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Thursday, September 29, 2011

The $16 Muffin and Other Beloved Zombie Lies

I'm not a creature of habit, but I try to be. Every night, I try to do the same thing, to make it easier to get to sleep. The Daily Show and The Colbert Report are part of that. I watch them both, which begins the "go to bed" launch sequence. Obviously, this throws me off when there are reruns, but for the most part it works.

Zombie muffinSo last night I was watching TDS. The guest was Bill O'Reilly, who was hawking some book about the Lincoln assassination that a ghostwriter whipped up for him. Stewart called him out on his ridiculous "Obama's making it too expensive to be rich" argument and O'Reilly went straight to government spending. What about the $16 dollar muffin?

Stewart admitted that he hadn't heard about this $16 muffin thing, which isn't extremely surprising; it was one of those rightwing blogosphere "scandals" with the shelf-life of an unrefrigerated popsicle. Stewart probably missed it because he blinked.

Basically, the story worked like this; an audit from the Inspector General for the Department of Justice found that the Capitol Hilton in Washington overcharged a 2099 Justice Department Legal Training Conference -- which O'Reilly described as "a bunch of conferences for pinheads" -- for refreshments. The hotel was apparently given a budget and it exceeded it by the slimmest of amounts.

The "$16 muffin" came from a poorly itemized invoice and some quick, back-of-the-envelope accounting -- i.e., a bunch of other stuff was listed in a column marked "muffins." "So did DOJ really pay $16 for muffins?" Kevin Drum wrote at the time. "Of course not. In fact, it's obvious that someone quite carefully calculated the amount they were allowed to spend and then gave the hotel a budget. The hotel agreed, but for some reason decided to divide up the charges into just a few categories instead of writing a detailed invoice for every single piece of food they provided."


So how much did this overrun cost the taxpayers? Two cents per attendee -- or about ten and a half bucks total. It's an outrage, I tells ya! And never mind that this isn't actually a story about runaway government spending, so much as it is a cautionary tale about trusting the private sector to keep costs down. Hilton screwed this one up, not the DOJ. But since it's only ten bucks, who even cares? I'd be willing to bet that after all is said and done, the hotel will wind up swallowing the overrun, since it's really next to nothing.

Did O'Reilly know any of this? Maybe, maybe not. If we assume he wasn't lying when he said the story came from "a bunch of conferences for pinheads," then we can assume that O'Reilly didn't dig very deeply into the story in the first place. If his grasp of the story was so weak initially, it's possible that he never saw the debunking. This would be especially likely if he relied on his own employer to set the record straight.

This is nothing new for rightwing media. They rely on "scandal of the day" reporting to sustain their outrage, so of course most of these "scandals" turn out to be a big wad of nothing. But when that big wad of nothing is revealed to be a big wad of nothing, rightwing media news consumers never find out. Corrections and retractions are an endangered species in conservative news outlets and, in the wingnut blogosphere, they're almost completely extinct.

Take for example this Daily Caller piece from Matthew Boyle. In it, he claims that court records show the EPA plans to spend $21 billion to hire "230,000 new government workers to process all the extra paperwork." Needless to say, it's all crap. Media Matters has the full debunking, but I think I can encapsulate it thusly: Boyle is either an idiot or a liar.

Basically, he relies on court documents to make his claim. And these documents don't show plans to hire hundreds of thousands of new bureaucrats at a cost of tens of billions. What the documents show is that the EPA ruled out one method of monitoring greenhouse gases because it would require hundreds of thousands of new bureaucrats at a cost of tens of billions. Boyle grabbed some quotes about what the rejected method would cost, then ran with them as if they were the plan. Boyle has the story exactly backwards. He's just about as wrong as it's possible to be. I'm going to go ahead and call Matthew Boyle grossly incompetent, because it's a terrible thing to accuse someone of being a liar. And those are really the only two choices.

But of course this was another "scandal of the day" and everyone on the right was clawing their eyes out over it. Never mind that the EPA doesn't even have $21 billion to throw around -- it only has an $8.7 billion budget -- this was true, true, true as far as they were concerned.

And, as far as their readers know, it still is. There is no retraction or correction at Boyle's steaming pile of what he pretends is journalism. Follow the link and you get the story as it first appeared. A lot of wingnut bloggers and even organizations like Fox News and National Review linked to that story as a source. Anyone who follows those links will think they've confirmed the story's accuracy, when the story is 100% bass-ackward of the truth. Which goes a long way toward explaining why rightwingers tend to believe a bunch of stuff that everyone else knows isn't true.

Maybe Bill O'Reilly knows the truth about the $16 muffin and he's just using a debunked story to push his agenda, which would make him a liar. Or maybe he's just an incompetent hack who has no idea what the hell he's talking about and relies on rightwing media to get him his "facts." I don't know.

But I do know that it's a terrible thing to call someone a liar.


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