"Media Matters"; by Jamison Foser


Last week, we noted that CNN contributor Joe Watkins and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly both made false comparisons of the poverty rates under President Clinton and President Bush. Since then, similar false claims about poverty have appeared in other news outlets.

This Week:

False claims about poverty echo throughout media; are RNC "talking points" to blame?

Bill O'Reilly: Wrong about everything

Media criticism works: News organizations correct falsehoods identified by Media Matters

Quote of the Week:

"People say to me, 'Why don't we hear more from you?' Well, because we don't have a cable channel like Fox devoted to one political agenda. We don't have a newspaper in Washington which is just an absolute party organ of the Republican Party in The Washington Times. We don't have Limbaugh, and his gang and we are dramatically outnumbered when it comes to radio talk show hosts. ... We are behind on this, and there's a lot of frustration."

-- Senate Democratic Whip Richard Durbin (IL)

False claims about poverty echo throughout media; are RNC "talking points" to blame?

Last week, we noted that CNN contributor Joe Watkins and Fox News host Bill O'Reilly both made false comparisons of the poverty rates under President Clinton and President Bush. Since then, similar false claims about poverty have appeared in other news outlets.

The Washington Post claimed in an editorial that "Since 1999, the rate has been edging steadily, and disturbingly, upward." After Media Matters pointed out that, in fact, the poverty rate declined from 1999 to 2000 (as it went down every year of the Clinton administration) before increasing from 2000 to 2001 (and every year of the Bush presidency), the Post corrected its error. Media Research Center president L. Brent Bozell III used his nationally syndicated column to dismiss as "comical" Clinton's claim that his administration "moved 100 times as many people out of poverty in eight years as had been moved out in the previous 12 years." In fact, Clinton was understating the disparity, as Media Matters noted: "The presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush actually saw a dramatic net increase in the number of impoverished Americans, whereas Clinton's presidency witnessed an even more dramatic net decrease."

Fox News contributor and former Clinton adviser Dick Morris also got in on the act. On Fox News host Sean Hannity's nationally syndicated radio show, Morris made the highly misleading claim that the U.S. poverty rate is "two points lower than when he [Clinton] took office, and it's lower in the midpoint of Bush's term than it was at the midpoint of his [Clinton's] term." That may be true, but Morris ignored the more important trend that poverty declined every year of Clinton's presidency and has risen every year of Bush's.

So where did this flood of misinformation about the Clinton and Bush records on poverty come from? Is it just an odd coincidence? Or is it a result of the recently revealed daily conference calls and emails through which the Republican National Committee gives marching orders to "about 80 pundits, GOP-leaning radio and TV hosts, and newsmakers"?

Bill O'Reilly: Wrong about everything

I thought I was immortal a little while ago

I thought that I was right but now I know

I'm wrong about everything

I think that I can sing

And when you hear the song, you'll wanna sing along

I'm wrong about everything

Think I know what's happening

-- John Wesley Harding

Bill O'Reilly had the kind of week that led Media Matters to name him the 2004 Misinformer of the Year, making false claims about polls, economic data, the judiciary, his own television show, the 2004 presidential election, and Media Matters:

