FACTS AND LEGENDS: Where do facts come from?


Part 2—What Jay Carney said: If it wasn’t for facts which are bungled, misleading or false, would we have any facts at all?

Sometimes, it seems we wouldn’t. Bogus facts have come to play a leading role in our pitiful discourse, especially as the discourse has become more tribal.

Tribal groups like to generate “facts” which seem to support preferred policy goals. They’re too lazy to argue the genuine merits of their proposals. So they gin up a few helpful “facts.”

It seems that something like this occurred on February 2, when former journalist Jay Carney dispensed the following highlighted “facts.” Carney, now the Obama press sec, was discussing the administration’s original proposal concerning contraception coverage:
CARNEY (2/2/12): In some of the commentary about it, there's been some misstatements about what it actually does. No individual will be required to use or prescribe contraception. This rule does not force anyone with a religious objection, such as a Catholic doctor, to prescribe or provide contraception. It merely requires that insurance companies provide coverage for contraceptives to patients who want them, which is the recommendation of the non-partisan Institute of Medicine.

And it's important to note that doctors prescribe contraception for medical and health reasons, including helping to reduce the risk of some cancers.

It's also important to know, because I think this has not been clear in some of the commentary, that the policy maintains the religious-employer exemption. Churches are not required, they're exempt. Other houses of worship are not required, they're exempt, to cover contraception.

So it's also important to note that as we developed this policy and found what we believe is the appropriate balance, that 28 states, more than half—28 states in the country have laws with contraception-coverage mandates. Over half of Americans already live in those 28 states. Several of those states, like North Carolina, New York and California, have identical religious-employer exemptions. Some states, like Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemption at all—no exemption for churches or other houses of worship.
At one time, Carney was a journalist. This may explain why he was comfortable offering those highlighted statements. At any rate, the highlighted part of Carney’s statement launched a thousand factual claims. It seems that many of these claims have turned out to be false or misleading.

If it weren’t for misleading facts, would we have facts at all?

Let’s be clear: The highlighted part of Carney’s statement can be defended as technically accurate. According to all the reporting we’ve seen, 28 states actually do “have laws with contraception-coverage mandates.” Over half of us rubes do live in those states. Some of those states do have religious-employer exemptions which are, at least on the surface, identical to the exemptions found in the original Obama proposal—the proposal Carney was discussing that day. According to the Washington Post, some states do have “no exemption at all—no exemption for churches or other houses of worship.”

At least on the surface.

As far as we know, every part of Carney’s statement can be defended as technically accurate. Unfortunately, the statement also seems to have been misleading in various ways. The Washington Post discussed some of these factual problems in a recent news report (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/21/12); a few days earlier, the New York Times had called attention to one apparent problem (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/17/12). But supporters of the Obama proposal quickly began repeating Carney’s factual claims, in a wide variety of ways. We rubes were told, again and again, the 28 states already make the kinds of demands encompassed within the Obama proposal. This alleged fact allegedly showed that the bishops’ objections to Obama’s proposal were hypocritical or bogus, we rubes were frequently told.

None of this has a thing to do with the actual merits of Obama’s proposal, whether in its original form or in the amended version. But you know how our discourse works! Supporters of various proposals are often too lazy, or too tribalized, to argue the actual merits. Instead, they look for shortcuts. They may be especially drawn to shortcuts which help us see that The Other Tribe is really a big gang of hypocrites! Unlike us! We’re OK!

In this case, supporters of Obama’s proposal were quick to help the proposal along with some bungled or misleading facts. The widespread claims about those 28 states track to Carney’s statement.

Within our discourse, where do facts come from? In this instance, Carney’s misleading factual statements launched a thousand ships. But a second statement, released the next day, was quite widely ignored. That statement came from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, a group which tormented our earliest years, making Sunday the most horrible day of the week; their statement seems to have identified some of the flaws with Carney’s claims. In this part of their rebuttal, the bishops frisked one part of Carney’s statement:
Claim: "Over half of Americans already live in the 28 States that require insurance companies cover contraception: Several of these states, like North Carolina, New York, and California have identical religious employer exemptions. Some States like Colorado, Georgia and Wisconsin have no exemption at all."

