Monday, December 22nd, 2014

Our favorite pundit fact-checks of 2010

Bill O'Reilly told Jon Stewart that the Daily Show audience is "primarily stoner slackers who love Obama."
Bill O'Reilly told Jon Stewart that the Daily Show audience is "primarily stoner slackers who love Obama."

We spent much of 2010 focused on the campaigns, but we also continued to fact-check some important players in American politics: pundits and talk show hosts.

They spoke up on the biggest issues -- the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, health care, immigration and the Elena Kagan Supreme Court confirmation -- and we put many of their claims to the Truth-O-Meter.

Here's some of our favorite pundit fact-checks of the year. You can also review all our checks on our pundit page.

1) Glenn Beck: "The government is trying to now close the Lincoln Memorial for any kind of large gatherings." Our ruling: Pants on Fire.

No political pundit this year was hotter than Glenn Beck. Not only did the Tea Party he inspired become a serious force in American politics, but the Fox News Channel host had enough pull to attract tens or hundreds of thousands of people (depending on which sources you believe) to Washington D.C. for his "Restoring Honor" rally last summer. While hyping the rally on his radio show, Beck ominously warned the government was trying to close the Lincoln Memorial for large gatherings, and that his rally might be the last. "Historic," said Beck. "Nonsense," said park officials. "There is zero basis for his claim," said Margie Ortiz, a National Park Service spokeswoman. We rated the claim Pants on Fire. But we also gave a True rating to a statistic Beck used to underpin one of the central themes of his show this year: that the Democrats in power in Washington were spending too much money. The claim: "The federal government is now on track" for the second-largest budget deficit "in 65 years."

2) Michael Savage: Elena Kagan is "a New York City radical, Marxist lawyer through and through." Our ruling: Pants on Fire.

For a few weeks this year, the debate over President Obama's nominee for the Supreme Court, Elena Kagan dominated the political news cycles. In his criticism of the pick, conservative radio commentator Michael Savage hit on a popular theme among conservative pundits: calling opponents socialists. Savage pinned this claim about Kagan on her senior thesis at Princeton entitled, "To the Final Conflict: Socialism in New York City, 1900-1933." We read the entirety of the 153-page senior thesis submitted by Kagan in April 1981 and found the dispassionate academic tone of a historian, not a personal endorsement of socialism.

The oil spill from a deepwater well operated by BP, which spilled into the Gulf of Mexico for three months before being capped in mid-July, was more than an environmental issue, it also was an intensely political one. Pundits came at the oil spill from all angles, and we picked these three representative claims:

3) Rush Limbaugh: Alaska's Prince William Sound "is pristine now." Our ruling: False.

With hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil a day still spewing into the Gulf, forming a slick the size of West Virginia and threatening the coastline of Louisiana, radio pundit Rush Limbaugh told everyone to relax, that "the ocean will take care of this on its own." To make his point, Limbaugh pointed to the restoration of Alaska's Prince William Sound, which was devastated by an oil spill from the Exxon Valdez 21 years ago. "The place is pristine now," Limbaugh said. Turns out, it's not. You may not be able to see it, but scientists and anyone willing to turn over rocks with a shovel attest to the fact that thousands of gallons of oil remain buried in some beaches, and the oil continues to adversely affect the environment 21 years later.

4) Ed Schultz: "Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu received almost $1.8 million from BP over the last decade." Our ruling: Pants on Fire.

Contributions from BP quickly became political baggage, and led to a number of incorrect claims like the one here from Ed Schultz, the liberal host of MSNBC's Ed Show. Data from OpenSecrets.org, a website that tracks campaign contributions, showed that between 2000 and 2009, BP employees and the company's political action committee contributed just $25,200 to Landrieu. Big difference.

5) Bill Maher: "Brazil got off oil in the last 30 years." Our ruling: False.

