Fine line between racial pioneer and eugenicist

We’ve been living under the “fact check” era at newspapers for three or four years now. I tend to agree with the Wall Street Journal‘s James Taranto when he writes:

The “fact check” is opinion journalism or criticism, masquerading as straight news. The object is not merely to report facts but to pass a judgment. The Washington Post’s Fact Checker blog ends each assessment with between one and four “Pinocchios,” just like movie reviewers giving out stars.

Like movie reviewing, the “fact check” is a highly subjective process. If a politician makes a statement that is flatly false, it does not need to be “fact checked.” The facts themselves are sufficient. “Fact checks” end up dealing in murkier areas of context and emphasis, making it very easy for the journalist to make up standards as he goes along …

And yet they persist. I think many news reporters enjoy the freedom to just opine or offer analysis under the guise of “fact-checking.”

Still, I thought this one from the Washington Post was particularly interesting. It deals with some statements presidential contender Herman Cain made about Planned Parenthood and race. Now, you will never find me defending anything that any politician says on account of how I believe that somewhere close to 100% of all politicians lie somewhere around 100% of the time. I’m all for checking out what they say and providing news consumers with information to combat their tendency to lie. In any case, it looks like Herman Cain made the “fact checker” at the Washington Post a bit upset by talking about Margaret Sanger’s eugenicism.

You can read the relevant exchange (or what I assume is the relevant exchange) from “Face the Nation” at the top of the “fact check.” Host Bob Schieffer asks why Herman Cain said that Planned Parenthood was more like “planned genocide” and why he said that Planned Parenthood put centers in black communities and targeted black babies.

Schieffer asked for proof that this was Planned Parenthood’s objective. Cain says:

Cain: If people go back and look at the history and look at Margaret Sanger’s own words, that’s exactly where that came from. Look up the history. So if you go back and look up the history — secondly, look at where most of them were built; 75 percent of those facilities were built in the black community — and 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.

Cain also says something about Planned Parenthood not counseling women against abortions.

So what followed?

Did we get a list of the many Sanger quotes on eugenicism? Cain says to look at her words. Maybe he meant her piece for the New York Times where she led with a call for “racial hygiene” and said:

Birth control is not contraception indiscriminately and thoughtlessly practiced. It means the release and cultivation of the better racial elements in our society, and the gradual suppression, elimination and eventual extirpation of defective stocks — those human weeds which threaten the blooming of the finest flowers of American civilization.

Or maybe he was referring to her piece from the Birth Control Review where she wrote:

Eugenics is suggested by the most diverse minds as … the most adequate and thorough avenue to the solution of racial, political and social problems. The example of the inferior classes, the fertility of the feebleminded, the mentally defective, the poverty-stricken classes, should not be held up for emulation. The most urgent problem today is how to limit and discourage the over-fertility of the mentally and physically defective.

Or maybe he was just referring to her line:

“Knowledge of birth control is essentially moral. Its … practice must lead to a higher individuality and ultimately to a cleaner race.”

Did we get stats on how Planned Parenthood is the largest abortion provider in the country, and data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that black women get almost 40 percent of the country’s abortions, even though they comprise only 13 percent of the population? Did the “fact check” include information on how nearly 40 percent of black pregnancies end in induced abortion, a rate far higher than for white or Hispanic women? Did we learn that 60% of black pregnancies in New York City end in abortion?

Did we learn that 97.6 percent of pregnant women going to Planned Parenthood in a recent year got abortions while fewer than 2.4 percent of pregnant women received non-abortion services including adoption and prenatal care?

No, no, we did not learn any of these things. Instead we were told that Margaret Sanger was a “racial pioneer.” At worst, she may have exhibited an ever-so-slightly “paternalistic attitude toward African Americans.” Dear God, I hope that the Washington Post‘s Glenn Kessler isn’t asked to fact check something about American slave owners.

We get, in fact, many many paragraphs of contextualization to tell us that Sanger’s racial eugenics weren’t even unpopular at the time. I mean, heck, you can’t really argue with that. I think — there’s a museum about this on the National Mall — that even the leader of Nazi Germany was enthusiastic in his support of eugenics. You can look it up.

