Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Glenn Beck and dog insurance

Until yesterday, I did not have enough information to grade PolitiFact on this item. I owe a hat tip to Media Matters for posting the audio.


The issue:




The fact checkers:

Robert Farley: writer, researcher
Bill Adair: editor


Analysis:

We'll dive right into the PolitiFact story, from the beginning:
We're months into this health care debate and frankly a lot of the claims we've been fact-checking from opponents and proponents alike have gotten a little stale. So we were thrilled to hear a new one on the Glenn Beck radio program on Nov. 12, 2009:
Staffers at PolitiFact listen to the Glenn Beck program? The language suggests as much. Color me skeptical.

"Do you know in the health care bill, we're now offering insurance for dogs," Beck said. "Do I need to say any more?"

Actually yes. Keep going.

"If you are somebody who is like, 'Well, I just, I'm struggling and we're barely making ends meet,' I'm not paying for your dog cardiologist!" Beck said. "Not gonna do it. I'm sorry, the dog goes nighty night."

Farley again:
There was some discussion between Beck and his executive producer about their own dogs' medical issues, whether or not they have pet insurance, and whether the Obama administration is putting animals on par with humans.
I sensed that valuable context was probably omitted. Thanks, ironically enough, to Media Matters, I now have data enough to produce a demonstration.




Transcript mine, trusting that PolitiFact accurately identified the other person speaking as Beck's executive producer (Steve Burguiere):
Beck:
"You, do y-, do you remember a year ago? I said to you "They're going to build a machine." When they built, when they had the stimulus package, and I said you must not allow these things to pass. You must not allow--Congress must not allow any package to pass from these people. Because they're building a machine. And you do not want it turned on. And you don't even know what it looks like yet. Well, we're beginning to see it. I'm going to show it to you. I'm taking the mask off of it tonight. You have to see it to believe it. But it includes the stories that I've just told you. And how about this one: Do you know in the health care bill we're now offering insurance for dogs? Do I need to say any more? We're offering insurance for dogs.

Burguiere:
W-well, you're saying that's in the bill? You're saying ...?

Beck:
Yeah, it's a, it's a, it's a deal on, for the vets. So vets, they also have money, so we'll have insurance for dogs. Now, why in your wildest dreams--my first thought was, well, wait a minute, wait a minute. And there's two parts of this, and we'll explain it, um, as we go on in the next few days. But there's two parts in this. And they revolve around vets. And dogs. And the first thing I thought was, if we are running into all of these spending problems, how could you possibly do health insurance for dogs? Why would you do that? And I thought, well, it's Cloward and Piven, collapse the system. Is it that, is it just that? Then I remembered the name Cass Sunstein. Cass Sunstein doesn't want you to eat meat, remember. 'Course, he's never gonna--no, he's--no, he's never gonna just say "Hey, ban all meat." No, no, no. He'll never do that. Cass Sunstein and John Holdren are right up there with Peter Singer, that animals are people. Well now, wait a minute. If in our health care package if we are giving health care to animals, isn't it easier to make the case that the government already is--they're recognizing animals as on part with humans. Now, I know this is a stretch, but other than that why at this time in our history would we be offering insurance for dogs? I don't--hmm?

Burguiere:
Seems like there might be a better time for that.

Beck:
Might be other higher priorities.

Burguiere:
Maybe.

Beck:
You don't know what it is that they're building. I don't claim to know it, either. But they are building something, and it is not what they're telling you.

(tone on audio may indicate commercial break)

(red and bold highlights added.
Look for a more complete version of the transcript at the end of the post.)
Note what Farley did, here. He took one thing (two sentences) that Beck said, and spliced it together with another statement that occurred much later, apparently after a commercial break. And he did it in a way that leads the reader to think that the statements occurred consecutively.

If we keep the context of Beck's comments, we have a reasonable explanation of "insurance for dogs" along with a promise of additional explanation over the next few days. In the immediate context, Beck equates insurance for dogs with money going to veterinarians. Farley omits all of that and speeds through the steps required to reach the desired conclusion:
Like so many claims in the health care debate, Beck has taken a kernel of something in the bill and spun it to an absurd conclusion.
It might have been absurd to make the connection to animal rights, but Farley doesn't even mention that, and Beck allowed that he was stretching in order to make that connection. But calling money going to vets "dog insurance" is only an absurd conclusion if we ignore the context and offer Beck the least charitable interpretation of his words.

Farley delves into the provision of the bill that provides money for veterinarians, and that takes up the bulk of the story. And that is supposed to be enough to support his conclusion:
(S)cholarships, loan assistance and fellowships to veterinarians is one thing. Providing government health insurance to dogs is quite another.

"We are not offering insurance for dogs," Morris said.

We pored over the bill and came to the same conclusion. There is no health insurance of any kind for dogs -- no public option for Rex, no death panels for Fido.

So we've got to put Beck in the doghouse for this one -- Pants on Fire!

With all due respect to Farley, if Beck wants to define "health insurance to dogs" as scholarships, loan assistance and fellowships to veterinarians, literary license allows him to do exactly that. One can reasonably accuse Beck of exaggerating to the point of damaging his attempt to communicate his ideas effectively. And one can reasonably suggest that the broadcast discussion contributed to the idea that literal health insurance for dogs was the topic. But one cannot report on Beck's statement fairly without noting that he equated "insurance for dogs" with money going to veterinarians and also promised additional explanation at a later time.