The oil spill sparked a lot of debate about America's dependence on oil. On ABC's This Week, liberal commentator Bill Maher sparred with conservative columnist George Will over the issue of being more aggressive about renewable energy. Maher used Brazil as a prime example of how to do it. We checked into it and found that while Brazil aggressively uses biofuels, and invests quite a bit in hydroelectric power, it still produces and consumes a lot of oil. In fact, in 2008, Brazil ranked No. 7 on the list of the world's countries that consume the most oil.

6) Limbaugh: There are "high administrative costs" when you donate to Haiti relief through the White House Web site. Our ruling: Pants on Fire.

After an earthquake hit Haiti in early January, Limbaugh made a series of controversial claims about the disaster, which killed tens of thousands and devastated the infrastructure and institutions of the poor Caribbean nation. He said Obama's administration would use the quake to "build 'credibility' with the black community -- in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country." He said Americans have "already donated to Haiti. It's called the U.S. income tax." And last, he warned that donating money to Haiti relief through Whitehouse.gov would be watered down with high administrative costs. We found that the White House site was simply acting as a pass-through, posting links to groups that earn generally positive ratings.

7) Maddow: Marco Rubio's "economic proposals will add $3.5 trillion to the federal deficit." Our ruling: Mostly True.

When liberal MSNBC television host Rachel Maddow and conservative Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio got into a multimedia tit-for-tat over tax cuts and the federal deficit -- all set to a background of peppy elevator music, winks and clever one-liners -- we couldn't resist jumping into the fray. When Maddow made this claim on her TV show, Rubio fired back with a sarcastic web ad (and Maddow responded with a parody of that ad). In this war on the Web, we found Maddow's claim was mostly accurate.The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office says that extending the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts, repealing the estate tax and continuing to adjust the Alternative Minimum Tax for inflation will increase the federal deficit $3.4 trillion between now and 2020.

8) Arianna Huffington: Halliburton defrauded American taxpayers of "hundreds of millions of dollars in Iraq." Our ruling: Half True.

This was probably our most controversial pundit ruling of 2010. When Huffington, founder of the liberal Huffington Post, got into a heated disagreement with conservative pundit Liz Cheney on ABC's This Week, we jumped into action. It was complex issue, and we concluded that while there was a lot of waste, it was difficult to prove that large of an amount of fraud. Huffington was none too pleased with our Half True ruling and fired back with a column calling it absurd and ludicrous. Moreover, she said, our "attempt to bend over backwards to find the comfort of the middle ground is part of the problem (PolitiFact) was presumably formed to combat."

9) Bill O'Reilly: "We researched to find out if anybody on Fox News had ever said you're going to jail if you don't buy health insurance. Nobody's ever said it." Our ruling: Pants on Fire.

Despite a specific provision in the health care law that prohibits criminal prosecution of people who refuse to buy health insurance, the claim that people could go to prison for refusing to buy health insurance has persisted among some staunch opponents of the law. When Sen. Tom Coburn, a conservative Oklahoma Republican, accused Fox News of perpetuating the misinformation, O'Reilly claimed Fox News was being used as a "whipping boy" and that nobody at Fox ever said that. We found four instances, including on the Beck and Hannity shows.

Which brings us to...

10. O'Reilly: "A Democratic poll operation shows that Fox News is the most trusted news operation in the country." Our ruling: True.

Jon Stewart's appearance O'Reilly's show in February was one of the most entertaining sparring matches of the year. Stewart came out swinging, saying that Fox News "through their cyclonic perpetual emotion machine -- 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- they've taken reasonable concerns about the president and this economy and turned it into a full-fledged panic attack about the next coming of Chairman Mao." O'Reilly fired back that a recent poll had shown that Fox was the most trusted news operation in the country. The poll, which was in fact done by a group that works for Democrats, asked whether respondents trusted various news operations. And Fox came out with the highest percentage who said yes -- 49 percent. A closer look shows that Fox came out on top because Republicans and conservatives really trust Fox while Democrats and liberals generally trust CNN and the major networks, but not as much as conservatives trust Fox. In fact, among self-described moderates, Fox was also the least trusted network. But O'Reilly correctly said that a Democratic poll operation showed that Fox News was the most trusted news operation in the country. When you're right, you're right.