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Stretching, snapping the truth

BY WILL MATTESSICH | SEPTEMBER 29, 2011 7:20 AM

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We expect politicians to tell half of the story. We expect them to imply things that might not be there. Stretching the truth is the norm. But how much stretch from politicians is the American public willing to allow?

Voters, and especially the media, need to hold candidates accountable for their manipulations of the truth, which increasingly seem indistinguishable from outright lies.

The amount of misinformation surrounding the past two elections has dwarfed previous years, including assertions that Barack Obama was secretly a Muslim or wasn't an American citizen. Chain emails and radical blogs that tell blatant lies are here to stay, and the marketplace of ideas opens up the possibility that not all information in the public discourse will be reliable. We must hold candidates for office to a higher standard.

There are some truth distortions that we have come to accept as inevitable — sifting through the language in President Obama's State of the Union addresses leaves very few concrete facts and a lot of flowery prose.

Rep. Michele Bachmann told a group in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday that Cuba "sponsors terror" and talked about connections between Cuba and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Cuba is on the U.S. State Department's list of states sponsoring terror, but many officials in the intelligence community think it should be taken off that list. Bachmann wasn't lying, but she wasn't telling the whole story, either.

One example of taking it too far came from last week's Republican presidential-nomination debate.

Herman Cain answered one question, "If I — we had been on the 'Obamacare' and a bureaucrat was trying to tell me when I could get that CAT scan, that would have delayed my treatment."

Sure, if the Affordable Care Act gave federal bureaucrats the ability to delay treatment prescribed by a doctor, that would be a problem. But, although the law has many flaws, bureaucratic power to override doctors' timetables for treatment isn't among them. That distinction isn't a matter of opinion or a gray area, it is simply a fact.

The Affordable Care Act has been one of the greatest founts of fodder for misinformers since its inception. During the 2010 elections, accusations were flying at Obama about setting up "death panels." Iowa's own Sen. Charles Grassley said he didn't want the government deciding "when to pull the plug on grandma."

The "death panels" were nothing more than an absurd product of health-care opponents' minds, but that didn't stop some voters from accepting them. One 2009 poll showed that 45 percent of respondents believed that the government would be able to decide when to stop giving medical care to the elderly.

Even when egregious misstatements of the truth are caught and reported on, the individuals making them face few repercussions. Cain is still receiving support, and he has been invited to more debates than New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a politician who is known for often telling too much of the truth.

A professor at the University of Minnesota tried to challenge some of these fallacies. When Bachmann stated that a woman had said to her that an HPV vaccine had made her daughter retarded, the professor publically offered $1,000 to anyone with medical documentation of an HPV vaccine causing retardation.

Bachmann quickly backed down.

The media bear some responsibility for allowing the truth-stretching epidemic to become so severe. Some news outlets focus too much on unimportant issues; others cover news with too much spin. But ultimately, it's up to voters to hold candidates accountable and prevent blatant falsehoods from becoming the new norm. The last time a politician faced serious repercussions from telling a lie was when former President Bill Clinton was impeached. Clinton's perjury wasn't even a policy issue, and lying about policy has far greater consequences than lying about sexual relations.

Voters need to mobilize against candidates who take stretching the truth too far.


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