  • O'Reilly was wrong about Pew Poll: On the September 16 broadcast of his radio show, O'Reilly falsely claimed that a new Pew Research Center poll found that 46 percent of Americans plan to vote for a Democratic candidate in next year's congressional elections, while 43 percent plan to vote for a Republican candidate. The poll actually found that 52 percent of Americans would vote for the Democratic candidate for Congress, while only 40 percent would vote for the Republican. O'Reilly also claimed that the "new" Pew poll found that only 9 percent of Americans think that "[a] year from now the economy will be worse." In fact, that result is more than a year old; the most recent Pew poll found that 37 percent of Americans think the economy will be worse in a year.
  • O'Reilly was wrong about Bush and Clinton economic records: Following his grossly misleading comparison of poverty statistics under presidents Clinton and Bush, O'Reilly made a series of false claims about the two presidents' broader economic records. O'Reilly claimed, "Under President Clinton, the tax rate climbed higher than at any time in history except in World War II." It didn't. O'Reilly asserted that, as a result of Bush's tax cuts, "Federal tax revenues will be more this year than at any time during the Clinton administration." That isn't true, if revenues are adjusted for inflation. O'Reilly claimed that Clinton "raised taxes every year." Also not true.
  • O'Reilly was wrong about the judiciary: O'Reilly claimed on his radio show that "Republicans don't have control of the judicial branch. All right? They don't have control of that." But, as Media Matters noted, "Republican presidents have appointed a majority of the currently active federal judges, including six of the eight current Supreme Court justices and majorities on 10 of the 13 federal courts of appeals."
  • O'Reilly was wrong about his own television show: O'Reilly claimed that Jeremy Glick, a 2003 guest on O'Reilly's television program whose father was killed in the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, "accused the president of the United States of orchestrating 9-11" during his O'Reilly Factor appearance. Glick did nothing of the kind.
  • O'Reilly was wrong -- again -- about how independents voted in 2004: O'Reilly claimed that Bush won the 2004 election because of support from independent voters: "Bush won by three million votes. And they were independent voters." That's false: Bush lost among independents.
  • O'Reilly was wrong about Media Matters: In response to Media Matters' item about O'Reilly's statement that he wished Hurricane Katrina had hit the United Nations, O'Reilly claimed "this ridiculous incident just points out how desperate and dishonest the far left is." In fact, Media Matters simply quoted O'Reilly verbatim.

Media criticism works: News organizations correct falsehoods identified by Media Matters

While we don't expect Bill O'Reilly to correct his mistakes, several other news outlets have issued corrections as a result of Media Matters items and Media Matters readers contacting them about the errors:

  • The Washington Post issued a correction to an editorial that falsely claimed that poverty increased between 1999 and 2000, near the end of the Clinton administration.
  • Fox News host Brit Hume corrected his false claim that President George H.W. Bush never criticized President Clinton while Clinton was in office.
  • After Media Matters criticized The Washington Post for ignoring President Bush's September 13 acknowledgment that he is uncertain whether the United States is "capable of dealing with a severe [terrorist] attack," Post ombudsman Michael Getler agreed that the omission was a mistake.
  • The Wall Street Journal's OpinionJournal.com editor James Taranto claimed on Fox News' Hannity & Colmes that Bush's poll numbers are bouncing back. After Media Matters pointed out that this is not true, Taranto conceded that "[I]t's possible" that he was "mistaken."

Unfortunately, Taranto's concession wasn't as unqualified as it might have been. Taranto wrote:

Now, it's possible that we were wrong on both counts: that Bush's approval ratings are down and it makes a big difference politically. But if that's true, then we, being generally sympathetic to President Bush, are merely being fatuous, and Bush's opponents should be amused if not delighted. The Angry Left has no reason to be mad at us, but we guess anger is the only emotion the Angry Left knows.

Taranto seems to suggest that we shouldn't care if he's wrong, we should just chuckle to ourselves and move on. But that implies that Taranto's false claims have no effect on the world whatsoever -- a suggestion that, we admit, is amusing. Delightful, even. Unfortunately, it isn't true.

When Taranto and Wolf Blitzer and Suzanne Malveaux make false claims that Bush's poll numbers are rebounding, that has an effect. If they say it often enough, they can help make it happen; the perception that his numbers are improving becomes reality and gives him undeserved political clout. Absurd as it may seem to Taranto, some people do take him seriously. They believe what he says and what he writes. When he says and writes false things that boost the conservative cause, he hurts America. That's why we're here. And that's why the next time Taranto makes a false claim that helps conservatives, we'll point it out. He can call us "angry" all he wants. That doesn't change the fact that we're right, and he's wrong.

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