Response: This misleads by ignoring important facts, and some of it is simply false. All the state mandates, even those without religious exemptions, may be avoided by self-insuring prescription drug coverage, by dropping that particular coverage altogether, or by taking refuge in a federal law that pre-empts any state mandates (ERISA).None of these havens is available under the federal mandate. It is also false to claim that North Carolina has an identical exemption...
However a person may judge the merits of Obama’s original or amended proposal, that highlighted statement seems to be accurate (and relevant). But this rebuttal launched very few ships. Everyone heard about 28 states. Few people heard about self-insurance, or about the ways the proposed federal mandate would exceed the reach of the laws found in most (perhaps all) of those states.

Over and over, people were told about 28 states. It was only this week that the Washington Post did a first news report about the laws in those states. The New York Times still hasn’t bothered.

But then, what else is new? When it comes to the coverage of domestic politics, the Times is a long-running joke.

In the end, none of this speaks to the actual merits of the Obama proposal, however one may judge those merits. It does speak to the dishonest ways we generate “facts” in our culture. Indeed, bogus facts have played the key role in our debates down through the years:

In similar ways, we the people got conned into thinking that “no one was talking about Medicare cuts” back in the mid-1990s. In that case, the misleading facts were aggressively pimped by Newt Gingrich and his minions. These misleading “facts” were then widely advanced by the lost souls of our mainstream “press corps.”

(Bill Clinton got branded a LIAR in the process, although he was telling the truth. You see, conservative power was gaining force in DC—and our “journalists” wanted to serve.)

In similar ways, Fox News viewers are currently being told that “gas prices have doubled under Obama.” As with Carney’s claim about the 28 states, that claim is technically accurate—and it’s grossly misleading.

Where do facts come from in our world? Often, they come right out of partisan asses! Cable hustlers then shout them along, justifying swollen salaries. We the rubes begin to believe that we’ve heard the actual facts. We don’t understand that we’re being misled by folk who may not be real honest.

In this way, the dumbness spreads. So does the tribal division. At one time, this was an artifact of the right.

Our side has been catching up fast.

Tomorrow: Facts are dead—long live legends!


  1. Lawrence O'Donnell pointed out the problems with the "28 states have the same contraception mandates" claim several weeks ago. I don't remember if it was just before or just after the "accommodation".

  2. And one supposes this passion for the literal truth of the matter, in the public arena of restricted American attention spans, is to ensure that liberals are even more mealy-mouthed, more dithering and more self-reflexive, because jeez, liberal determination to anguish over both sides of the issue has yielded great results so far!

    So, despite a crude and vicious political culture which isn't going to begin to report on or consider the nuances, liberals simply *must* wander the halls, Hamlet-like, considering this side and that side, and admitting all their faults and inconsistencies, and scrupulously giving the other side every bit its due and every benefit of the doubt, because, don't you know, this is a debating society, not a struggle for power and policy!

    So instead of having Democrats stand up and say, freedom of religion also means freedom *from* religion, and that the employees of religious corporations with billions in assets must also be free from religion, what do we get?

    What we get is anguished liberals, anguishing over inaccuracies which are entirely beside the point. But hey (as they so miserably say), it's had great results for us so far! Maybe we can convince Mondale or Dukakis to run again! It's so much better to tell the literal truth (meager as the likes of Mondale or Dukakis could see it), and for which the public has no time, and lose!

    1. Inaccuracies? They're "entirely beside the point!"

      Make up whatever cr@p you want.

      Surely, the good(er) guys and gals will soon take the reins of power and policy once we get behind such well-loved nostrums as "freedom from religion."

    2. @Swan:

      You take the world as you find it. We're talking here not about the factual world, but about mass media, political advocacy and advertising, and what's possible in that sphere. In case you didn't notice, American political campaigns are actually advertising campaigns. They bear little relationship to reality, on either side, and both parties actively deceive their bases. If anything, Democratic pols are the worse liars -- they run progressive, but govern center-right. Repubs, by contrast, deliver far more of what they promise, egregious policy though it is. Just look at Obama, for example, who's probably the worst liar ever, comparing his campaign rhetoric of 2007/8, with his policies as president.

