Wednesday, October 1st, 2014

Mailbag: "You are just another blah-blah blog"

The annual White House Easter Egg Roll is set for Monday. This year's theme -- "Ready, Set Go!" -- promotes health and fitness.
The annual White House Easter Egg Roll is set for Monday. This year's theme -- "Ready, Set Go!" -- promotes health and fitness.

We've gotten a lot of reader feedback recently. Here's a selection from our e-mail in-box, Facebook, and Twitter, edited for style and length.

Tom Coburn on health care reform

We got a few complaints about our rating of Sen. Tom Coburn's statement, "The American people will be appalled to learn the health care bill exempts (congressional) leadership and committee staff." We rated his statement Mostly True. A clause in the bill that requires members of Congress their staff to buy insurance on new health insurance exchanges could be interpreted to leave out leadership and committee staff.

"The premier fact-checking website got this one wrong. Members of Congress and their staffers can get health insurance through their employer, the same way that most Americans get their insurance. Anybody (perhaps some congressional staff) allowed to continue this practice is no more 'exempt' from the health bill than all the other Americans in this category, and certainly nobody is claiming that most Americans are exempt from the health bill! In addition, anybody (members of Congress and at least some of their staff) who is forced by the bill to give up their employer-provided health insurance, and therefore forced to buy insurance on a state exchange -- or pay a tax for not having insurance -- is not exempt. Thus, no members of Congress, and no members of their staff, are exempt from the health bill. PolitiFact simply got confused by the confused claims of the purveyors of this lie. Either you believe most Americans are exempt from the bill, because they have employer-provided insurance, or you believe none of the targets of this charge are exempt."

"Surely, this is an error. Please note the basic grammar of this sentence: 'The American people will be appalled...' You are in effect rating 'Mostly True' the assertion that the American people will be appalled. As you are in the nonpartisan analysis business and not clairvoyance, you cannot know how the American people will react. (This American shrugged his shoulders and said 'so what?'). Please rephrase your item: '...the health care bill exempts (congressional) leadership and committee staff.' You have excised the spin out of quotes before, surely to leave this item as is would be to embrace the bias it implies."

The longest wars

Another reader commented  on our report about how long the Iraq war has lasted. Newsman Bob Schieffer said it has been our longest war, but we found that is not the case. We rated his statement False.

"I just want to question the use of the word 'war' in both the media in general, and on your site. Technically, since Congress has not declared any war since World War II, we are neither at 'war' in Afghanistan nor Iraq. I would like to see this corrected, frankly, everywhere; but realistically, on your site, which is one of few that I admire. Would you consider qualifying any statement regarding 'war' with a correction that technically and legally, we are not at 'war'? I think it's dangerous for us to forget that what we are doing is by no means legally considered 'war'. 'Military action'? yes. 'Military intervention'? Sure. But not war."

Another reader on Facebook pointed out that we didn't mention some low-level conflicts that continued even longer than the Revolutionary War, the Vietnam war or the Afghanistan war, which we named as lasting longer than the Iraq war.

"I'd throw in another, the post-Civil War Indian campaigns (think Geronimo, Wounded Knee, Custer's Last Stand, etc.) which went on for decades or, depending on your politics and perspective, centuries, and are now considered in military history and planning circles a model for certain types of counterinsurgency operations. ... The real history of U.S. military operations is actually far more mundane, low-intensity conflicts punctuated by the occasional major war or campaign as featured in TV or the movies, although those are the types of wars we have recently become good at fighting."

In an interesting side note, reporter Louis Jacobson's original draft did include this point, but it was edited for length. (Those persnickety editors!) We've published the extra information from his original draft on our blog for those who are interested.

How much detail?


In fact, we regularly wrestle with how much detail to include our reports. Readers have different opinions, too.

One reader wanted more on estimates published by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which analyzes the cost of pending legislation:

"I would love to see more caveats of just about all polls, economic estimates, etc. I not only want to hear what the experts say and think, but also any fundamental weaknesses to methodologies, analysis, conclusions, axioms, etc. I personally think it's important to take everything with 'a grain of salt.' All and all though, keep up the great work! I love the site and visit very regularly."

Another reader said we fussed too much over minor differences, citing the example of tax cuts and tax credits. (See our previous mailbag for a different view.)

"A tax credit is, by definition, a tax cut. Changing the definition to meet the results of your truth analysis is disingenuous. I notice that you frequently put so many qualifiers, what if's and assumptions into your analysis that the verdict is meaningless. Please stick to the facts."

'Deem and pass'

We fact-checked a statement from Rep. Cliff Stearns, who said of the health care reconciliation bill, "There is no precedent for what the Democrats are doing with this deception. ... We have never written a reconciliation bill to amend a law that does not exist." We found that the maneuver was new but rooted in established procedures, so we rated his statement Half True.

"It seems to me that Rep. Cliff Stearns' statement, which you deem to be Half True, is, in fact, entirely true. What he said was that there is no precedence for writing a reconciliation bill for a law that does not exist. As you state in your response to his statement, 'Stearns is correct that this is the first time Congress has ever written a reconciliation bill to amend a law that does not exist.' This sentence confirms the full accuracy of Stearns' claim, and yet in the very next sentence, you say he is only half right. ... Seems to me he is 100 percent correct."

Serious or just kidding?

One reader said we were missing a funny bone when it came to our report on Rush Limbaugh's statement that Obama wants to ban fishing. We rated his statement Pants on Fire.