Of course, Cain wasn’t talking about whether Sanger’s racism was problematic for the time but, rather, just morally problematic. But in a “fact check” the “fact checker” sets the terms of debate. Got it?

You won’t be surprised, then, that Cain got four Pinocchios, apparently mostly for accidentally revealing Margaret Sanger’s eugenicism. And that’s a subject that Planned Parenthood itself assures us — assures us — is in no way problematic.

No, really, the “fact checker” didn’t manage to speak to anyone troubled by racial eugenics or abortion or any black pro-lifers working to highlight Sanger’s (totally understood and contextualized by the Washington Post) views on eugenics. Perhaps pro-lifers are in short supply over at the Washington Post, I don’t know. But he did get some really great sources at Planned Parenthood and they assure us that Sanger’s comments are totally fine and nothing to be worried about and all those black fetuses are being very nicely taken care of at Planned Parenthood, OK?

So just remember next time you read a story about someone talking about “cultivation of better racial elements,” “a cleaner race” and “the solution for racial … problems,” the Washington Post will be the first to tell you that you’re probably reading about a “racial pioneer.”

Four Pinnochios indeed!

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  • Jerry

    I disagree with Taranto. He’s advocating that there is no such thing as truth and that truth is subjective. Sorry, but there is objective truth and to opine that

    The “fact check” is opinion journalism or criticism, masquerading as straight news.

    is to say that objective truth does not exist and should not be reported.

    Yes, there is part of the process that is not objective and I’ve sometimes disagreed with the ranking that a claim has been given, but his claim is way past that subjectivity into denial of objectivity. gives no ranking on Cain’s false charge, for example.

    But his smear attempt on the truth goes further. The reviews don’t “masquerade as straight news” at all. There is a section that objectively considers the claim and, in some cases, a section which assigns a ranking. That is not “straight news” by any unbiased definition of “straight news” since part of it is clearly and obviously opinion.

    In fact, if it were Obama and not Cain, I’ll bet the farm that Taranto would offer the 100% opposite opinion since he’s clearly expressing a political opinion and not a journalistic one.

  • R9

    This seems rather a topic that could spill over from “critiquing journalism” to “arguing about Sanger”. I’d not heard of her before (I’m not American), seems controversial.

    Did we learn that 60% of black pregnancies in New York City end in abortion?

    We are told “Black women do have much higher abortion rates than white women, but that is linked to the fact that they have much higher rates of unintended pregnancies”.

  • Mark Baddeley

    It is a remarkable piece of work, that you’ve fisked well, Mollie. I think the real giveaway is the overreach in assigning four pinnochios at the end of the piece, when the ‘fact check’ constantly had to acknowledge the evidence that was behind the claims, and then had to reinterpret it by appealing to a PhD thesis, context, Planned Parenthood statement or the like. I would have thought that in that situation you would be looking at one or maybe two pinnochios at most – the evidence is there, but needs a PhD (a recent one at that!) to interpret it correctly.

    I had been a bit of a fan of fact checking, but I think that example shows that it is really just another example of why mainstream media is losing trust. Even checking facts is subordinated to the greater political goal of promoting a Democrat victory, and promoting the ‘liberal’ social cause. I’ve no doubt conservatives do the same thing. But they’re generally in explicitly advocacy outlets so you’re forewarned.

  • Mollie


    Taranto says that if someone says something factually untrue, a statement of the facts would be sufficient in response. That’s nowhere near what “fact checks” do, as this case shows quite well.

    So his beef would be against writing subjective analysis under the guise of “fact checking.”

  • ECM

    I don’t think Jerry actually read the linked content and/or has poor reading comprehension skills, because his comment makes no sense at all in light of what was actually written.

  • Glenn Kessler

    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 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.

  • Joshua Treviño

    Glenn Kessler believes PolitiFact and are credible authorities, conflates party with ideology, and continues to shift the terms of Cain’s remarks beyond what Cain himself clearly intended.

    Four Pinocchios, each hewn from eugenically sound oak.

