Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Mailbag: "Why don't you move to the editorial section of the paper where opinion is expected?"

Our readers tell us what they think of our recent reports.
Our readers tell us what they think of our recent reports.

Since our January launch, we've received lots of reader feedback. We try to reply to every missive; regardless, we're always keen on seeing how people cotton to our ratings.

Here's our first readers' mailbag, a sampling what enlivens our inbox. These notes are edited for length and style.

White's record on taxes

Some readers howled at our May 2 Half True rating of Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bill White's statement that as mayor of Houston, he "cut tax rates five times." We'd acknowledged such lowered rates, while noting that because property values citywide went up at a faster pace, the average residential tax bill rose by an annual average of 4.8 percent from 2006 to 2009.

"I must take issue with your conclusion that Bill White's claim that he cut tax rates five times is only Half True. I have not seen the ad, but if, as you say, it states that White "cut tax rates five times," then it is completely true by your own admission. Cutting tax rates and cutting taxes are two different things. If White had claimed, instead, that he 'cut taxes,' then the statement would be False. That kind of mischaracterization is exactly what the column seems intended to track down."

Another reader chimed: "Look at it this way, if my electric company told me they were going to cut my rate, they did so, and (then) my bill the next month was higher because of increased usage, are they 'Half True?' Maybe PolitiFact (Texas) should stick to facts instead of, well, as a good Christian man I don"t want to write what I think you are doing."

Responding to a request

In April, we looked at Gov. Rick Perry's claim that he had a "1,000 National Guard troop request that's been in front of this president for over a year and no response." We rated that Half True, because while the Obama administration had responded, it was only to say that it was considering Perry's request. Some readers said we should have rated Perry's take as True.

"Today's rating of Gov. Perry's statement as Half True because the White House has responded is laughable. Absolutely no action has been taken, and that's what Perry was saying."

"I disagree with your Half True classification of Gov. Perry's troop request. Look in the Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedia: 'Response — to give an answer, reply. To ACT in reply or return; react.' So far all the governor has gotten is the runaround and no answer to his request — a yes or no! Your logic is so confluted it rates up there with Bill Clinton saying 'it means what the definiton of is is!' Please be more fair and balanced. It is so obvious if a liberal tells a bald-faced lie you will call it the truth and if a conservative says something you at best can only rate it Half True."

Another reader wrote saying we should have rated the statement False, er, "un-true."

"I believe this item should have been rated as un-true. Perry claimed no response for over a year — that is what his statement read. You showed that he in fact got several responses from different federal offices... I believe that Perry's statement is not true at all or whatever you call it on your meter. Please correct this oversight."

Act of God

Almost every correspondent thought we blew it rating True Perry's statement that Texas has used the phrase "act of God" in "legal terms for a long time in this state." Honest: We weren't rating whether or not the BP oil spill on the Gulf Coast was a cosmic punishment; we even cautioned as much in the article. Still, some readers thought that we were endorsing that characterization of the spill.

"So the oil spill was an 'act of God' because we don't yet know whether the company was negligent or the system was flawed? How many oil leaks, without oil well drillings at the site, in this world throughout histoy of man have there been? That should determine whether it's an act of God or an act of greed. I'll never trust PolitiFact again."

"As a matter of law, and as is fairly clear from your column, an act of God is not a mechanical or human failure. It is something like a storm, earthquake, etc. Possibly it could have been an act of God within the legal defiinition (ocean floor eathquake? volcano??) but it appears very unlikely. Perry's statement as quoted by you suggests that he is saying it is an act of God. That has to be untrue; we don't know... Thus, it should have been mostly false."

Registered Republicans

Also in April, we rated a statement by a philosophy professor at the University of Texas at Austin who waded into the State Board of Education brouhaha by writing a commentary for the Statesman's opinion section. In it, Professor Robert Koons wrote that "in the history department at the University of Texas, out of 50 registered voters, only one is Republican," a statement we rated False after rifling of Travis County voter registration records.

Some folks thought Professor Koons was close enough.

"OK, so Professor Koons wasn't 100 percent correct; however, I think your research proved that his point was more correct than false — the fact that the overwhelming majority of UT profs are liberal Democrats. So to say his statement is completely false is completely false (and shows your liberal bias). If you are trying to to 'sort out the truth in politics,' then you need to be more objective."

"How, can you rate something false when you CONFIRMED his point — lots of Democrats (40!) and only one pure Republican primary voter... By the way, if they voted in 2006 and 2008 for the Democrats and 2010 GOP primary, they are liberals. I have Democrat neighbors who voted in the GOP primary — trying to influence the election against Perry. These are hardcore liberal Dems. So the four swing voters are not Republicans. This needs to be rated TRUE. Your bias and flawed analysis is showing."

Others — including some history professors — thought we nailed it.

"I enjoyed the article on UT history profs and have a comment on the final source mentioned. George Mason University is noted for hiring conservative faculty in many of its departments. A result is the generation of learned complaints in academic gown that are not unlike Prof. Koons' original lament. I will bet you three beers to one that at least one of the two GMU profs is certifiably conservative. Could be both."

"I was very glad see the extensive analysis and correction you have now published. The original article was driven by ideological commitment and political purpose — to support the changes to textbooks in Texas. Dr. Koons has certainly played his part in contributing to the result he wanted to achieve. The fact that he did so by throwing mud at colleagues in another department appears not to trouble him. In his world, it seems, the end justifies the means... Let us hope that the standards of evidence that satisfy Dr. Koons are not typical of his department. Otherwise, we shall all have to conclude that philosophy is too important to be left to philosophers."

Newspaper bias

PolitiFact Texas is a nonpartisan fact-checking project here at the Austin American-Statesman. Some readers still aren't convinced.

"Just in case you thought you might be fooling anyone, the Austin American-Statesman is a leftist rag, has always been a leftist rag, will always be a leftist rag. So there."

"Who selects the PolitiFacts to be analyzed? I noticed of the past nine reviews, eight have targeted conservative people or organizations. Guess no 'left-leaning' comments are available, or all comments they state are totally true. What a sad commentary and pitiful testimony to the fairness of the Austin American-Statesman."

"You seem to have a way of projecting quite a bit of your own opinion in your columns. Why don't you move to the editorial section of the paper where opinion is expected?"

Call to action

Unhappy with the statements we rate? Please share anything that might bear a close review. Our e-mail address is politifact@statesman.com.

Readers routinely pitch in. In April, for instance, we looked into a claim by U.S. Rep. John Carter, R-Round Rock. Carter said the congressionally-approved health-care reform law delivers a "$13 billion tax increase on families with special needs" — a statement we learned of after a reader wrote: "Rep. Carter has been sending out negative statements about the new federal health care reform law on his Facebook page, and this one seemed particularly obvious to be wrong, but I didn't know where to go to check it out."

We rated Carter's statement Pants on Fire (as in ridiculous).

Praise

We get the last word here, so we'll make it a positive one. Or two.

"Your investigative reporting is excellent, very thorough, and even handed. This is good, old-style journalism."

"I wanted to congratulate the paper on the PolitiFact column. This is real journalism. This is the press at its best. This holds everyone accountable. Thanks."