Fact Checker Live: Rick Santorum's bogus statistics

Feb 22, 2012

Chat with The Post's fact checker, Glenn Kessler, about Rick Santorum's statistics about euthanasia in the Netherlands, as well as other remarks you have questions about.

Submit questions, comments and opinions now.

Note to readers: Unlike many of our other chat series, Fact Checker will not take place at the same day and time every week. The time of these chats will be determined by what Glenn is working on and current events. Chats in this series will be designated by the words "Fact Checker" in the chat title. Thank you.

Tonight is another GOP debate--perhaps the last. So that will be interesting. Don't forget--if you hear something fishy, send a tweet to #FactCheckThis. We will try to investigate. 

Lots of questions so let's get started. And I'm eager to answer questions on any topics.

You explain how the anti-mercy killing bracelet story cited by Santorum resulted from a chain of passed on sources, starting from an unsourced invented factoid or lie, each source not independently checking the source or doing its own reporting, until it comes to the attention of the GOP front-runner, who states it as fact, and uses it as the basis of policy pronouncements. Isn't this fairly common on the right, where a unsourced claim moves up the media chain on to talk radio or commentators on Fox News, or politicians who "know" it is a fact, and to voters who also "know" it is a fact, like Reagan's story of the person buying an orange with food stamps and using the change to buy vodka?

I'm nohought it sure I would attribute this just to people on the right. I have seen the same factless trend with some claims on the left. It is almost like that old child's game of telephone, in which the original thought gets increasingly disjointed from reality.  Some of Reagan's welfare queen stories were derived from one single case, greatly distorted. 

There is also the all too human tendency to believe things that fit with your own preconceived notions. People are much less apt to check such "facts"!

Where is Rick Santorum getting his information from, considering the info you fact checked was so incorrect?

I have no idea. His campaign did not respond to questions asking for sources. Usually, I can find the inklings of a source (such as the bracelet tale) with enough Nexis and/or Google research, but I could not find much that really matched his statistics. 

Not that I'm saying what you do isn't valuable (and it seems to be far more consistent than politifact) but does it really matter when it comes to the Republican Party? It seems like things are so polarized in regards to the voter base that those who believe Santorum or Gingrich or Romney are always going to believe them no matter what you say and that only what Fox News says will make a dent.

I hope that's not the case. I refuse to be cynical and believe none of what I write has any impact. And, in fact, kudos to Gingrich for saying his SuperPAC needed to correct errors after I gave Four Pinocchios to the "King of Bain" movie.

How can the media more effectively dispute incorrect information - especially completely false "facts" - that politicians so often use repeatedly during campaigns? Once the misinformation gets out - quoted in headlines and articles - it takes on a life of its own on the web, often spawning more misinformation. I find that most people don't read Pinnochio-type follow-up articles or corrections. As a well-read, concerned citizen, I find this extremely frustrating and dangerous.

I used to be a reporter on the campaign trail and I know how hard it is to constantly fact check every new charge. But I do think we could do a better job of calling out politicians for fibs in our news stories.  That in the long run might have some impact, if the fact checking (or links to fact checks) was a routine part of every news story.

So, if Romney was to continue asserting that President Obama went on an "apology tour", at what point do your four Pinocchios become a dictionary definition of a "lie"?

You have a point there. I guess he can't give it up ever since he titled his campaign book "No Apology." But I intend to bring it up every time he says it....

First off, love your work. So important. Thank you. You may have addressed this issue in the past, but: How come reporters aren't more vigilant in calling politicians out when they lie or propogate falsehoods? Isn't brining the truth to the public one of the tenants of journalism? By not challenging untruths, are reporters and news agencies fulfilling their missions? How is the public supposed to trust the media when they aren't working to bring us the truth? Thanks!

Thanks! I just answered a similar question....I am so glad I am no longer on the campaign trail. It is draining, difficult work. And I think the Post reporters do a great job of holding the candidates' feet to the fire. And so do some of the TV reporters, such as Jonathan Karl of ABC News. But in the news business we don't like to write the same thing over and over again, and that's how some falsehoods slip through again and again. 

I once attempted to discuss (OK, correct) my father-in-law when he started to spew the Clinton-was-a-convicted-felon nonsense. He became very angry... accusing me of supporting draft dodgers, etc. Do you ever see that anger directed at you personally because of your column?

I sometimes get very angry emails from readers, but those are balanced by the many positive messages I get. 

Santorum has said that he does not want to outlaw birth control? Has that always been his position?

I have not checked all the votes but I believe as a senator he supported Title X, which provides birth control for the poor.

String theory, the "theory of everything" in physics, holds that we live in a multiverse of multiple universes. Anything may happen in those other universes, including a Netherlands just as Santorum described. Either Santorum is so far advanced in science and technology that he's actually referring to a parallel universe (maybe the one where Mr. Spock wears a goatee and everyone carries an agonizer) that operates just as he says, and he just confused our universe with his parallel universe, or he's just bald-faced liar.

posting this comment

Conservative pundits and politicians keep asserting that government is too big and it need not manage our lives. How and why then do they, on social issues, where management is most personal such as abortion and contraception, euthanasia and marriage seek to institute this control? How, to them, is this not seen as hypocritical?

posting this comment...I can't answer this but perhaps readers have thoughts. Humans are never very consistent.....For what it is worth, many libertarians say they are consistent, wanting "smaller government" in all aspects, which would include support for abortion rights and so forth. 

