Thursday, April 5, 2012

Just the Facts, Ma'am … Wait, What's a Fact?

A couple weeks ago, in my piece about Mike Daisey and the Apple Factory, I questioned why both This American Life host Ira Glass and Marketplace reporter Rob Schmitz appeared to take the word of Daisey’s translator about facts that contradicted Daisey’s version of events. A friend objected to my “throwing barbs suggesting that the translator is lying.” I didn’t intend to do that. I have no reason to believe the translator is lying; I know nothing about her. My point was that Glass and Schmitz don’t know anything about her either. Of course, Daisey admitted to many of the inaccuracies the translator revealed, and that would lead us to believe that where there’s a contradiction between their memories, hers is likely to be more accurate. But is that true?

Daisey’s credibility is shot because we know he lied. Fair enough. But we also know he told the truth, and that’s the piece that’s easy to forget. (In what could be an accident of good timing, last Friday the Fair Labor Association released a report which substantiates many of the stories in Daisey's show.)

The other night, Rachel Maddow, whom I adore, led off her show with a critique of Rick Santorum’s campaign speeches. She played a clip of Santorum reporting that according to something he read, “At eight of the ten University of California campuses you can’t take a class in American history.” She played the clip a few times, she asserted that it’s absurd, and then to contradict it, she read from the course catalog of one U.C. campus, UC Davis, showing that it offered numerous classes on U.S. history.

Then she moved on to debunk a previous claim by Santorum – this one alleging that old people in the Netherlands wear “Do Not Euthanize Me” bracelets and leave the country rather than go to Dutch hospitals because they fear involuntary euthanasia. Santorum claimed that 10% of the country’s deaths are from euthanasia, and half of those are involuntary. Rachel then said, “It’s not hard to fact check this assertion. All you have to do is ask a Dutch person.” She then played a clip of herself sitting down with a Dutch journalist, Erik Mouthaan, who assured her that this is “totally not true.”

Actually, asking a Dutch person does not qualify as “fact-checking.” If a Dutch politician said that half of Americans are poor, I’m sure you could find lots of U.S. citizens, sadly even journalists, to confidently assert that that was rubbish. They’d be wrong, however.  I recently told a friend I was pretty sure both she and I have incomes in the top 30% of U.S. households. This friend, who is quite well-informed, emphatically disagreed. She is wrong. A single person who earns $65,000 or more is in the top third, and without knowing her exact salary, I know she is well above that. Of course, being in the top third of households in a country where half the people are poor is no great feat.
I waited for Rachel to give the real statistics on euthanasia in the Netherlands, but they never came. Those statistics are not difficult to come by. The Washington Post blog Fact Checker reports:

In 2001, The Netherlands became the first country to legalize euthanasia, setting forth a complex process. The law, which went into effect a year later, codified a practice that has been unofficially tolerated for many years.

Under the Dutch law, a doctor must diagnose the illness as incurable and the patient must have full control of his or her mental faculties. The patient must voluntarily and repeatedly request the procedure, and another doctor must provide a written opinion agreeing with the diagnosis. After the death, a commission made up of a doctor, a jurist and an ethical expert also are required to verify that the requirements for euthanasia have been met.

… In 2010, the number of euthanasia cases reported to one of five special commissions was 3,136, according to their annual report. This was a 19 percent increase over 2009, but “this amounts to 2.3 percent of all 136,058 deaths in the Netherlands in 2010,” said Carla Bundy, spokeswoman for the Dutch embassy in Washington.
Rachel’s guest was right, but she did not prove it, any more than Santorum proved his "Don’t euthanize me" bracelets claim. Going back to the University of California and American history, Santorum said that eight out of the ten campuses don’t offer such classes. In order to prove him wrong, she would need to show that at least three do, but she stopped with the one.

As it happens, UC Berkeley offers at least four, including:

100.007: The Great Exhaling
1948 was the year that America-after the Great Depression, after the Second World War, after sixteen years of the all but revolutionary experiment in national government of the New Deal and even in the face of a Red Scare that in many ways would dominate the next decade-let out its breath. Finally, that great exhaling said, we can go back to real life- but what was ";real life";? Centering on 1948, but moving a few years back and a few years forward, this class will explore the sometimes instantly celebrated, sometimes all but subterranean experiments in American culture that tried to raise and answer that question. The artists who emerged to tell the national story were male and female, black and white, from the west, the east, the south, and everywhere in between. They included Tennessee Williams of Mississippi and Marlon Brando of Nebraska with A Streetcar Named Desire; Jackson Pollock of Wyoming with abstract paintings so big they seemed like visionary maps of the country itself, a country where anything could happen; Miles Davis of St. Louis, with the spare, quiet walk down noir streets of the music that would come to be known as "The Birth of the Cool"; the cross-country explorations of Jack Kerouac of Massachusetts, Neal Cassady of Colorado, and Allen Ginsberg of Newark, New Jersey, following in the footsteps of Lewis and Clark, certain that the real American remained to be discovered; the grind-house, B-movie spread of noir, with the faces of Barbara Stanwyck of Brooklyn and Gloria Grahame of Los Angeles spreading the suspicion that in America nothing was as it seemed and rules and morals were for fools...
UCLA’s History Department website has a “United States” link you can click on and it tells you that:
“With more than twenty-five distinguished faculty members in the field of U.S. history, the UCLA Department of History offers one of the country’s broadest, most diverse, and successful graduate programs in the subject. Faculty expertise ranges from the pre-colonial history of the Americas to the present.”
How many facts does it take to screw up a monologue?


  1. One of your best, Kate, and that's really saying something.

    Thank you for the reminder of how easily we will give a pass to someone we like (or adore!) who is saying things with which we agree. But the Rachels and Mike Daiseys are much-too-easy targets if they're not 100% accurate and thorough. I enjoyed Rachel's reading from the blurb from the Davis course catalogue. Because I like her, I felt satisfied, and dismissed the little voice that was whispering, "Reading from the catalogue of one campus in order to refute Santorum's assertion concerning the availability of American history courses at 8 campuses refutes absolutely nothing." Having read your blog today, I realize that for someone who truly practiced critical thinking, Rachel's reading from the catalogue of only one campus could been seen as SUPPORT for Santorum's assertion.

    I'm sure you've heard her interview on Fresh Air from last week, but in case not, here's a link: One of my favorite moments comes when Terry asks, "How in the world did you get Roger Ailes to write a blurb for your book?" and Rachel replies, with no obvious irony, "I asked him." Also, her explanation of why she wishes her guests well is very simple, and gives me hope that ultimately more people will hear her message than that of Bill O'Reilly, who interrupts absolutely everyone to yell at them.

    1. In fact, as I listened to the Santorum clip again, I realized that I did not report it accurately nor debunk it completely either. He said "7 or 8" of the UC campuses don't offer US history, so really, I should dig up evidence that another one does, but I will leave it alone.

  2. In defense of Maddow, I would point out that Santorum doesn't cite an actual source for either claim, unless I overlooked it or something, This is relevant only because it means that conventional fact checking therefore becomes a rather moot point. If there is no source to verify a claim then what's the point of even providing contrary evidence? I realise there is an easy way to verify the college classes claim and Maddows response was, shall we say, lazy. I do think her response to the Netherlanda claim is a little easier to justify though on the grounds that talking to an actual journalist who cites actual sources beats unverified claim any day of the week. I'm not disagreeing with your argument that she did not actually engage in fact checking in these cases, so much as wondering why you felt fact checking was so important in these instances?