Friday, September 18, 2009

The difficulty for politicians in the digital age: people fact-check them

It's not just President Obama, but he does tend to fall into the trap too often.

I don't really know anybody who has taken seriously those supposedly inspiring Presidential anecdotes that crop up in speeches all the time. Carter, Reagan, Clinton, the Bushes--they all embellished the stories that their speech-writers fed them.

But it can really bite you on the ass in a speech that is at least partly about other people distorting the truth:

Last week, when the President addressed the Joint Session of Congress in a speech on health reform, he referred to some of the untruths – okay, lies – that have been spread about the plan and sent a clear message to those who seek to undermine his agenda and his presidency with these tactics: "We will call you out."

Unfortunately, as Lynn Sweet at Politics Daily points out, that speech came with an anecdote that ... wasn't true:

When Obama spoke to Congress about health care reform on Sept. 9, he attempted to put a human face on his push for a provision barring insurance companies from dropping patients with pre-existing medical conditions.

While not citing the person's name, the president said: "One man from Illinois lost his coverage in the middle of chemotherapy because his insurer found that he hadn't reported gallstones that he didn't even know about. They delayed his treatment, and he died because of it."

It's just not true, which I pointed out in my Chicago Sun-Times column. I confirmed with the White House that the man Obama was referring to was Otto Raddatz, from a Chicago suburb. His insurance company did indeed yank his coverage in April 2005. But after a fight led by his sister, Peggy, an attorney and the Illinois attorney general, Raddatz got his coverage reinstated in a few weeks and never missed any needed treatments. And he did not die until Jan. 6, 2009.

I raised questions about the Obama claim with the White House on Sept 10. The White House told me that Obama's speechwriters picked up the story from Slate and never vetted the facts independently. If they had, they would have realized that the Slate report was erroneous.

This is, unfortunately, far from the first time that President Obama has fallen prey to incorrect factoids, as he did in August with the cost of amputations for diabetics:

At least three large physicians' groups, and many physician bloggers yesterday blasted President Obama for saying that a surgeon makes $30,000 to $50,000 to amputate the foot of a diabetic, while receiving a pittance to prevent the diabetes that necessitated the procedure in the first place.

That is wrong, said members of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the American College of Surgeons, and the California Medical Association.

And the President has been consistently playing fast and loose with the cost numbers of health insurance reform, routinely understating them by half, as pointed out here a couple of weeks ago.

Look: politics is no pristine game, and--unfortunately--everybody says what they think they need to say to accomplish their agenda no matter how much they need to stretch or distort the truth. The GOP has death panels and Federally funded abortions and a lot of other distortions out there about the various proposed reform plans.

However, I am puzzled by exactly one can take the high ground on calling out his opponents for their lies about his program, when he--in virtually all of his stump speeches and even a national address--is presenting information about the status quo that is just as erroneous.

Claiming a health insurance company killed a particular individual through cancellation of his policy during chemo when in fact that did not happen qualifies as a gigantic whopper by anybody's definition. I hope. Hiding behind the we didn't vet the story on Slate excuse might work for a blogger or even a Congressman from the Palmetto State, but not for the leader of the Free World. You put stuff in the President's speech, both you and he have the responsibility to know it's true. [And yes I have called GOPers on the same issue repeatedly.]

Insurance companies routinely do enough awful stuff without any of us having to make it up.

Who knows? Maybe one day politicians will get it: if you do your homework and tell the truth all the time, nobody can catch you out.

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