Fact-checking matters — even for columnists and bloggers

These rules apply to all — not just people who are journalists for respected news organizations but, even more so, for the many bloggers who don’t have a fact-checking infrastructure or editor to catch the mistakes before they hit the Internet. Even those who insist on anonymous comments on the blogosphere should care about truth and facts, but the fact that they choose anonymity to vent their spleen means they probably don’t care.

Recently, one of the more well-known bloggers, Markos Moulitsas, founder of the liberal blog The Daily Kos, made a mistake in his Sept. 23 column in this newspaper, titled “Blue Dogs, beware,” and did so in the course of making a personal attack on the integrity of a Blue Dog Democrat, Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.). I met Mr. Cooper only once, just recently, but I have known of him for years as someone with an outstanding reputation for honesty, thoughtfulness and open-mindedness — even if some people, including myself, might disagree with him on certain issues.

Implying that Cooper opposed the public option in healthcare legislation, Moulitsas wrote in his Sept. 23 column that Cooper had received an inflated price from a “pharmaceutical firm” for a “Cooper-owned commercial property worth a fraction of that amount” and then asserted that Cooper’s wife had been hired by that firm. Thus, he charged, “corporate lobbyists … certainly are paying the piper and getting Cooper to sing along.”

That’s a pretty serious charge — amounting to the crime of bribery, if true. But it turned out to be utterly false. On the morning of the 23rd, Cooper called The Hill and pointed out that Moulitsas had confused him with charges made against another Blue Dog Democrat, Rep. Mike Ross of Arkansas (charges against Ross that, I might add, are still unproven, yet repeated by many bloggers as if they are proven fact). The Hill immediately made the correction and deleted Moulitsas’s mistaken charge in its online edition.

It took Moulitsas a full day, to midday on the 24th, to correct his error — to his credit, in a post in which he admitted he had made a “pretty stupid mistake.” But he still broke all three rules of the road — he didn’t apologize to Mr. Cooper personally — he only apologized for “that mistake.” He did not post the apology on the same publication where he had made the error — he posted it on his own blog, The Daily Kos. And most importantly, he seemed not to have learned the lesson of being careful to be 100 percent accurate in the future, especially if you are engaging in an attack on a person’s integrity. To wit: In his post “apologizing” on the Daily Kos the next day, he once again attacked Cooper’s integrity inaccurately — at least this time he told what at best could be described as a half-truth.

In his Sept. 24 post, Moulitsas impugned Mr. Cooper’s motives for failure to support the public option due to “allegiance to his insurance company.”

He added that “Mr. Cooper supports a bill that does NOT include the public option.”

This statement can only be described as no longer true, though it was true some time ago. Cooper was a supporter of a version of the Healthy Americans Act, which does not have a pure public option run by the government (although the HAA, sponsored in the Senate by progressive Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, D, does guarantee that all Americans have the right to purchase (with federal and employer subsidy where needed) the discounted and heavily regulated Blue Cross/Blue Shield healthcare policy, available to all federal employees and members of Congress.

However, as even a quick Google search would have revealed, Mr. Cooper at least since last May has supported the public option introduced by the progressive senior senator from New York, Charles Schumer (and defeated Tuesday in the Senate Finance Committee). See, for example, May 14 in Politico, June 8 on the Huffington Post, Aug. 19 on “MSNBC Morning Meeting” with Dylan Ratigan and Aug. 24 on “Pith in the Wind,”

Sen. Schumer’s — and Rep. Cooper’s — public option would be required to compete on a “level playing field.” It would be a national plan that would have to adhere to the same rules as private companies (e.g., actuarial reporting, community rating, etc.).

Now, maybe Moulitsas disagrees with this type of “level playing field” definition of a public option. At the very least, if he wished to be fair and not apply a double standard, if he is criticizing Cooper for supporting that type of public option, he should criticize Schumer as well.

But Moulitsas didn’t mention that Cooper is now a supporter of Schumer’s public option. That is unfortunate and misleading. I give him the benefit of the doubt — that he didn’t know because he didn’t take the extra time to do a fact-check on Cooper’s current position, either by a quick Google search or by calling Cooper’s office.

Let’s hope these back-to-back mistakes become good “teachable moments,” as President Obama said in a different context, for Moulitsas going forward —  and for all the rest of us who write columns and posts on the Internet.

The lesson is: Check the facts first as best you can and then write or post — not the other way around.

Tags Charles Schumer Ron Wyden

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