  • Benjamin

    Of course she solicited the support of African Americans, Glenn – for the eugenic policies she advocated. Policies that would, as she put it, lead to a “cultivation of better racial elements”, “a cleaner race”, and a “cultivation of the better racial elements in our society.” Sanger was very mindful of the need to find non-whites to back her up in this lifelong crusade, though most of them didn’t follow her to speak at the KKK.

    Your opinion – and it is an opinion, not a “fact check” – transposes Cain’s comments from one about the motivation of Sanger (which is not in doubt, nor denied by all but the most politically motivated scholars) to one about understanding Sanger within “historical context”. I see. So how far does your permissiveness stretch back through the ages? How far is “for the era” an excuse for such views? Perhaps fifty years earlier than Sanger? Why, that Nathan Bedford Forrest, such a progressive community organizer!

    Your appeal to a lack of bias doesn’t work on something this extreme, Glenn. This is a significant line you’ve crossed, and if you don’t think that we’ll be bringing it up every time you roll out the Pinocchio distribution machine as a clear guide to what you consider fact and fiction, you’re wrong. For the record.

  • Karl

    Of course, there’s an unstated assumption that you can’t be *that* bad if you promoted liberal or progressive positions on social issues.

  • Karl

    Well, we can’t really infer that Sanger or Planned Parenthood intended something like genocide, but there were a lot of people back then who thought the black population should be reduced. It’s a conspiracy theory, but many statistics line up with it (which doesn’t imply causation).

    Still, most pro-life people like myself oppose abortion regardless of whether there are racial issues involved or not.

  • James of England

    Jerry, James Taranto made his claim some time ago. He has noted the paucity of objectivity in attacks on Democrats as well as on Republicans, and regularly returns to this terrible form of journalism as a topic.

    This seems like a great example. Both in the “is this true” section and in the ranking received, an agenda is clear.

  • Robert

    For an interesting LCMS perspective, see:

  • Glenn Kessler

    One further note, this is how Sanger’s biographer describes Sanger’s racial views for an article that appeared on Salon today: “She actually held unusually advanced views on race relations for her day and on many occasions condemned discrimination and encouraged reconciliation between blacks and whites. Though most birth control facilities conformed to the segregation mores of the day, she opened an integrated clinic in Harlem in the early 1930s. Later, she facilitated birth control and maternal health programs for rural black women in the South, when local white health officials there denied them access to any New Deal-funded services.”

  • Jeffrey

    I appreciate Kessler coming to defend the attack on his work. He was analyzing Cain’s statement and testing out the assertion of facts. Both in characterizing Sanger and PP setting up in minority neighborhoods, he provided evidence that Cain was untrue. Now. Cain was creating a narrative that the pro-life community and Mollie, as. I recall, like to paint. But there is A difference between narrative and facts, as Kessler illustrated. Talking to more prolifers, as Molle suggests, furthers the narrative but doesn’t alter the facts.

  • Mer

    The birth control clinic that Sanger started in Harlem did not perform abortions. Sanger was a eugenist, you are correct; however, her dominating belief was that increased availability of birth control only improved the life of women everywhere. This is also the belief that Planned Parenthood has embraced as time has gone on, not her belief in eugenics. Phrases like “targeted black babies” are misleading in that they imply abortion, rather than birth control (the availability of which is a fairly uncontroversial topic in American politics). I think that most intelligent people can disagree completely with Sanger with regards to eugenics, and still see her actions in opening birth control clinics as a positive force.

  • Rapnsum

    FACT CHECK: Planned Parenthood was founded by racists. Most were American Eugenics Society founders and President or at best members as was Sanger. The AES is known for their racist views. To top that off, Sanger herself admitted to granting KLAN speeches- the KLAN of all things- and yet the post never mentions it? Shocking !!!! If you want a stunning look at Planned Parenthood founding documents directly that prove their racist origins- watch the documentary film: Maafa21 The producers of that DVD did what the media refuses to do HARD JOURNALISM- HARD WORK- RESEARCH….watch Maafa21 ( in addition if you want a study that proves Planned Parenthood locates their facilities in minority neighborhoods go here and download this Racial Profiling Report from Life Dynamics:

  • Mollie

    I think most of us are aware that Sanger has her defenders, even on her eugenics.

