Sunday, November 08, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Rush Limbaugh and the Obama circumcision mandate

This won't take long.

The issue:

That does seem like a big story. At least on its face. Did Limbaugh seriously make that claim?

The fact checkers:

Catharine Richert: Writer, researcher

No editor's credit on this one. That's new, though it is often hard to detect an editor's restraint at PolitiFact even where an editor's credit appears.


Richert provides nearly all the information a reasonable person should require in order to understand the nature of the claim in question, summed up in the first four paragraphs. Rush was talking about a song in which rapper "Jay-Z" raps " Tell Rush Limbaugh to get off my balls."

Richert quotes Limbaugh's response to some length, and here is the most relevant portion:
"I would remind the rapper Jay-Z: Mr. Z, it is President Obama who wants to mandate circumcision. We had that story yesterday; and that means if we need to save our penises from anybody, it's Obama."
Like a good reporter, Richert follows up on the story Limbaugh says he reported the previous day:
He cited a Fox News story about an upcoming report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that may recommend circumcision for newborn boys as a way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, because studies show that the procedure can reduce transmission of the disease from women to men. The CDC will be discussing what to include in the recommendations at the National HIV Prevention Conference, which is being held in Atlanta this week.
There we have it. Sounds very much like Limbaugh was joking, doesn't it? And the canny reporter, Richert, naturally considers that probability right away.

Er--no she doesn't. So far as Richert is concerned, Limbaugh was dead serious.

She digs into the CDC's recommendation, finding that the research was in the works dating from the Bush administration. She sifts through Obama's voting record. She tries to find mention of "circumcision" in his speeches.

Richert can find virtually nothing to tie Obama to circumcision policy.
The only link —- and it's an indirect one — that we could find between Obama and the CDC's efforts was a press release on the White House Web site announcing a series of HIV/AIDS community discussions, the first one being held in conjunction with the National HIV Prevention Conference we mentioned earlier.
That link--the press release--was evidently apart from the obvious connection that the CDC is part of the executive branch headed by Obama. Probably more than enough connection to sustain a joke.

The notion that Limbaugh was making a joke apparently never crossed Richert's mind, judging from her writing:
So, back to Limbaugh's claim. He says Obama "wants to mandate circumcision." But the CDC's eventual recommendations — if they even include circumcision — will be voluntary, not mandatory. In addition, we could we find no connection between Obama and the new guidance, and no evidence that Obama had even used the word in a public forum. In fact, the recommendations were under discussion long before Obama took office. This one is ridiculous enough to set the meter ablaze — Pants on Fire!
Hilarious. Richert ends up making a joke of herself.

The grade:

Catharine Richert: F

Further notes:

This PolitiFact entry reminds me of one concerning then-candidate-for-president Obama. Obama used some hyperbole on the campaign trail, and PolitiFact subjected it to the Truth-O-Meter as though there is no such thing as exaggeration for emphasis. I panned the PolitiFact effort in that case, drawing a response from one of the creators of PolitiFact, Matthew Waite:
(Y)ou'd be shocked by how many people contact us asking if it's true that people get struck by lightning more than prosecuted for immigration violations (or, more recently, if Obama is the anti-Christ or a Muslim or any number of completely wrong things that are being passed around in chain emails). We have more than 400 statements now in our database. Some are going to be interesting and useful to some people, and some are going to be pointless to others. And, to your point, some people can smell the hyperbole, and some can't. Inflection, tone and speaking style doesn't translate well from stump speech to transcript to news story to blog post.
In my reply, I pointed out that nothing should stop PolitiFact from both pointing out the truth of the statistical comparison while also pointing out that it was hyperbole. In that other case, there was no real reason to suppose that Obama had spoken false, for he almost certainly did not intend for his statement to be taken as a statistical reality. The same goes for Limbaugh in this instance.

PolitiFact betrays the mission of journalism by leaving out important facts in their analysis. Their entries would fall short under their own system of analysis.

This fact check of Limbaugh, by the way, came to my attention through the PolitiFact health care bingo fact check game. One of the bingo squares reads "'President Obama ... wants to mandate circumcision.' (Republicans)."

So PolitiFact takes a joke by Limbaugh as a serious statement, and then attributes it to "Republicans" plural. There's just one problem with that. Republicans seem to have gotten the joke. No false legend of Obama literally wanting to mandate circumcision has resulted from Limbaugh's address to millions of listeners. Though I did find one possible exception at Yahoo! Answers.


One final note. I found a columnist at Mediaite blaming Fox News for adding "universal" to a story first published by The New York Times. But unless the Denver Post took the liberty of adding words to the story (extraordinarily unusual), the term "universal" was in the original story and removed subsequently by editors at the Times (not so unusual).
Public health officials are considering promoting routine, universal circumcision for all baby boys born in the United States to reduce the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Please tell us you were only joking, Tommy Christopher.


  1. Who controls the CDC?
    Isn't ObamaCARE the law of the land?
    Rush just connects the dots long before others do...

  2. Huh. Well, I still think he was joking.


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