A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Whoppers of 2009

We review the choicest falsehoods from a year that kept us busy.


Summary

Although 2009 was not an election year, it kept us exceptionally busy, and led to millions of visits to our site. In this year-end summary, we offer some of the worst examples of the falsehoods we encountered during the first year of the Obama administration.

The list of howlers includes the false claim that the stimulus bill would dictate to doctors what procedures they can and can’t perform, and assertions that health care legislation would require seniors to get advice on how to commit suicide. Democrats exaggerated the problems their legislation aims to fix — at one point Obama falsely accused an insurance company of being responsible for the death of an Illinois cancer patient. We debunked claims that the “swine flu” vaccine had killed some U.S. sailors, and another claim that a bill passed by the House would require homeowners to make expensive energy-saving modifications to their homes before they would be allowed to sell them. We dealt with false claims about levitating trains, “green jobs,” gun control and — still — Obama’s place of birth.

If the year brought any signs that politicians as a class are getting any more truthful or less careless about their facts, we didn’t notice it. For a quick and (we hope) entertaining review of a spin-filled year, please read on to our “Analysis” section.

Analysis

As in past years, our “Whoppers” article presents just a selection of what we consider our most important findings, with special emphasis on the misinformation being most heavily repeated during the year. We don’t attempt to assign rankings to particular claims — your opinion is as good as ours when it comes to deciding whether one falsehood is worse than another.

So here’s a selection of the bogus bits that stood out. We start with what we judge to be the most heavily misrepresented subject of all, health care legislation.

Conservatives: Pulling the Plug on Grandma

  • “Death Panels” The “pulling the plug on grandma” falsehood really took off once former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin coined the term “Death Panel,” but this falsehood got its first push from former New York lieutenant governor and health care overhaul opponent Betsy McCaughey.
    Betsy McCaugheyShe misrepresented a provision (since dropped) that merely called for Medicare to pay for voluntary counseling sessions to help seniors make end-of-life care decisions, such as designating a health care proxy, choosing a hospice or writing a living will. McCaughey twisted that into “a required counseling session” that would “tell them how to end their life sooner.” Palin later wrote on her Facebook page that she doesn’t want government bureaucrats to decide whether her parents or child with Down Syndrome are “worthy of health care.” Who would? Certainly not legislators, who didn’t call for the creation of any such “Death Panel” in the health care bills. “False Euthanasia Claims,” July 29; “Palin vs. Obama: Death Panels,” Aug. 14; ” ‘SpotCheck.org’? We Disagree.” Aug. 25
  • Socialized Medicine: Several groups and politicians claimed that the major health care bills in Congress called for a single-payer system like Canada’s, under which all citizens have health insurance provided by the government, or even a system like Britain’s, where doctors and hospitals are employed by the government. The truth is that none of the major bills that were debated in Congress called for such a drastic change to the U.S. system, much to the chagrin of single-payer advocates. “Government-Run Health Care?” April 30; “Canadian Straw Man,” July 17; “The Government-Run Mantra,” Nov. 6
  • Dictating to Doctors: McCaughey falsely claimed that the stimulus bill (passed in February) required that doctors follow government orders on which medical procedures can and can’t be performed. It didn’t. All the bill really did was create a council on “comparative effectiveness research,” which examines which treatments or drugs work best or are most cost-effective. It said none of the council’s reports or recommendations “shall be construed as mandates or clinical guidelines for payment, coverage, or treatment.”  “Doctor’s Orders?” Feb. 20.
  • Breast Cancer Massacre: One TV spot claimed that “300,000 American women with breast cancer might have died” if our health care system was like England’s. The ad’s conservative sponsor cited the American Cancer Society as a source, but the cancer society never used such a number and an ACS epidemiologist called the ad sponsor’s calculations “really faulty.” “A False Appeal to Women’s Fears,” Sept. 4
  • “26 Lies” E-mail: Judging from our editor inbox, one of the most widely circulated chain e-mails of 2009 was a lengthy list of 48 claims about specific sections of the House health care bill, complete with page numbers. We combed through every item and found that only four were true, 26 were false and the rest were misleading. At one point the author claimed that the bill contained “more payoffs for ACORN.” But ACORN has nothing to do with the medical home services funded by the bill. The author also claimed that illegal aliens “will be provided with free healthcare services,” misrepresenting a provision that simply prohibits discrimination in health care based on “personal characteristics.” “Twenty-six Lies About H.R. 3200,” Aug. 28