Without treating the full explanation from Beck, any "Truth-O-Meter" rating is premature. And based on what Beck actually said rather than the quotations Farley selected, Beck cannot reasonably receive a rating below "Barely True."


The grades:

Robert Farley: F
Bill Adair: F



****

I did not transcribe the entire audio because it proves difficult near the end because three different people are talking over each other.

In this version I bold highlight only the portions that Farley quoted.

Beck:
"You, do y-, do you remember a year ago? I said to you "They're going to build a machine." When they built, when they had the stimulus package, and I said you must not allow these things to pass. You must not allow--Congress must not allow any package to pass from these people. Because they're building a machine. And you do not want it turned on. And you don't even know what it looks like yet. Well, we're beginning to see it. I'm going to show it to you. I'm taking the mask off of it tonight. You have to see it to believe it. But it includes the stories that I've just told you. And how about this one: Do you know in the health care bill we're now offering insurance for dogs? Do I need to say any more? We're offering insurance for dogs.

Burguiere:
W-well, you're saying that's in the bill? You're saying ...?

Beck:
Yeah, it's a, it's a, it's a deal on, for the vets. So vets, they also have money, so we'll have insurance for dogs. Now, why in your wildest dreams--my first thought was, well, wait a minute, wait a minute. And there's two parts of this, and we'll explain it, um, as we go on in the next few days. But there's two parts in this. And they revolve around vets. And dogs. And the first thing I thought was, if we are running into all of these spending problems, how could you possibly do health insurance for dogs? Why would you do that? And I thought, well, it's Cloward and Piven, collapse the system. Is it that, is it just that? Then I remembered the name Cass Sunstein. Cass Sunstein doesn't want you to eat meat, remember. 'Course, he's never gonna--no, he's--no, he's never gonna just say "Hey, ban all meat." No, no, no. He'll never do that. Cass Sunstein and John Holdren are right up there with Peter Singer, that animals are people. Well now, wait a minute. If in our health care package if we are giving health care to animals, isn't it easier to make the case that the government already is--they're recognizing animals as on part with humans. Now, I know this is a stretch, but other than that why at this time in our history would we be offering insurance for dogs? I don't--hmm?

Burguiere:
Seems like there might be a better time for that.

Beck:
Might be other higher priorities.

Burguiere:
Maybe.

Beck:
You don't know what it is that they're building. I don't claim to know it, either. But they are building something, and it is not what they're telling you.

(tone on audio may indicate commercial break)

Beck:
I mean, I have, I've spent a lot of money on, on my d--I didn't, he had to go to a cardiologist. I didn't even know they h--I, when the vet said he's gotta go to a cardiologist, I said, like a people cardiologist? Do they have dog cardiologists? Oh, yes, absolutely. Dog allergists, cardiologists, they have it all.

Burguiere:
Yeah?

Beck:
Yeah. OK, OK.

Burguiere:
That's amazing.

Beck:
That is fantastic. If you have the money to pay for it.

Burguiere:
Yeah. And it's a private system that had created all these things (inaudible)

Beck:
Right. But if you are somebody who is, like, "Well, I just, I'm struggling and we're barely making ends meet," I'm not paying for your dog cardiologist.

Burguiere:
No.

Beck:
Not gonna do it. I'm sorry, the dog goes nitey-nite.

Burguiere:
The go--the government should not be paying for anything dog-related. For the most part. I ca--I'm trying to think of anything. Maybe there's something.

Beck:
There's nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

Burguiere:
Uh, uh, uh, uh, no, there is. An escaped Cujo comes out and is taking out a kindergarten class, we should have somebody to take that dog out.

Beck:
I will pay for the bullets.
I will pay for the bullets.

Burgiere:
You'll pay for any Cujo-related incident.

Beck:
Any Cujo-related in--I will personally buy the bullets.

Burguiere:
There you go, well ...

(third person):
You're backing all future Cujo-related incidents, now?

Beck:
Put a bullet in the dog's head, let's call it a day.
I should point out that Farley ignored one of the conventions of objective reporting by including an exclamation point in his quotation of Beck. Though he may be quoting from an unidentified source that did not bother with journalistic conventions. If so, he should have identified that source.

4 comments:

  1. I read over this and thought there was an absurd literal interpretation carried out without allowing for the conversational style present in the radio format. Thanks for your diligence and honesty. I wish I could rely on Politifact but I think they are too literal when it suits them and too hypothetical when it doesn't.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Regular Guy.

    I think the bias at PolitiFact is probably unplanned. It occurs naturally because the PolitiFact staff is much like its left-leaning readership. It comes down, as you say, to the fact that they struggle to appropriately interpret the statements they're fact checking. Subjects from right and left suffer, with the right getting the worst of it.

    Thanks for stopping by!

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is morning zoo radio that gullible and ignorant people in the Tea Party actually take seriously..

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Glenn Beck Review wrote:

    This is morning zoo radio that gullible and ignorant people in the Tea Party actually take seriously.

    Like whom? Can you give an example of a person who believed that dogs would be insured under the new health care bill?

    ReplyDelete

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