Sunday, September 21st, 2014

Mailbag: Modern patriots or 'puff pastry'?

Some readers think we're really sweet!
Some readers think we're really sweet!

Our new partnership --  fact-checking the guests on ABC's This Week -- generated a good bit of feedback, as did PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair's appearance on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report last week. Here's a bit of what we heard, as well as some correspondence we got on recent items from e-mail, Facebook and Twitter. As always, messages are edited for style and length.

The Colbert Report


When Stephen Colbert indignantly asked on his April 14, 2010 show, "Who are these PolitiFact guys?" he apparently wasn't the only one who hadn't heard of us. And we were thrilled at the opportunity to introduce ourselves to new readers. Here's one who has us on a short leash:

"Just LOVE your site. Found it after your Colbert interview. It seems to really try to get at the truth and not push either aisle's political views. I hope that first impression isn't wrong!"

Said another:

"It was a pleasure to see you on The Colbert Report and put a face to someone who still seeks the truth."

For the record, that face was Bill Adair, editor and creator of PolitiFact. No, those glasses are not a prop. And yes, he's aware that some people think he looks like Al Franken.

And here's one from someone who wants to know which way we swing, politically.

"I heard about this website on The Colbert Report last night and I was wondering what political party or thinking does this website lean to. What I am really asking is, are you guys biased?"

Here's another version of the question from another reader: "Do you consider yourselves more left leaning or right leaning? Especially the people who write the explanations under the 'Truth-O-Meter'? And please don't say 'we are neutral', no one is neutral unless they are ignorant."

We've answered this question a few times on the site, but we think it bears repeating. The short answer is that we are a nonpartisan site and that we are a project of the St. Petersburg Times (St. Petersburg, Fla., not Russia, as Colbert joked). But for the full story, check out this memo we posted on the site last year, "Who is PolitiFact? Who pays for Politifact?."

ABC News' This Week

As you may have seen on the site, we are two weeks into an experiment to fact-check the guests on ABC's This Week. A bunch of people wrote to us to praise the move. But they weren't always thrilled with our rulings.

One item that got a lot of response was our fact-check related to a WikiLeaks video. The video showed American soldiers in an Apache helicopter opening fire on a group of men on a Baghdad street, which seriously injured two children and resulted in the deaths of two Reuters journalists who were mistaken for insurgents. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on This Week, "The video doesn't show the broader picture of the firing that was going on at American troops." We rated his statement Mostly True, based in part on the recollection of Washington Post reporter David Finkel, who was embedded with the battalion in question.

"You use Finkel as a guy who was embedded with bravo company as your source," one reader wrote to us. "Any journalist knows embedding was a stupid idea. The media coverage before and during the Iraq war is an example of how well embedding works...We all now know the lies that were in the initial investigation have been exposed (you have read the original report I hope) by the video. Watch the film clip of the Iraqi people who at that time were interviewed immediately after the incident and it completely matches what the wiki video shows and isn't even in the same ballpark as what the original American investigation claimed...Soldiers have to kill to survive but when a Good Samaritan is shot trying to help a downed reporter and these wimps in the helicopters were to afraid to fly a little closer to make sure the people they were killing were guilty of something, then good honest journalists need to step up. Somebody in PolitiFact needs to step up and change your assessment of Gates statement as patently false. PS Was watching Colbert Report and heard your guy say that we the readers are your watchdog, well, woof woof."

Said another: "The problem with going for Mostly True is that you are counting on the honesty of the military which has, over and over, lied to cover up the killing of unarmed civilians. Giving the military the benefit of any doubts that might exist, they have been wrong, over and over. Why use their report for fact-checking?...Also, one major function of using 'embedded' reporters is that they empathize with an invading/occupying army: because they are running the same risks and seeing things from the saw perspective...That you call this 'Mostly True,' is a failure to really check facts."

Another reader took issue with our item on Sen. Charles Schumer's claim on This Week that no one questioned that then Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor was out of the mainstream. We rated that one False.

One reader buttered us up a bit before whacking us over the head.

"First, I am very, very happy that ABC is asking you to fact check their Sunday program. I hope every network does it. We have dealt with unchallenged lies for too long, on all sides. However, in your April 11 fact checking of Sen. Schumer speaking of Judge Sotomayor, you quoted and checked 'no one questioned that she was out of the mainstream.' I think this sentence means that everyone believed that she was out of the mainstream, no? You seemed, to me, to misread the original statement when you said you found several who said she was out of the mainstream. Indeed, I am surprised that any Republican was caught saying she might be within the mainstream. Therefore, your checking ended up implying that only a few Republicans were found who said she was out of the mainstream. That's two small slips, in my reading of what was said and checked."

And lastly, a reader wanted to know why we seemed to be ignoring the panelists who come on after the guests.

