Techniques for Untruth
As the 2012 election season lurches into full activity and the presidential darling of 2008 looks increasingly beatable, members of the Obama campaign team, also known as the mainstream press, realize there's much work to do keeping their man in the White House.
Two recent NPR stories display some techniques available to journalist-activists, allowing them to misrepresent truth while at the same time maintaining an appearance of objectivity. One of these stories, ironically enough, presented itself as a fact check of the recent Republican presidential candidate debate; the other dealt with conservative critiques of government funding for birth control services.
Take a look at the techniques illustrated below. My guess is we'll be seeing a lot of them in the coming months.
Technique 1: Don't bother to place matters into any meaningful context.
In the course of the so-called fact check, the journalists dug into the charge and counter-charge between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry regarding who created more jobs, them or their predecessors. It seems Michael Dukakis created jobs at a faster rate than Romney in Massachusetts, and both Ann Richards and George W. Bush created jobs at a faster rate than Perry in Texas.
By comparing Romney unfavorably with Dukakis while simultaneously stating that Perry's record is no better than the Democrat Richards or the much-vilified Bush, the reporters achieve a double-win. Here they attack two Republican candidates at once without appearing to attack either.
The problem with their "fact check" is that it is largely meaningless. Perry boasts of success in Texas during a very tough decade. Without comparing each candidate's record with the larger national picture, this reporting is only statistical trivia.
Technique 2: Ignore inconvenient facts.
In the same report, the intrepid NPR fact-checkers scrutinized Rick Perry's comments about Social Security:
It is a Ponzi scheme to tell our kids that are 25 or 30 years old today, you're paying into a program that's gonna be there. Anybody that's for the status quo with Social Security today is involved with a monstrous lie to our kids.
Reporter Tamara Keith then cites the Social Security trustees. "But the reality is that Social Security will actually be there for those in their 20s and 30s right now, even though none of us believe it," she claims, and then she reports that the trustees assert that the system can continue to pay out for the next 25 years and at a 75% rate thereafter. That seems to settle matters and prove Perry to have missed the facts. Or does it?
Twenty-five years from now, those in their 20s and 30s will be anywhere from 45 to 64 years of age, not retirees largely. If the trustees are correct, these people can expect their benefits to be only 75% of what is expected. I'm not sure what Tamara Keith thinks, but I would suggest that a 25% cut in pay does not constitute the system being there in the way we would hope.
Technique 3: Appeal to authority.
One of the classic logical fallacies is the appeal to authority, which the fact-checkers at NPR use twice in as many minutes. First, they dismiss Ron Paul's criticism of Rick Perry's attempt to require the HPV vaccine. After Dr. Paul calls the governor's efforts "not good medicine," the reporters cite "the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Society of Adolescent Health and Medicine, among others" as authorities.
The implication here is that Ron Paul is at best out of touch with contemporary medicine and at worst a bad physician.
What they gloss over is that an organization does not necessarily represent all of its constituents. The American Academy of Pediatrics, as an organization, does not practice medicine or write prescriptions. Only the individual doctor, someone like Paul, can do so. Is Paul out of step? Maybe, but this list of organizations does not prove the case.
This same technique is used as the reporters fact-check Rick Perry's critique of the "scientific consensus" on man-made global warming. To counter Perry's claims, reporter Richard Harris states, "[T]he basic concept of human-induced global warming is actually overwhelmingly accepted by climate scientists. You can look at the National Academy of Sciences, many of the world academies of sciences and many professional organizations."
First of all, one wonders why Harris feels the need to supplement the position a majority of climate scientists with professional organizations. Is the opinion of the National Academy of Sciences more significant than the individual opinions of its members? Second, his own words, "overwhelmingly accepted" and "many" actually prove Perry's assertion that the science is not settled.
Technique 4: Misrepresent the facts.
In responding to the same exchange regarding global warming, Richard Harris goes on to "fact-check" Perry's Galileo analogy: "Galileo got outvoted for a spell." Harris then trots out the typical account of Galileo as victimized by a narrow-minded and anti-intellectual church. Galileo's conflict, according to Harris, was with these medieval holdovers and not with the scientists of his day.
The reality is that Galileo met most of his opposition not for running afoul of a closed-minded church, but because he alienated powerful allies by breaking a promise to them. Galileo, unlike a good scientist, stated his theories as fact without having assembled appropriate proof. He did not have the support of the bulk of natural philosophers -- they didn't call them scientists in his day.
In short, upon fact-checking the fact-checker, he's just plain wrong.
Technique 5: Rig the line-up.
One simple technique, employed in Julie Rovner's piece on birth control, allows a reporter to seem objective while actually employing significant bias. First, you present information from the side of the question that you do not favor. Rovner quotes Marjorie Dannenfelser as claiming that increased birth control spending does not reduce abortion numbers. Then you allow the person from your side of the issue to rebut the assertion, as Rovner did.
But that's simply not the case, says Emily Stewart, director of public policy for Planned Parenthood.
"Without a doubt, when women have access to birth control, it reduces unintended pregnancies," Stewart said. "The truth is we need to do more."
By giving Stewart the last word, Rovner presents her position without obviously compromising her objectivity.
Technique 6: Ignore obvious logical problems.
In the same report, Rovner follows Stewart's comments by noting that the number of abortions "has declined considerably over the last two decades." Immediately after this assertion, the reporter goes on:
But supporters of birth control like Stewart say the reason is that there hasn't been enough access to contraception. Funding for Title X, the federal government's main family planning program, has largely remained flat - mostly due to abortion-related fights. So it hasn't kept up with inflation or population growth. As a result, Stewart says, "millions and millions of Americans in need of publicly funded family planning services today are not getting access to family planning services."
Let's connect the dots that Rovner ignored. Stewart claims that more birth control funding leads to few abortions. Stewart points out that Title X funding for birth control has declined (due to inflation), resulting in a greater need. Rovner observes that actual numbers of abortions have declined. Is Rovner missing the point directly in front of her? If Stewart is correct, then a decline (inflation-adjusted) in Title X funds should lead to an increase in abortions, yet there has been a decrease. Oddly, our reporter didn't bother to ask about this inconsistency.
Keep an eye open for these six techniques and others. As Obama bumbles and dithers his way through his first term, we can expect to see an ever more frequent use of such campaigning masquerading as reporting.
Mark Browning blogs about Christianity and literature at A Noble Theme.