Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

Readers give us our first report card

Some criticism, with a little praise, in the latest mailbag.
Some criticism, with a little praise, in the latest mailbag.

Rhode Islanders aren't shy about voicing their opinions on matters big and small. This is, after all, the state where legislators nearly came to blows over whether jonnycakes should be made with milk or water.

In the two months since we launched PolitiFact Rhode Island, many readers have called or e-mailed to tell us what they think of our work -- and of us.

Some have left phone messages thanking us for our fact-checking efforts; others have been less kind, including one gentleman who warned that our souls were in mortal danger because of items we did on illegal immigration.

From time to time, we'll share the feedback, both positive and negative. Here are some recent samples from our mailbag.

Several readers and bloggers took issue with an item we did on David Segal, a  Democrat running for Congress in the 1st District. We found Segal's claim that he "passed legislation" cracking down on the big Wall Street banks to be Barely True.

While most of the item focused on the legislation Segal cited, many critics homed in on one paragraph at the end, in which we chided Segal for saying that he "passed legislation," noting that no one legislator can pass legislation alone.

"Give him more credit," wrote Chris Erway, of Providence. "My understanding was that Segal is one of the few state reps who actually bother to write & negotiate legislation (especially slightly-more-"progressive" bits of it) and that everyone else pretty much votes with party leadership."

Other readers took us to task for our examination of claims involving the Blue Cross headquarters in downtown Providence. Democrats Bill Lynch, a candidate for Congress, and Stephen Archambault, who is running for attorney general, both alleged that the nonprofit health-care giant spent lavishly on furnishings for its new office tower. Our Truth-O-Meter gave each statement a Pants on Fire ruling.

"What on earth are you doing?" asked Myra Mercier, of Foster. "I am an unaffiliated voter who has absolutely no use for RI politicians, but to call those who have enough guts to run for office [Pants on Fire] re Blue Cross, you have to be kidding. . . Particularly, since Blue Cross is not forthcoming with any refutation of charges being leveled against them."

For the record, we attempted to verify both claims, going so far as to tour the Blue Cross building (although Blue Cross, citing patient confidentiality, did not allow us to see every room). We found nothing to support the statements. More important, neither of the candidates could back up his claim. Lynch's campaign acknowledged it was a guess; Archambault's campaign cited an anonymous source, who didn't respond when contacted for more information.

Our item on a YouTube video purporting to show President Obama admitting he is not a citizen drew mixed reaction.

"I wanted to tell you that I appreciate you guys taking on the 'TRUTH MATTERS' video," said one reader.

But others thought we were wasting our time -- and theirs -- on what they regarded as absurd claims.

An example: "I am increasingly disappointed with the subjects of your Truth-O-Meter, especially the silly Obama stuff," said defense lawyer Gerard Donley, of Cranston. "With local elections around the corner, you should be focusing on genuinely important campaign claims and whether they're truthful. Don't waste such a valuable asset on junk."

Our item on Republican John Robitaille's claim that some of the problems at Rhode Island's Department of Motor Vehicles were the result of union rules also prompted opposing comments. We rated Robitaille's claim that untrained cooks helpers had been hired at DMV because of union rules as Half True.

"Many thanks for the article regarding the DMV, which particularly annoys me because it represents epic failure on the Carcieri administration and simple disregard for the average Rhode Islander. For Robitaille to assign partial blame to the union for that mess is mindnumbing," wrote Steven Humphrey, of East Providence.

But Larry Buteau, of North Providence, said we didn't back up our assertion that the cooks helpers were required to meet education and experience requirements to get hired at the DMV.

"I was amazed at your ability to stretch your version of the facts to fit your opinion in this article. It took you almost a half page,” he wrote.

Several readers tweaked us for our Truth-O-Meter rating on a statement from Bill Clegg, a Republican running for Congress, who said the U.S. deficit was increasing at $3 million per second. We rated his claim False.

The readers didn't take issue with the ruling; rather, they scolded Clegg -- and us -- for using imprecise language.

Deficit is the amount of spending that exceeds revenue in a given period; debt is the total amount owed. Thanks to the sharp-eyed readers, we corrected the item. We are in your debt.

Some readers accused us of being too conservative; others called us flaming liberals. Some said we pick on Republicans; others said we're too tough on Democrats. So far, PolitiFact Rhode Island has published 31 items -- 15 on Democrats, 9 on Republicans, 5 on statements made by independent Lincoln Chafee or by foes attacking him, and 1 each on a talk-show host and a chain e-mail..

Mostly, readers have expressed appreciation for any attempt to determine whether politicians are telling the truth.

"I wanted to take a moment to write and say how much I enjoy reading PolitiFact," wrote Mark Poirier, of Pawtucket. "It's nice to have a party that's outside the pols purview analyzing the situation. . . Anyway, thanks for keeping us informed. It helps voters make informed decisions"

Thank you, Mark.

If you want to sound off on a PolitiFact item, or if you hear a statement that cries out for the Truth-O-Meter test, don't be shy. Contact us at politifact@projo.com.

As for the jonnycakes, it's been said that folks in the East Bay make theirs with cold milk, while those in South County use nothing but white flint corn and boiling water. Maybe we should put that to the Truth-0-Meter.