Liberals: Killer Insurance Companies

The more colorful claims about health care may have come from the right, but the left made false and misleading statements, too, in touting the legislation. The highlights, so to speak:

  • False Fingerpointing: Obama falsely claimed that an insurance company was responsible for the death of an Illinois cancer patient whose coverage was canceled because he hadn’t reported gallstones. “They delayed his treatment,” Obama said, “and he died because of it.” Not true. As the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Lynn Sweet reported, Otto Raddatz of Downers Grove, Ill., did have his insurance canceled by Fortis Insurance Co., but the coverage was reinstated in April 2005 and his chemotherapy went forward after only a brief delay. Raddatz lived for nearly another four years and died early this year. Obama got this whopper from an online magazine article; the author later admitted jumping to a wrong conclusion. “Sweet: Another Stretch by Obama,” Sept. 13; “Too Good to Check?” Sept. 18
  • Double Trouble: Obama exaggerated by at least a factor of two when he said that health care “causes a bankruptcy in America every 30 seconds.” And we’ve noticed the claim popping up elsewhere, such as, believe it or not, in a new iPhone app. But data from the U.S. Courts showed about 934,000 total personal bankruptcies in the 12-month period ending June 2008. Even if we accept a Harvard study’s conclusion that half of bankruptcies are related to medical expenses — and some have criticized that study — that would still be only one health care bankruptcy every minute. “Fact-Checking Obama’s Speech,” Feb. 25.
  • Puffed-up Premiums: We twice caught Obama saying that the “average American family is paying thousands” or “a thousand dollars” in health insurance premiums to pay for uncompensated care for the uninsured. But he used a figure from a group that lobbies for expanded coverage. Nonpartisan experts at the Kaiser Family Foundation put the figure much lower — about $200.  “Obama’s Health Care Claims,” June 16 and “Obama’s Health Care News Conference,” July 23
  • Saving $2,500: Obama repeated his claim that the average family could save $2,500 a year under health care overhaul legislation. We picked apart his optimistic calculations during the 2008 presidential campaign, but he repeated the claim as recently as May 17, saying that “comprehensive reform” and some other private sector measures could save “$2,500 per family every year.” Since then we haven’t heard much about this. His claim is not supported by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which estimated that under the Senate bill (as introduced), there wouldn’t be much of a reduction at all. Those with coverage from large employers would see premium reductions of 0 percent to 3 percent, with the average family premium costing $20,300 in 2016, CBO said. And for those buying their own insurance in the nongroup market, CBO estimated that nongroup premiums actually would go up. That increase would be more than offset by new taxpayer subsidies for most policyholders — but not for all. “Seven Falsehoods About Health Care,” Aug. 14

A Pandemic of Falsehoods

Dangerous Vaccine: Like the fears that H1N1 flu (or “swine flu”) would rival the 1918 flu pandemic in severity, the rumors about the dangers of the H1N1 vaccine fizzled pretty quickly — but not before we encountered numerous false claims about dangers supposedly posed by the vaccine. One e-mailed rumor even called it a government “depopulation” plot. Another claimed that sailors on a U.S. Navy vessel caught the flu from the vaccine, and some died. In fact, nobody died and none of the sailors had even been vaccinated — the vaccine was not available at the time. Yet another claimed that the vaccine contains squalene and that the ingredient causes Gulf War syndrome. But in fact the American vaccine doesn’t have any squalene in it, and the link to Gulf War syndrome is, to say the least, tenuous. (It was based on a study of 38 soldiers vaccinated for anthrax who later contracted Gulf War syndrome, but it turned out that the vaccine they received had contained no squalene.) “Inoculation Misinformation,” Oct. 19

Mandatory Inoculations: Equally widespread were claims of a government scheme to force people to get vaccinations or risk being put in quarantine camps. Obviously, that hasn’t happened. New York state required health care workers to get the flu vaccine, though it later suspended that requirement. Some panic-mongering e-mails misrepresented legislation being considered in Massachusetts, which would have given authorities power to isolate flu victims in quarantine in case of a health care emergency. But even this bill stated very clearly that nobody would be required to get the vaccine. “Swine Flu Emergency?,” Nov. 5

Environmental Errors

This was also a big year for rumors about climate change and the legislation proposed to deal with it. We found whoppers on both sides.

