Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

Mailbag: 'Change your name to PolitiOpinion'

A protest sign on the Occupy Providence site in Burnside Park.  The Providence Journal / Bob Thayer
A protest sign on the Occupy Providence site in Burnside Park. The Providence Journal / Bob Thayer

Clueless. Biased. Tools of the capitalist pigs.

These are among the kinder comments we received from readers who disagreed with PolitiFact Rhode Island’s Oct. 26 fact-check of a sign at the Occupy Providence encampment. Some of the others made the Truth-O-Meter blush.

The sign claimed that Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein earns in an hour what a minimum wage worker would earn in a year -- $16,000. We found that while minimum wage workers at 40 hours a week would make close to $16,000, the sign overstated Blankfein’s total compensation. In 2010, he earned $19.06 million, a not-too-shabby $9,165 per hour for a 40-hour week.

We acknowledged the validity of the sign’s message -- that CEOs make enormous sums of money while people at the bottom of the economic ladder are barely scraping by. But because the estimate of Blankfein’s hourly rate was so far off, we ruled the claim False.

The item drew a torrent of e-mails, Tweets and Facebook postings from all over the country and as far away as Cairo, Egypt. Most disagreed with our ruling; many questioned why we would bother to fact-check an anonymous sign.

So let us explain. The Occupy Wall Street movement has focused attention on big national issues, from the continuing anger over the financial bailouts to the huge wealth gap between the super rich and everyone else.

The Occupy Providence sign framed one of those issues in a pointed, provocative way. We knew that whatever we found, it would contribute to the discourse over the movement’s many messages.

In that vein, we thought we’d share a sample of what our readers thought, edited for space:

"By our own admission it actually takes the CEO about one hour and 45 minutes to earn that money," wrote David Moreau, of Lincoln, R.I. "While you state that [the point of] the protester’s sign is ‘well taken,’ you rate the statement False. Seriously? How about Mostly True. It would seem that the average reader would come to that conclusion."

"Have to change your name to PolitiOpinion if you are going to comment on the math of a protest sign," wrote Kevin Jamack, of North Providence, R.I. "If you were around in the 70s and 80s, would you rate the protest signs at nuke plants? 'Hell No We Won't Glow!' Would you give them a 'False' because no one actually glows?"

"Really, PolitiFact?" asked Jason Crockett, of Fleetwood, Pa. "When the average worker probably makes around $25/hr you’re going to say that estimating a CEO’s salary at $16,000/hr, when it’s really closer to $9,000/hr is False because it’s way off?" . . . It seems you should more fairly give it a 'Mostly True.' At the very least, you should fess up to the biases in your own conclusions."

"Perhaps the author of the protest sign is averaging Blankfein’s salary," wrote Ruth Julian, of Ashfield, Mass. "His $67.9 million in 2007 may well make the sign true. It is certainly true in spirit and you look very petty picking on a lone protester who may be math impaired, when your operation should be concentrating on the big lies."

"What’s your point?" asked Steve Stackhouse, of Indianapolis. "That Occupy protesters are math-challenged hippies, or what?"

But one reader said we were too gentle on Occupy Providence, arguing that our analysis -- based on a 40-hour work week, misrepresented the hours that CEOs work.

"You completely misranked Occupy Wall Street’s statement on Blankfein’s compensation. It should have been Pants on Fire," wrote Evan Zimmerman, of Los Angeles, Calif. "Your mistake was assuming a 40-hour work week for CEOs. That is not even close to correct. CEOs must meet with clients, do outside research, and spend a lot of their own free time planning."

Tell us what you like or don’t like about our rulings -- and suggest statements to check -- by visiting our our PolitiFact Rhode Island Facebook page or by emailing us at politifact@providencejournal.com.