PolitiFacting in the Service of Extremism Is a Vice

I’ll admit I’m a bit surprised. Over my (nearly) four decades of life, I’ve developed the sense that reporters have this innate suspicion of and dislike for military spin. It felt like some trained-in journalist instinct would kick in with the least hint of notions that might snowball, some miles down the mountain of social deterioration, into a military dictatorship.

If that instinct does exist, though, it is apparently overwhelmed by another instinct: the one to knock down the conservative grassroots development of the Tea Party. That the IRS targeting story has been allowed to peter into grains of topical sand is a broad indication, but here’s a sharp, specific one appearing in yesterday’s PolitiFact RI article, on the way to setting the local Tea Party’s pants on fire (emphasis added):

When we asked the Department of Defense about the tea party tweet and the Red Flag headline, spokesman Lt. Col. J. Todd Breasseale, called it “an absurdity of such outlandish proportion, it’s almost difficult to take seriously.

“But it’s also a kind of un-American, potentially dangerous fear-mongering,” he said, “and so I’d like to be as clear as I can here: Service members may donate to any legal cause they choose, and, as long as they do so within the boundaries of the Hatch Act, may involve themselves (out of uniform, without using government equipment, off duty, in a way that implies no government endorsement) in the political process, regardless of party affiliation.”

So, if you like your Tea Party donations, I guess you can keep your Tea Party donations. I joke because the reality is just stunning. Here we have journalists conveying without comment a lieutenant colonel with the Department of Defense classifying U.S. citizens “un-American” and “potentially dangerous.”

It’s worse than that, because including that barbs was entirely irrelevant to the fact checking. The meat of the quotation, serving PolitiFact’s ends, starts with “Service members may donate”; the McCarthyite accusation could have been left on the cutting room floor with no journalistic effect.

It’s a small irony, therefore, that the article goes on to chastise the RI Tea Party on the grounds that “we believe people and parties have an obligation to check things out before they blindly pass them along to others.”  Sure.

It’s a large irony, however, that Breasseale’s response has eerie echoes of an important document that PolitiFact RI glossed over on its way to the inevitable Pants on Fire ruling. In a memorandum from the Secretary of the Army, John McHugh admits that there were instances in which military personnel were, at least, misinformed about what groups counted as “extremists” to which they could not contribute:

… in two recent high-profile cases, Army instructors found information on the website of a particular special interest group that identified certain groups as “extremist” in nature, and presented that information as part of their instruction.

Follow the ball, here:

  • On multiple occasions, military trainers told personnel that Christians and Tea Party groups counted as “enemies of America” (according to a witness) with which they could not associate.
  • Tea Party groups caught wind of this development and made it public.
  • PolitiFact RI looked into it.
  • A military spokesman essentially calls the Tea Party groups “un-American” and “potentially dangerous.”
  • PolitiFact RI rules on the basis of his response that the Tea Party groups were lying.

To make matters worse, the RI Tea Party venue that PolitiFact thought it so important to review was… Twitter. One of our U.S. Senators, Sheldon Whitehouse, regularly takes to the floor and the cameras of Congress to attack the citizens who make up the Tea Party (two examples, here and here). Perhaps such hyperbolic political rhetoric from a powerful man would be more in keeping with the stated mission of PolitiFact and journalism than tweets from part-time grassroots activists.

Of course, I hesitate to suggest the reporters’ review of such statements from Whitehouse for fear that they’d create a new category on the Truth-O-Meter called “True and Then Some.”  It’s becoming increasingly difficult to believe that the media will provide any protection against tyranny that doesn’t come from the clichéd political Right.

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