Monday, April 18, 2011

Pants On Fire: Lyin' Jon Kyl!

Another justification for calling the followers of the Grand Old Party — Dumbos — in this blog is provided by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ). In fact, Kyl is a Super-Dumbo for standing on the floor of the Senate and lying through his disgusting teeth, never dreaming that the media (New and Old) would check his facts. If this is a (fair & balanced) illustration that this blog is not intended to be factual when discussing Dumbos and Teabaggers, so be it.

[The AP]
Absolutely Intended To Be A Factual Column
By Paul Waldman

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at

Something unusual happened last week: a politician suffered harm to his public reputation for telling a lie. It happens less often than it ought to — sit through even a single afternoon of cable news or a session on the floor of one of the houses of Congress, and you're bound to hear multiple false claims without anyone jumping up to object. Only rarely does anyone pay a real price for shading the truth, or even telling an outright whopper. And the way this offender — Republican Senator Jon Kyl — came to his comeuppance was what made it notable.

Goodness knows, journalists have been looking for ways to get politicians to tell the truth for as long as politicians have been lying. Their efforts have been noble, serious, conscientious, and largely ineffective. So what happened to Kyl is something worthy of celebration.

Friday before last, the Arizona senator went to the floor of the Senate to argue that Planned Parenthood should be banned from receiving Title X funds, which pay for a variety of women's health needs, including contraception — but not abortion, which is illegal to fund with federal money. Kyl sought to imply that money Planned Parenthood gets must surely be going to fund abortion, because after all, "you don't have to go to Planned Parenthood to get your cholesterol or your blood pressure checked. If you want an abortion, you go to Planned Parenthood, and that's well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does."

The truth, however, is that abortion is not 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does, but a mere 3 percent. The biggest parts of their services are the provision of contraception and STD testing.

Now lots of people pull "facts" from the air when they're engaging in public debate. Ronald Reagan, for instance, famously liked to argue with anecdotes — we should cut welfare, because there's a "welfare queen" in Chicago who picks up her checks in a Cadillac. But when someone lies with numerical precision, the way Kyl did, it carries the ring of truth, even to the skeptical.

But the people who know about Planned Parenthood, and those who monitor the debate, immediately flagged Kyl's claim as bogus. Think Progress [a Center for American Progress blog] quickly posted an item on Kyl's speech, explaining how he was misleading about the organization. A chart showing the actual breakdown of the organization's spending circulated through the progressive blogosphere. At that point, the incident was following a routine repeated hundreds of times before: a politician says something false, people on the other side express their outrage online, and most Americans never notice. The non-partisan fact-checking site PolitiFact checked Kyl's statement that day as well (they rated it "False"), but there's not much chance Kyl was too worried about fallout.

But that afternoon, CNN reported on the air that when they called Kyl's office asking about what he had said, the office replied in a statement saying, "His remark was not intended to be a factual statement, but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, an organization that receives millions of taxpayer dollars, does subsidize abortions."

Cue some further online mockery, but the story was still destined to fade away within a day or two. That was until the following Monday night, when both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert took to their Comedy Central programs to mock Kyl, and in particular the "not intended to be a factual statement" argument. "This is an amazingly liberating defense," Colbert said. "Now I can say things like 'Jon Kyl has a vestigial tail, and it's not where you think it would be — there's a reason he never wears a tank top.' Note: that was not intended to be a factual statement." Colbert quickly realized that this would be a perfect topic for his Twitter feed, which has 2.2 million followers.

What ensued was a deluge of tweets about Kyl, in which Colbert (and presumably his staff of writers) used the hashtag "#NotIntendedToBeAFactualStatement" to say things like, "Jon Kyl has the world's most extensive catalogue of snuff films," "Jon Kyl calls all Asians 'Neil' no matter what their name is," and "For the past 10 years, Jon Kyl has been two children in a very convincing Jon Kyl suit." Hundreds of other Twitter users got in on the fun, penning their own non-factual tweets about Kyl, and before you knew it, there were literally thousands of tweets on the topic. On his show the next night, Colbert reported that tweets with the hashtag were arriving at a rate of 46 per minute. This frenzy of mockery then became a justification for news stories about Kyl's false claim about Planned Parenthood, stretching out the story's life over a week, something almost unheard of for a floor statement by a senator most Americans have never heard of.

Like the rest of us, politicians respond to incentives, both positive and negative. There are always incentives to lie, if it can more strongly make your case. The disincentive is that lying may — and that's may — carry some cost to your reputation. Most of the time, however, it doesn't. Yes, there are some lies so blatant or titillating that they'll grab reporters' attention and get repeated over and over, but much of the time politicians can shade the truth without most people knowing or caring. And a correction by a reporter or a site like PolitiFact, however well-intentioned, is something most politicians can withstand without too much concern.

Mockery, however, is something different. Criticism from one's political opponents is part of the bargain of being in politics, but mockery can cut to the bone. And comedians like Stewart and Colbert are very skilled at mockery — that skill is the reason they have their own TV shows. All of us fear being made fun of, even if the fear isn't quite as acute as it was when you were in junior high. Just try to imagine how horrifying it would be if you were told that Stephen Colbert had decided to make a fool out of you, and was going to devote a substantial amount of his and his staff's time over the next week to making that goal a reality.

A century ago, Mark Twain supposedly said that a lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on. Today, we lament the ease with which lies course through our modern media ecosystem. But that system gives the truth an opportunity as well. In this case, the pleasure people took in mocking Senator Kyl was enabled by a combination of traditional media (television), online media (blogs), and social media (Twitter). Unfortunately, it isn't much of a model to be repeated, because it wouldn't have happened without the comedic possibilities of what Colbert called Kyl's "groundbreaking excuse-planation." Unless it hands comedians material too juicy to pass up, the next lie by a politician will be much less likely to get noticed. If nothing else, though, you can bet Jon Kyl is going to be a lot more careful from now on. Ω

[Paul Waldman is a senior correspondent for The American Prospect and the author of Being Right is Not Enough: What Progressives Must Learn From Conservative Success (2006). Waldman received a BA in political science from Swarthmore College and PhD in communication from the University of Pennsylvania.]

Copyright © 2011 The American Prospect, Inc.

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