Michael Moore vs. CNN et al.

So Michael Moore the documentarian takes on CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta the medical science guy in the former's first appearance on the network in three years, arguing that the latter committed libel by claiming the filmmaker "fudged the facts" in the new documentary Sicko. The two argued vociferously on Wolf Blitzer's "The Sitation Room" the other day. Who won? This being television news, no one, really. Moore came off as an obnoxious and impatient guest and Gupta as an inexcusably sloppy journalist. But Wolf was the real loser for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is failing get to the heart of the debate, at which lies competing sources.

The interview took place immediately following a "reality check" of Sicko by Gupta, who says he founds numerous factual errors in Moore's expose of the sad state of the American health care system. Moore, not too surprisingly, took offense and challenged Gupta on the facts. Moore later posted a rebuttal, with sources, on his own website that quite clearly showed he was not fudging the facts. And yet Gupta, with one exception, did not back down. How could this happen?

Because Moore got his numbers from one source (the U.S. government) and Gupta from another (the WHO). Both can claim to be valid sources. But Gupta, despite his credibility as a physician, clearly failed to live up to his responsibilities as a journalist. By claiming Moore's facts are wrong without bothering to verify or confirm Moore's sources (and Moore makes a point of making those sources available on his website), and then presenting his own competing facts, he does a disservice to Moore and his viewers.

For example, Moore in Sicko says the U.S. spends an average of $7,000 a year health care for each American. Gupta claims the number is closer to $6,000. Turns out Moore's number is good. It comes from the Bush administration, no less. But like all the cases of alleged fudging, Gupta doesn't bother with the issue of sources.

He should know better. If you're going to play "gotcha" with Michael Moore, you'd better know what you're doing, To challenge Moore on the facts is to invite an argument. How could he go to air with such allegations without checking first? The facts both are drawing on are actually statistics, numbers that stand in for real measurements. And how a stat is derived can be a tricky business. I'm sure the statisticians in both the U.S. Department of Health and the World Health Organization can make a good case for their figures. Gupta knows this, and to say that Moore is wrong is simply not an accurate or fair allegation.

It gets worse, though. Gupta claimed in his piece that Moore puts the annual per capita health care cost in Cuba at $25, when the actual number is $251. But in Sicko the number used turns out to be $251. Gupta put it down to a transcription error. Still standing is the absurd difference in spending between the U.S. and Cuba and the unchallenged fact that Cubans enjoy lifespans and many other health indicators that compare favorably with those of Americans.

Gupta criticized Moore in the item for playing up the US's ranking on a world health care survey of 37, but ignoring the fact that Cuba is 39. And yet the only reason CNN viewers don't see the quite visible Cuban ranking in the clip from Sicko is that the CNN logo was covering it up. No explanation, or apology, from Gupta.

All the other alleged examples of Moore's errors turn out be competing credible sources or matters of fair statistical interpretation. It's Fahrenheit 9/11 all over again. And it's a point that Moore made, asking Blitzer to apologize for treating him so poorly back in 2004 now that so much of Moore's point of view has being adopted by so much of the American mainstream, including the media and increasing numbers of Republicans.

Moore, who for the first time I'm aware of actually claims to be committing journalism, would do himself a big favor by not playing the goofy, unkempt, pool-hall hustler when he takes to the public stage. But when are CNN et al going to understand that Moore does a better job sourcing his facts than many so-called professional journalists? And when are they going to learn the difference between competing statistics and simple fact vs. fiction?

To no one's surprise, a rematch on Larry King got no closer to the problem. The one saving grace: Gupta admitted Moore's essential thesis is correct. The health care system in the U.S. is broken. For some reason, that never made it into his "reality check," though.

Tags

More like this

As Revere points out, Michael Moore gave Sanjay Gupta a whomping. What I missed in the Moore-Gupta match, though, was the big picture. Basically, they argued over details: Gupta put together a "fact check" that claimed Moore fudged various numbers, while Moore showed that his numbers were…
Michael Moore, whose movie on US health care, Sicko, is said to be a devastating indictment of said system (haven't seen it yet), had a bit of dust up recently with CNN's health correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta. You can see it on the video linked below. Here's the scenario. With Moore as an upcoming…
I've got a piece up on the website of The Nation about why we should be glad Sanjay Gupta won't be the Surgeon General. Basically, there are aspects of his medical coverage that I don't think are very consistent with what we want in the nation's doctor. A brief excerpt: And then there was the time…
Just another quick note reflecting further on my 8-minute gut reaction yesterday to word that Sanjay Gupta might be nominated as Surgeon General in the Obama administration. I still contend he's a great communicator but realize that the "both sides of the story" aspect of journalism has made some…

With Michael Moore, it's usually not the specific facts that are incorrect or deceiving; rather, it's how they're arranged and presented (one example: his whole treatment of the proposed Unocal pipeline in Afghanistan in Fahrenheit 9/11). Like any good propagandist, Moore knows how to how to take "documented facts" and weave them into the story he wants, whether that story is actually true or not. It's the context in which those "facts" are presented that matters.

That's why I'm rarely impressed when Moore blathers on about how well documented his "facts" are.

To hear Gupta imply that Moore hid the fact that Cuba was ranked 39th when Gupta knew that CNN's screen banner hid Moore's disclosure of Cuba's standing can only be described as total dishonesty. I was shocked to watch Gupta accuse Michael of fudging numbers by relying upon 2007 Bush administration U.S. Dept. of Health data instead of Gupta's 2004 World Health Organization figures. I don't think we've ever seen a Wolf Blitzer Situation Room hatchet job such as this, and so naked too. Apologies are in order or I'm afraid my years of program loyalty are at end. I can't imagine why Wolf and Gupta felt it necessary to destroy our trust in them as quality news sources?

John R. Polito
Mount Pleasant, SC

By John R. Polito (not verified) on 11 Jul 2007 #permalink

Why should a guest be patient when a shitload of their own predictions came true and the station and interviewer never admit to it? Boo hoo.

Gupta pulled an unequivocal hack job on Moore in this case. I agree that putting the banner over Cuba at 39 was such a case of blatant dishonesty and misrepresentation that he no longer has any credibility for me.

Orac, lighten up.

Moore, who for the first time I'm aware of actually claims to be committing journalism, would do himself a big favor by not playing the goofy, unkempt, pool-hall hustler when he takes to the public stage.

Funny, I was surprised to find Moore's appearance on CNN to be clean-shaven, neatly dressed, and not at all 'unkempt' . But what do I know? People tell me I'm 'unkempt' all the time.

Still standing is the absurd difference in spending between the U.S. and Cuba and the unchallenged fact that Cubans enjoy lifespans and many other health indicators that compare favorably with those of Americans.

But this really doesn't mean anything, because there are so many other factors that have a much greater impact on the aggregate health indicators and average lifespan of a nation's population than the services provided by its health care system. Factors like prevailing patterns of diet and exercise, rates of smoking and drug use, crime, stress, and mass public health measures like air pollution and food safety standards.