Sep 14, 2008

The rumor hoax

Beneath the blatant McCain lies that Obama and his campaign are smearing Sarah Palin, there is a much thicker and stickier level of deception, whose theme is that malicious false rumors about Palin circulate on the Internet. That bullshit pretense of debunking rumors is perhaps more dangerous than the obviously mendacious attack ads, because it appears calmer, less confrontational, and more credible. Rather than attacking a named opponent, it defends the candidate from an amorphous virtual mob of accusers. By a sleight of hand, it transplants a meme that fits in a different context - "innocent until proven guilty" - and conjures up an illusion that Palin is on trial (and a politically motivated one to boot) and that we, the voters, are expected to act like a jury and acquit if there is any reasonable doubt.

That's bullshit, but its stealth power is such that it has infiltrated even some brand-name bullshit detectors, such as

Here is an example of how ordinary people propagate this meme, from a recent comment left on this blog:
It is true that, while scrutinizing politicians, we should hold them suspect and investigate any evidence that might shed light on their career or character. But in the end, you must hold them innocent until proven guilty. There is no moral justification for assuming them guilty until proven innocent. Considering the enormous amount of false accusations against Palin (see a debunking of vicious internet rumors against her here at, the burden of proof is on those making the allegations. Until they prove their case or you yourself find corroborating evidence from another source, the voter--and any intelligent being--must dismiss the allegations as lies and slander.
Note the structure of the argument:
1. "Innocent until proven guilty"
2. "False accusations" and "vicious rumors"
3. Therefore, the juror voter must acquit ignore the allegations.

It is relatively easy to explain why steps 1 and 3 are bogus. The analogy between voters and jurors in a civil case would not be a bad one, but the argument relies on the specific features of a criminal trial, and that makes the analogy untenable. In a civil case the jury decides between two parties who are a priori on equal standing, and who would gain similarly from a win and suffer similarly from a loss. That is a lot like choosing between two political candidates. The jury simply decides whose case is stronger. But in a criminal trial, the parties are in a hugely asymmetric starting position, with one party (the state) having all the power and the other (the accused) facing all the risk. Those conditions, which in no way resemble elections, are the reason for presumption of innocence and a high threshold for proving guilt. Asking voters to behave like a criminal jury makes no sense whatsoever.

The structure of the argument is thus debunked and the voters should revert to their natural standard of the preponderance of evidence. Step 2 is still relevant, however, because the information in and about those rumors can tip the scale for some undecided voters. Thus, the rest of this article will examine the claims that the accusations are false and rumors vicious.

Let's be clear: the only candidate in this race about whom there is heavy traffic of vicious and false internet rumors is Barack Obama. I will not repeat any of those rumors here because they don't deserve the minimum level of respect that even the harshest criticism conveys. They have been thoroughly debunked and refuted, and should now be silenced. Nothing comparable to that sludge is being thrown at Sarah Palin. Naturally, some rumors about her are false and some are exaggerated, but that can be said of practically every public person. If rumors about Palin exhibit any unusual pattern, it is in how much truth they may yet turn out to contain.

As the commenter noted, has compiled a list of "false Internet claims and rumors" about Palin. I have already written about problems with's coverage of this campaign, and I regret to inform you that they have pooped their pants again. (Why is that happening? I don't think they are intentionally biased in McCain's favor. Rather, they are not immune to the "balance" anxiety of American journalism: when lies are grossly unbalanced, journalists feel compelled to restore the balance by applying uneven standards. But that topic deserves its own post, which I promise will be coming soon.) Let's examine the five items on the list and FactCheck's analysis.

#1: Special needs education
Palin did not cut funding for special needs education in Alaska by 62 percent. She didn’t cut it at all. In fact, she increased funding and signed a bill that will triple per-pupil funding over three years for special needs students with high-cost requirements.

