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Big Lies and little mistakes

By Bryan Keefer
September 9, 2003

Joe Conason, a columnist for the New York Observer and Salon, has released a new book titled Big Lies: The Right-Wing Propaganda Machine and How It Distorts the Truth, which he writes is intended to debunk "myths about liberalism (and conservatism)." However, Big Lies, currently ranked eighth on the New York Times hardcover bestseller list, also includes a number of factual errors. While they do not rise to the level of Ann Coulter's distortions and fabrications in her books Slander and Treason, Sean Hannity's in Let Freedom Ring, or Michael Moore's in Stupid White Men, they indicate a willingness to believe - and repeat - questionable details that fit the author's ideological disposition.

Also troubling (and complicating any effort to fact-check the book), Conason fails to provide sources for much of the evidence he uses. The sources he does cite are jumbled together in endnotes with no references to the page numbers of the facts they are supposed to be backing up. Such complications aside, a close look at the book reveals several falsehoods or misleading uses of evidence.

Media myths and misleading evidence

Conason repeats one well-debunked myth in the book. On page 101, he writes that "[Attorney General John Ashcroft] believes that he can hold any American without bail in a detention camp for as long as he sees fit . . . According to a Wall Street Journal report, the Attorney General has approved procedures for setting up such camps." He cites an article by George Washington University professor Jonathan Turley that mentions these supposed camps.

However, as my co-editor Brendan Nyhan and others have noted, the original Wall Street Journal report claimed only that "The White House is considering creating a high-level committee to decide which prisoners should be denied access to federal courts." It also notes that a facility in South Carolina "now has a special wing that could be used to jail about 20 U.S. citizens if the government were to deem them enemy combatants, a senior administration official said." Conason, like Turley, strips the report of any context and suggests that these measures constitute "camps," raising the ugly specter of World War II-style detention camps.

Conason is at his best in dissecting the work of Coulter and other pundits. Yet at times the author himself falls prey to the same mistakes that he criticizes his ideological opposites for. For instance, on page 38 he attacks Coulter and former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg for relying on searches of the Lexis-Nexis database to back up their claims of liberal bias in the media. Conason is correct that these searches can be deeply misleading (as we have noted elsewhere). Two paragraphs later, however, Conason constructs his own meaningless Nexis search.

Conason searched the Nexis database for hits between December 1,1999 and December 1, 2002 on the names of four media criticism organizations: the politically conservative Accuracy in Media (AIM), the conservative Media Research Center (MRC), the centrist Center for Media and Public Affairs (CMPA) which Conason labels conservative but is not clearly part of the conservative movement [disclosure: my co-editor Brendan Nyhan won an award from CMPA in 2002], and the liberal Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). His conclusion: the three conservative organizations together had five times as many hits as FAIR.

While Conason's numbers are correct, what they prove is trivial. Replicating Conason's search for Accuracy in Media, for example, one gets hits including obituaries, letters to the editor, corrections, and columns by the organization's founder. Nor does Conason examine the context of those hits for whether they are positive or critical. Finally, for different time periods, the results vary substantially: for the year 2003 (through September 7, 2003), AIM has 59 hits in the Nexis database, MRC 250, CMPA 225, and FAIR 194, a ratio of less than three to one for the conservative groups. While Conason's search is intended partly as a refutation of Coulter's and Goldberg's methods, the author cannot resist the temptation to overgeneralize about the meaning of his numbers, claiming that they demonstrate "the conservative media critics enjoy an overwhelming supremacy in the major media."

Outright falsehoods

Another piece of evidence Conason uses in support of his contention that the media has no liberal bias is that "Only the Boston Globe, the Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, and a Democratic web site bother to explore the curious absences and lapses of duty that resulted in Bush's grounding after two years of fighter training." (p. 66) A quick search of the Nexis database, however, shows major pieces on exactly that subject by both The New York Times (July 22, 2000 and November 3, 2000) and the Washington Post (June 26, 2000 and November 3, 2000).

Another such error occurs on page 209. Dressing down critics of President Clinton's record on terrorism, Conason writes that "[Andrew] Sullivan, for one, would have to scour his scribblings in vain for any mention of Osama bin Laden or al-Qaeda before September 11." Sullivan, however, did mention bin Laden in an August 30, 1998 column for the Sunday Times of London, noting that "Distracted by the [Monica Lewinsky] scandal, much of the government remains in limbo, and foreign enemies from Osama Bin Laden to Saddam Hussein have lashed out."

Conason makes another sloppy mistake in recounting the spread of the myth that Ken Lay slept in the Lincoln bedroom during Clinton's presidency. "That canard flew from the Drudge Report to Fox News Channel, the Chicago Tribune, CNN's Crossfire, and ABC News This Week, among other outlets," he writes. "(Other than the Tribune, none saw fit to correct the record after the tale was debunked.)" (p. 150-151) Yet as we pointed out, Fox News did issue a correction on "On the Record," and several of other outlets that repeated the myth also corrected themselves, including the New York Times.

