AMY FRIED

Skepticism and the sham sting

Posted Aug. 16, 2011, at 5:29 p.m.
Last modified Aug. 19, 2011, at 7:32 a.m.

Ernest Hemingway said people need a “built–in BS detector.” Missouri calls itself the Show Me state. And Mainers, with their sometime crustiness and “You Can’t Get There From Here” tweaking of those who drop by the state with a confident cluelessness, have their own measure of skepticism.

Luckily this questioning attitude was on display last week when the conservative advocacy groups Americans for Prosperity and the Maine Heritage Policy Center unveiled a video. They showed a two-minute clip to assembled journalists, which they said demonstrated “explosive evidence,” of “potential” Medicare fraud. Within a few hours it became clear that the selection did not represent the situation in full. Although the front-line worker made errors, she also told the faux applicant he needed to produce identification and should seek health insurance through COBRA, which requires paying premiums. Her supervisor quickly informed the absurd visitor that he was evasive.

In other places around the country, edited videos from operations mounted by James O’Keefe have been greeted all too credulously. People lost their jobs and organizations were undermined, even after O’Keefe showed himself to be a deceitful fellow. Perhaps the oddest of his enterprises was the failed plan to seduce a female CNN journalist on hidden camera.

In general, O’Keefe’s dishonesty has involved taking comments out of context. This technique led to the downfall of a National Public Radio executive. In my religious tradition, ruining reputations is considered to be one of the most harmful things one can do, since it is so hard to repair the injury. However, it is unclear who did the crafty editing of the Maine tape, since O’Keefe says he passed along the complete footage.

With so many short attention spans and a tendency to incorporate new information into existing world views, one can imagine people simply adopting these claims. Yet, unlike other cases, Mainers did not react as the tape’s purveyors may have expected. Gov. Paul LePage did not adopt their rhetoric. Rather, the governor said he did “not believe the video shows an employee willfully allowing abuse of the welfare system,” and suggested the need for more training, for better “customer service.” He also praised the supervisor.

The full tape suggests that the situation could have been resolved more quickly and clearly, and internal procedures should be revisited and refined. Parts of the tape could be used in training, if only to provide an outlier case. Very odd people and situations are, of course, the most difficult for people to deal with in real time.

Besides its implications for internal operations at DHHS, all this is consistent with Maine’s traditional values and practices. We are an independent people that like to judge things for ourselves. In this political culture, continued invocations of widespread voter fraud, which are never established, won’t go anywhere. And saying that people who hit the bricks to restore Election Day registration are not “regular people” won’t fly. Turns out, a lot of “regular people” like Election Day voter registration, as shown by the success in accomplishing the very difficult task of getting people’s veto signatures in such a short time and without having been able to get any from voters when they came to vote on Election Day.

But these are situations where it’s relatively easy to judge for ourselves. Maine people can recall when they or someone they know gained from Election Day voter registration. They can watch or read about the whole tape.

Assessing a study with numbers and statistics is harder and here journalists owe it to citizens to do due diligence and help people evaluate what’s presented rather than simply passing it along. Just because a group produces a report does not mean it is credible. Experts can help reporters evaluate its claims. Moreover, when a group has a track record of making allegations that turn out to be over-hyped or simply incorrect, their decreased credibility should mean that future claims are not simply swept into headlines and broadcasts.

When someone comes calling with a raised voice and attempts to raise our hackles, it’s worth taking time to check closely, and the mechanism Hemingway said we need to use should be employed.

Amy Fried is a professor of political science at the University of Maine. You can follow her on Twitter at ASFried and at her blog, www.pollways.com.

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