The PolitiFact analysis continues in keeping with a tradition that needs considerable improvement.
Angie Drobnic Holan wrote this supposed piece of fact-checking. After reading it, I couldn't help but wonder what made this seem like something worth the time investment.
This is the statement under consideration:
Remember, under the Obama plan . . . all the health care in this country is eventually going to be run by the government.The conventions of AP style call for an ellipsis (". . .") where a portion of the statement has been left out. It is not an indication that Coburn paused while speaking. Journalists want us to trust that we're not really missing anything when they edit quotations. Unfortunately, suspicion is often warranted.
Fortunately, we can check the context from the Fox News video link at the top of this post. Here's what Coburn said:
Remember, under the Obama plan all the government health care eventually is going to be--all the health care in this country is eventually going to be run by the government. Which means, if in fact you receive money from the government you'll be under their tutelage to do what they say needs to be done.
Though PolitiFact does properly set the broader context, that being the change in a policy intended to protect conscientious objection for health care workers, this entry fails to make clear what is quite apparent upon viewing Coburn's statements. That is, Coburn started a sentence, brought himself up short, and started again. Coburn had himself tied in knots with the first attempt since he was headed toward the redundant proclamation that all government health care would be under the control of the government.
Finding himself in that predicament, Coburn cut himself short and made the statement that PolitiFact connected to the first part of the other sentence via ellipsis.
Was that connection by PolitiFact justified?
In one sense it was. It is possible that people hearing Coburn speak might think he was making a judgment about Obama's health care plan that is not accurate.
In another sense it wasn't. I think there's considerable doubt that Coburn was making a statement about the particulars of Obama's stated health care position. I think it is more likely that he was talking about the slippery-slope nature of government involvement in health care. The last sentence from my transcript of Cohen's statement looks like his attempt to clarify what he meant. The PolitiFact entry omits that portion.
As a matter of charitable interpretation, uncertainty about a statement should prompt us to ask the speaker what it is they intended to say. Whether or not she sustained any uncertainty about what Coburn meant, Drobnic attempted that in this case:
We asked Coburn's office about his remarks. "What matters is not just President Obama’s intent, or what his plan states, but the likely effect and consequences of his plan," said spokesman John Hart. "Under Obama’s approach, the only plans left standing will be those controlled by the government."That fits with my interpretation of Coburn's statements, even if it falls short of specifically stating that Coburn did not mean to state that Obama's plan put all health care under government control. And, as ususal, I wonder what specific query Drobnic used that drew the response she quoted.
The PolitiFact conclusion following that paragraph seems curious. Instead of using it to illuminate Coburn's intent, Drobnic instead seems to treat it as a distraction:
That may be Sen. Coburn's opinion on what could happen, but it's definitely not part of Obama's plan.Right. So maybe Coburn wasn't saying what he is being presented as having said, in terms of his intent? Drobnic continues:
And Coburn was very specific in saying that "under the Obama plan, all the health care in this country is eventually going to be run by the government." That gives the incorrect impression that Obama is promoting a government-run health care system. He's not. We rate Coburn's statement False.What a load of baloney. Coburn was not "very specific in saying" that all health care in this country would eventually be run by the government under the Obama plan. Coburn experienced a verbal train wreck during the interview. It is ridiculous to take the errant portion of his remarks, graft a portion of that to his renewed effort to express himself and then proclaim that hybrid "very specific." Adding insult to this injury, Drobnic now produces a quotation of Coburn that flunks AP style by dropping the ellipsis in favor of a comma. And Bill Adair let it pass when he edited the story.
I'd be inclined to grade PolitiFact a D+ for this entry since there is some value in making sure that people are not misled by what Coburn literally said. However, if I were to grade PolitiFact according to the measure it uses on others, I would have to rate this entry False, for it produces the impression that Coburn said something he probably did not mean to say and compounds that impression by falling short of basic journalistic standards for the handling of quotations.
Prior this posting, I e-mailed Angie Drobnic Holan to ask what had prompted her to write this entry for PolitiFact. I asked because the good folks at PolitiFact have not bothered to comment on any aspect of President Obama's ~SOTU SOTU speech--the speech in which he cheerfully repeated a statement that PolitiFact had graded false in the recent past. It makes me very curious about what standards are used when deciding to pursue a fact-check story.
Here's the message I sent:
Dear Angie Drobnic Holan,Within about 15 minutes of sending the message, I had someone with a St. Petersburg Times Internet number poking around the site. Chances are it was Drobnic herself. Given that I have not yet received any response to what should be an exceptionally easy question to address, we are left to wonder why the question appears destined to remain unanswered.
Simple question: What prompted you to examine the statement by Tom Coburn for PolitFact, please?
I'm just looking for the basic facts regarding motivation, such as response to reader inquiries, you just happened to be watching Fox News that day, or Bill Adair made you do it. That sort of thing.
If you choose to respond, please indicate whether or not I have permission to publish the relevant portion of your reply.
Thanks, and have a fabulous weekend.
1) The survey of my blog was so offensive, given my fairly frequent brickbat treatment of the Times and PolitiFact, that she decided not to waste her time.
2) She has a longstanding policy of not replying to e-mail queries.
3) The true answer would be embarrassing and she didn't want to lie about it.
I look forward to a second update of this entry, in hopes that none of the above are correct.
Mar 9, 2009: Edited to remove a misspelled version of "specifically."