    If that meant that those who pointed out her racism and eugenics were liars, nobody would be mocking this fact check.

    Four Pinocchios …

  • Karl

    Yes, there’s a difference between saying that Herman Cain lied and saying that he failed to do his research and give a sufficiently nuanced presentation. At the same time, it is troubling that minorities get abortions disproportionately and that there is a history of collaboration between eugenicists and the birth control movement. One problem is that “four Pinocchios” implies that it is wrong to claim that any controversial figure (like, say, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, or Michelle Bachmann) had dark or impure motives.

  • R9

    Well if Cain really did call it “planned genocide” it looks like he deserves a few Pinocchios.

    My extensive research (10 minutes on google) has suggested this woman had a mix of stupid ideas and decent ones, and her life is used as angle of attack for people opposed to the work of Planned Parenthood.

    So… why don’t we cut to the chase and argue that one instead.

  • Jeffrey

    But Cain wasn’t saying opinion statements, he was stating things as facts. And the facts are wrong. That what he says may be considered gospel truth in pro-life circles doesn’t make them facts or truths. That’s what Kessler was testing, the assumptions in Cain repeating the movement talkIng points.

  • Ramesh Ponnuru

    The headline on Kessler’s piece refers to Cain’s alleged rewriting of “birth-control history.” Wasn’t he talking about abortion?

  • Daniel

    Well, since mutually agreeable facts are in short supply between differing ideologies, perhaps the goal over at the Washington Post is to be more like Charlie Hebdo, and to run a farce rather than a straight-ahead newspaper. With advocacy journalism, the desire is not in disinterested reporting, but to use selected facts to work towards predetermined conclusions. After all, let’s not let contrary evidence dissuade us from presenting our cases for elaborate theories! And, if prevailing wisdom makes our views seem outlandish or wacky, let’s not let that bother us!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Most people are shocked when they hear the unvarnished historical truth about Margaret Sanger and Planned Parenthood’s racist roots because the media refuses to mention the truth most of the time–even in background stories where it should be at least mentioned.
    Consequently Planned Parenthood sucks up taxpayer money hand over fist with some of it coming from members of the racial and ethnic groups she so dearly wanted exterminated.
    She was a real “racial pioneer” all right. A pioneer in things like genocide. And the usual media take on her is not usually sort of neutral or nuanced, but virtual elevation to sainthood. Her goal, she once said, was to create genetically a “nation of grayhounds” (which is her equivalent of Hitler’s Master Race.)

  • Greg

    I have no idea if Margaret Sanger was racist against black people or not, but she definitely wrote a lot of awesome propaganda. Consider the following: “No despot ever flung forth hls legions to die in foreign conquest, no privilege ruled nation ever erupted across its borders, to lock in death embrace with another, but behind them loomed the driving power of a population too large for its boundaries and its natural resources.” So all wars are caused by overpopulation, which was totally a mainstream and reasonable belief in the early twentieth century…riiiiiight.

  • Heather

    @ 21:

    The headline on Kessler’s piece refers to Cain’s alleged rewriting of “birth-control history.” Wasn’t he talking about abortion?

    This news, just in: some journalists equate the two.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, your statement is not correct. His comments are part of an organized attempt by conservatives to denigrate the truth or “facts” in favor of (conservative) political correctness as a Wall Street editorial stated about politifact, a Pulizer prize winner for their work:

    “part of a larger journalistic trend that seeks to recast all political debates as matters of lies, misinformation and ‘facts,’ rather than differences of world view or principles.”

    That clearly says that political correctness, ideology, is more important than the truth in the opinion of the Wall Street Journal, an opinion Taranto echos and reinforces. That statement on their part deliberately misinterprets what fact check organizations are trying to do.

    I’m not arguing they’re perfect, but they are trying to do the exact same thing GR is trying to do. In fact, following what they say, it’s a matter of dispute whether or not womenpriests exists, for example, and so fact checking should not be done because the fact checkers, such as you, are biased. That’s pretty ironic to me.

