The mainstream media has started fact-checking Michael Moore one movie too late.
As veteran fact-checkers of Michael Moore, we should be taking a victory lap in the wake of "Sicko." The liberal icon's latest film has been aggressively fact-checked by major outlets including CNN's Sanjay Gupta, the Associated Press, and USA Today.
However, the media has decided to pounce on Moore just when he seems to be addressing his problems with accuracy. As a result, they have little to say -- indeed, the weakness of the criticism makes Moore look thoughtful and careful with his facts by comparison.
The primary focus of these analyses is to point out that he only tells one side of the story. That is undoubtedly true, as it has been in all his work, but also obvious. Despite Moore's protestations to the contrary on NPR Monday, he is a propagandist. As such, he is under no obligation to present a balanced perspective.
The rest of the critiques -- which focus on discrepancies in health care statistics -- are so minor that even we can hardly protest. For instance, USA Today wrote, "The film says health care costs $7,000 a person each year; the World Health Organization says it costs $6,100." However, it soon had to issue a correction after Moore's team documented that the original statistic came from a reputable source. Did USA Today just look up an estimate online and then assume that it had proved Moore was wrong?
Similarly, CNN's primary objection is that Moore's estimates are drawn from different sources. In one case, it points out that Moore got the figure that Cuba spends $251 per year on health care (which Gupta inaccurately reported as $25 in his original piece) from a BBC report, but he ignores the BBC estimate of US healthcare spending and instead uses a higher estimate from the Department of Health and Human Services. CNN is correct to argue that it is preferable to make apples-to-apples comparisons of statistics from the same report, but Moore is at least citing legitimate sources and doing so accurately.
That's a big improvement over his films Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 and his books Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country?, all of which featured numerous factual errors and deceptive claims.
We know, because we (along with our Spinsanity partner Bryan Keefer) were among the few critics pointing out those errors and deceptions. Compared to the altered Bush/Quayle ad in "Columbine," the numerous misstatements about the federal budget in "Stupid White Men," or Moore's misleading insinuations about President Bush's Saudi connections in "Fahrenheit," the objections to "Sicko" are miniscule.
So why are the media going after "Sicko" so aggressively? Ezra Klein of the American Prospect argues that the media has "status anxiety" next to Moore, a multi-millionaire celebrity filmmaker, and want to "separate what Moore does from what they do, both in order to explain away his successes and to underscore their own assumed strengths (objectivity, rationality, etc)." Klein may be right, but we don't claim to possess the same kind of insights into the anxieties of CNN, AP, and USA Today reporters that he apparently has.
Here's a different theory: When it comes to fact-checking, the mainstream media tends to wait until the evidence (or the narrative) that someone is a serial dissembler becomes overwhelming. It's no coincidence that media outlets are starting to push back against the Bush administration's dishonest attempts to link Al Qaeda and 9/11 to the debate over whether to withdraw troops from Iraq. It's a trick Bush and his aides and allies have been using since 2002, as we chronicled extensively on Spinsanity and in All the President's Spin. However, it has taken years of bloggers and pundits documenting Bush's frequent dissembling for mainstream media outlets to take a more critical approach to these claims. In our experience, outlets that want to seem "objective" rarely fact-check without some sort of strong pretext.
The same logic seems to apply to Moore. With "Stupid White Men" and "Bowling for Columbine," we were one of the few sources documenting his mendacity. However, after "Fahrenheit," several major media outlets began to wake up and question Moore's facts, including Newsweek and USA Today.
With Moore's reputation for dishonesty growing along with his profile, we weren't surprised that CNN, USA Today and the AP thought it was worth devoting their resources to checking the facts in "Sicko." We did the same, assuming Moore would continue his pattern of deception. When we didn't find compelling evidence, we decided not to write about the topic. But the media outlets who had assigned the story apparently felt that they had to write something. As a result, they attempted to critique a movie whose greatest sin was simply being one-sided.
The saddest part about this controversy is the way Moore has used the lame fact-checks of "Sicko" to dismiss all the complaints about his work. During his interview with Wolf Blitzer on "The Situation Room," for instance, he made an astonishing claim about "Fahrenheit 9/11":
I haven't been on your show now for three years. The last time I was on, you ran a similar piece about "Fahrenheit 9/11" saying this can't be true what he's saying about the war, how it's going to be a quagmire, the weapons of mass destruction.
You know, and -- why don't you start off actually with my first appearance back here on your show in three years and maybe apologize to me for saying that three years ago, because it turned out everything I said in "Fahrenheit" was true. Everything has come to happen.
Really? Has Moore's disingenuous claim that the invasion of Afghanistan was a front to build a pipeline for Unocal been proven right? His dishonest implication that Osama bin Laden's family and other Saudis were able to fly out of the country while air traffic was grounded after September 11? His incorrect accusation that "the Bush family, their friends and their related businesses" were given $1.4 billion by the Saudi royal family?
While "Sicko" may not have any major factual errors, we shouldn't let Moore (or anyone else) whitewash his many problems with the truth.