As far as I can tell, the rumor is indeed false. But is it vicious? It is not defamatory: it ascribes to Palin a legitimate (although, I suppose, unpopular) policy position. And it is unlikely that it was launched maliciously, as traced its origins to what easily could have been an honest mistake:
Those who claim that Palin cut special needs funding by 62 percent are looking in the wrong place and misinterpreting what they find there. They point to an apparent drop in the Department of Education and Early Development budget for special schools. But the special schools budget, despite the similar name, isn't the special needs budget.
By the way, it is possibly misleading to say that she increased funding. The legislature increased funding; she merely signed it. This is not nitpicking, nor is there a symmetry. As governor, she has "line-item" veto power, so she really can cut funding for specific projects, but she cannot singlehandedly increase it. Unless she took some initiative to enact the increase (which she may well have, but no evidence for it is supplied), has exaggerated a bit in the exonerating statement.

Bullfighter's verdict on this rumor: false, but neither personal nor vicious. Merely erroneous and unremarkable.

#2: Banning books
She did not demand that books be banned from the Wasilla library. Some of the books on a widely circulated list were not even in print at the time. The librarian has said Palin asked a "What if?" question, but the librarian continued in her job through most of Palin's first term.

Here FactCheck errs big time, debunking a straw man and missing the point, with the result of misleading readers.

The relevant story here doesn't involve actual banning of books, but a loyalty test for the librarian. The allegation is that, when she took over as mayor, she asked the librarian how she would feel about a request to remove objectionable books from the shelves. The librarian answered that she would not remove any books, and that was apparently the wrong answer, because Palin subsequently fired her (although she relented when people protested). In the in-depth analysis, FactCheck confirms those facts and even Palin seems to have no objections:
Palin told the Daily News back then the letters were just a test of loyalty as she took on the mayor’s job
The real issue is that such a loyalty test - requiring the librarian to put loyalty to authority above her professional duty and possibly the law - is completely inappropriate, and there is no legitimate reason for the mayor to ask that question. Its chilling effect may be sufficient to raise First Amendment concerns, and it speaks a lot about Palin's attitude to public service. acted irresponsibly by focusing on derivative rumors - purported lists of banned books pulled out of some prankster's ass. I don't even believe those rumors are widespread; I haven't seen any such list although I dig through news and blogs excessively. But by prominently debunking some amateur's nonsense and burying the relevant facts where few people will read them, FactCheck contributed to the impression that the entire issue of Palin's censorship tendencies is a hoax.

Bullfighter's verdict: FactCheck committed the equivalent of breaking a Ming vase while trying to dust it. Despite some ridiculous pranks inspired by it, the relevant main story is true.

#3: AIP
She was never a member of the Alaskan Independence Party, a group that wants Alaskans to vote on whether they wish to secede from the United States. She’s been registered as a Republican since May 1982.

As I noted before, this gun is still smoking. Palin has been "cleared" on the narrow issue of her own membership (which was never a mere rumor - the allegation was made by AIP's top officials), but that is an irrelevant bit in a potentially extremely damning case. FactCheck's mistake is similar to that in #2, but far more dangerous, for two reasons. First, this is by leaps and bounds more serious issue than local library censorship; the worst case here may involve flirting with treason. Second, the "debunking" doesn't merely wander into the irrelevant, but consciously emphasizes the only detail of the story where evidence favors Palin and hides or ignores everything else. And, by the way, her husband's membership may be as relevant as her own.

Bullfighter's verdict: FactCheck fucked up.

#4: Endorsing Buchanan
Palin never endorsed or supported Pat Buchanan for president. She once wore a Buchanan button as a "courtesy" when he visited Wasilla, but shortly afterward she was appointed to co-chair of the campaign of Steve Forbes in the state.

So she never endorsed Buchanan, but she contributed to the appearance that she did. In her own words (quoted deep down in the FactCheck article):
As mayor of Wasilla, I am proud to welcome all presidential candidates to our city. This is true regardless of their party, or the latest odds of their winning. When presidential candidates visit our community, I am always happy to meet them. I'll even put on their button when handed one as a polite gesture of respect.
Really? Regardless of the party? She would welcome the candidate of the Communist Party? How about the Nazi Party? If we take her explanation seriously, it raises some interesting questions.

Now it is true that the meme of "Palin for Buchanan" is potentially very damaging - Buchanan is widely regarded as an anti-Semite - so one could suspect its malicious origins, were it not for the fact that it was Pat Buchanan himself who launched it nationally. While some Democrats have used it (e.g., Congressman Wexler), no one can say that a Democrat or a liberal started it.

