Yesterday we looked at the Washington Post‘s “fact check” about Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger’s support of eugenics. In that fact check, Sanger’s distasteful views were contextualized and she was put forth as a “racial pioneer.” What’s more, the person who mentioned her racism was labeled not just a liar but the worst kind of liar.
Not a high point for the already questionable newspaper practice of opining on a given topic and labeling it “fact checking.”
In any case, the author of the fact check, Glenn Kessler, responded:
For the record, I believe you are mischaracterizing and cherry-picking my analysis of Cain’s words. I make very clear that Sanger was linked to eugenics—even quote her biographer on it—but that does not support Cain’s sweeping statement that her aim in going into the south was to kill black babies or that 75 percent of Planned Parenthood facilities are in black neighborhoods. The phrase “racial pioneer” referred to the fact that, for the era, she worked closely with African Americans and solicited their support at a time when many whites (including her) held racial prejudices that we find objectionable today. The column was NOT making a judgement on what Planned Parenthood does today or their policies; it was only looking at the historical facts. And for what it is worth, PolitiFact labeled his comments “pants on fire” and factcheck.org concluded they were totally false. As for the charges of liberal bias, I think if you check the record, I have given just about as many “Four Pinocchio” ratings to Democrats as Republicans. Indeed, I am frequently slammed by Democrats for being an alleged conservative. I am sorry if the facts do not support your opinion, but that’s the way it is sometimes.
So much to respond to. For instance, compare Kessler’s characterization above of Cain’s quote and the point he was trying to make with what Cain actually said: “Margaret Sanger’s own words, she didn’t use the word ‘genocide,’ but she did talk about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born.”
I mean, if you say he’s talking about the “south” (which he didn’t) and that his main point was something about where Planned Parenthood facilities are located, that might be a perfect combination of mischaracterization and cherry-picking.
Also, advocates of eugenics, as Sanger unapologetically was, aren’t just “linked” to eugenics. What a weak way to describe someone calling for “cultivation of better racial elements,” “a cleaner race” and “the solution for racial … problems.”
Further, pointing out that Sanger worked with blacks doesn’t change anything about the “factual” nature of the statement that was being “fact checked.” She did work with blacks. As one commenter put it, “Of course she solicited the support of African Americans, Glenn — for the eugenic policies she advocated.” She also worked with the Ku Klux Klan in support of the same goal. So what’s the point?
As for appealing to other “fact checkers” to substantiate the poor job that was done by the Washington Post … I’m glad it was brought up. (And they appeal to the Washington Post‘s “fact check” in the same way the Washington Post appeals to them! So considerate…)
Let’s look at FactCheck.org’s analysis of Cain’s statement. First his relevant quote:
… Margaret Sanger’s own words, she didn’t use the word “genocide,” but she did talk about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks in this country by preventing black babies from being born.
Keep in mind that in addition to the several quotes of hers to this effect that I showcased yesterday (in such obscure newspapers as The New York Times), there are countless others that opponents of eugenics have trouble with. But note the sophistry in FactCheck.org’s analysis:
Cain isn’t the first to believe that birth control advocate Margaret Sanger (1879-1966) wanted to stop the birth of black babies. Just do an Internet search and see what happens. Sanger made more than her share of controversial comments. But the quote many point to as evidence that Sanger favored something akin to “genocide” of African Americans has been turned on its head.
Remember, all of that explicit talk about “racial hygiene” and “cultivation of better racial elements,” “a cleaner race” and “the solution for racial … problems” does not back up Cain’s statement. And it has nothing to do with wanting to stop the birth of any black babies. Just trust us on that, OK? It just doesn’t. We can’t explain it right now, but you really have to trust us. We’re “fact checkers.”
But I’m more interested in the last sentence. The “fact checkers” say that the quote “many” point to as evidence that Sanger favored something akin to “genocide” has been turned on its head …
Did you see what they did there?
Rather than address whether, as Cain said, Sanger talked about preventing the increasing number of poor blacks by preventing their birth, they created something altogether different to argue against! We’re no longer discussing whether Sanger talked about preventing black babies from being born and now we’re talking about an isolated quote. One that’s been picked precisely to argue the point that the eugenicist Margaret Sanger isn’t nearly so bad as her critics say.
This means the fact check is devoted to parsing a quote that Cain never even talked about. Seriously, how do they know Cain was referring to that? They don’t. (That quote, by the way, is “We do not want word to go out that we want to exterminate the Negro population and the minister is the man who can straighten out that idea if it ever occurs to any of their more rebellious members.”)
Please also note that despite specifically saying that Sanger didn’t call for “genocide” of blacks, he gets tarred with the allegation anyway.
FactCheck.org also had trouble finding anyone on the planet outside of a Planned Parenthood affiliate to discuss the reality of Sanger’s eugenicism. But they did find several Planned Parenthood folks to defend Sanger. And they were sure to put those folks’ quotes throughout the piece. This may tell us a lot about what attitudes on abortion are like in a newsroom but that’s not fact checking so much as writing a press release for Planned Parenthood.
And then FactCheck.org had the audacity to say that it was Cain who offered an “alternate version of history.”
But yes, Kessler is right, both he and the FactCheck.org and virtually everyone affiliated with Planned Parenthood or any other Margaret Sanger-supporting outfit agree that Margaret Sanger was totally awesome when it comes to race issues. And if you disagree, well then, you’re a liar. A “four Pinocchio” writer of “alternate history.” Are we clear?
This Sanger silliness — calling critics of her eugenics liars instead of people who simply disagree with the prevailing views of journalists on sanctity of life issues — is a great example of the flaws of the “fact check” trend in modern journalism. They conflate and confuse facts and ideology. They rather shockingly hide the facts on Sanger’s eugenics, sure. But they also fail to see that people interpret things such as Sanger’s eugenicism according to their own religious and ideological views. Sanger’s views on race and eugenics are perhaps more easily contextualized by pro-choice journalists than the views of Nathan Bedford Forrest or Adolph Hitler would be, but some just reject the “other people were doing it, too” argument. They might reject that argument as specious or unimportant or irrelevant. That doesn’t mean that they’re liars or the contextualizers are liars. It does mean that they disagree on race issues, sanctity of life issues, quality of arguments or any number of other things.
I know it must be frustrating for some journalists that they’re unable to convince readers of the rightness of a given perspective, through the typical method of biased reporting. But I’d rather that they not double down through one-sided, thinly sourced “fact checks” and instead reconsider whether their job is to convince lowly readers of a given political, philosophical or religious view in the first place.
Image of woman with tape over her mouth via Shutterstock.