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PolitiFact's Top 10 pundit checks for 2009
By Robert Farley December 30, 2009

Ask yourself this: When you engage in political conversations with your neighbor or aunt, how often does that person quote House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or House Republican Leader John Boehner as opposed to channeling the arguments from Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh or Rachel Maddow?

Ratings, particularly for the staunch critics of President Barack Obama, suggest that more and more, people are turning to pundits for their political news. How influential have pundits become in national political discourse? Earlier this year, some Democratic leaders derisively claimed Rush Limbaugh was the face and de facto leader of the Republican Party. And it wasn't entirely laughable. Meanwhile, Glenn Beck gave voice to an emerging political force that calls itself the Tea Party.

So this year, PolitiFact decided to add pundits to our fact-checks. Here are some of our favorites from 2009.

1) Glenn Beck : John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, "has proposed forcing abortions and putting sterilants in the drinking water to control population." Ruling: Pants on Fire!

It is perhaps appropriate to begin our list with Beck, as no pundit's star has risen more quickly this year than his. With a popular syndicated radio show, a new and highly rated cable show on Fox News and a couple of bestselling books, it's no wonder Beck made the cover of Time magazine in September, along with a story that described him as "the hottest thing in the political-rant racket, left or right."

More than any other pundit, Beck has focused on the so-called "czars" of the Obama administration, describing many of them as socialists and radicals. In addition to Holdren, Cass Sunstein and Van Jones were among the Obama appointees who found themselves in Beck's cross-hairs. The Holdren claim is representative of the genre. In this case, Beck's claim was based on a textbook Holdren co-wrote more than 30 years ago, though we found Beck had lifted Holdren's comments out of context, distorted his positions and ignored Holdren's more recent public statements.

2) Rush Limbaugh : "President Obama . . . wants to mandate circumcision." Ruling: Pants on Fire.

From Beck we go to the long-reigning king of political talk radio. It's a good example of the lengths some went to this year to score political points (ratings?) in the highly charged health care debate. It also was our first fact-check to carry a "parental warning." The claim, though, turned out to be flimsily based on a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that health officials may recommend circumcision for newborn boys as a way to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, because studies show that the procedure can reduce transmission of the disease from women to men. But any eventual recommendations would be voluntary, not mandatory. More important, it had nothing to do with Obama, who to the best of our knowledge has never even uttered the word "circumcision" in a public forum. In fact, the CDC recommendations were under discussion long before Obama took office.

3) Steve Doocy : White House political director Patrick Gaspard once served as the "right-hand man" for Bertha Lewis, who heads up ACORN. Ruling: False .

This one hits the exacta of conservative pundits' 2009 attacks. One, it seeks to portray an Obama administration official as a radical. Two, it involves ACORN. Ka-ching! The claim made by Doocy, one of the hosts of Fox and Friends , and repeated by a number of conservative pundits, turned out to be wrong (though perhaps understandably as it was based on erroneous info in a blog posting from a former high-level ACORN official). More notably, this fact-check went on to play a cameo role in a high-profile spat between the White House and Fox. The brouhaha began when then White House communications director Anita Dunn called out Fox News, saying it was a "wing of the Republican Party." An accompanying blog posting on the official White House Web site repeated Dunn's claims and encouraged readers to check out "even more Fox lies," along with a link to the Doocy item from PolitiFact.

4) Rachel Maddow : "President Bush never did one interview with the New York Times during his entire presidency." Ruling: False.

The war of words between the White House and Fox predictably was the talk of pundits, liberal and conservatives alike. And it led to this spin-off from Maddow, in response to conservatives who criticized the White House for freezing Fox out of a series of interviews given to other networks on Sept. 20. Maddow argued it was no different from Bush refusing to be interviewed by the New York Times . Except that we found several incidents where he was. Maddow later offered an on-air correction.

5) Beck : "In the health care bill, we're now offering insurance for dogs." Ruling: Pants on Fire!

This is a prime example of how seemingly innocuous language in health care reform bills kicking around Congress this year was distorted and presented as outrage. The kernel of truth in this ridiculous claim is that the House bill includes scholarship and loan assistance money for health care workers, including veterinarians, who work in public health practice. These are the people who deal with disease outbreak, things like mad cow disease, swine flu and other animal-borne diseases. In other words, not the local vet who gives your dog heartworm pills. And certainly not health insurance of any kind for dogs.

6) David Brooks : Preventive care does not save the government money. Ruling: True.

Brooks' statement seemed counterintuitive, and it struck at a core principle of Obama's health care overhaul: That many costly procedures and treatments can be prevented by catching disease earlier or preventing it altogether. But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office explained that while it might be good health policy, it's not always cost-effective. You can't always predict who will develop costly illnesses, so you end up spending a lot of money on preventive care for people who would otherwise remain healthy anyway. "The evidence suggests that for most preventive services, expanded utilization leads to higher, not lower, medical spending overall," the CBO concluded. But that didn't stop Obama from continuing to claim that preventive care would lower health care costs. And so a month after this Brooks ruling, we gave the president a False.

7) Keith Olbermann : A new Republican litmus test "would have resulted in (the GOP) kicking out Ronald Reagan." Ruling: Half True.

This statement might sound blasphemous to some Republicans who consider Reagan one of our greatest presidents. Olbermann based his argument on a comparison of Reagan to a proposal before the Republican National Committee to enforce ideological purity by denying party funding to any GOP candidate who bucks the party's stance on at least three items from a 10-point checklist of issues. We looked into it and concluded that Reagan definitely broke with today's conservative orthodoxy on several of the issues. If nothing else, it's a great lesson in how politics shift over time.

8) Sean Hannity : Under the "Cash for Clunkers" program, "all we've got to do is ... go to a local junkyard, all you've got to do is tow it to your house. And you're going to get $4,500." Ruling: False.

The Cash for Clunkers program took a beating on conservative TV and radio talk shows. Under the popular but controversial program, people could get $3,500 to $4,500 if they traded in their old gas-guzzler for a more fuel-efficient new car. The idea was to boost the ailing auto industry while improving the environment. Hannity claimed it would be all too easy to game the system. But a reading of the legislation showed legislators anticipated just such a scheme and included provisions to prevent it. And so we threw Hannity's statement on the junk heap.

9) Hannity : "Barack Obama won't even use the term 'war on terrorism.' " Ruling: True.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan remain a source of partisan disagreement among politicians and pundits. And as Obama took weeks to mull whether to send more troops to Afghanistan, some like Hannity questioned his resolve in the fight against terrorism. As for Hannity's claim here, he's right that as president, Obama does not use the "global war on terrorism" phrase adopted by his predecessor, George W. Bush. It's a deliberate choice. Obama said he didn't want it to be misinterpreted by Muslims that we are at war with Islam, that he wanted to be more precise that the United States is at war with al-Qaida and other affiliated organizations.

10) Olbermann : "Yes, this would be the same congressman (Rep. Pete Hoekstra) who last year Tweeted the whereabouts of a top-secret mission to Iraq." Ruling: False.

Hoekstra Tweeted all right. He sent several messages to constituents back home describing his doings on a congressional trip to Iraq. And it prompted the Pentagon to review its policy on congressional delegations traveling to war zones, which resulted in a policy statement that amounted to telling congressmen they shouldn't be Tweeting their whereabouts or where they are heading in a combat zone. But it wasn't like Hoekstra spilled the beans on some covert military operation. Military officials said the mission, which was announced to the media beforehand (though embargoed), was hardly top secret.

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PolitiFact's Top 10 pundit checks for 2009