The Magazine

Damned Lies and ‘Fact Checking’ (cont.)

From The Scrapbook

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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It was just two issues ago that The Weekly Standard published Mark Hemingway’s devastating brief against media “fact checkers” and their systematic bias against the right (“Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Fact Checking,’ ” December 19, 2011). But Fortuna is a capricious sprite, and The Scrapbook awoke last week to find the left spitting nails about PolitiFact, the influential column produced by the St. Petersburg Times. For its “Lie of the Year,” PolitiFact selected Democrats’ claim that Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget​—​passed by the House GOP earlier this year​—​would “end Medicare.” 

Cartoon of boxing match between an elephant and a donkey

Practically the entire liberal wonkery cried foul, including writers at the New Republic, Slate, Mother Jones, and Washington Monthly. Paul Krugman, the New York Times’s attack-pundit, conjectured that PolitiFact was “terrified of being considered partisan . . . so they’ve bent over backwards to appear ‘balanced’​—​and in the process made themselves useless and irrelevant.”

On the merits, they have a point. Sure, saying Ryan’s reform “ends Medicare” is arguably inaccurate and certainly misleading. But to what extent is it a “lie”? The Medicare program is $30 trillion in debt. We simply can’t begin to address that fiscal black hole without ablating Medicare as it currently exists. Accordingly, Ryan has been fairly explicit about the need for fundamental change in the program. Anyone who’s honest about our fiscal predicament knows that “ending Medicare” in favor of a program structured differently is the point.

However, as a political matter, the timing of PolitiFact’s dubious honor is not helpful to Democrats. Senator Ron Wyden just signed on to a version of Ryan’s plan, and other congressional Democrats want to end the Medicare cost control plan in Obamacare, aka the Independent Payment Advisory Board. IPAB is Obama’s scheme to empower federal bureaucrats to set the Medicare budget without congressional approval. Sarah Palin famously called it a “death panel,” an obviously hyperbolic opinion that PolitiFact made its 2009 “Lie of the Year.” The same liberal pundits angry at PolitiFact now clucked in approval then. 

And until last week, they had good reason to be pleased with Politi-Fact. If, as Krugman’s column suggests, PolitiFact is terrified of being considered partisan, that’s because they are partisan. A University of Minnesota survey found the organization has accused Republicans of telling more falsehoods than Democrats by a rate of two to one. 

Thanks to PolitiFact’s latest effort, our friends on the left, such as the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn, are belatedly noticing that “fact checkers” have “a tendency to confuse statements of opinion, or interpretation, for statements of fact.” Indeed. 

It’s high time liberal pundits figured out that there’s more going on in this fact-checking bordello than raucous piano music. If they’d been paying attention, they would have long ago stopped patronizing these journalistic houses of ill repute.

Occupied Trinity

To The Scrapbook’s knowledge, there is no evidence Jesus ever said “no good deed goes unpunished.” But if He had, the clergy at Trinity Wall Street in Lower Manhattan would know precisely what He meant.

When the Occupy Wall Street mob first assembled in neighboring Zuccotti Park, the Trinity clergy did what Episcopal clergymen have been reliably doing for the past half-century: embrace the latest left-wing fad. According to the New York Times, Trinity offered the enclave of superannuated hippies, assorted thugs, anarchists, student radicals, and anti-Semites not just “expressions of sympathy, but also meeting spaces, resting areas, pastoral services, electricity, bathrooms, even blankets and hot chocolate.” Go to the Trinity Wall Street website and savor the photographs and accompanying essays. (Our favorite: “Occupy Everything!” by the Rev. Daniel Simons.)

But of course, the character of OWS swiftly turned from peace and love and equality to vandalism and violence and intimidation, prompting Mayor Michael Bloomberg (belatedly) to eject the trespassers and scour the park. This left the diminished ranks of Occupy hangers-on with no place to squat until they settled on a parking lot adjacent to another open space called Duarte Park​—​both owned, as it happens, by Trinity Wall Street. 

This time, however, the rector of Trinity, the Rev. James Cooper, decided that enough had been done on behalf of OWS, and he refused to allow the squatters to occupy church property. Which produced the inevitable reaction: Occupiers have threatened clergy and parishioners, invaded the church precincts, held loud demonstrations, and even enlisted the rhetorical aid of friendlier clerics (“Trinity blew it,” says the Rev. Milind Sojwal of All Angels Church on the Upper West Side). Scrapbook readers will not be surprised to learn that Archbishop Desmond Tutu has weighed in, very publicly, on both sides of the issue: demanding that Trinity “find a way to help” the protesters while admonishing the protesters to behave themselves.

Good luck with that. In the meantime, however, and to The Scrapbook’s surprise and gratification, Cooper has not budged: “Trinity has probably done as much or more for the protesters than any other institution in the area,” he writes on the church website. 

Calling this an issue of “political sanctuary” is manipulative and blind to reality. Equating the desire to seize this property with uprisings against tyranny is misguided, at best. Hyperbolic distortion drives up petitions signatures, but doesn’t make it right.

To which The Scrapbook can only say, Amen.

Who’s Afraid of the Arab League?

Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., is apparently surprised that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad won’t stop killing just because he’s been asked to cut it out. Reports of mass slaughter from Syria, Rice wrote last week on her Twitter feed, came “just 2 days after #Syria committed to the #ArabLeague initiative.” 

It is unclear what Rice expected. If a ruler is leading a bloody campaign against the people to whom he is supposed to be accountable, it is foolish to expect him to respect the diplomatic entreaties of foreign institutions. Rice merits some credit for her outspoken support of the Syrian opposition, and even more for her impassioned speech in October attacking Russia and China for blocking a Security Council resolution condemning Assad. But again, did she expect two notorious human rights abusers would pave the way for Western democracies to quash an authoritarian regime? And why does the Obama administration expect anything useful of the Arab League? This is the triumph of that hopey-changey stuff over experience. 

