PunditFact's top 6 fact-checks of 2014
If Facebook shares and page views are windows on the soul, then PunditFact’s readers seem equally drawn to both high snark and high wonk. We culled the most popular half-dozen fact checks from the year. For some of you, this will be a trip down memory lane. For others, a chance to catch what slipped by the first time.
There’s some thematic grouping, but the runaway favorite fit no discernable category. In true countdown fashion, it falls at the end. Let’s begin with something utterly random.
Ted Nugent's 'federal raids'
Ted Nugent was once best known as a rock musician, a bow hunter, and an ardent supporter of gun rights. Then he gained notoriety for calling President Barack Obama a "subhuman mongrel," and explained his choice of words in an interview on CNN.
Nugent said the word mongrel, at least, stemmed from his time in law enforcement.
"I've been a cop in Lake County, Michigan, since 1982 thereabout. I conduct federal raids with the DEA and ATF and U.S. Marshals and the FBI and Texas Rangers and heroes of law enforcement.
"And we are re-arresting fugitive felons let out of their cages after murdering and raping and molesting children, carjacking. And we keep going after these guys.
"The adrenaline is something like you will never experience, I hope you never have to experience it, but when we are done with these kinds of raids, we get together and our hearts are broken that we have to face these monsters. We call them mongrels. We call bad people who are destroying our neighborhoods mongrels."
We called around and found he had taken creative liberties with his law enforcement resume.
The sheriff of Lake County, population about 11,500, told us Nugent was a "reservist" who helped raise money for the department. The Drug Enforcement Agency, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives,and the Texas Rangers all said they had no record of Nugent joining them on any raids. Ever.
The FBI declined to answer our questions, and the U.S. Marshals told us Nugent and a film crew "went on a ride-along with a U.S. Marshals-led task force in Waco, Texas, in 2005." Under the terms of a ride-along, Nugent would have remained a safe distance from the real action.
We have no idea whose memories Nugent had drawn upon but despite the graphic details, they weren’t his own. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.
A pair of police shooting fact checks
When a white police officer killed black, unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., pundits and reporters went sifting through national data to put the fatal encounter into a broader context. Conservative radio host Michael Medved cast police as protectors of African-Americans. Medved said blacks are much more likely to be killed by another black person than they are by a cop.
"When it comes to keeping black youths from violent death, police aren’t the problem – in fact, they’re a crucial part of any solution," Medved said.
As for the charge that police target blacks, Medved said the opposite is true.
"More whites than blacks are victims of deadly police shootings," he said.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI track deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers, but as became abundantly clear to everyone who dug deeper, the information is woefully incomplete. For the CDC data, coroners and funeral directors often fail to note whether police were involved. For the FBI, law enforcement agency participation is voluntary and inconsistent from year to year.
Still, we found that over the span of more than a decade, 2,151 whites died by being shot by police compared to 1,130 blacks. In that respect, Medved was correct.
However, that overlooked that whites outnumber blacks in the general population by more than five to one. .
Calculated as a rate based on population size, a 2002 study found that blacks were about three times more likely than whites to die from police gunfire.
We also found that blacks are convicted of felonies about three times more often than whites. That could partly explain the higher rate of shootings. But crime and race have a complicated relationship. A criminologist told us felonies are strongly tied to income and blacks are far more likely than whites to be poor.
We rated Medved’s claim Half True because his simple statement was correct but comparisons of that sort demand that you factor in population size.
Fox News host Bill O’Reilly was in more trouble with his claim because he used more specific numbers.
O’Reilly said 123 African-Americans and 326 white people were shot dead by police in 2012. O’Reilly said this in December, and as anyone who looked at the data knew by then, pinpoint accuracy was simply impossible. Neither the FBI nor the CDC numbers came close to a full body count.
But what took O’Reilly down another notch is that his figure of 326 white deaths was wrong. It included Hispanics. When we ran the numbers again for whites alone we found 227 deaths. O’Reilly overshot the white fatalities by about 40 percent.
