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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

The Whoppers of 2011

The year's worst political deceptions, from both sides.


Despite what you may have heard in 2011:

  • The new health care law won’t cost many jobs (and they’ll be poorly paying jobs at that).
  • Republicans aren’t proposing to “end” Medicare (and Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has signed onto a modified version of the GOP plan).
  • Most of the “millionaires” who would pay higher tax rates under a Democratic proposal aren’t job-creating small-business owners.
  • President Obama’s mother didn’t really fight to get health insurance coverage as she was dying.

And there was plenty more spin and deception in 2011. Obama claimed he pays a lower tax rate than a teacher. Michele Bachmann endorsed a claim that HPV vaccine causes mental retardation. Joe Biden claimed rapes quadrupled in Flint, Mich., after police layoffs. And that’s just some of the nonsense we debunked.

For our full run-down of the worst political whoppers we encountered during the year, please read on to the Analysis section. And get ready for more in the presidential election year that is about to begin.


Republican Whopper:
‘Job-Killing’ Health Care Law

The truth first: The best economic analysis of the new health care law points to the loss of a “small” number of low-paid jobs — starting in 2014. That’s when firms with 50 or more workers will be required either to provide health insurance coverage to their employees or pay a penalty.

The Congressional Budget Office also says that the law will lead to fewer people who want to work — or who will want to work as many hours as they normally would — because they’ll be better off financially, or won’t feel the need to stay on a job they don’t like just to keep their coverage.

But you would never know that if all you listened to was the constant repetition of the phrase “job-killing” by Republicans bent on repealing the law before it can take full effect.

We first wrote about this back in January, when we noted that House Republicans were attaching the misleading “job-killing” label to the law, and offering only misrepresentations of the evidence to back up their slogan. But the bogus claim has been repeated over and over all year. On Dec. 10, Rep. Michele Bachmann falsely claimed that a study showed the U.S. will “lose 1.6 million jobs over five years if we keep Obamacare” — referring to a business group’s study that did not examine the new law at all, and showed nothing of the sort. And we also found the worst part of Mitt Romney’s first TV spot wasn’t the out-of-context video editing that caused the Obama campaign to label it “dishonest,” but instead was the more substantive claim that the new law is “killing jobs.”

It may be that the constant repetition of this false claim will make a lot of voters believe it. But repeating a whopper doesn’t make it true, it just makes it a bigger whopper.

A ‘Job-Killing’ Law?
Jan. 7

More Baloney at ABC/Yahoo! Debate
Dec. 11

Romney’s Ad ‘Deceitful & Dishonest’?
Nov. 22

Democratic Whopper:
Republicans Would ‘End Medicare’

First the truth: The budget plan that Republicans pushed through the House in 2011 would have radically changed Medicare in the future — for workers now under age 55.  Starting in the year 2022,  the GOP plan called for new Medicare beneficiaries to purchase private insurance with the help of federal subsidies.

But the plan would have continued the present Medicare system indefinitely for those now getting benefits, and also for all those who reach age 65 during the next decade.

But the truth didn’t stop Democrats from misrepresenting the proposal shamelessly to scare senior citizens and win election votes. They tested this tactic in a May 26 special House election in New York state, running ads accusing the Republican candidate of endorsing a plan that would “essentially end Medicare” and amount to “cutting benefits for seniors,” claims that were far from the truth.

It worked: Democrat Kathy Hochul won in a district that normally leans Republican. So the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee rolled out even more misleading robotic telephone calls in 13 other House districts to soften up the Republican incumbents for 2012. These calls claimed the GOP House members cast a “vote to end Medicare.”

One independent liberal group even posted a widely seen Internet video of a man pushing a white-haired woman in a wheelchair (apparently well over age 55) to the edge of a scenic cliff and dumping her over it. It ends by asking, “Is America Beautiful without Medicare?”  That bogus claim is being satirized by our new sister site, “FlackCheck.org,” which found it to be among the “Worst of the Worst” of 2011.

