"Facts," Ronald Reagan famously said, "are stupid things." But that may be too harsh. They can just be made to do stupid things. For instance, if I told you that the American economy had grown by a robust 3.2 percent in 2004 and 2005, you'd think it had done pretty well. If I told you that the bottom 90 percent of American workers actually lost income over that same period because so much went to the very rich, you might think differently. Both facts are true. They just need context.
And context is what facts so rarely get. Here at The American Prospect, the economist Dean Baker writes a blog dedicated to providing some of that sorely needed context in the media's reportage of economic and social policy data. It's a big job, because he's one of the few people doing it. Except when a new Michael Moore movie comes out. Then, suddenly, the press becomes obsessed with facts and context and the relevance of omissions.
Take CNN. A few days after the release of Sicko, they set a whole team on fact checking the provocateur's documentary. "We found," they said, "that his numbers were mostly right, but his arguments could use a little more context. As we dug deep to uncover the numbers, we found surprisingly few inaccuracies in the film. In fact, most pundits or health-care experts we spoke to spent more time on errors of omission rather than disputing the actual claims in the film."
So Moore was on solid ground. But that wasn't enough for CNN. This week, Moore was set to appear on Wolf Blitzer's Situation Room. Before he came on, though, Blitzer had CNN's medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, offer a "reality check" on the film:
As Dean Baker pointed out, the "reality check" needed a reality check of its own. But never mind that. It's more important to ask, what accounts for this unrelenting obsession with Moore's accuracy? As a certified health care wonk who loves nothing more than posting comparative spending graphs, I'm all for rapidly increasing the complexity and accuracy with which these issues are debated. But the media rarely indulges such passions. Apparently Michael Moore has a peculiar effect on them.
To wit, Moore is a documentary filmmaker. Fred Thompson is a likely Republican candidate for president. Thompson recently released a radio commentary on the Moore's movie that mixed outright falsehoods with deceptive omissions. There was no media outcry, no Wolf Blitzer follow-up, no CNN truth squad. Nothing. Silence.
Or forget Thompson. Recently, the entire field of announced Republican candidates debated, live on national television. Mitt Romney, one of the frontrunners, took the opportunity to claim that Saddam Hussein never let the inspectors into Iraq, and if he had, we wouldn't have gone to war. This is untrue. The media did not collapse into paroxysms over the inaccuracy. Indeed, they hardly seemed to notice it.
So what accounts for their peculiar obsession with the truth of Moore's films? It's not that these media outlets relentlessly examine the veracity of other public figures, or that Moore is somehow greater in stature than leading presidential candidates. It's a mystery.
Here's a guess, though: Michael Moore elicits a very specific type of status anxiety in mainstream journalists. Moore's product -- passionate, provocative political commentary -- is a close cousin of the media's product -- bloodless, boring political commentary. And Moore is a former journalist, an editor at papers in Flint, Michigan and Mother Jones. What he does is, broadly speaking, in the same realm as what they do. But there are differences between the product he puts out, and what the media offers. A major one is that Moore's releases strike massive emotional chords with the American people, setting off weeks of heated discussion every time he unveils a film. Additionally, he is paid in the tens of million for the production of his documentaries and invited to Cannes when they're released. Nice as the occasional invitation to the White House Correspondents Dinner may be, the two just don't compare.
So there's an acute desire on the part of the press to separate what Moore does from what they do, both in order to explain away his successes and to underscore their own assumed strengths (objectivity, rationality, etc). His failings may be manifold, but that hardly renders him unique. His treatment, however, is unique. The world is full of political provocateurs and public hotheads, but only Moore triggers the media's all-too-absent obsession with factual accuracy. Ann Coulter doesn't, and Al Franken doesn't, and Rush Limbaugh doesn't, and Mitt Romney doesn't. Only Moore. Because he scares them.
Here's a radical thought, though: Maybe if these mainstream media types were as incredulous towards the powerful as they are to Moore, his productions wouldn't pose a threat. After all, there's nothing wrong with fact-checking, and asking hard questions, and raising an oppositional eyebrow towards pabulum and propaganda. The problem isn't that the media is so quick to doubt Moore. It's that they're so trusting the rest of the time.