Founded in 1945 in Cairo, the Arab League showed its colors when it relocated to Tunisia from 1979-1989 to protest Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel. The last general secretary of this august body was Amr Moussa, now a candidate for the presidency of Egypt. In 2000, an Egyptian musician named Shaaban Abdel Rahim recorded “I Hate Israel, but I Love Amr Moussa.” The wildly popular response to the song so alarmed Mubarak that he removed Moussa, then his foreign minister, from his cabinet and emplaced him at the Arab League. This reshuffle indicated that Mubarak, like other Arab rulers, considered the institution weak, ineffective, and a dark closet where interlopers could be sent to spin their wheels.

It’s true that the Arab League’s condemnation of Muammar Qaddafi was something of a prerequisite for the NATO campaign in Libya, lending cover as it did to a White House that seeks legitimacy in the strangest quarters. But with the Syrian crisis escalating toward civil war, the White House has essentially farmed out its policy to an institution that many in the Middle East understand is a joke. 

Nonetheless, as Frederic Hof, the administration’s pointman on Syria, crowed last week, the Arab League initiative is “the main game in town”​—​suggesting that the White House doesn’t have its own playbook. The initiative calls for monitors who will bear witness to the violence and thereby, as administration spokesmen have explained, shame Assad from committing more violence. The game is silly enough​—​a regime that posts YouTube videos of its own atrocities to intimidate the opposition is incapable of being shamed by witnesses​—​but the game’s players are plain evil.

The head of the Arab League’s mission to Syria is General Mohammed Ahmed Mustafa al-Dabi, a close colleague of Omar al-Bashir, the Sudanese president who has been charged by the International Criminal Court for crimes of genocide in Darfur. Dabi became chief of military intelligence the day that Bashir came to office in 1989, and in 1996-1999 was head of military operations against the insurgency in what became South Sudan. In other words, the Arab League has sent Assad a man who can explain to the Syrian dictator how best to get away with murder. After all, the ICC may want to get its hands on Dabi’s friend and boss, but Omar al-Bashir still rules Sudan. Wouldn’t Assad like a similar outcome?

“It is past time for the killing & suffering in #Syria to come to an end,” Ambassador Rice tweeted last week. That’s correct​—​but there’s no use in the White House looking to the Arab League to stop it.

Insidious Bias

The Scrapbook has always maintained that the media deny the existence of left-wing bias for a very good reason: It is invisible to them. Most journalists are so successfully indoctrinated, so reflexively liberal, so submerged in the culture of the left, that they simply don’t see what is obvious to everyone else. It’s a little like expecting fish to notice the ocean.

We were reminded of this when we read Joe Nocera’s op-ed column in the New York Times about the financial meltdown. For the past couple of years, Nocera and economists Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto of the American Enterprise Institute have been dueling over the extent of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac’s culpability in the crisis: Wallison and Pinto assign a fair amount of blame to the hybrid agencies; Nocera thinks their guilt is exaggerated.

The Scrapbook will spare readers details of the column​—​needless to say, Nocera sticks to his guns and, in Times op-ed fashion, persists in characterizing Wallison/Pinto as “loony.” What caught our attention, though, was his rhetorical sleight of hand. Early in the piece, Nocera refers to Wallison and Pinto as resident scholars “at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.” But when he searches for outside validation of his views, he calls upon “David Min, a leading Wallison critic at the Center for American Progress.”

Anybody notice the difference? That’s right: While Peter Wallison and Edward Pinto are employed by “the conservative” AEI, there is no comparable epithet to describe David Min’s employer. It’s just the plain Center for American Progress, an innocent bystander in the ideological wars.

Except, of course, that it isn’t. CAP was founded by ex-Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta and proudly proclaims its left-wing character. The Scrapbook happens to believe that CAP is infinitely more hack-partisan, and considerably less scholarly, than AEI; but that’s beside the point. The left-wingers at the Center for American Progress are entitled to their opinions; Nocera, however, is being underhanded when he pins an ideological label on AEI but fails to do the same for CAP.

Indeed, The Scrapbook is more disappointed than annoyed about this, since Joe Nocera is usually better than the standard Times ideologue. Which goes to show how pervasive, and insidious, that ideological bias can be. 

Indefensible

You might think it hard to find a way to praise a totalitarian regime that urges its starving subjects to do their patriotic duty and eat less, but think again. Writing in the London Times about the death of Kim Jong Il, bestselling author Simon Winchester, who has written some fine books, managed to put a blot on his literary escutcheon:

The State’s founder, Kim Il Sung, claimed that all he wanted for North Korea was to be socialist, and to be left alone. .  .  . Perhaps inevitably, North Korea’s attempt appears to be tottering. But seeing how South Korea has turned out​—​its Koreanness utterly submerged in neon, hip-hop and every imaginable American influence, a romantic can allow himself a small measure of melancholy: North Korea, for all its faults, is undeniably still Korea, a place uniquely representative of an ancient and rather remarkable Asian culture. And that, in a world otherwise rendered so bland, is perhaps no bad thing. 

A country memorably described by the late Christopher Hitchens as a “necrocracy” doesn’t strike us as romantic. Authentic Korean culture has been supplanted in the North by oppressive Maoist and Stalinist precepts far worse than, say, hip-hop. And if being free of outside influences is such a good thing, why did North Korea’s late dictator kidnap people from other countries for his own amusement? We trust Winchester will come to regret defending such a grotesque regime.

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