Nor is Conason's book immune from politically-motivated distortions. On page 105, he writes that "the White House is seeking to shut down the Government Printing Office . . . This is billed as a cost-cutting measure, but its effect will be to curtail yet another means for citizens to secure their freedoms."

Conason provides no source for this claim, with good reason - it is incorrect. In May of last year, the Bush administration mandated that federal agencies seek competitive bids on printing jobs, rather than contracting them to the Government Printing Office (GPO). This hardly amounted to closing the agency, and according to a Washington Post article of December 20, 2000, Vice President Al Gore proposed much the same thing in 1994, as did President Ronald Reagan in 1987. Nor would closing the GPO - which simply acts as a printer and clearinghouse, not an archive - necessarily have any effect on the availability of information. Regardless, the dispute was resolved in June of this year by an agreement that allows the GPO to continue acting as an intermediary. (The GPO has also announced it is closing a number of its retail outlets because of the availability of information on its web site).

Dubious sources

On other occasions, the sources Conason does cite fail to back his assertions. One such error seems trivial at first, but takes on a larger significance in context. Noting that Bush "named a coal industry executive to oversee mining safety and health - a man who publicly boasted about trimming away the regulatory improvements devised by Clinton's appointees," Conason tells us "It is particularly telling that the White House would seek a 6 percent reduction in the mine safety budget when coal-mining fatalities had increased from twenty-nine in 2000 to forty-two in 2001." (p. 15) The paragraph makes it appear as though the Bush administration was responsible for the increase in coal-mining deaths.

Unfortunately, Conason gets his dates wrong (a fact borne out by one of the sources he cites, an online column by David Corn of the Nation). According to data from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, there were 29 coal-mining fatalities in 1998, 35 in 1999, 38 in 2000, and 42 in 2001 (the total number of mining fatalities actually declined in the first year of the Bush administration, from 85 in 2000 to 72 in 2001).

Another instance of Conason's sources failing to back him up occurs on page 185, where he claims that "more than 70 percent of the state's [Texas's] black and Hispanic children" lived in poverty during Bush's term as governor of Texas. He cites a study by Texans for Public Justice to back up his assertion. However, the report includes no such statistic. In fact, according to Texas State Data Center and Office of the State Demographer, approximately 31 percent of Hispanic or latino children in Texas were below the poverty line in 1999, as were 30 percent of African-American children. (A press release from a non-profit advocacy group suggests that "an estimated 40 percent of African American and Hispanic children were poor" in 1994).

Conclusion

Conason's book is a polemic, not an academic work, and deserves to be judged as such. At his best, he can be clear and compelling. Yet just like the opponents he criticizes, Conason, as a prominent member of our national political discourse, should be held to a high standard of truth.

[Disclosure: Conason listed us as one of the "sources and inspirations" for chapter 2 of his book and acknowledged us on p. 234, noting that our "even-handed critiques have included [his] work on occasion."]

Update 9/11 11:12 PM EST:Conason has responded to this review in a post on his weblog on Salon.com [Salon Premium subscription or viewing of ad required]. Conason not only acknowledges most of the errors I point out above, but also - to his credit - points out a few additional mistakes that others have found.

Conason takes issue with two of my points. First, he claims that the Washington Post and New York Times reporting on Bush's National Guard service were "cursory" compared to the outlets he cites - the Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times, the Dallas Morning News, and a website. He is correct that one of the Washington Post articles I cite is reprinted from the Dallas Morning News, which I regret not pointing out above. However, Conason claims in his book that the outlets he lists were the only sources which "bothered to explore the curious absences and lapses of duty" during Bush's service. It is also debatable whether the 3,400-word New York Times piece of July 22, 2000 is "cursory." Regardless of whether or not he intended to make a point about the depth of coverage by various sources, Conason clearly leaves the impression that no other outlet covered the questions about Bush's service.

Second, Conason writes that "As for the Government Printing Office issue, Keefer simply declares that the Bush administration's scheme posed no threat to that agency or to freedom of information. Better-informed people, including professional librarians and government watchdogs, would disagree vehemently with Keefer's casual assessment." Yet neither of the articles he cites suggests that "the White House is seeking to shut down the Government Printing Office," as Conason puts it in his book. While the articles do raise questions about the potential effects of the administration's proposal, the first quotes congressional testimony from Office of Management Budget head Mitch Daniels that his office had "reminded agencies of their ongoing responsibility to make documents available to the Federal Depository Library Program", the most serious issue raised by the article. As such, it remains consistent with my contention that "Nor would closing the GPO - which simply acts as a printer and clearinghouse, not an archive - necessarily have any effect on the availability of information."

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