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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Is truth a collective hunch?

If a tree falls in a forest, but you simply don’t believe it – did it fall?

If you believe a tree is going to fall, but it hasn’t yet, is it a fact that you say it will? And if it’s not a fact, is it “untruthful”? And if it’s untruthful in a way that might be arguable, is it a lie?

State Sen. Michael Baumgartner’s arguable statements about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare – which are basically the same arguable statements about Obamacare that virtually every member of his party makes on a more or less constant basis – have prompted a factual wrestling match. The Seattle Times deemed Baumgartner’s assertions “mostly false” in its Truth Needle fact-checking feature. Baumgartner tweeted about it this week: “The Seattle Times said I got my facts wrong on Obamacare. We’re conducting a survey to see what you think.”

It’s probably a foregone conclusion what Baumgartner’s tweeps will think about his battle with a newspaper. And it’s savvy of him to recognize that it doesn’t really matter whether he got his facts wrong, so long as he can persuade people that he didn’t.

So, once again, any possibility of shared facts falls into the vast chasm between ideologies. And a news organization’s attempts to reclaim this baseline through “fact-checking” are being swallowed up by the very same chasm.

I talked to Baumgartner about this, and told him I thought his poll revealed an unfortunate political truth: The facts don’t matter much.

He took a less cynical run at it: The facts matter, the way facts are reported in the media matter, and the beliefs people develop about the facts matter. And he took it a step further: The ways people characterize complicated, divisive issues are not as easily “checked” as an objective fact like, say, the population of Spokane.

“Controversial issues are controversial because sometimes reasonable people on both sides disagree about the main points,” he said. “Well-intentioned, reasonable people can disagree.”

That sounds so … reasonable. Appealingly so. All the assumptions of bad faith that cloud our politics – and of which I am myself guilty, and will be again, possibly, before the end of this column – are depressing, if you harbor any faith in the possibilities of representative democracy. And yet the constant gusher of intentional misdirection in politics – death panels, anyone? – makes it hard to sustain this faith.

The claims in question, which you can examine more fully at, deal with an appeal Baumgartner sent to supporters in his bid to unseat Maria Cantwell in the U.S. Senate. In it, he asserted that Obamacare is “government taking over our health care.” This frequently made assertion was named the Lie of the Year in 2010 by PolitiFact.

Baumgartner also asserts that “Cantwell voted to force us to buy the insurance she mandates”; that the law will reduce the choice of doctors; and that it will allow bureaucrats to make treatment choices.

The Times sorts through these claims at some length. People will be mandated to buy insurance, the paper acknowledges, but the nature and makeup of insurance plans will be designed by employers and insurers, within guidelines. Limits on doctor choice are already a commonplace of insurance plans. And no board of bureaucrats will make individual treatment decisions, it said.

Baumgartner argues these points. He says the law is intended to create incentives to drive down costs – it involves mandates that will, by definition and intention, have to limit choice. He says the law itself might not limit doctor choice, but it will create economic ripple effects that do. And he insists that at least two boards will make decisions that affect coverage.

I find the Times’ argument more persuasive. It seems even-handed and fair, and gives ample space to Baumgartner’s views. It strikes me as either clever or cynical for Baumgartner to poll the accuracy of the facts. But I also think Baumgartner is correct when he says that a lot of political phrasing – and especially brief summaries of massively complex issues – may not be as easily checked as facts.

Argumentative language employs a lot of creative devices: metaphor, simile, hyperbole. Is it a lie, exactly, to say that Obamacare is a “massive government takeover” of health care?

My gut tells me yes. But my gut also tells me that Obamacare is less of a government “takeover” than I would support – I am disposed a certain way, and that disposition has a lot to do with whether I think that statement is truthful. I’m more forgiving of the rhetorical excesses of those I agree with: We love to talk about the safety net being destroyed, for example, when it’s probably just being partially shredded.

Baumgartner wonders whether assigning labels such as truthful or factual to some kinds of political characterizations is fair. I think the effort to cut through political chicanery is a worthwhile one, and I think complaints of media bias are the coin of the realm for some politicians – a get-out-of-jail-free card with the base.

But I also dislike it when people throw around the word “truth” to describe something I don’t agree with. Like when Baumgartner insists, in his written defense to the Times, that he will “keep telling the truth.”

And we – he and I, Republicans and Democrats, all of us dug into our various positions – will continue to argue, reasonably and otherwise, about what that is.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.