It’s not profoundly uncommon to hear someone challenge one of The Washington Post’s fact checks. It’s somewhat less common, given the newspaper’s leanings, to hear that challenge coming from the direction of Bernie Sanders — one of the top-tiered contenders in the crowded Democratic presidential field.
That should be a telling thing in and of itself. The fact check had to do with a critical claim in the Vermont socialist’s latest entry in the free stuff sweepstakes, a Saturday proposal to eliminate $81 billion in medical debt for Americans.
Reuters noted that Sanders “offered no details on how it would be financed,” which might have been a good thing to work out before this rolled out, but whatever. The plan would wipe out past-due medical debt that had been reported to credit agencies by having the government negotiate with the debt holder and pay the debt off.
The plan would also allow the discharge of current and future medical debt and change elements of the 2005 Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act, according to Reuters.
The fact-check controversy, however, comes from this part of Sanders’ rhetoric:
“In the United States of America, your financial life and future should not be destroyed because you or a member of your family gets sick,” Sanders said, according to Reuters.
“That is unacceptable. I am sick and tired of seeing over 500,000 Americans declare bankruptcy each year because they cannot pay off the outrageous cost of a medical emergency or a hospital stay.”
According to The Washington Post’s Fact Checker, that oft-repeated 500,000 number is misleading because it assumes a direct causality between medical debt and and the bankruptcies in question, however.
The Post examined the claim in a Wednesday article after Sanders made a similar statement on CNN. A Sanders aide told The Post the number came from an American Journal of Public Health editorial from March.
“That study, led by David U. Himmelstein, took a sample of bankruptcy court filings from 2013 to 2016, identified 3,200 bankrupt debtors and mailed them a survey. The response rate was 29.4 percent, with 910 responses and 108 surveys returned as undeliverable,” the fact check read.
“Debtors were asked whether medical expenses, or loss of work related to illness, contributed to their bankruptcies. Of those who responded, 66.5 percent said at least one of those factors contributed ‘somewhat’ or ‘very much.’”
The ambiguity of the study is what drew the attention of the fact-checkers.
“This study includes a range of people for whom medical expenses or illness contributed ‘somewhat’ to bankruptcy. What does ‘somewhat’ mean?” the fact-check reads.
“It’s broad enough to mean ‘slightly,’ ‘fairly’ or ‘moderately.’ Sanders’s claim works only by erasing this ambiguity and taking ‘somewhat’ to mean ‘mostly.’”
The Post awarded the claim “Three Pinocchios” (out of a possible four sentient, prevaricating wooden puppets) because it was “classic case of cherry-picking a number from a scientific study and twisting it to make a political point” and noted the critics of the figure have argued “the study he’s citing casts too wide a net because it counts anyone who mentioned medical bills or illness among their reasons for declaring bankruptcy, not just those who said it was the main reason or a big piece.”
The Sanders campaign wasn’t happy about this one.
“I am writing in regards to the Washington Post Fact Checker’s Aug. 28 analysis, headlined: ‘Sanders’s flawed statistic: 500,000 medical bankruptcies a year,'” a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign wrote in response, according to the Washington Examiner. “We demand that the Post immediately issue a retraction and inform its readers of this decision.”
“The Post’s Fact Checker issued Senator Sanders ‘three pinocchios’ for accurately citing a peer-reviewed editorial published in the American Journal of Public Health,” the complaint continued. “The Post even notes that the author of the editorial confirmed that Senator Sanders had accurately cited his work.”
Mind you, this wasn’t actually what was in question. It’s also worth noting, as The Post did, that the study “did not undergo the same peer-reviewed editing process as a research article.” However, the campaign said that the paper’s Fact Checker had a “much broader pattern of bias” against the Vermont socialist.
“We hope that you will address the Fact Checker’s inappropriate coverage of Senator Sanders — first by immediately retracting this most recent piece, and then by committing the newspaper to covering Senator Sanders in a fair, professional and ethical manner that finally starts honoring the most basic standards of accuracy,” the campaign stated.
It may not surprise you that the article hasn’t been retracted. What may surprise you, instead, is that there are a smattering of outlets who are willing to go along with Sanders in this.
At Rolling Stone, Tim Dickinson essentially recapitulates the study’s findings and the fact that the author of the study backed Sanders up on his use of the 500,000 number for bankruptcies due to medical debt. At no point in the piece does Dickinson note that the “Three Pinocchios” didn’t really have to do with any of that but instead with the study itself being flawed.
Instead, Dickinson complains about the use of the Pinocchio as a benchmark (“What is it with the multiple Pinocchios? The Pinocchio didn’t self propagate when he lied — his nose grew”) and a claim that The Post was “splitting hairs.”
“To review: the Post fact checker, going straight to the source, a Harvard lecturer, found that Sanders’ was sticking to close to the facts, and if anything understating the problem,” Dickinson wrote. “So why didn’t the Post give Bernie a coveted ‘Geppetto Checkmark’ for truthfulness. (Yes, it’s really called this — you can’t make this s— up.) Who knows?!?
“The author spends the rest of the 1,600 word piece splitting hairs and then tying them into knots. He takes it upon himself to not simply fact check Sanders, but the medical journal that Sanders relied on. And it turns out that, if you dig down far enough, you can uncover a minor-league academic beef about bankruptcy statistics, with professors arguing about the extent to which one can say the contributing factor of medical debt is actually what ’caused’ the bankruptcy.”
I’ll say this much: I agree with Dickinson on the whole Pinocchio thing. The whole mechanic of why Pinocchio has become known as a symbol of mendacity is totally misrepresented in how the ratings system is devised, and Geppetto doesn’t really have anything to do with the absence of lying or Pinocchios. (In fact, as the creator of Pinocchio, he could be seen as the creator of lying in this metaphor, and — well, I really shouldn’t think too hard about this, since The Post clearly didn’t.)
As for the rest of Dickinson’s diatribe, the answer to his question would probably have presented itself if he, like, actually read those 1,600 words instead of just skimming them and reducing the heart of the argument into “a minor-league academic beef about bankruptcy statistics.”
At least Dickinson isn’t a campaign representative or anything, merely a member of the media acting as a surrogate. As for the Bernie campaign, I’m sure they’re perfectly fine with fact-checking most of the time, since (of course) neither they nor their ilk will usually experience it. Most of the articles will still be “We found 82,063,187 lies Mitch McConnell has told since the new Congress convened” variety.
But when they come under the microscope, they demand the paper in question start “covering Senator Sanders in a fair, professional and ethical manner that finally starts honoring the most basic standards of accuracy.”
They almost sound like conservatives.
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