We know that the mainstream media, even so-called ‘liberal’ ones, tend to be strongly supportive of the status quo and of the interests of the political-business establishment and thus totally against the candidacies of progressives. And one of the ways to observe this bias in action is to note how differently it scrutinizes the statements of candidates it prefers to those it dislikes, setting a low bar for truthfulness for the former and a high bar for the latter.
For example, some years ago, the Washington Post newspaper started Fact Checker section where they would take a politician’s statement about something and run it through a close analysis and come up with a judgment about how true it was. They then gave it a rating of one Pinocchio (“mostly true”), two Pinocchios (“half true”), three Pinocchios (“mostly false”), or four Pinocchios (“Whoppers”), plus some other variations. There is also a Gepetto checkmark for a true statement. The idea behind the exercise seems worthy enough, to have people who can do the hard work of investigating the claims of politicians for the benefit of those of us who do not have the time or expertise to do it ourselves.
But as Tim Dickinson writes, how this is implemented can be highly variable, and he points to one example where the column went to great extent to twist logic and fact in order to give a statement by Bernie Sanders three Pinocchios when in fact the statement was true.
Medical debt is a major driver of personal bankruptcy. This is a fact that Bernie Sanders highlights on the stump in support of his Medicare for All proposal. Sanders, who is more fond of statistics than stories, drives home the point with a big number. “500,000 people go bankrupt every year because they cannot pay their outrageous medical bills,” he said on TV recently, repeating the same point on Twitter:
500,000 Americans will go bankrupt this year from medical bills. They didn’t go to Las Vegas and blow their money at a casino. Their crime was that they got sick. How barbaric is a system that says, “I’m going to destroy your family’s finances because you had cancer”?
As Dickinson notes, Sanders was quoting a study that had been published in the peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health by Dr. David Himmelstein, a professor of public health in the CUNY system and a lecturer at Harvard Medical School. In the process of fact-checking Sanders’s statement, Himmelstein had in fact been asked by the fact checker if the statement was true and he had answered “Yes”.
So why didn’t the Post give Bernie a coveted “Geppetto Checkmark” for truthfulness. (Yes, it’s really called this — you can’t make this shit up.) Who knows?!?
The author spends the rest of the 1,600 word piece splitting hairs and then tying them into knots. He takes it upon himself to not simply fact check Sanders, but the medical journal that Sanders relied on. And it turns out that, if you dig down far enough, you can uncover a minor-league academic beef about bankruptcy statistics, with professors arguing about the extent to which one can say the contributing factor of medical debt is actually what “caused” the bankruptcy.
That’s the basis for the three Pinoccchios? If you use that standard, then briefly summarizing the results of any academic study would be ruled to be false.
But as I have said repeatedly, the purpose of such journalistic exercises is not to arrive at the truth but to police the candidates and set the boundaries of debate. And when it comes to health care, this means making sure that the interests of the health insurance, medical, and drug companies are protected from those seeking a radical change in the system.
As an aside, Dickinson raises a minor point that has also bothered me, and that’s the misuse of the Pinocchio metaphor. According to the story, the wooden boy’s nose would grow longer when he told a lie and shorter when he told the truth so the length of the nose should be the measure of a statement’s falsity. And yet the paper goes with the idea that the number of Pinocchios increases with the scale of the lie, as if in the story the toy got cloned. Also why is a Geppetto the standard for truthfulness? It is a mess.