Rupees, not dollars, were the monetary unit in question
Vice President Joe Biden flew to Texas on Saturday to attend the wedding of his press secretary, Elizabeth Alexander, at the First United Methodist Church in the small community of Cleburne. According to unidentified sources, the vice president's trip is costing American taxpayers over $75 million dollars, due to increased security and accommodations for Biden's staff.
"Such expenditures, particularly when the nation's economy is suffering, are outrageous and another example of how the current administration is out of touch with the wishes of the American people," stated Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.).
Only the first sentence in the above first paragraph is true. Yet, as far-fetched as the rest may seem, it makes a lot more sense than last week's even loonier story that was accepted at face value, by Bachmann along with Mike Huckabee, Rush Limbaugh and bloggers who jumped at the chance to criticize the administration. The erroneous report: that president Obama's 10-day trip to India and three other Asian countries will cost U.S. taxpayers $2 billion (that's billion, with a "b").
In case you missed it: The Press Trust of India news agency reported last week that, according to an unidentified official in the Indian government, Obama's visit will cost $200 million a day. The item was picked up and linked by the conservative website the Drudge Report, then repeated on Fox News Channel by former governor Mike Huckabee. A day later, Rep. Bachmann appeared on CNN and declared: "The president of the United States will be taking a trip over to India that is expected to cost the taxpayers $200 million a day. He's taking 2,000 people with him. He'll be renting out over 870 rooms in India ... This is the kind of over-the-top spending (that voters oppose)."
The day after that, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Michael Savage all delivered extended radio rants about the $2 billion trip.
Only then did other media catch up and make clear that the figures are wildly untrue; that a trip of similar length by President Clinton cost roughly $43 million, total, and Obama's trip would likely add up to about the same.
The lesson here goes beyond the fact that zealots across the political spectrum, especially on the right, will jump at any chance to use shreds of half-truths and even complete falsehoods to build a case of public opinion against their opponents.
This was also a laboratory example of the way in which unchecked and unsubstantiated stories can go viral on the Internet and global television, giving a half-truth its own half life of many months or even years.
Drudge, Limbaugh - and perhaps Bachmann - know very well, without research, that the 10-day presidential trip couldn't possibly cost $2 billion.
They said what they did knowing it was false, while also resting assured that as long as it existed somewhere in print, even on the website of an Indian news agency, it could be repeated without risk. That's why, when later confronted with the facts, Bachmann insisted she was only stating what had appeared in "the press."
Indeed, the primary function of Drudge Report - and some would argue Daily Kos on the left - is to be a digital bulletin board for material that can then be cited as having "been published."
Meanwhile, it's been noted that although $200 million a day is bizarrely out of the question, 200 million Rupees (the Indian currency) converts to a far more reasonable sum of about $4.5 million.
Daily tab for a presidential journey: 200 million Rupees. Maintaining some semblance of truth and honesty in the digital age: priceless.
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker; he may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com, he's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera."