Editorial: Checking the Facts and Figures: BECKY O'MALLEY

Friday October 15, 2004

The email this week brought a letter from a 17-year-old young man in Alabama listing all the reasons he’s supporting Kerry, and unselfconsciously confessing that he sent the letter via a form on the Kerry website. We’ve gotten a bunch of these letters lately, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Zack Exley, formerly a strategist with MoveOn.org, is now the Kerry campaign's director of online communications and organizing, and he’s clearly transferred what he learned in the slick MoveOn operation to his new job. As a result, Kerry supporters seem to be easily able to write, at one fell swoop, to hundreds of media outlets around the country to support their man. Some letters, like the one from our Alabama correspondent, are personal and heartfelt, while others have more of a canned flavor. In the interest of saving our printed pages for controversial local issues that don’t get aired anywhere else, we’ve relegated most of these letters to the web version of the paper, but that doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate them. Any undecided Planet readers (there must be a few of you out there) should check the website for some excellent arguments. We haven’t gotten many for Bush, though. 

Canned arguments have something of a bad name, though that’s not completely fair. Wednesday’s debate reminded me of nothing so much as the high school debate circuit of my youth, which roughly coincided with John Kerry’s youth. I don’t know if he was on his high school debating team, but it seemed like he might have been. In those days we went to the debates, which were held in grungy cafeterias after school, armed with cheap file boxes stuffed with three by five cards on which “facts” were written, mostly statistics taken out of context, suitable for insertion into any argument at the appropriate moment. Every year there was an official debate question, and teams were expected to be able to argue “both sides”—an early instillation of the cherished American myth that there are just two sides to any question. Enterprising publishers offered books of outlines of arguments pro and con the official topic: In my year it was whether to abolish farm price supports. (That one still hasn’t been settled after more than 40 years.) 

The champs on my L.A. circuit were the boys from the Jesuit high school, one of whom, a short, fat, intense kid named David Roberti, went on to become President of the California State Senate. They had the most professional looking file boxes containing the biggest stacks of index cards, and they knew how to deploy them.  

The newsies on CNN on Wednesday night complained about the way the candidates inserted statistics into their presentations, a la high school debaters. Candy Crowley, a bright woman despite her name who should know better, whined that the debate was excessively “wonkish”. She said that she particularly liked the part where Kerry talked about his late mother. But you know that if the obligatory statistics had been left out, there would have been another chorus carping about that.  

It’s tricky. Journalists (not the best ones of course) are notorious for picking numbers out of the air to decorate their stories regardless of appropriateness, so they can’t get away with knocking candidates for doing the same thing on occasion. What they could and should do is keep track of whether the proffered numbers pertain to the question asked or support the argument made, but they don’t do that very well.  

For example, post-game commentators were all over the question of whether Kerry’s statistics about net job loss in the Bush regime were accurate. It’s true, Kerry didn’t qualify his number by saying it referred only to private sector jobs and was somewhat balanced by an increase in public sector jobs. But this lapse has little effect on the truth behind Kerry’s argument, which is that the economy has suffered under Bush. Saying that public sector jobs have increased would only boost Kerry’s popularity among Republican sympathizers who are scared of “big government.” 

Most commentators, and Kerry too, seem to have missed the major logical flaws in Bush’s answer to the question of how the flu vaccine shortage happened, since it contained no checkable statistics. Bush said that “we relied upon a company out of England.” Actually, that would be an American company, Emeryville’s own Chiron, offshoring the manufacturing to be sure. Then he admitted he’s turning to Canada to help find some more vaccine, in spite of his previous statements that he rejected government purchase of Canadian drugs for safety reasons. Finally, he blamed fear of lawsuits for manufacturers’ short supplies. But Congress passed a liability-limiting bill into law in 1986 which should give drug makers all the protection they need. 

Kerry missed all of this. Instead, he went into his canned statistical routine, most of it true but not relevant, about the deficiencies in America’s health insurance system. Flu vaccine is one of the few kinds of preventative medicine that has been widely available at a reasonable price, even for the uninsured. The administration’s dropping the ball on vaccine is a giant step backward, but Kerry didn’t nail them on it during the debate. 

The pressure of the debate format causes candidates to miss opportunities like this occasionally. All in all, this debate series has been pretty coherent despite its cumbersome rules. But as long as the major media believe that Americans can only handle structured soundbites, even ones salted with “facts,” that’s all we’ll be offered in prime time.  

The Internet is starting to change some of this. Candidates can, if they chose, offer solid in-depth proposals on web sites, even if the debate format limits what they can say. When Kerry’s charged with not have a health insurance plan, he can say that he does indeed, and it’s on his web site. Perhaps future campaigns will be conducted on a more intelligent level as more voters learn how to go beyond the mass media for their information. 

—Becky O’Malley