now with O’Donnel, Sharon Angle, and many other right-of-center pols: they’re totally bypassing all but Fox and scripted events.

    The press is accepting this as OK, as if they have no choice but to wait for the candidates or office holders to come talk to them.

    Report on their dodgings. Report on how they won’t face voter or press scrutiny. And hold them to account when they lie!

  3. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/30/2010 - 11:28 am.

    To apologize, the politician must first admit that she lied; they will only do this if the lie is so blatant that there is no way to fudge it (call that ‘nuance’).

    The other alternative is the ‘apology’ for something other than lying: “I’m sorry that some people are upset by what I said about ….” — the form of an apology with out any admission of guilt.

  4. Submitted by Richard Schulze on 09/30/2010 - 11:33 am.

    I will suggest the lack of accountability and or consequences when politicians use truthiness (without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination).

    I think Mr. Walker is mostly correct when he suggests that media in general bears responsibility in holding individuals and organizations accountable for their rhetoric.

  5. Submitted by Jim Meyer on 09/30/2010 - 11:38 am.

    This was my question exactly when I perused Politifacts summary of the severity of various lies. Not to be too overdramatic, but if this behavior can be allowed to continue, we are — as one local talk-show host likes to joke — done as a society. Thanks, as always, Eric.

  6. Submitted by Don Jacobson on 09/30/2010 - 11:56 am.

    Agreed with all above comments. These lies and distortions should be headline news whenever they happen. I don’t care which party they belong to. Eric, you are one of the few true “Seekers,” as I believe you have referred to yourself and your readers in the past.

  7. Submitted by Brian Simon on 09/30/2010 - 12:31 pm.

    Tim Walker writes
    “I could write a long answer with details and examples, but it would all boil down to just this:

    Journalists not doing their jobs.”

    There are two somewhat conflicting factors that contribute to the problem. First, fewer people are actually paying attention to journalists; second, news consumers don’t seem to be holding journalists to a higher standard.

    Though now that its written; I wonder if the first is actually a symptom of the second. Could it be that people are abandoning the news because it’s so dumbed down, and often not ‘newsy’?

  8. Submitted by Gail O'Hare on 09/30/2010 - 01:33 pm.

    In defense of journalists, it’s not always their call. Newspapers are owned by various investors and conglomerates whose focus is profit, profit, profit. I recall Cowles saying that his family once considered 6% to be a decent profit. Makes you laugh through your tears, right?

    Television is even worse. Our traditional media are ruled by bean-counters who only value ratings and advertising dollars. Murrow and Cronkite and Sevareid and all the other luminaries could not survive in this environment.

    MinnPost carries the banner of solid journalism. Their mission is to deliver news – and make enough money to keep doing that.
    (No, I’m not a shill. Don’t know a single one of these people.)

  9. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/30/2010 - 01:46 pm.

    //Furthermore, how can we trust people who forfeit integrity in order to win an election?”

    Well, as we’ve seen, such people cannot be trusted. I have to say as I can tell for the last 30 years or so, and especially in Bachmann’s case, the “inaccuracies” seem fly a little more freely on the Republican side. Looking at Emmer, Bachmann, and Pawlenty, I have hard time finding equivalents on the Democratic side. If anything, sometimes Democrats equivocate too much.

    I think the media does bear more than a little responsibility for this situation. I don’t remember seeing a headline: “Emmer continues to issue false information in debates” after his latest fairy tale about 50% instead of 85% of MN’s cities receiving ALG. There is a clear pattern there. On the other hand, no one seemed to have any trouble pointing out that Dayton’s plan and plan “B” came up short and simply saying that in the headlines. We’ve had this discussion before but it’s useful to point out on occasion that this idea, especially in campaign seasons, that the presses job is to act as stenographers relaying campaign statements rather than evaluating them and issuing obvious conclusions is part of the “balanced” and “objective” style. The idea is that it’s the opponents job to poke point out false statements not the presses. Amongst other problems with this approach, it ignores imbalances created by funding and campaign resources. We end up with candidates winning because they were more effective at distorting information than the other guy.