#5: Creationism
Palin has not pushed for teaching creationism in Alaska's schools. She has said that students should be allowed to "debate both sides" of the evolution question, but she also said creationism "doesn't have to be part of the curriculum."

This doesn't even make sense; it is self-contradictory. If she said that students should be allowed to "debate both sides", then, by definition, she supported teaching creationism. So what is FactCheck's point? That "supported" doesn't necessarily mean "pushed for"? Did anybody use those words? Is that worth FactCheck's attention? Please.

Oh, and what does FactCheck say in the detailed analysis? Basically, that their own summary is full of shit:
On Aug. 29, the Boston Globe reported that Palin was open to teaching creationism in public schools. That's true. She supports teaching creationism alongside evolution, though she has not actively pursued such a policy as governor.
This is embarrassing. FactCheck says FactCheck is wrong.

Bullfigher's verdict: The "rumor" is true, and FactCheck shot itself in the foot.

Scoreboard: of the five "debunked" rumors,
one is completely true,
one is generally true (and well-documented), but one detail turned out to be false despite testimonies,
one is based on a true story, but FactCheck focused on a prank inspired by it,
one is false but based on an understandable mistake,
and one is false and potentially harmful, but came from a conservative source, and Palin herself contributed to its creation.

There has actually been another rumor out there, not mentioned by FactCheck, which might have a much stronger claim to the "vicious rumor" title than any of those five. That is the rumor that Palin's youngest child was actually her daughter's, and that she faked pregnancy to cover up her daughter's. The McCain-Palin campaign blamed this one on "liberal bloggers":
ST. PAUL, Sept 1 (Reuters) - The 17-year-old daughter of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin is pregnant, Palin said on Monday in an announcement intended to knock down rumors by liberal bloggers that Palin faked her own pregnancy to cover up for her child.
Actually, that wasn't a quote, that's Reuters drinking the Republican Kool-Aid. The campaign was more insidious, and make sure Obama's name got mentioned although there was no logical place for it:
"The despicable rumors that have been spread by liberal blogs, some even with Barack Obama's name in them, is a real anchor around the Democratic ticket, pulling them down in the mud in a way that certainly juxtaposes themselves against their 'campaign of change,'" a senior aide said.
Yes, the rumor was all over the Internet during the Labor Day weekend, but its treatment on the liberal blogs I read ranged from suspicion to dismissal, and many ignored it completely. There were several diaries posted on Daily Kos that perpetuated the claim, but every one of them received negative comments, warning about the lack of evidence or implausibility of the story; there were also diaries debunking the rumor. In other words, this was never a story that got significant traction in the liberal blogosphere.

There were speculations on Daily Kos that the rumor was planted by the Republicans as a bait to accuse librals/Democrats/Obama of smearing Palin. In light of the announcement of Bristol's pregnancy, that seems very plausible. They needed to create a context in which the pregnancy (which couldn't be hidden until November) would be announced as something relatively favorable. That doesn't necessarily mean that the Republicans planted the rumor (I've also heard that it had been all over Alaska since Trig Palin's birth), but it was definitely convenient to them.

What is rarely mentioned is that Palin's own behavior helped build the rumor. She kept her pregnancy secret until the seventh month, flew from Texas to Alaska after her water broke, didn't tell the airplane crew that she was in labor, and returned to work unusually fast after giving birth. None of those claims are disputed, and the source for most is Palin herself. There is a related rumor about Bristol missing several months of school due to mono, but I haven't seen any supporting evidence for it, and without it the story didn't work. But what made the rumor even more implausible was that a 44-year old mother has some 30 times greater risk of having a Down syndrome baby than a 17-year old. There were too many holes in that rumor even before the announcement (which by itself didn't actually refute anything). But Palin's adventurous travel from Texas to Alaska with leaking amniotic fluid, unless it is just another of her serial lies, raises questions about her judgment and responsibility.

So, the final verdict: there was one short-lived rumor that could have qualified as "vicious", but it never really caught on, it might have been planted, and it was only possible because of Palin's inexplicably odd behavior.

I'd like to know which major-party candidate for President or Vice President was the subject of fewer false accusations and vicious rumors than Sarah Palin.

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