The Magazine

Fact Checking the Fact Checkers (cont.)

From the Scrapbook.

Sep 3, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 47 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Writing in these pages some months ago, Mark Hemingway made the case for being -skeptical of media “fact checking” operations (“Lies, Damned Lies, and ‘Fact Checking,’ ” December 19, 2011). They routinely get the most basic facts wrong; they laughably claim that Republicans lie more than Democrats at a rate of three-to-one; and they niggle over obviously rhetorical statements—but only when Republicans utter them. Hemingway ended his piece by warning that media fact checking organizations were about to launch a blitzkrieg in an attempt to leverage their undeserved status as impartial arbiters to reelect Barack Obama. 

Indeed, with the election drawing near, the disingenuous deluge from fact checkers has been something to behold. Since Paul Ryan was -nominated, there have been scores of misleading and outright false “fact checks” relating to his Medicare reform plan. An Associated Press “fact check” actually upbraided Ryan for quoting Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comment. Supposedly, Ryan didn’t understand the rhetorical context. What that has to do with facts went unexplained.

Then on August 17, a nonpartisan watchdog, Media Trackers, revealed that PolitiFact Ohio writer Tom Feran had a Twitter feed where he referred to conservatives as “wingnuts” and “yahoos,” and sent out links to blog postings on such topics as “the Cancer of Conservatism.” On the other hand, Feran is an enthusiastic Obama supporter—“Go-bama!”—and supporter of Occupy Wall Street. Over the summer, Feran wrote three PolitiFact articles slapping Ohio GOP Senate candidate Josh Mandel with the organization’s “pants on fire” label, and capped it off by writing an article in the ClevelandPlain Dealer headlined “Campaign attacks give Josh Mandel Pants on Fire crown.”

Meanwhile, fact checking organizations have rarely mentioned Obama campaign ads and fundraising emails claiming that Mitt Romney opposes abortion in cases of rape and incest, a flat-out lie. And in the last week, there have been repeated and dishonest Democratic claims in the media that Paul Ryan tried to “redefine rape” by supporting legislation limiting federal funding of abortions. Like the Hyde amendment before it, the legislation distinguished between abortions owing to “forcible rape” and “statutory rape” (only those in the former category have been paid for by Medicaid since 1993). As you might have guessed, the “fact checkers” have not rushed in to clarify things. 

But don’t worry, fact checking organizations are always finding new and creative ways to remind fair-minded readers they have zero credibility. The Scrapbook now submits to you the following email from PolitiFact as evidence of the group’s seriousness of purpose (or rather, lack thereof):

 

This week, we’re releasing Settle It!, a free app to help you resolve dinner-table arguments and test your knowledge of PolitiFact rulings. The app, available in the iTunes, Google Play and Amazon stores, is known as “PolitiFact’s Argument Ender” because it allows you to enter names and keywords and instantly find relevant Truth-O-Meter ratings. It includes the PolitiFact Challenge, an addictive game that shows factual claims we have checked. You have to choose whether each one was rated True, False or Pants on Fire. You earn points and can work your way up through five levels, from “Intern” to “Aide,” “Lobbyist,” “Pundit” and then “Wonk.”

When it comes to PolitiFact’s credibility, we think that does in fact (sorry) settle it.

 

 

Sympathy for the Plagiarist

The Scrapbook is not in the habit of quoting itself, even disapprovingly; but sometimes it cannot be helped. For example, last week, discussing the case of celebrity-plagiarist Fareed Zakaria, we noted that his professional punishment (one week’s suspension from Time, CNN, and the Washington Post) seemed astonishingly lenient, and predicted that he would “no doubt proceed from strength to strength, a sadder but wiser pundit.” 

Well, no sooner had The Scrapbook’s language been rendered into print than the New York Times, as if on cue, produced a full-page, deeply therapeutic profile of the malefactor with this headline: “A Media Personality, Suffering a Blow to His Image, Ponders a Lesson.” And there was a fetching, four-column portrait of -Zakaria, looking fit and rested in jacket and dress shirt (no tie), smiling gamely for the camera, his hands positioned slightly awkwardly on his jean legs.

Note the carefully worded cause and effect: Zakaria did not commit plagiarism; he suffered “a blow to his image,” from which he has learned a lesson. And of course, there is no sense whatsoever that Zakaria had resorted to the lowest means by which any writer can cultivate renown: stealing the words of another, the New Yorker’s Jill Lepore, and touting them as his own. Instead, we are treated to excuses from friends: Zakaria is so gosh-darned busy (“I wish I had one-tenth of the energy and productivity he has”) and profound (“He’s one of the premier global intellectuals”) and always thinking at laser speed (“a phenomenally fast and lucid writer”) that, of course, he inadvertently “confused” his own prose with “notes” taken from two separate sources on the subject. 

Adds the Times, helpfully: “He often writes his research in longhand.” 

None of which is the least bit persuasive. But that doesn’t stop the Times from trying. The reader is treated to the spectacle of an Aspen symposium on the Iraq war, hosted by a Beverly Hills power couple and featuring George Soros, Queen Noor of Jordan, Sen. Dianne Feinstein—and Fareed Zakaria (“I am just so thrilled he -exists,” declares his hostess). Then we are informed, as we might have suspected, that his tenure as editor of Newsweek International had more to do with career management than journalistic enterprise (“Former colleagues .  .  . said he was involved in choosing covers and generating ideas but did little line editing and was more the public face of the magazine”). 