    In short, it doesn’t matter if a candidate admits being wrong if the mainstream media reports those incidents with the prominence they deserve.

  10. Submitted by John Jordan on 09/30/2010 - 02:02 pm.

    Hmmm….another anti-Bachmann story by the website promised to be “fair” and not “liberal”. Not one mention of Tarryl Clark and the whoppers she’s telling in her commercials (outright lies).

    Want to see political whoppers? Check out Boyd Morson running for city council in Brooklyn Park. Making things up about his past as he goes along. Might not even be a MN resident. Ran for Detroit City Council in 2005, then here in 2006. Has sued more people than MinnPost has readers (okay, it’s only close to that number…) Look him up online, it’s all out there to see.

  11. Submitted by David Brauer on 09/30/2010 - 02:24 pm.

    John J. – I realize partisans cling to their sense of grievance, but when you say “not one mention of Tarryl Clark and the whoppers” you might have missed this:

    http://www.minnpost.com/derekwallbank/2010/09/28/21847/clark_ad_slams_bachmann_on_social_security

  12. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 09/30/2010 - 02:47 pm.

    All comes down to confirmation bias.
    Most people are less interested in facts than in statements (whatever their ‘truthiness’) that confirm their biases.

  13. Submitted by chuck holtman on 09/30/2010 - 04:57 pm.

    Close companions to the media’s refusal to characterize a lie as a lie are the “balance” canard and false equivalence (both of which we see operating in Mr Black’s column). If no judgment can be rendered on one “side” except by declaring that the other candidate or party is exactly as guilty, then the person or party that is more aggressive in redefining reality will always have the incentive to continue to do so. “Balance” and false equivalence further foster the undiscerning “pox on both houses” position; while both houses deserve a pox, there are distinctions to be made and there clearly are lesser evils. Of course, if people were reasonably capable of critical thought and sound moral judgment, journalists wouldn’t be in the position of needing to spoon feed them what is obvious about all too many candidates.

  14. Submitted by David DeCoux on 09/30/2010 - 07:42 pm.

    The difference between a child and a politician telling a lie is that most children are not lawyers while most politicians are lawyers.

    While a child is likely to see a lie as a binary action a lawyer is trained to see it as anything but binary. I don’t want to be too hard on the profession of lawyers, I know some damn ethical lawyers, but they’re no politicians.

    To those that think this is a problem with journalism I’d say that is a cop-out or at the very least a distortion. It may be a problem with the news, and the consumers of news as entertainment, but it isn’t a problem of journalism.

  15. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/30/2010 - 09:21 pm.

    Politicians don’t apologize when they lie because they’ve learned that no one will call them on it. In essence, they don’t apologize because they don’t have to. I abandoned local television news years ago precisely because even I, an unsophisticated high school teacher, could see that “stenographer” is an apt description for much of what passes for “news” on local TV. Moreover, the concept of “balance” has become a fetish, and mistakenly so. What’s called for is “fairness.”

    To steal shamelessly from Emma Stone’s narration in the current teen rom-com, “Easy A,” “There are two sides to every story. This is my side. The right side.” Just because a story concerns a politician or a political idea or public policy doesn’t automatically mean it deserves equal treatment from “both” sides of the issue.

    There are occasions when one side or the other, or one candidate or the other, are obviously stretching the truth beyond recognition, or are in denial about the consequences of a decision or policy. When that happens, ordinary citizens, who don’t generally have ready access to the powers-that-be, rely on the media for their information.

    Personally, if I were Czar, every local TV station would lose its license at the end of the year, and the only way one could be earned would be to demonstrate a solid year’s worth of fact-based, hard question journalism – of every candidate, every policy that created controversy (and some that didn’t), every disagreement between political parties and candidates. TV journalism, especially at the local level, is generally a disgrace.

    In the meantime, the people with the biggest campaign chests get elected, whether they’re ethical pariahs or not, because they can buy the most TV time, and sadly, the public gets most of its “news” from local TV. Those who, as Paul Brandon suggests, simply want their biases confirmed, even have their very own TV network in Fox News if they think of themselves as “conservative.”

