Senator Ted Cruz got into an argument with John Harwood of CNBC over the highly selective nature of media fact-checking on Thursday. The exchange came out of nowhere at the very end of an otherwise fairly genial interview:
Harwood: You’ve said a few things that don’t necessarily comport with the facts, like, “125,000 I.R.S. agents, send ’em to the border.” They’ve only got 25,000 agents or something like. You’ve talked about the job-killing nature of Obamacare. We’re adding jobs at a very healthy clip right now. Why shouldn’t somebody listen to you and say, “The guy’ll just say anything – doesn’t have to be true”?
Cruz: There is a game that is played by left-wing editorial writers. It’s this new species of yellow journalism called politi-fact. Colloquially I was referring to all the employees as agents.
That particular stat is in a joke I used. So, they’re literally fact-checking a joke. I say that explicitly tongue in cheek.
The second point is more significant. You talked about the job creation that has occurred. The simple reality is millions of Americans are hurting right now under the Obama economy. Yes, some jobs are being created, but not nearly as many have been destroyed. The rich, the top 1% today earn a higher share of our income than any year since 1928.
Big business does great with big government. It gets in bed with big government. Median wages have stagnated. So, if you’re a single mom waiting tables, if you’re a teenage immigrant washing dishes like my dad was when he came from Cuba to America, your life under the Obama economy has gotten harder and harder and harder.
Right off the bat, Harwood gets the number of IRS agents Cruz cited in his joke wrong – it was 110,000, not 125,000. Why should we listen to anything John Harwood says when he gets his facts wrong?
Mediaite notes that Cruz did explicitly describe his remark as “tongue-in-cheek” – as if anyone should need that clarified with reference to a plan to secure the border with a legion of Internal Revenue Service employees. There is a difference between throwing out a number as part of a joke, and citing it as justification for specific policy changes. If Cruz said there were 110,000 IRS agents and that’s too many, so we should slash the agency’s budget and fire half of its agents, the number he cited would be far more relevant.
Cruz also wasn’t all that far off on his numbers, using the inaccurate but not totally out-of-bounds standard of referring to all IRS employees as “agents.” The exact number is around 90,000 by that measure. Insisting on counting only the people who hold the precise job title of “agent” is splitting hairs, especially given it was the only factual dispute Harwood cited for arguing that Cruz should not be taken seriously. (The debate about the health of job creation is a matter of opinion, not a “fact check.”) That’s really all he could come up with?
The exact number of agents working for the IRS is not relevant to either the joke Cruz was making, or the serious and legitimate point underlying it: the same government that pronounces itself utterly helpless to keep track of immigration scofflaws, or secure the border, is very aggressive about keeping tabs on law-abiding taxpayers. No one seems concerned with whether taxpayers feel intimidated by the IRS, or feels sorry for those who choose to “live in the shadows” as “undocumented Americans” to avoid the tax man. The goal of enforcing strict tax compliance is not abandoned, as immigration law has been, because enforcement seems like a difficult task that would be uncomfortable for its subjects. This point is not invalidated if there are 25,000 versus 110,000 IRS agents.
By contrast, the media seems blissfully content to spare Barack Obama and other Democrats any “fact checking” when he constantly drops gigantic whoppers that do frame the discussion by bludgeoning voters with false numbers. Just to cite three examples that leap to mind, there have been countless references to the “23-cent pay gap for women,” the “97 percent consensus on global warming,” and “1 in 5 college women have been raped.”
All of those doctored figures have been thoroughly debunked, but they still figure prominently in left-wing political rhetoric. They’re not just throwaway lines delivered by politicians during satirical asides in a single speech. They’re all deliberate attempts to completely restructure the political landscape by making issues seem orders of magnitude more serious than they really are.
And while media “fact checkers” have taken swipes at them, no mainstream-media journalist challenges Democrats by asking, “You’ve repeatedly cited false statistics about the pay gap for women. Why shouldn’t people ignore everything you say, because it’s obvious you’ll say anything?”
As for Harwood’s other point about job creation, he must have missed the incredibly disappointing job report that just came out. Nobody on CNBC should be claiming jobs are being “added at a very healthy clip right now.”
The media has been trying to sell an “Obama recovery” story to the public for years, but they’re not buying it. What Cruz says in this exchange matches up with the world outside middle-class America’s window. Very little of what they hope and fear is affected by knowing the precise number of active “agents” employed at this very moment by the Internal Revenue Service.
Unfortunately, their hopes and fears are manipulated by highly selective “fact checking” that often amounts to biased op-ed writing, with an even more preposterous veneer of impartiality and precision than the rest of the mainstream media’s output.