      Fact-based campaigns would be delightful, but expecting "your side" to tell the literal truth, and nothing but the literal truth, while the other side plays by it's own rules, is a little silly. Even more so, when "you" don't actually have a side. Last time I checked, MSNBC wasn't taking its orders from the Occupy Wall Street or the progressive movement.

      Besides, there are far graver lies told daily in the American media, in which both sides are complicit. But these lies are, curiously, of no interest to the Howler. Far better to concentrate on misinformation about wardrobes, bald spots, contraception coverage and Love Story.

    3. Keep moving around and maybe you'll get somewhere? -- is that your strategy?

      Before, your suggestion amounted to "having Democrats stand up and say, freedom of religion also means freedom *from* religion." Hilariously, you apparently thought in all seriousness that was a winning idea...

      But you've moved on. Now you're all about the "far graver lies... in which both sides are complicit."

      You don't say what those lies are, but you seem to think getting Bob Somerby to address them would represent a useful engagement with the real world compared to his current work.

      Maybe you should just step up to the podium and say what you think, instead of dancing about like this, OK?

  3. Where do facts come from?
    I listened to Mike Malloy yesterday. For those of you that don’t know him, he is like Mike Papantonio on meth. Both Mikes are on Sirius Left (Sirius XM).
    Mike was talking about the new Virginia bill requiring all women seeking abortion to get a sonogram, and to view the sonogram before abortion is permitted.
    I have not had time to research any of his claims, but here they are in a nutshell.
    The sonogram is not a medically necessary procedure. Doctors are required to perform unneeded tests.
    Insurance providers, for the reason cited above, do not cover sonograms.
    This puts abortion beyond the reach of poorer women.
    The sonogram is intravaginal, or trans vaginal. It is invasive.
    Now it gets weird. The probe emits sonic waves at a high frequency, so in effect, if a woman wants to get an abortion in Virginia, she must pay a doctor to put a vibrator in her vagina. (Mike Malloy’s words).
    As I said, I can’t verify all these claims, but they do boggle the mind.
    I am skeptical, but I have no doubt many liberals will buy into every one of these statements.
    Regardless of Malloy’s claims, Virginia is NOT for lovers.

    1. The Washington Post notes:

      Virgina’s proposed requirement of an ultrasound prior to abortion has been the subject of everything from Saturday Night Live parodies to sizable protests in Richmond. The backlash has been so strong that Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell looks to be walking back his support on the issue. Until this week, the governor had been firm in his commitment to signing the bill. But just this afternoon, McDonnell has put out a statement asking his legislature to rework the measure.

      What makes this all slightly surprising is that the Virginia law is not new. Twenty states have ultrasound-related abortion restrictions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, six of which closely resemble the one Virginia is debating. Virginia’s proposal is by no means the most restrictive, either: Texas passed a law last year that goes much further, requiring the doctor to read a verbal description of the ultrasound image to the pregnant woman.


    2. Planned Parenthood policy already requires ultrasounds before abortion procedures.

      “That’s just the medical standard,” said Adrienne Schreiber, an official at Planned Parenthood’s Washington, D.C., regional office. “To confirm the gestational age of the pregnancy, before any procedure is done, you do an ultrasound.”

      According to Schreiber, Planned Parenthood does require women to give signed consent for abortion procedures, including the ultrasound. But if the women won’t consent to the ultrasound, the abortion cannot take place, according to the group’s national standards.

      Schreiber said there are several options at that point. If the woman is uncomfortable with a transvaginal ultrasound, which is more invasive, she can wait until the fetus is large enough to opt for a transabdominal ultrasound.


    3. So, if PP already does the procedure required by the new Va law, what is the point of passing the law? You can't take an existing requirement and then write a law around it if it's unnecessary unless you want to punish a violator.
      So, what is the point of passing a law that mandates what already happens?