The New Hubris

Once I stopped convulsing from laughter at the thought of The New Republic offering anyone advice about fact-checking — of all things — I tried to decipher exactly what false claim they felt Michael Moore had made in Fahrenheit 9/11 (“Counterfactual”, July 19, 2004).

In the film, a Secret Service patrol officer shows up while Moore and Craig Unger are filming in front of the Saudi embassy in Washington. In response to an inquiry by Moore, the officer says the Secret Service doesn’t usually guard foreign embassies. TNR‘s Notebook column quotes a Service spokesman saying that part of the agency’s charge since 1970 has been to protect diplomatic missions in D.C., then claims Moore’s film is inaccurate because he leaves viewers with the wrong impression.

Whose fault is that? Moore asks an impromptu question of the officer during the filming of an interview with Unger, the officer answers. That much is clearly factual. Perhaps the officer didn’t know the correct answer, but the accuracy of the officer’s answer isn’t something Moore is responsible for. Even if Moore suspected that the Secret Service would show up, even if he knew that diplomatic missions in D.C. were under Service protection, unless he told the officer to give an incorrect answer, he’s no more responsible for the veracity of this “fact” than any interviewer whose subject states something inaccurate. Moore didn’t make the claim, he showed the officer making the claim.

In a corrolary, as a part of this week’s Moore-bashing at TNR, Gregg Easterbrook’s column “Out of Order” takes Moore to task for claiming in Bowling for Columbine that a plaque on a B-52 at the Air Force Academy celebrated killing Vietnamese people. Easterbrook links to a Moore debunking site which quotes the plaque as saying that the B-52 is one of two credited with a MIG kill. Apart from the fact that the “picture” of the plaque that Easterbrook claims is on the web page is certainly not readable (or visible) in the picture of the plane, he fails to mention that the plaque quote does say the MIG was shot down “during ‘Linebacker II’ action on Christmas Eve, 1972.” Perhaps Easterbrook thinks “Linebacker II” was some sort of aerial football scrimmage, but in actuality it was an eleven day bombing campaign in North Vietnam that consisted of 3,000 sorties and 40,000 tons of bombs. Easterbrook can quibble that the plaque wasn’t meant to celebrate the bombing campaign, but the B-52 wasn’t exactly just flying lazily over the green fields of home when it was attacked by the mean, mean MIG.

It’s a shame that TNR‘s thirst for the facts comes so late in the game. If the same obsession for detail they seem to have unleashed on F9/11 had been turned to the administration’s claims of Iraq’s capabilities for the development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, perhaps they wouldn’t have appeared so gullible over the past couple of years.