We rated his claim Mostly False.
ISIS and Double A baseball
When cable show host Bill Maher argued that the beliefs and actions of Islamic State are not all that different from the core tenets of Islam practiced by Muslims around the world, actor Ben Affleck lept to the defense of Islam.
Affleck said that was an unfair generalization of Muslims, which number about 1.6 billion people and represent the world’s second-largest religion.
Affleck then used a tongue-in-cheek comparison to speak to the size of the Islamic State versus the number of Muslims worldwide. The terrorist army is also known as ISIS and ISIL.
"ISIS couldn't fill a Double A ballpark in Charleston, W. Va.," he said.
While we knew this was 90 percent rhetorical flourish, the reference to a ball team in West Virginia was so precise, we had to run it down.
Back in October when Affleck said this, the United States estimated the number of ISIS fighters at somewhere between 20,000 and 31,500.
Charleston is home to the West Virginia Power, a Class A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates since 2009.
The Power plays at Appalachian Power Park, which has a maximum seating capacity of 4,500 for baseball games. For charity events and concerts that would allow people onto the field, team’s marketing director told us the park could hold up to 11,000 people.
So even the lowest estimate of Islamic State fighters would be way too much for the stadium.
Sorry, Ben. Fact checkers are less forgiving than film fans. We rated the claim False.
Comparing immigration actions: Bush vs. Obama
On the eve of President Barack Obama’s unilateral move to protect an estimated 5 million immigrants from deportation, MSNBC host Rachel Maddow took aim at the Republicans who opposed it. Maddow called the GOP outrage "bogus," and contrasted it to Republican silence about 25 years ago.
In 1990, President George H. W. Bush, a Republican, by executive action forestalled deportations for about 1.5 million illegal immigrants -- or, at least, that was a widely reported estimate at the time of the announcement. Maddow said that represented about 40 percent of the total undocumented population in 1990.
"The executive action that president Obama is contemplating would also apply to about 40 percent of the undocumented population in this country," Maddow said on Nov. 17, 2014. "So it’s roughly on the same scale."
The numbers largely backed up Maddow’s statement and, initially, we rated it True. Later, we learned that other, lower, estimates were floating about in 1990, and we trimmed the rating to Mostly True.
You can never predict which fact check will strike a chord and this one caught us all by surprise. It drew twice as many eyeballs as the second most popular item.
An image on Facebook showed two women -- one in a bridal gown and the other in a suit -- kissing. It read, "That special moment when Foxnews.com uses a photo of a married couple promoting ‘traditional marriage’ and the photo is actually of a same-sex couple."
The picture was taken on Valentine’s Day 2012 by an Associated Press photographer. This was the first same-sex couple to be married at the Empire State Building.
Fox News confirmed that indeed, in early February 2013 it had used the photo as stated in the meme. Had there been any doubt, we also found a full screenshot by Gawker, and spoke to the columnist Jessica Valenti who first spotted the gaff.
We also verified that the item by activist Suzanne Venker on Foxnews.com did everything to promote "traditional marriage" except use the phrase itself. Society, said Venker, "eschews marriage."
Women have "been taught instead to honor sex, singlehood and female empowerment," she wrote.
Venker advocated a code that struck a definite chord of traditionalism. It was based on accepting the validity of norms from times gone by.
"Prior to the 1970s, people viewed gender roles as as (sic) equally valuable," Venker wrote. "Many would argue women had the better end of the deal! It’s hard to claim women were oppressed in a nation in which men were expected to stand up when a lady enters the room or to lay down their lives to spare a woman’s life."
Venker also happens to be the niece of Phyllis Schlafly, a long-time social conservative activist who opposes same-sex marriage. The two co-wrote a book attacking feminism.
Everything checked out on this claim and we rated it True. And the readers loved it.