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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Sunday Replay

The talk shows’ factual failures included misinformation from Karl Rove (about write-in ballots in Alaska), from a former president (about college graduation rates and health in the U.S.) and from a current one (of Iran, about several topics).

Rove’s Spelling Lesson

Republican strategist Karl Rove overstated a legal barrier confronting GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska in her bid to win reelection as a write-in candidate. Appearing on "Fox News Sunday," he said:

Rove: [Murkowski] can’t win. Under the law, you have to carefully spell the name exactly correct. Everybody, go to your pencil and paper and write down the name "Murkowski" and see if you got it right. No, she’s going to lose.

But what Rove said is not true, according to Gail Fenumiai, director of Alaska’s Division of Elections. She told the Anchorage Daily News:

Gail Fenumiai, Sept. 8: If I am able to determine the voter’s intent, then the ballot would be counted accordingly.

The elections director said later that voters would not be allowed to place printed stickers on their ballots, or to use rubber stamps. And officials won’t count the ballot unless the voter fills in the corresponding oval, as well as writing in the name. But Fenumiai said just writing in "Lisa M" would probably be counted as a vote for the incumbent.

Anchorage Daily News, Sept. 10: As long as the Division of Election determines that people intended to cast a ballot for her, it could count. That means that "Lisa M." would be likely to count, Fenumiai said, since it would be abundantly clear they intend to vote for the Lisa who has declared a write-in candidacy in the race. Fenumiai said she’d have to speak with the Department of Law for an opinion on whether "Lisa" alone would count.

It is possible that the elections director won’t have the final word on this. Should Murkowski be declared the winner, it’s quite likely that the result would be challenged in court. Fenumiai later told The Hill newspaper that officials hadn’t made any determination of what spellings would or wouldn’t be counted, adding that "we will adhere to what it says in the statute." But according to The Hill, lawyers who have looked at Alaska’s elections statute say it leaves plenty of room for interpretation.

Update, Sept. 20: Shortly after we posted this story, a murky statement was issued by Fenumiai’s elected boss, Republican Craig Campbell, the state’s lieutenant governor. It quoted a section of state law covering write-in ballots, and said Fenumiai wouldn’t be saying any more:

Statement by Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell’s office: With regard to various derivatives of the name or misspellings of the name, the Lt. Governor stated:

“The division [of elections] will count votes according to state law and will not be addressing hypothetical issues at this time.”

Earlier, Campbell had issued a statement on Sept. 15 saying it was "questionable" whether "Lisa M" would be counted as a vote for Murkowski.

An Education in Statistics

South Carolina GOP Sen. Jim DeMint had little good to say about U.S. education in a discussion of whether the federal Department of Education should be abolished on CNN’s "State of the Union with Candy Crowley":

DeMint: But the fact is pretty clear, Candy, since the federal government increased its involvement in the ’60s, the quality of our education relative to the rest of the world has declined. And we spend more per student than any other country in the world.

We asked DeMint’s office for the source of his information, because it’s difficult to find statistics as far back as the 1960s that measure educational achievement across different nations in ways that can be reliably compared, and compared against today’s measures. We haven’t heard back yet from his press office.

The information we could find, while it only goes back to the 1990s, indicates that U.S. students are doing better, not worse, when stacked up against their peers from other countries.

The first Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) survey, a popular tool for measuring countries against one another in these subjects, was done in 1994-95. It showed that fourth-graders in the U.S. scored higher in math than those in just 13 of 26 other countries taking the test, and eighth-graders scored higher than comparable students in 15 of 41 countries. The science picture looked a little brighter for U.S. fourth-graders, who did better than their peers in 20 of 26 other nations. Eighth-graders that year bested just 19 of 41 countries’ students who were at the same grade level.

Compare that to the 2007 mathematics assessment, which found U.S. fourth-graders ranking, on average, higher than their peers in 23 of 35 other nations. Eighth-graders scored higher than other eighth-graders in 37 of 47 other countries. U.S. fourth-graders scored higher than those in 25 of 35 other countries on science that same year, and ninth-graders scored higher than students at the same level in 35 of 47 other countries.

According to the TIMSS studies, then, math and science achievement in the U.S. has increased vis-a-vis that of other countries, not decreased.

