Too Good to Check

On Nov. 4, Anderson Cooper did the country a favor. He expertly deconstructed on his CNN show the bogus rumor that President Obama’s trip to Asia would cost $200 million a day. This was an important “story.” It underscored just how far ahead of his time Mark Twain was when he said a century before the Internet, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” But it also showed that there is an antidote to malicious journalism — and that’s good journalism.

In case you missed it, a story circulated around the Web on the eve of President Obama’s trip that it would cost U.S. taxpayers $200 million a day — about $2 billion for the entire trip. Cooper said he felt impelled to check it out because the evening before he had had Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, a Republican and Tea Party favorite, on his show and had asked her where exactly Republicans will cut the budget.

Instead of giving specifics, Bachmann used her airtime to inject a phony story into the mainstream. She answered: “I think we know that just within a day or so the president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day. He’s taking 2,000 people with him. He’ll be renting over 870 rooms in India, and these are five-star hotel rooms at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. This is the kind of over-the-top spending.”

The next night, Cooper explained that he felt compelled to trace that story back to its source, since someone had used his show to circulate it. His research, he said, found that it had originated from a quote by “an alleged Indian provincial official,” from the Indian state of Maharashtra, “reported by India’s Press Trust, their equivalent of our A.P. or Reuters. I say ‘alleged,’ provincial official,” Cooper added, “because we have no idea who this person is, no name was given.”

It is hard to get any more flimsy than a senior unnamed Indian official from Maharashtra talking about the cost of an Asian trip by the American president.

“It was an anonymous quote,” said Cooper. “Some reporter in India wrote this article with this figure in it. No proof was given; no follow-up reporting was done. Now you’d think if a member of Congress was going to use this figure as a fact, she would want to be pretty darn sure it was accurate, right? But there hasn’t been any follow-up reporting on this Indian story. The Indian article was picked up by The Drudge Report and other sites online, and it quickly made its way into conservative talk radio.”

Cooper then showed the following snippets: Rush Limbaugh talking about Obama’s trip: “In two days from now, he’ll be in India at $200 million a day.” Then Glenn Beck, on his radio show, saying: “Have you ever seen the president, ever seen the president go over for a vacation where you needed 34 warships, $2 billion — $2 billion, 34 warships. We are sending — he’s traveling with 3,000 people.” In Beck’s rendition, the president’s official state visit to India became “a vacation” accompanied by one-tenth of the U.S. Navy. Ditto the conservative radio talk-show host Michael Savage. He said, “$200 million? $200 million each day on security and other aspects of this incredible royalist visit; 3,000 people, including Secret Service agents.”

Cooper then added: “Again, no one really seemed to care to check the facts. For security reasons, the White House doesn’t comment on logistics of presidential trips, but they have made an exception this time. He then quoted Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, as saying, “I am not going to go into how much it costs to protect the president, [but this trip] is comparable to when President Clinton and when President Bush traveled abroad. This trip doesn’t cost $200 million a day.” Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said: “I will take the liberty this time of dismissing as absolutely absurd, this notion that somehow we were deploying 10 percent of the Navy and some 34 ships and an aircraft carrier in support of the president’s trip to Asia. That’s just comical. Nothing close to that is being done.”

Cooper also pointed out that, according to the Congressional Budget Office, the entire war effort in Afghanistan was costing about $190 million a day and that President Bill Clinton’s 1998 trip to Africa — with 1,300 people and of roughly similar duration, cost, according to the Government Accountability Office and adjusted for inflation, “about $5.2 million a day.”

When widely followed public figures feel free to say anything, without any fact-checking, we have a problem. It becomes impossible for a democracy to think intelligently about big issues — deficit reduction, health care, taxes, energy/climate — let alone act on them. Facts, opinions and fabrications just blend together. But the carnival barkers that so dominate our public debate today are not going away — and neither is the Internet. All you can hope is that more people will do what Cooper did — so when the next crazy lie races around the world, people’s first instinct will be to doubt it, not repeat it.

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/17/opinion/17friedman.html