"I'm not going to claim you are biased or anything like that because I do not know how you go about choosing the statements you debunk of particular pundits, but it does seem you debunk a lot of the right wing talk show hosts on stupid lines that if you heard them while being said in the context they were said, there would be no reason to debunk them. So I'd like to request that you actually listen to these shows occasionally and debunk the serious lines. ... Like the Rush Limbaugh one where you had him claiming SERIOUSLY that Obama banned fishing and hunting. I heard that show. He wasn't serious. Thank you so much and keep up the good work as far as keeping the politicians in DC in check. Just try a little harder to debunk actual claims, not joke ones."

A suggestion for the Obameter

A reader suggests that Obama should get leeway for campaign promises made before the economy soured at the end of 2008. We rate Obama's promises for fulfillment on our Obameter.

"I think it would be more fair to distinguish the promises he made on the campaign trail before we knew the economy was going to fall off a cliff and after we found out we'd be in for tough times. I think it would be more fair for anybody's meter now or in the future whether they're conservative or liberal. To draw a comparison, if I told my child I'd send him to college and the year before he gets there I spend all my money on health bills to beat my cancer, maybe it would be fair to say I broke my promise, but I don't think it would be right to say it."

The health care chain e-mail

Last summer, we reported on a chain-e-mail that purported to be a line-by-line analysis of the health care bill -- but was filled with inaccuracies. It received new attention in the final days of the health care debate.

"Thank goodness I found your Web site through Snopes. Since the middle of last year I have received three versions of this e-mail that purports to expose the dangers of the health care bill, line by line. ... I was so disturbed by what was being offered as the truth that I went to the government Web site and read the first 500 pages of the House bill myself, only to discover what you have published by Angie Drobnic Holan in July of 2009 was exactly what I found. In short, many of the references were not even on the page cited, and most others were just plain lies, or distortions that were cleared up in the next paragraph in the bill, but, of course, not pointed out in the e-mail. . . . In each case I have responded to the sender of the e-mails indicating how untruthful the information is that he/she is passing on, based on my reading of the bill's first 500 pages. Not once have the senders thanked me, or even replied, and they keep sending the stuff. Reading your analysis has reinvigorated me. Now I have a factual, unbiased document to pass along, not just my own interpretation of my reading of the bill. If you have released a more recent document please let me know and keep up the good work!"

But another reader said we weren't considering the reality of politics in our reporting that illegal immigrants do not receive new benefits under health care reform.

"If the administration passes an amnesty plan for the illegal immigrants, they will be citizens and will get health care. This administration does want to enact some type of amnesty legislation. In a two-step sense – first, grant amnesty and citizenship and second, grant health care, the current illegal immigrants will receive health care. I do not believe this has been taken into account in the cost of the health care reform."

Tired of getting chain e-mails

One reader sent us this comment on how she felt about receiving chain e-mails from her friends.

"This country is being torn apart by hate politics. I liked it so much better when I had friends that I did not know what party they belonged to and did not care. I pray to God this hate will stop and America will not be divided so much by it. I do not approve of everything this president is doing, but I think he is a smart, caring man who is not out to simply 'destroy America.' He will make mistakes, as do all of them. We desperately need health care. People are dying without it, and no, not everything can be taken care of at the ER and welfare. Since I turned 65 I have enjoyed my Medicare. (Government insurance!) I believe insurance companies are the biggest 'death panels' we have."

Biased, biased, biased


Readers who don't like our rulings often complain about bias. Here's one from the left on our rating of John Boehner's statement, "Our national debt . . . is on track to exceed the size of our entire economy . . . in just two more years." We rated that True.

"Boehner is just playing the usual GOP game of fear mongering. It's sad to see you helping to spread misinformation. In fact, your whole site reads like an offshoot of Fox News."

On the other hand, we hear the charge a lot more from readers defending the right:

"So basically, all left-wing pundits are truthful while conservative pundits are inaccurate or liars. Yep, you are soooooo unbiased. Just another tentacle in the Democratic State Controlled Media Establishment."

"What makes you so right? I don't believe you any more than I believe Obama!"

"Why are most of the Pants on Fire folks conservatives? Liberals pretty much just tell the truth, eh? Just can't help yourself can you? It is why you are just another blah, blah, blog (or whatever this is supposed to be)."

"Just perusing the first three pages of 'Statements we say are Pants on Fire!' and of the 60 or so items rated, only four are liberal/progressive/Democrat, remainder are conservative/Republican statements. The disparity is eye-opening. I had thought your handling/rating of the President’s comments to be too often giving the benefit of the doubt, but with this observation, it is apparent that you're not as unbiased as you represent."

Words of praise

We also get some complimentary e-mails.

"Thanks for being one of the few organizations doing your constitutional duty under Freedom of the Press."

"I just wanted to pass along to you that I appreciate the work that you have done in sorting through the truth on the health care debate (and other issues). As a fiercely moderate person, it helps to have a trustworthy, nonpartisan source shed some light on some of the major talking points being used today."

"I really appreciate the easy-to-understand summaries you put together on the Democratic and Republican health care proposals. The 'What's controversial' section was especially helpful. Thanks again for your efforts. What you do really matters!"

And we get pats on the back from people on Twitter:

"I find myself reflexively running to @politifact every time I read anything (esp. op-eds) about health care, from either side. Is that bad?"

"I might not be unbiased, but this terrific site is: http://politifact.com/"

"Quite possibly the best Web site ever. http://www.politifact.com/"