Drudge, Obama’s “$200 Million a Day Trip” and How The U.S. Public Gets Stupid

One of the many themes running through the many teeth-gnashing, garment-rending attempts by angry progressive columnist and bloggers to explain why the Democrats got their heads handed to them on Tuesday is that the voters are just stupid, that’s all. (In doing so, they duplicate the exact same arrogance that helped put all those heads on the block in the first place, but I digress.) The public is not stupid, of course, but it is often wretchedly misinformed by a news media that has lost most of its scruples and a lot of its professionalism. Once a rumor, misconception, distortion or myth gets enough publicity, it can lodge itself in people’s brains like shrapnel. Examples: Obama’s “Muslim faith” and his “foreign birth.” Other examples: the “50% divorce rate” and women only  getting paid “75% of what men are paid for the same jobs.”

We should all thank Matt Drudge for giving us a wonderful lesson on how this happens, both for our future reference and protection. He recently linked to a story in an Indian newspaper that reported, based on anonymous sources, that President Obama’s trip to Mumbai was going to be accompanied by about 10% of the U.S. fleet and cost $200,000,000 a day. To be fair to Drudge, he did label the link “REPORT:”, which in Drudgese usually means “I have no idea whether this is true or not, but somebody claims it is.” Also to be fair: this is irresponsible in the extreme. REPORT: Michelle Obama eats cats!…REPORT: Sarah Palin an escaped counterfeiter!…REPORT: U.S. sells Kansas to Saudis to reduce debt! Drudge is one of the most extensively read news aggregators in the world; nothing should be linked there that isn’t from a credible source, and an Indian newspaper using anonymous sources obviously isn’t. Matt just thought it was too juicy to pass up. We should be grateful that the Michelle Obama eating cats story wasn’t in the same newspaper, I guess.

Unfortunately, all the conservative talk radio hosts use the Drudge Report as primary source material every day. Print out Drudge’s home page, and have it handy when you listen to Laura, Mark, Sean, Glenn or Rush; it is really remarkable. Some days, they just run down the links. The Indian newspaper was picked up by Rush Limbaugh—also irresponsible on his part—and that was the ballgame. Hannity and Beck, who follow Limbaugh like rats follow cheese (which means that it was even more reckless for Rush to put a story out there that he could have figured out was nonsense with a few minutes of thought) also picked up the story.That launched the conservative and Obama-bashing blogs that hadn’t already taken their cue from the Drudge Report.

Now an unsubstantiated report from an Indian newspaper was, in the minds of millions, true. Shrapnel. Now the  politicians are repeating the story: Rep. Michelle Bachmann, the Alan Grayson of the Right, used the $200,000,000 figure to Anderson Cooper on CNN.

The indispensible and non-partisan FactCheck.org sets the record straight:

“…This story has spread rapidly among the president’s critics, but there is simply no evidence to support it. And common sense should lead anyone to doubt it. For example, the entire U.S. war effort in Afghanistan currently costs less than that — about $5.7 billion per month, according to the Congressional Research Service, or roughly $190 million per day. How could a peaceful state visit cost more than a war? What else can you get for $200 million? Try the New Jersey Nets basketball team or possibly the Hope diamond — if only the Smithsonian were selling it.

The hard-to-swallow claim originated with a Nov. 2 Press Trust of India article quoting an unnamed “top official” in the government of Maharashtra (one of India’s states). The source was quoted as saying that Obama’s upcoming trip to Mumbai will cost $200 million per day for security and living arrangements, among other things. The story claimed that the president would be accompanied by about 3,000 people, including Secret Service agents, government officials and journalists, and will stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel — the scene of a 2008 terrorist attack.

We find stories based on anonymous sources always deserve special caution, especially when they come from only one news organization. In this case, the anonymous official is not even in the U.S. government, and any information about costs would necessarily have come second-hand at best, an added reason for caution….

{Says]Matt Lehrich, White House Office of Media Affairs: “The numbers reported in this article have no basis in reality. Due to security concerns, we are unable to outline details associated with security procedures and costs, but it’s safe to say these numbers are wildly inflated.”

It is always costly to move a U.S. president around the world. And in this case, the president is attending a G-20 meeting and will be accompanied by several cabinet officials. But given the dubious source of this assertion, the fact that the claimed cost exceeds the cost of a war, the flat denial by the White House and the lack of any evidence to support the claim, we’ll classify this one as false.”

As Ethics Alarms has noted before, the interaction of the Web, the 24-hour news cycle, desperately competing media companies, talk radio and social media makes it more critical than ever to check facts before releasing a story, because false stories spread frighteningly fast. Unfortunately, the trend is in the opposite direction: there is less fact checking than ever, because speed and sensationalism is valued more than truth.

I would like to see a lot of corrections and apologies, from Drudge, from Rush, from his talk radio mimics, from Beck,  from Fox, which houses enough of the perpetrators of this confusion that it must be held accountable for it, and from Bachmann.

I’m not holding my breath.

[Special thanks to Bob Stone, who flagged this story on his blog. See, Bob?…I told you FactCheck was better than PolitiFact!]


5 thoughts on “Drudge, Obama’s “$200 Million a Day Trip” and How The U.S. Public Gets Stupid

  1. I use both factcheck.org AND PolitiFact.com. Politifact is easy to scan, and always has a link to a detailed explanation of its rating. Sometimes I quibble with them, e.g., on this issue they gave Bachmann a “False” rather than my choice, a rating of “Pants on Fire.”

  2. here’s cognitive dissonance for you: I watch her and I see somebody who’s articulate and careful-sounding. At the same time I hear untruths. It’s just hard to believe she believes what she’s saying. I’m trying, but it’s hard.

  3. “Careful” is a word I would never use with Michelle Bachmann. “Articulate” I would use more often but seldom. She lives on another planet and even the Republicans are aware of this as they are distancing themselves from her in the run for the majority leadership.

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