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Posted at 8:50 AM ET, 10/29/2007

Fact Checking the Fact Checker

By Michael Dobbs

Who is the "purest" of them all?

My posting last Monday asking whether Barack Obama and John Edwards are guilty of hypocrisy in their fund-raising practices--they refuse donations from "federal lobbyists" but accept money from the people who employ the lobbyists--attracted lots of comment. I promised to publish a sampling of the most interesting reactions, so here goes:

Some commenters could not see what all the fuss is about and said the Fact Checker was shilling for Hillary Clinton, who has accused Obama and Edwards of double standards. "Oh come on!," wrote 'Laura.' "Your own article admits that Edwards and Obama are actually refusing money from lobbyists. In other words, they are actually doing what they are saying they are doing."

Edwards and Obama take money from lawyers, you say? News flash! Both of them ARE lawyers. Is it really so weird to take campaign contributions from their professional colleagues? I'd rather see trial lawyers funding a candidate (people who actually work for parties injured by corporate greed) than see the candidate taking money from lobbyists for corporate greed any day.

A trial lawyer, 'DeAnna', objected to being lumped together with other "special interests." She said she had given money to John Edwards, not because she wants him to promote her business interests, but simply because she likes his political positions. Is her money tainted just because her company "employs lobbyists"?

"I have given to John Edwards because his campaign and his focus on impoverished families and health care speak to me. I have donated because I want John Edwards to be our next president. I am not influenced by my employer or any lobbyists in my donations."

'Kevin' condemned the practice of "guilt by association." If you identify yourself as the employee of a pharmaceutical company in your financial disclosure firm, journalists somehow assume that you are supporting pharmaceutical interests, when in fact you might just happen to like Obama or Edwards or whomever.

"By the way, Michael Dobbs works for the Washington Post which is party owned by Berkshire Hathaway which is run by Warren Buffett who is a maximum donor ($2300) to Hillary Clinton (those are all real facts, feel free to look them up.) So under Dobbs' own "guilt by association" rules, that makes him a shill for Hillary. And his "fact" check article is no more than a Hillary Clinton campaign ad by his own definition. See how that works, Mr Dobbs?"

That's taking the argument to a ludicrous extreme, but I agree that there is far too much guilt by association in American journalism and political rhetoric. The lawyers who gave $8 million to Edwards or $9 million to Clinton are not all the same. Some of the bigger donors and bundlers may hope to be buying influence with a future president; others may simply admire the candidates' stand on the issues. It is impossible to tell without investigating every case individually.

My favorite example of "guilt by association" gone wild came from a comment posted to this website soon after we launched. 'Roger' was furious that I had given three Pinocchios to for its over-the-top attack on General Petraeus. He decided to do a little sleuthing around of his own.

"Interesting, this fact checker, Michael Dobbs, is a member of an institute headed, at the moment, by Crocker, the Ambassador to Iraq, the USIP. But why let a little conflict of interest prevent you from defending your buddies? Go to the page to find out further information. Wow."

Just for the record, I have never met Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Baghdad, and was unaware of his connection to United States Institute for Peace. And while I did have a fellowship at USIP for 10 months, to write a book about the Cuban missile crisis, I have no connection with them any more.

Back to the lobbyist controversy. 'Rich' argued that Hillary Clinton has a point when she accuses her Democratic rivals of happily taking money from the people who "employ" the lobbyists. "There is a big difference in taking money from Joe Blow at the bottom of the food chain and pulling money from the CEO. You trying to tell me the CEO is not giving money on the side and not looking for the same results as when he pumps the money in the back door through the lobbyist?"

"Obama and Edwards are being pretty disingenuous," wrote 'PeterDC.'

"It is hard to say you don't take money from a lobbyist and then work hard for union endorsements--who hire the lobbyists you say you won't take money from. Edwards earned money from a hedge fund and they participate in lobbying efforts to protect their outrageous tax benefits. Obama takes money from State lobbyists and has all the time he was in the State legislature. It is really semantics."

The Pinocchio Test

This is a really difficult one. Both sides make good points. Obama and Edwards have promised not to take money from "federal lobbyists" as a first step toward cleaning up campaign finance--and nobody has demonstrated that they have knowingly broken their promise. Their chief rival for the Democrat nomination, Hillary Clinton, has been embroiled in her own fund-raising scandals, with big bundlers like Norman Hsu, so she hardly has much standing to criticize her rivals.

On the other hand, the promises of Obama and Edwards are legalistically worded and filled with loopholes. In their different ways, they have both taken money from "special interests." The truest comment about campaign finance probably came from Obama when he acknowledged that he was swimming in "the same muddy water" as the other candidates.

For stretching the truth on campaign finance reform, we award Obama, Edwards, AND Clinton one Pinocchio apiece.

(About our rating scale.)

By Michael Dobbs  | October 29, 2007; 8:50 AM ET
Categories:  1 Pinocchio, Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch  
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