And finally, we learn the lesson: Our hero is such a treasure, such a force of nature, such a boundless resource for the beautiful people from Manhattan to Aspen to Beverly Hills, that he must slacken his pace, take personal stock, and preserve the Fareed Zakaria brand. Accordingly, he has announced that he “plans to cut back work with groups like the Council on Foreign Relations, the Little Shakespeare Company, and the Yale University governing board”—translation: drop the commitments that don’t promote wealth/celebrity. 

Well, all of this proves two things, from The Scrapbook’s perspective. First, in the media stratosphere, the stars will protect themselves, no matter what, and protect one another. And second, celebrity confers immunity: This self-protective, self-sustaining, self-perpetuating state of mind will persist, ad infinitum, in the media—even when one of their number is exposed as a thief.

A rare dissenter, Steven Brill, makes the point memorably in a column for Reuters:

Suppose I steal my neighbor Jill’s flat-screen television and install it in my living room. Jill or one of her friends who knows about Jill’s missing television comes over to my house a few days later, notices the television and asks, “Hey, isn’t that Jill’s television?”

I immediately confess. “Yes, it is,” I say. “I’m really sorry. It was a mistake.” Jill or any interested observer or even the police might ask, “What do you mean by ‘mistake’? Did you mistakenly break into her house and mistakenly haul her huge flat-screen into your living room and set it up on the wall?”

Well, so far, most of the press seems content to let a colleague—Fareed Zakaria .  .  . get off with exactly that explanation.

 

Verily not Cosmo

The passing of the, it turns out, not immortal Helen Gurley Brown this month at the age of 90 seems a fitting occasion to welcome a newcomer to the ranks of women’s magazines. Gurley Brown built Cosmopolitan into the hugely successful bible of “fun fearless females,” whom it encouraged to dress sexy, strive at work, be careful with money, and slough off like last year’s fashion fad any vestigial scruples about sleeping with married men. 

Verily magazine aims to occupy another niche. Its founders are smart young women, some married, most single, who found they didn’t recognize themselves in the pages of Cosmo, or the more recherché Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, or any women’s magazine in between. What real woman does, after all, when models look like heroin addicts, clothes suggest a millionaire’s budget and exhibitionist’s soul, and advice is geared to people whose only relationships appear to be ill-defined, neurotic entanglements with losers? Verily’s founders want their magazine, in the words of editor in chief Kara Eschbach, a veteran of New York’s financial district, to “start new conversations” and help readers “discover the beauty in -everyday life.” They mean to tell women’s stories that are “empowering, affirming, and true.”

Take a look at the teaser issue, available free on the web. It has lovely fashion spreads, elegant design, and thought-provoking articles, like “The Women of ‘Downton Abbey,’ ” “Love and Living Green,” and “Between Two Worlds,” by a Sudanese-American who rejected an arranged marriage. Join The -Scrapbook in wishing this venture a success even Helen Gurley Brown—always a champion of hard-working women—would have applauded. And buy a couple of subscriptions for your favorite young friends.

 

One Man’s Trash .  .  .

There is a scene in the 1983 movie Local Hero where an over-pampered American executive visiting rural Scotland appalls an innkeeper by asking him: “Would you have an [electrical] adapter? I have to charge my briefcase.” He would feel at home on the streets of several Democrat-run American cities today. Since the administration began funneling money to green energy projects in the 2009 stimulus, there has been a proliferation of solar-powered trash cans. That is good news for the Massachusetts-based BigBelly Solar company, which sells the units for $4,000 apiece. Philadelphia has more than a thousand of them. Chicago has hundreds. Boston has hundreds, too, and ordered 400 more in July. Boston’s units must be special, because the price tag on them has reportedly risen to $6,000.

Regular urban trash cans only run about a hundred bucks. But to listen to BigBelly’s executives and urban planners, cities just can’t afford not to buy the things. They don’t only hold the trash, they compact it, leading to .  .  . em .  .  . well, denser trash! “Philadelphia will reduce its collections from 17 to 5 times per week,” ran one early promotional video, “cut its greenhouse gas emissions from collections by 80% .  .  . and save $13 million over the next 10 years.” Oddly, The Scrapbook has seen no press releases announcing the layoffs of now-redundant garbage collectors, or the lowering of municipal tax rates in Philadelphia. 

 

Must Reading

The Scrapbook is a big fan of the distinguished historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. (Really, who isn’t?) So we were very pleased to learn that Rowman & Littlefield has just published a new, expanded edition of her superb collection of essaysThe Moral Imagination. The subtitle of the 2006 edition was “From Edmund Burke to Lionel Trilling.” The new subtitle is “From Adam Smith to Lionel Trilling,” reflecting the fact that the new volume features three additional essays, on Smith, Lord Acton, and Alfred Marshall. 

So now you get 15 dazzling studies of men ranging from John Stuart Mill to Michael Oakeshott, Charles Dickens to John Buchan, and Walter Bagehot to Winston Churchill. And, The Scrapbook hastens to add only partly for fear of being accused of complicity in the famed war on women, not just men—the essays on Jane Austen and George Eliot are two of our favorites. Buy the book and send copies to your friends—you’ll thank us for the recommendation, and they’ll thank you (and Himmelfarb) for the reading enjoyment, the historical education, and the intellectual stimulation. 

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