What a fantastic idea it would be. I really should try to convince someone in Hungary to start a web site that would monitor all the misstatements and distortions, if not outright lies, of Hungarian politicians and the media. While the American factcheck.org occasionally can’t find anything to complain about for a whole week, I’ll bet the calendar of a factcheck.hu would have several entries a day. The closest thing to factcheck in Budapest is a retired gentleman who over the years has written thousands of letters to the editor in which he politely corrects all the wrong dates and wrong facts. But for one person the job is far too big.
To highlight some of the problems, I’ll focus on professed "facts" about foreign countries. There are two kinds of political misstatements: the outright lies and the wrong facts due to ignorance. It is occasionally difficult to decide which is which. But I’ll try to sort them out. Let’s start with misstatements of the ignorami. These usually occur when politicians who know little or nothing about foreign countries offer as truths what are in fact falsehoods about life outside Hungary (perhaps influenced by a political agenda but not outright lies–that is, there is no intention to tell a falsehood). American, Canadian, French, English, and German examples abound; if one knows anything about these countries the information given is often wrong. This is true not only of politicians but of reporters as well. Even better informed journalists with limited foreign experience can come up with real doozies. It is irritating when a respected Hungarian commentator confidently lectures about the American Medicare system and it turns out that he doesn’t have the foggiest idea of its basic workings.
Then there are the willful lies. One of my favorites is István Mikola and the question of over-the-counter drugs sold outside of pharmacies. (Here we’re talking about the likes of aspirin.) Mikola claimed that in the United States 25% of the people who end up in hospitals are the victims of medication poisoning due to the fact that they are able to buy certain drugs in the local supermarket. Once Mikola or any other politician starts to spin such a line they don’t let go. For days they go from station to station, radio and TV, repeating this mantra. This nonsense from Mikola was in circulation for at least a week before one Hungarian journalist had the guts to confront him: the journalist checked all available statistics and found nothing resembling Mikola’s claim. Mikola is not easily intimidated. He announced that "I lived and worked in the United States. This is a well known fact; there is a sizable literature on the subject." But, once confronted, he had the good sense to know that his spin campaign had run its course and stopped repeating his "conclusive" statistic.
However, it seems that they are people for whom facts are not important. I heard a really funny interview with a writer on food who criticized current Hungarian chefs’ training. He mentioned that Hungarians like to boast that the world’s best cuisines are the French, the Chinese, and the Hungarian; according to him, this is not true. To which the television personality replied: "But don’t you think that people need this kind of praise?" True, not true? Doesn’t matter. It makes us feel good. Rather dangerous, I would say.