    Claims of “liberal bias” sometimes have merit – or did, at least, when newspapers were thriving – because most ink-stained wretches, like most teachers, nurses, cabdrivers, police officers, restaurant servers, etc., are not very well paid. Sometimes a really popular columnist does pretty well, but regular reporting, even for columnists, is a lot more difficult than most readers can imagine, and “beat” reporters, if there are any left, tend to be sympathetic to the middle and lower rungs of society because that’s their life, too. Similar charges for TV news have much less credibility. Commercial TV stations are corporate-owned, and TV anchors very well paid compared to print reporters. They don’t generally bite the hand that feeds them, and in that context, I’m inclined to agree with Tim Walker – an important reason why journalists have stopped asking hard questions over the past generation is that sources, whether the newsmakers themselves or their spokespersons, have been allowed to make credible the threat of cutting off access. Without access, a reporter can’t do his/her job for the public.

    Sarah Palin is the poster child for this phenomenon.

    That said, however, it’s important to note that, to some degree at least, this is a red herring. “Liberal bias” is meaningless when the “news” is largely fluff to begin with. Weather takes 10 percent of the broadcast, sports 15 to 20 percent – or more, if something dramatic has happened. Commercials take 10 to 15 percent, and pretty soon, there’s not much room for “liberal bias.” Stories are often presented that have no connection to the local area, but the corollary to “If it bleeds, it leads” is “do we have video?” Many a TV “news” broadcast has focused on dramatic events somewhere that have no impact on the people watching, but because there are dramatic pictures, those events end up being featured. I’m thinking especially of fires, floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters. An event that makes page 5 of the ‘Strib is the lead story on local “news.”

    News coverage doesn’t have to be overtly hostile to be truthful, but journalists have to be – I expect them to be – critical when the occasion calls for it, as it often does in political campaigns and contexts. Somewhere I once read a line to the effect that “reporters should have no friends.” While I don’t want that to be interpreted too literally, I do think it accurately expresses the idea that reporters have a responsibility to call ‘em as they see ‘em, whether it makes someone they like personally uncomfortable or not.

  16. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/30/2010 - 10:25 pm.

    I think what we’re seeing is the impact of a paradox: an increasingly concentrated media and a fragmented audience, i.e. an audience which no longer reads the same newspapers and watches the same TV shows but is able to obtain information from a wide array of media outlets. The right controls a lot of the media and is able to dictate the agenda because of this concentration but obviously people are able to access independent sources to verify that some politicians, like Bachmann, are inveterate liars, who can lie with impunity because the right wing outlets won’t gainsay the message she’s conveying to the audience they serve.
    The great Thorstein Veblen had it pegged in 1904 when he drolly wrote: “The first duty of an editor is to gauge the sentiments of his readers, and then tell them what they like to believe.”

  17. Submitted by Eric Larsson on 09/30/2010 - 10:48 pm.

    One of the main regrets in all this is that the politician, who should instead be a leader, and in so being, be a role model for our kindergartners, is instead exactly not what you want your children to be. And how painful, then, is it to see such unworthy politicians complain so vehemently, when a potential leader, our president, attempts to speak directly to our children in school? How sad for me, to have grown up under the inspiration of Eisenhower and Kennedy, and now to see my own children denied that kind of certainty.

  18. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/01/2010 - 01:05 am.

    //Hmmm….another anti-Bachmann story by the website promised to be “fair” and not “liberal”.

    I’ve never seen this promise anywhere on this website. What I have seen is integrity. A candidate has no one but themselves to blame when they lie and distort, and journalists with integrity call them on it.

    Some people seem to think that “balance” is weird kind of entitlement that they assume will limit criticism. The complaint from these quarters is never about accuracy, but simply content. They don’t seem to care that their candidate is lying, distorting information, or simply ignorant. They just complain that someone has actually reported it.

    To cater to such demands for “balance” is to abandon ones integrity.

  19. Submitted by John E Iacono on 10/01/2010 - 08:04 am.

    Time to grow up, folks — including EB.

    Politicians lie! There’s news!

    Check out what Jefferson’s boys said about the Federalists in 1800! And what their press buddies did about it — Nothing! And then, for “balance,” see what their opponents said.