The truth is that not all Democrats think that changing Medicare in the way Republicans proposed is tantamount to murdering grannie. In fact, Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon joined Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin on Dec. 14 to offer a bipartisan plan that is a modified version of the GOP plan Ryan authored earlier. And the New York Times noted Nov. 28 that there is growing support among some Democrats for reining in Medicare costs through a “premium support” system similar to the GOP plan if accompanied by enough safeguards.

But falsely claiming that any such change is an “end” to Medicare has already helped win one election for Democrats. So we suspect this whopper may be making our list again a year from now.

Test Market for Spin
May 19

DCCC Dials Wrong Number
June 13

Republican Whopper:
Job-Killing ‘Small-Business’ Taxes

For years Republicans have been claiming that raising taxes on high-income individuals is equivalent to raising taxes on “small businesses” and thus killing jobs. We first debunked this big exaggeration in 2004, in fact.

This year, House Speaker John Boehner carried the idea to a new extreme with a claim that more than half of those who would be hit by a tax increase on “millionaires” are small-business owners: “the very people that we’re hoping will reinvest in our economy and create jobs.”

That’s rubbish. As we pointed out, only 13 percent of those reporting $1 million or more in income have even one-quarter of their earnings from small-business sources. The truth is that for the vast majority of those making over $1 million a year — a group that includes hedge-fund managers, corporate CEOs, owners of very large businesses and even wealthy coupon-clippers — any small-business income is incidental. Even Boehner’s spokesman admitted later that the speaker had, well, misspoken.

National Public Radio reporter Tamara Keith went searching for business owners who would be affected by the “millionaire” tax, but found that both the House and Senate GOP leadership was “unable to produce a single millionaire job creator for us to interview.” Undaunted, she asked for help from the business groups that have been lobbying against the surtax, but they couldn’t produce any millionaire job creator willing to talk either.

She finally found three who would talk — by cleverly posting a notice on Facebook. But none of them said an increase in the personal tax rate would inhibit them from trying to create jobs, contradicting this GOP whopper. One said, “What my business does is based on the contracts that it wins and the demand for its services,” and not the tax rate the owner pays on profits.

Boehner’s Big Stretch on Small Business
Nov. 9

Keith, Tamara. “GOP Objects To ‘Millionaires Surtax’; Millionaires We Found? Not So Much.” National Public Radio. 9 Dec 2011.

Democratic Whopper:
Obama’s Dying Mother

We also discovered in 2011 that one of President Barack Obama’s favorite personal anecdotes — which he had told any number of times to sell his health-care legislation to the public — was not true.

The president told the story often during the 2008 presidential campaign and the many months before he signed the health care law. He said his mother, as she was dying, nearly was denied health insurance coverage due to the fact that her ovarian cancer was considered a preexisting condition. But in 2011, author Janny Scott published a biography, “A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama’s Mother.” And in it she wrote that Stanley Ann Dunham’s health insurance provider did, in fact, cover most of the medical expenses.

The author had access to Dunham’s letters to her insurance company and reported that her fight was over disability coverage (which is not affected by the new health care law) and not over medical insurance. The White House did not dispute the account.

This is not the first time Obama has been caught using an embellished anecdote to sell the massive new health care law. In 2009 — in a televised health care address to Congress and the nation, no less — he claimed an insurance company delayed covering an Illinois man’s chemotherapy and “he died because of it.” But as reporters later pointed out, the man’s coverage was reinstated. His treatment resumed, and however badly he was treated, he nevertheless survived another four years. In that case, Obama’s speechwriters relied on a mistaken news account and never bothered to check the facts, which had been aired in public hearings before Congress.