  • Mollie


    You don’t have to be “conservative” to have a problem with opining characterized as “fact-checking.” And, in fact, I’ve heard people all across the spectrum have a problem with the silly trend on all sorts of grounds. Journalists, for instance, reject the implicit declaration of journalistic failure in even publishing fact checks as opposed to just journalism that tells it like it is. Others reject the idea that the fact checkers come from the same pool of journalists that are failing to report well.

    But either way, your quote from Taranto supports my characterization rather than yours. It rather clearly argues against casting the difference of world views as a difference in facts. Disagreement about whether, say, Margaret Sanger’s eugenicism is a moral problem or can be contextualized as not so much of a problem is not a FACTUAL disagreement. It’s a worldview disagreement. Giving someone the worst lying score for thinking that eugenic philosophy is more of a problem than the Washington Post does is not “supporting truth.” It’s engaging in politics.

    You’re right that “fact checking” is very similar to GetReligion. And while sometimes we do point out simple errors in fact, sometimes we’re doing other types of analysis. And I’m sure you’ve figured out that GetReligion is a media criticism (read: opinion) site, and we don’t purport not to be.

    People (should) know that they’re receiving media criticism here. Unfortunately, “fact checkers” pretend otherwise. That pretense is cooked into the name. If it were billed or treated as the opinion-laden criticism it is, we wouldn’t even bother looking at it, probably.

  • Julia

    Re: opinions vs facts

    This argument was played out last night when this conservative had dinner with her best friend, a liberal.

    When discussing current political players, I would say where I agreed or disagreed with this one or that one on particular issues.

    My friend, instead, would say most of the politicians she disagrees with are dumb and are appealing to dumb people. Or she will concede they are intelligent, but they are “intellectually lazy” – because they would certainly agree with her if they had gone to the trouble of researching the issues.

    This seems to mirror what is going on with “fact checkers”.

  • sari


    While you are correct in pointing to the bias in the W. Post piece, the statistics you felt should have been included are irrelevant to either side of the argument. Correlation does not imply causation, and we (the public and especially the media) should be careful to place numbers in context.

    For instance, you felt that the Post writer should have cited CDC statistics to demonstrate that the higher rates of abortion in the African-American community reflect pressure from Planned Parenthood. But the link you provided was to a NYT article which discussed allegations of eugenic warfare– a highly charged article. The CDC stats state incidence, nothing more, and that’s what

    A closer look at the CDC site, for instance, reveals that a disproportionate percentage of African-American men contract HIV, and that African-American women are not far behind (tied with Hispanic men). Likewise, teen pregnancy rates (ages 15-19) are double those of white non-Hispanic teens. Iow, a higher percentage of people within the African-American community are having unprotected sex with little regard as to consequences. The problem may stem from lack of access to birth control, the absence of meaningful sex-ed programs or adult role models, cultural bias against using birth control, or the lack of stigma for pre/extramarital sex and unwed pregnancy. The reasons are unclear, but one thing is obvious, the CDC data answers none of these questions and cannot be used to bolster the allegations made against Planned Parenthood.

    To summarize: care should be taken when using statistics. Doing otherwise leads to opinion rather than factual journalism. Are journalism majors required to take basic statistics?

  • Mollie


    To clarify, I reject the whole “fact check” premise but was just showing how it could have been shaded a different way, too. Pointing to the statistics about the high incidence of abortion for black women is no more relevant than pointing out that some blacks supported eugenics, as the Washington Post did.

  • sari

    I apologize, Mollie. That was unclear, at least to me.

  • Matt

    It should be borne in mind that the supposed 75% of PP clinics being built in African-American neighborhoods was more than half of Cain’s point, and no one has given any evidence that that claim is true, so at least some Pinocchios appear to be in order.

    As for the Sanger quotes, Kessler reports that he asked the Cain campaign for clarification and they did not respond. While it would have been better if he had responded to the Sanger quotes that Mollie brought up, I think that just goes to show that “fact checking” should be a conversation rather than a one-time pontification.