    Then hear Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates: “I don’t want to call him a liar, but when I come square up to him I don’t know what else to call him…”

    Politicians in America since the beginning have been legitimate brethren to the horse traders and snake oil salesmen. It will ever be so.

    And grown up Americans have always accepted these facts for what they are, filtered their judgements accordingly, and gone on to enjoy the show.

    Grown up Americans today must do likewise.

  20. Submitted by Sheila Kihne on 10/01/2010 - 08:06 am.

    You liberal “journalists” are just too funny.

    The lengths you’ll go to in order to try to disprove off-the-cuff statements…

    Now, what about Mark Dayton whose website says he taught for “2 years” and whose official biography of the US Senate says he taught for “3 years” when there are documents from NYC Schools (that you are fully aware of) which prove he taught from Sept 69-Jan 70 and resigned in Jan 70 for “personal reasons”

    Isn’t that 16 months? Is 16 months 2 years? Is it 3? Isn’t that one “whopper” of a lie.

    Of course your online “news” magazaine is funded by the Daytons.

    What a joke you guys are….what a joke.

  21. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 10/01/2010 - 09:17 am.

    RE #20…

    I recently filled out a job application that required me to list ALL previous work experience. I listed 21 jobs, going back over 36 years. Beyond about 15 years back, I no longer had records of exactly how long I worked in particular jobs, nor how much I was paid, especially side jobs while I was a student and graduate student. What was important was the kinds of jobs I held and the wide variety of experience I gained in the little jobs which eventually helped in the bigger, longer-term jobs.

    Somehow I find those types of inaccuracies about life details from many years back MUCH LESS troubling than current off the cuff LIES about the speaker of the US house boozing it up on airplanes at public expense to the tune of $100,000!

    What was that earlier comment about “false equivalency?”

    For some of our commentators here, I can’t help but wonder if they have a functional broom left in their houses, considering how desperately and frequently they’re willing to grasp at any straw they can find to avoid admitting that their candidate has a history of lying whenever she thinks it might give her a big slice of red meat to throw out to her slavering, growling, base, base.

  22. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 10/01/2010 - 10:08 am.

    I’ll ya what’s funny. It’s funny when conservative champions of integrity and “values” bend over backwards to ignore their own candidates blatant dishonesty and lack of integrity. It’s funny when these self same people try to make “character” an issue. And it’s downright hilarious when they complain about the media whenever their duplicity and hypocrisy are exposed.

    Just when you think the bar can’t get any lower these guys figure out a way to lower it a little bit more, and we’re supposed to follow them into a brave new future. Right.

  23. Submitted by James Hamilton on 10/01/2010 - 12:40 pm.

    May I suggest that politicians don’t apologize because their supporters don’t make them? Frankly, lies and half-lies form the majority of what candidates seem to have to say, about themselves and their opponents. Until we start holding accountable the candidates we support, we’ll continue to get what we let them give us.

  24. Submitted by Lois Garbisch on 10/02/2010 - 02:57 pm.

    Many of these comments have concerned the press’ responsibility in calling out the lies and misstatements of candidates. The press does bear responsibility because except for a few people, none of the rest of us can attend all the campaign speeches and get first hand information. We have to rely on the press. The reporters and editors could do MUCH better at pointing out statements that don’t match reality. Too many of the news shows give about as much time to a political speech (about a minute???) as to the antics of some drunken has-been actress. Too little time is given to a commentator who analyzes the events of the day. The distinction between news reporter/reader and commentator is gone, and some networks make no secret of which way they lean, so how can we know if their reporting and analysis is accurate toward their own leanings?

    Yet, that means we are blaming the news business for the failings of the candidates themselves. If I leave my purse in the car and forget to lock the door, the thief is the one who is guilty, not me or the car. I would be stupid, not guilty.

    Seems to me that if enough reporters reported that candidates play loose with the truth and then their organizations lose access to that candidate, the candidates would soon find that no one is reporting on them. If a candidate speaks to a room that has no reporters, is there any noise? At some point this should help drive home some lessons.

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