Obama’s Untrue Anecdote
July 14

Sweet: Another Stretch By Obama
Sept. 13, 2009

Too Good to Check?
Sept. 19, 2009

Republican Presidential Whoppers:
Bachmann & Cain

We could devote an entire article to the false or misleading claims that Republican presidential candidates are making — about each other, about the president or about liberals in general. But two stand out in our minds as truly memorable whoppers:

  • Bachmann’s totally groundless claim, based on a story she said a stranger told her, that HPV vaccine somehow causes mental retardation. We found no scientific evidence to support that claim. In fact, 35 million doses of the vaccine have been delivered without a single reported case of mental retardation. Bachmann was taken to task by the American Academy of Pediatrics for her “false statements” about the vaccine.
  • Herman Cain’s equally groundless claim — which he repeated on national television — that Planned Parenthood’s founder wanted to prevent “black babies from being born,” and that the organization built 75 percent of its clinics in black communities. In fact, Margaret Sanger’s actual words don’t support the twisted interpretation Cain and others have put on them. Furthermore, only 9 percent of abortion clinics are in predominately black neighborhoods.

An Antidote for Bachmann’s Anecdote
Sept. 14

Cain’s False Attack on Planned Parenthood
Nov. 1

Democratic Whopper:
Teachers Pay Higher Tax Rates Than Obama

President Obama went overboard arguing for higher tax rates on high earnings, claiming that he pays a lower tax rate than a teacher making $50,000 a year. That’s not true.

A single taxpayer with $50,000 of income would have paid less than half the effective rate paid by the Obamas in 2008, 2009 or 2010. And if the $50,000-a-year teacher was supporting a spouse and two children — like Obama — he or she would have paid no federal income taxes at all.

Obama’s Teacher Tax Whopper
Sept. 28

Assorted Absurdities

Don’t see your favorite tall tale here? You can mine our archives for rich deposits of political spin from 2011. There you’ll find (among many other items):

  • An exaggerated Democratic National Committee Web video accusing ex-Gov. Mitt Romney of far more flip-flopping than he really committed. It’s a preview of what the general election campaign will see should Romney win the GOP nomination.
  • Lots of jobs spin, from all sides. Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz wrongly claimed that the U.S. has begun to add “millions of jobs in manufacturing.” And the Senate Republican Policy Committee admitted using a grossly over-inflated number of “potential” jobs that supposedly won’t materialize due to Obama’s oil and gas drilling policies. The Republicans conceded that they had overstated the total by more than half a million.
  • Vice President Joe Biden’s multiple whoppers about rapes in Flint, Mich., following police layoffs. He claimed variously that they went up 152 percent, tripled and even “quadrupled.” But FBI data show the number of rapes in Flint went down by 11 percent over two years. Michigan State Police figures, which include male victims, show a 9.8 percent reduction. The city supplied rape statistics to both the state and federal agencies.
  • Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s Web video claiming the U.S. poverty rate is at an “all-time high,” when it’s actually 7.3 percentage points lower than it was in 1959.
  • And what list of whoppers would be complete without Donald Trump? During his presidential fling, Trump forced Obama to release his long-form birth certificate by making a bushelful of whoppers, including these false statements: The president’s grandmother revealed Obama was born in Kenya; the official “Certification of Live Birth” that Obama released in 2008 is “not a birth certificate,” and there’s no signature or certification number on it; “nobody knew” Obama when he was growing up and “nobody ever comes forward” who knew him as a child; and birth announcements that appeared in Hawaii newspapers in 1961 “probably” were put there fraudulently by his now-deceased American grandparents.

And it wasn’t just the politicians spreading false information: Lies spread like viruses through carelessly forwarded email messages that were also copied and pasted on personal blogs and social media. We wrote in 2008: “That Chain E-mail Your Friend Sent to You Is (Likely) Bogus. Seriously.” And that continued to be true in 2011. Check our “Viral Spiral” page for the most current cyber-whoppers.

Our favorite example from all the delusional nonsense that circulated in 2011 was another claim — circulated by gun fanciers —  that liberal billionaire George Soros was behind an investment company that has been buying many companies that make guns and ammunition. In fact, Soros has no connection to the company. Even the National Rifle Association weighed in, calling this e-rumor “completely false and baseless” and adding: “The owners and investors involved are strong supporters of the Second Amendment and are avid hunters and shooters.”

Will 2012 bring more honesty and respect for facts? We certainly hope so. But it is an election year after all — so we’ll be ready for whatever that brings.

— by Brooks Jackson