"I am very happy seeing fact checking used by This Week. However, I was particularly looking forward to the roundtable pundits being checked. Is this not part of the agreement and if not, why not?"

Our arrangement with This Week is focused on the public officials who take part in the newsmaker segments, but we'll continue to check the journalists who take part in the show's roundtable. We've been checking those claims for more than a year. You can find them on our Pundits page. If you hear a claim by a pundit -- on This Week or any other show -- that you think we should check, please e-mail us a truthometer@politifact.com.

Broken promise on taxes

A few readers let us know they were unhappy with our decision to rate as Broken Obama's promise that no family making less than $250,000 a year will see any form of tax increase. Some thought we were being unfair to Obama by including taxes for smokers, tanning aficionados and the happily uninsured -- all of whom could be making less than $250,000 a year.

But other readers thought we left a few more out:

"In addition to cigarette, tanning, and individual mandate taxes, how about these two: Maximum contribution to before-tax flex spending accounts is lowered from $5000 to $2500, increasing taxable income, and therefore taxes; and health care expenses must now total $10,000 instead of the previous $7,500 to be deductible, so those who spend between the two figures will now pay more in taxes. With these two changes, regardless of income level, even if a person's income doesn't increase one thin dime from the previous year, he could owe more in taxes."

Tax cuts

Several writers thought we blew the call in an item on Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., who claimed that in the past year we have had more tax cuts than almost any time in our nation's history. We rated that one Half True.

"Hard to see what your standard is when you give Steven Cohen a Half True for his conditional statement about tax cuts in the past year (2009) and fault him for not mentioning tax increases in 2010 which won't take effect for several years. You didn't address Sarah Palin's twist on the Tax Foundation statistic when she says we spent 100 days 'working for the government before we start working for ourselves,' yet called it Mostly True. Her statement suggests that we get no benefits from our taxes, which is of course, false. Isn't paying taxes for national defense working for ourselves? I realize you have to bend over backwards with some of the most outlandish conservative claims so that you maintain your appearance of fairness, but your standards in these two cases were clearly unfair. Cohen makes a statement to counter the widespread disbelief that Americans got tax cuts in 2009 and Sarah Palin spins a disputable analysis of our tax burden and makes it seem that we get no benefits from out taxes. Which was the more irresponsible statement?"

Millionaires club?

Several also took issue with our story on a claim by Newt Gingrich, that when the United States "first created the federal income tax, frankly, nobody below a million dollars a year paid anything."

One reader thought our False rating wasn't enough.

"But, gang... really. This isn't wrong, it's Pants on Fire wrong. You bent over backwards, forwards, sideways, stretched figures almost to the breaking point in his favor, parsed his words, and fact-checked 'what he meant' (ie, a 2010 million in 1913 dollars) instead of what he SAID. That is, he said that '...frankly, no one below a million dollars a year paid anything.' Even by fishtailing around his statements so much that I got seasick, you still had to rule False on this. Because it is. But why give him a six-mile running start? He said 'a million dollars' and that's the amount he intended the audience to understand. No weaseling. It's either a deliberate falsehood, or a very cavalier attitude towards the facts. I'd just like to bring in guest commentator Joe Wilson to comment: 'YOU LIE!' (Thank you Joe, now go back to sleep.) Pants on Fire, guys. And your behineys may be a little smokey, too."

The Haters

Lest you worry that our heads got too big from being on The Colbert Report, we've got this one to bring us back down to earth (on the near anniversary of our Pulitzer win no less):

"You're all glitz. How on EARTH did you get a Pulitzer? I suppose that's a comment on how far the Pulitzer has fallen, and not a comment on you. Happily, in my frustration I did discover FactCheck.org. No Pulitzer, but they actually check the facts. You deserve to rate yourselves your own Pants on Fire. I don't see you as 'partisan,' but you are puff pastry."

The Lovers

And because we get the last word, a few bits of praise:

"I really appreciate all the hard work you're doing. There is an amazing amount of disinformation in modern political discourse, and I regularly send people to you and Annenberg's FactCheck.org when discussing politics. You are doing the job that the founders of our country had in mind when protecting the Fourth Estate with the First Amendment, and I consider you among our best modern patriots."

"I watch political pundits nightly on CNN, MSNBC and FOX and I am increasingly astonished by the 'facts' given on some shows. I hold the utmost respect for PolitiFact, and I can't express enough how appreciative I am that someone is checking the facts on all fronts: right and the left. However, I beg of you, check the facts on pundits more often. They are spewing tripe nightly, and middle America is left scooping it up."

"Wow, thank you so much for renewing the higher angels of a 'free press'. I am so tired of talking heads and news editorials that somewhere along the line the prime objective of the news media became more about something other than 'the facts'. Maybe between the current great news satirists and credible sources like yourself, you can jump start momentum for news credibility being the norm and not the exception."