Sen. John McCain isn’t used to criticism about his support for veterans. After all, he spent five years in a Vietnamese prison camp and has staked his presidential campaign on a pledge to carry on the Iraq war.Is this objective reporting? Looks like editorial judgment to me, and we're not even to the True/Mostly True/Partly True/Mostly False/False/Pants-On-Fire stage yet. I don't think that writer/researcher Shawn Zeller objectively knows whether or not Sen. McCain is "used to criticism" about his support for veterans. An objective reporter might attempt to count the number of times McCain has received such criticism, but there is reason to doubt that Zeller performed that type of research, for we might expect objective evidence of it in his reporting.
Zeller should perhaps also answer for the "carry on the Iraq war" statement, for that phrasing feeds into partisan portrayals of McCain's stated policy on Iraq, which is to succeed in Iraq. But my PolitiFact entries might quickly turn infinite if I allowed myself to routinely digress on such points. So back to Zeller's op-ed, eh, I mean unbiased objective reporting (pardon the redundancy):
Three paragraphs, and at least two editorial judgments already. Now McCain is "testy." That is not the sort of description that is easily passed off as an objective observation. Fortunately, Zeller is fair and balanced in the subsequent paragraph as he explains McCain's rationale for voting as he did.
But of late, McCain has taken heat from antiwar veterans groups such as VoteVets.org for hedging his support for legislation to expand federal funding to help veterans go to college and then for failing to show up for the Senate vote on a supplemental war spending bill that secured passage of the expanded GI Bill benefits last month.
So when a man confronted McCain during a July 7, 2008, town hall meeting — accusing the Arizona senator of speaking out against the GI bill — McCain got testy.
After that, Zeller is small enough to take a Space Mountain ride on another magnified molehill.
And here we'll have to interrupt Zeller for a while, because the reader is not going to understand what happened without more background. Zeller does not provide adequate background in his story, but at least PolitiFact is nice enough to provide the means to contradict the work of their fact-checkers. The Zeller story has a YouTube embed featuring the town hall exchange in question. So does my version:
All that was true. But then McCain took it too far.
“The reason why I have a perfect voting record from organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion and all the other veterans service organizations is because of my support of them,” he said.
The transcript of that exchange, along with the rest of the event, is available through Congressional Quarterly. As is plain from the video, a question was asked and McCain was in the process of answering the question. While McCain was answering, the questioner interjected additional questions or comments. In my judgment (since one does not objectively call somebody else "testy" without good physical evidence), McCain did become irritated with the interruption but handled it fairly regardless. Here is the relevant portion of the transcript:
McCain's statement about having a "perfect voting record" draws the attention of PolitiFact. And that's fair, to a point, because the statement is not true any more than is Obama's statement that he had already visited 57 of the United States. And I don't write that to belittle the point. It's more likely that somebody would be misled on a point of fact by McCain's statement than by Obama's statement, since most of us are pretty well aware of the number of contiguous United States.
My friend, I -- all I can say is I don't know what you're pointing to, but I've received every award from every major veterans organization in America. I've received every organization in America their awards, sir.
MCCAIN: I don't -- I don't know what you're referring to, nor do...
MCCAIN: ... sir, I'm responding to your question. And then I will let you speak again, if you'd like. But you want to -- the way we try to conduct these is let people finish and then I will go back to you. I'll go right back.
So I don't know what bill you're referring to. And I don't know what you're referring to. And I'll be glad to have you refer to it. But the reason why I have a perfect voting record from organizations like the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion, and all the other veterans service organizations is because of my support of them.
But you can go ahead and respond if you want to. Go ahead. Give him the microphone back.
QUESTION: I'll respond by saying this, that you do not have a perfect voting record by the DAV and the VFW. That's where these votes are recorded.
And the votes were proposals -- they were proposals by your colleagues in the Senate to increase health care funding of the V.A. in 2003, '04, '05, and '06 for troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And you voted against those proposals.
I can give the specific Senate votes, the numbers of those Senate votes right now.
MCCAIN: Right. I thank you, and I'll be glad to examine what your version of my record is. But, again, I've been endorsed in every election by all of the veterans organizations that do that. I've been supported by them, and I've received their highest awards from all of those organizations.
So I guess they don't know something you know. So I thank you very much. And I will continue to be proud of my support for the veterans of this country and proud of their support.
The problem? It isn't likely, given the context, that McCain was trying to convey a false impression. PolitiFact fact-checkers sometimes display a sensitivity to the context and intent of a statement, but sometimes they do not. One entry will tease out the "underlying argument" while the next entry displays an exclusive focus on the superficial. It seems plain enough in this case that McCain's "underlying argument" consisted of his solid record on veterans' issues and support from veterans' organizations. It is possible that McCain meant to deceive listeners by claiming that all veterans' organizations rated him with a perfect voting record. More likely he misspoke, just as Obama did in referring to 57 contiguous United States. The controversial statement occurred in an off-the-cuff and unscripted exchange, and beyond that it was sandwiched between two other statements that more accurately portrayed the level of support McCain enjoys from veterans' organizations.
In the end, I agree with PolitiFact's judgment that the statement was false. But I judge PolitiFact "Mostly False" because their account does quite a bit of misleading.
- It indulges in editorial judgments in advance of reporting the facts
- It feeds gratuitously into the "angry McCain" meme
- It ignores the underlying argument
- It ignores the context