Meanwhile, does the U.S. "spend more per student" than any other nation? No. The 2009 Digest of Education Statistics put U.S. spending for elementary education in 2006 at $9,700 per student. Luxembourg was higher: $13,700 per child (spending was adjusted to U.S. dollars using a purchasing power parity index).

For secondary school students, the U.S. ranked fourth, after Luxembourg, Switzerland and Norway.

More Education Lowballing

On CBS’ "Face the Nation," former President Bill Clinton gave misleading information about the percentage of people with college degrees:

Clinton: Do they really want to repeal the student loan reform bill at a time when we’ve fallen from first to 12th, in the world, in the percentage of our people with college degrees and it’s really important to the economy?

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the United States does rank 12th among OECD member and partner countries for percentage of population age 25 to 34 who have college degrees. It’s eighth among those countries for percentage of the population with bachelor degrees (rather than two-year degrees). In 2005, when the U.S. ranked ninth, OECD Director Barry McGaw told CBS News that the country had been ranked 1st as recently as 20 years earlier. So Clinton is right that this measure has been slipping.

But it’s not accurate to say that the U.S. is 12th in "the percentage of our people with college degrees." That’s only true for our young people. Adding in the rest of the population up to age 64, the U.S. actually ranks fifth among member and partner countries in percentage of population with degrees, and second in the percentage with bachelor’s degrees. That’s consistent with Clinton’s general point that fewer people are finishing college, since it includes people who earned their degrees back when the U.S. was No. 1. But it contradicts his claim, which was about "our people," not our people between the ages of 25 and 34.

Healthy Competition

On NBC’s "Meet the Press," Clinton said that the United States is spending more on health care than other nations but getting fewer results:

Clinton: We are spending 17.2 percent of our income on health care. None of our wealthy competitors spend more than 10-and-a-half. Yet our infant mortality rate is higher than theirs, our overall mortal–age expectancy is lower than theirs.

It’s true that U.S. health care expenditures in 2009 accounted for more than 17 percent of the economy as measured by gross domestic product, according to a report from the Office of the Actuary of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. But Clinton’s claim about the health care spending of "our wealthy competitors"? Two countries spend more than 10.5 percent of GDP, the figure Clinton cited. (Their outcomes are still better.)

According to a recent report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the health care spending of France and Switzerland accounted for more than 10.5 percent of GDP in those nations, based on 2008 spending data. Both of those nations, and the U.S., rank among the top 50 nations in the world in terms of GDP per capita, according to the CIA World Factbook. (The U.S. is No. 11; Switzerland is No. 17; and France is No. 41.)

Both of those nations also rank higher than the U.S. in life expectancy and rank lower than the U.S. in infant mortality (deaths per 1,000 births), according to the CIA World Factbook, however.

Parsing in Persian

On ABC’s "This Week," Iran President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claimed that Iranian "people are free to make statements, to say what they think. There are no restrictions on what people say." However, Human Rights Watch said in a 2009 report that "Iranian authorities continued to imprison journalists and editors for publishing critical views, and strictly controlled publishing and academic activities."

After the disputed 2009 presidential election — which resulted in mass demonstrations in Iran — "election authorities arrested more than 30 journalists and bloggers," some of whom claimed they were abused while being detained, the report said.

The Iranian president also contradicted other claims made by human rights groups, such as the number of executions that have taken place since he took office in 2005. Christiane Amanpour, host of "This Week," asked Ahmadinejad whether he was aware that since he took office executions "have increased by four times." Ahmadinejad replied: "That is not true at all. Not at all. Not at all." The World Coalition against the Death Penalty reported that there were at least 317 executions in 2007 "four times as many as in 2005."

Ahmadinejad may have been choosing his words carefully when he said that “all our nuclear reactor activities are controlled by cameras, the material that is moved is weighed and examined and controlled so far as the IAEA supervision is concerned.” But not all of Iran’s nuclear-related activities are being monitored, controlled and supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

In a Sept. 15 report, that body said there are “possible military dimensions” to Iran’s nuclear program, but the country has “declined to discuss the outstanding issues with the Agency or provide any further information." In particular, the IAEA complained that it has been denied access to the Heavy Water Production Plant.

IAEA, Sept. 15, 2010: Based on an overall analysis undertaken by the Agency of all the information available to it, the Agency remains concerned about the possible existence in Iran of past or current undisclosed nuclear related activities involving military related organizations, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile. There are indications that certain of these activities may have continued beyond 2004.