I get really sick of candidates and their ads telling us that "John Smith hates X, because he voted against X issue 15 times over the past 5 years." When the reality is that X was not the only issue or even related at all to the main issue of the legislation being voted on. Seems like most Americans think they vote separately on each and evey item, when alot of this stuff they're referring to are riders to omnibus budget bills.

Yes, I agree. Those are among the most ridiculous attack ads, since they take the votes so out of context.

I also have a theory that this is why it is so hard to be elected president if you have been a senator. In fact the only two senators to become president in recent history--John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama--were barely in the senate ans so had cast few votes that could be used against them!

Glenn, thanks for what you do. Santorum's Netherlands statements seem to belong to that rarest category claims worthy of five pinnochios. I know that you don't measure intent (and I appreciate that), but to me, it seems that there's an inherent difference between a misstatement and a deliberate falsehood. In this case, the lie about euthanasia in the Netherlands was clearly intended to be a cautionary tale about the Affordable Care Act and a presumed slippery slope. These kinds of lies can be harmful. If elderly supporters hear Santorum's statement and become reticent to pursue care out of fear of being involuntarily euthanized, then the lie becomes far more impactful than data manipulation or selective statistics. Santorum lied to use fear as a political weapon. That is unconscionable.

Hmmm, I wonder if I get on a slippery slope if I start adding to the pinocchios for really bad cases like this one! 

Oh right, they don't exist. But if they did, I'd wear one all the time. Can't hurt, right?

Funny comment....

This seems like a backdoor attempt by Santorum to revive the "Death Panel" argument, much like his theology other than the bible comment was a backdoor attempt to appease the "secret muslim" crowd.

That's possible....

Glenn, thanks for taking questions. I know that this may be outside the purview of the topic for today, but I was greatly disturbed by Rev. Franklin Graham's recent assertions about the president and Mormonism. Is there any way that his comments can be fact checked, or are they too much in the realm of opinion? Given that there continues to be this fringe view that the president is a "secret" Muslim, I suppose not, but they are lies in my view nonetheless.

Hmm, interesting question. This may really be in the realm of opinion but perhaps there are facts to be checked.

How did blogs change what politicians can and can't get away with saying? It seems like every since people started blogging, there's just so much information, blog posts, etc out there that it's almost impossible to fact check. Did blogs embolden politicians?

yes and no. I agree there is information overflow. But there is also corrective-information overflow. 

What about when a right-wing media outlet fact-checks Santorum? If a candidate can't even keep the loyalty of those on his/her own side of the aisle, isn't that an ominous sign? "Santorum criticizes Drudge item about 2008 speech"

Well, it's been a pretty tough GOP race. At least one news organization (Politico?) detected what it thought was a pro-Romney bias in Drudge, though I'm not sure that's the case. He certainly is an important driver of news coverage. 

True, but he has since made his usual garbled statements against birth control, so no wonder people are confused as to his actual stance.

you may be right, though my colleague Melinda Henneberger makes a convincing case that this is a loser issue for Republicans--and that Democrats have been the ones mostly raising it. 

You mention human tendency before... hasn't this been going on since Roman Times? I think the internet has made it easier to disseminate rumors... but this has been going on since people have been making speeches or posting handbills.

yep. It just gets out faster now!

JFK served in both houses of Congress for not-brief 14 years before becoming President. Do you think a likelier explanation might be that voting records weren't used against a Presidential candidate as much back in 1960 as they are nowadays?

hmm, I wasn't think of his House career, but yes, I think you are right. 

I don't know if you can answer this, but how in the world do these politicians stand in public, in front of tons of people and TV cameras, and blatantly lie? Aren't they ashamed? Or do they believe the lies they are saying? Do they not think they'll be caught? Do they not care? I'd be mortified if I was caught in such a blatant lie.

It's politics! I know an example of a consultant to a major party candidate who told him that his facts on a particular issue were wrong, and he was told, forget about it, I prefer to say what I have been saying. 

Why don't you also have a segment on all the cable news stations?

That would be great. I do a fair amount of TV but I'm eager for offers!

Didn't I also hear you nationwide on NPR ("Talk of the Nation," maybe")?

yes, a few weeks ago...

Perhaps you could, instead of adding to your scale, create a second scale. Base it on how hurtful in a tangible sense any 4 lie is likely to be, or how calculated the lie is. It would be tough to do, but it wouldn't change the scale you have, just add nuance to it.

okay, will give it some thought

Just a note. Thank you for picking this up. Rick Santorum's finger pointing at the Dutch policies concerning euthanasia in the Netherlands shocked me being Dutch. It was very offending to hear him talk this way. His interpretation of statistics probably came from a report in 1991. The Remmelink Report. This report was drafted before the Dutch euthanasia law came in effect in 2001. He tossed in some of his own ideas and maybe gossip. If he is unable to get these facts right, how can he be trusted with interpretation of other facts? He was talking about one of the US most reliable allies and offending us. It is addressed in a lot of Dutch forums and collums. Someone suggested he should change his name to: Rick Krankjorum. Krankjorum translates from Dutch "stark raving mad" and 18 other variants. Thank you for reading this.

posting this comment...

Who? Inquiring minds want to know! In fact, if the candidate is running for office, isn't it your journalistic duty to reveal who it is, so we can vote accordingly?

not this year's race...one in the past

Thanks for all of the interesting question. I have to get back to work...remember to tweet to #FactCheckThis during the debate!

In This Chat
Glenn Kessler
Glenn Kessler is an acclaimed diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and has been recipient of numerous awards, including two shared Pulitzer Prizes. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he has reported from dozens of countries and also has covered the White House and Congress. Kessler is the author of The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy. He is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and lives in McLean, Virginia.
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