Inflated Cost Claims: The GOP drastically overstated how much proposed cap-and-trade legislation would affect the average family’s energy costs — Republicans said costs would increase by $3,100 a year, more than twice the estimate of the conservative Heritage Foundation. On NBC’s “Meet the Press,” House Minority Leader John Boehner cited a figure closer to the Heritage Foundation’s estimate — $1,700 per year — attributing it to the Treasury Department. But that number really came from a back-of-envelope calculation by a CBS News blogger. The Treasury Department has called the figure “flat-out wrong,” and the Congressional Budget Office’s much lower estimate is $455 per year over the 2012-2050 period. “Cap and Trade Cost Inflation,” May 28; “Boehner and the Cost of Cap and Trade,” Sept. 22

Dueling Job Claims: Both sides tossed around misleading job claims. Proponents said cap-and-trade legislation would create 1.7 million new “green” jobs, while critics said higher energy prices would crush the economy and kill 2.4 million jobs. The truth is that career economists at the Energy Information Administration expect a net job loss, but probably in the range of hundreds of thousands, not millions. “Cap-and-trade: ‘Green Jobs’ or Job Killer?,” Oct. 27

Home Sales: House Republican Leader Boehner and radio host Rush Limbaugh both claimed that the House legislation required home owners to have an “energy audit” or “survey” conducted before they could sell their homes. Such claims quickly became a chain e-mail and morphed into the assertion that home owners would need a “license” to sell their homes. None of that is true. The bill does set new efficiency standards for new residential and commercial construction — but not existing homes. “Energy Bill and Existing Homes,” July 20

Stimulating Discussion

Floating Falsehoods: House and Senate Republicans told lots of whoppers about the $787 billion stimulus bill as it was being considered in February, falsely claiming that it contained funds specifically intended for golf carts, butterfly parks, water slides and other projects not in the bill. The worst of these GOP howlers was a claim that the bill had $8 billion for a “levitating train” to Disneyland. In fact, not a dime of the money was earmarked for the proposed 300-mph “maglev” bullet train between Anaheim, Calif., and Las Vegas, still little more than a pipe dream. The administration later directed the $8 billion to 10 passenger routes using more conventional technology. “GOP Stimulus Myths,” Feb. 24.

Phantom Districts: Democrats had their own problems with stimulus facts. The administration’s Recovery.gov Web site reported that the spending bill was funding any number of jobs in nonexistent congressional districts. “Real Jobs, Fake Districts?” Nov. 18

The Web site was so ridden with errors that Earl Devaney, the Obama-appointed watchdog in charge of monitoring stimulus spending, admitted to Congress that the White House had been too quick to take credit for saving or creating 640,000 jobs. “Recovery Stats Get Rougher,” Nov. 19 (The Congressional Budget Office later estimated that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act brought about an additional 600,000 to 1.6 million jobs than would have been the case without the law, but that doesn’t solve the problems with the data being reported on Recovery.gov.)

Born to Seize Guns?

False claims abounded about Obama’s birth, and about his policies toward guns.

Birth Pains: It was a bad year for diehards pressing their groundless claims that Obama was not born in the U.S.A and thus not qualified to be president. A federal judge fined lawyer Orly Taitz $20,000 for making frivolous claims and wasting the court’s time. (She’s appealing.) An April Fools’ hoax — falsely claiming that old college records showed Obama got a scholarship as a “foreign” student — is still circulating by e-mail and taking in the gullible. “Was Obama Born in the USA?” May 7, 2009

Gun Guff: The year brought a torrent of false claims spread by gun fanciers convinced that Obama was moving to restrict their rights. One focused on a gun-registration bill that in truth has a single sponsor and no sign of White House support. “Gun Control,” Feb. 29. Another claimed that Obama is pushing to impose a $50 tax on all privately owned guns and to force owners to report their weapons on their income-tax forms (but the claim referred to a bill that died years earlier, in a previous Congress). “Privately Owned Gun Tax?,” June 7. Yet another claimed the administration had shut down a Georgia ammunition supplier by cutting off supplies of spent military cartridges used for re-loading. Casings were cut off as the result of an anti-terrorism regulation with its origins in the Bush administration. The policy was quickly reversed by Obama’s Pentagon officials. “Georgia Arms,” June 4.

That’s it for 2009. If your favorite whopper didn’t make our list, drop us a note at Editor@ factcheck.org and tell us what you would have included. We’ll consider including it in a special “mailbag” next month.

— by Lori Robertson, Brooks Jackson and Jess Henig

Clarification, Jan. 5: In the “26 lies” section we originally identified the author of the chain e-mail as “a conservative blogger.” The blogger who originated many of the claims denies that he authored the e-mail itself.