Wednesday, October 22nd, 2014

Mailbag: 'What's wrong with you people?'

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

We got lots of e-mails and messages from readers this month. Here are selections edited for length and style.

Dale Peterson and Vietnam


The Alabama agriculture commission may not be a big job, but we fact-checked candidate Dale Peterson because of his attention-grabbing political ad.

We heard from several readers, though, who disliked our appraisal of Peterson's statement that he was "a Marine during Vietnam." We rated that statement Barely True because we reasoned all but the most attentive people would assume if you said you served in the Marines "during Vietnam" that you served in the Marines in Vietnam. Peterson actually served in the 1960s in San Juan, Puerto Rico; LeJeune, N.C.; and Parris Island, S.C. Readers told us we were off base.

"I think you're wrong on this one. He never stated he served in Vietnam – he stated he was in the Marines during Vietnam, and that's completely true. My brother enlisted in the Marines during Vietnam, knowing there was a very high likelihood that he would go to Vietnam. What the military does with you is out of your control. I think enlisting in the service during a war is admirable; whether you actually fight in the war, again, is not within the enlistee's control."

"Just because something can be misconstrued as misleading does not make it a lie or even a half-truth as you put it. The man said 'during' Vietnam. There were plenty of men and women who served during that war but not in that war. And they can make that claim. Just because some people are not paying attention to his words he shouldn't be beaten up about it. How is it you are somehow granted the intuitive ability to know what is or was in someone's head or heart?"

"I think rating a true statement Barely True because people may draw their own wrong conclusion is a bad precedent. Mostly True would have been a better rating since the statement itself is 100% true and there is a slight chance that someone could draw the wrong conclusion. Barely True seems like a rating that should be used when there is a small nugget of truth in an otherwise whopping lie - it is one step up from False on your meter after all. I think you guys need to stay above the fray and you usually do a good job of that - but I think this rating is misplaced."

Republicans and the Civil Rights Act

Readers also disliked that we gave a True rating to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, for his statement on ABC News' This Week that the Republican Party "fought very hard in the '60s to get the civil rights bill passed, as well as the voting rights bill." Steele was responding to questions about comments on the Civil Rights Act from Senate candidate Rand Paul of Kentucky. Readers said Steele's point about the party's history was misleading.

"Steele is attempting to make the case that because the party fought for such a thing in the past, they should get credits as 'not racist' in the present. Simply put, the interest and motivations of political parties change from generation to generation. And the current generation of Republicans do not have a reputation for placing much importance on enforcing or protecting special class protections that were instituted with the 1960s civil rights movement. In fact, they regularly block such new efforts like ENDA (the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which prohibits employment discrimination against gays and lesbians), and they work to enact legislation that affects racial minorities negatively, like the recent crop of immigration legislation in Arizona. ... So yes, Steele's words were technically true, but I think it's very important to attach a caveat with that explaining that the 1960s version of either party is not the same as today's version. That Southern Democrats defected in droves to the Republican party to now be the leading ideology for the party in 2010."

"Conservatives were widely opposed to Civil Rights legislation. In the 1960's conservatives in the South were Democrats and shortly after these reforms a majority of what were know as southern Democrats, who were conservatives, switched to the Republican Party. There is always confusion about political affiliation during this time in history. George Wallace, Lester Maddox and most of the Klan called themselves Democrats during this era. So a more proper way to pose the question would be did conservatives widely support the Civil Rights Act. I think you will come up with a much different answer."

Democratic turnout in Kentucky

Meanwhile, other readers didn't like our fact-check of Democratic National Committee Chairman Tim Kaine, who also appeared on This Week. Kaine said the Kentucky primary results showed Democrats are energized in Kentucky because the Democratic candidates "both got more votes than Rand Paul did." We rated that Half True, finding that primary vote totals really aren't an indication of strong prospects for the Democratic candidate.

"I'm calling you, Politifact, on twisting the truth. You are calling Kaine's truthful statements only Half True by IMAGINING some kind of irrelevant meaning. He said, 'The primary election results show Democrats are strong in Kentucky because the Democratic candidates 'both got more votes than Rand Paul did.' and that is a true statement, a factual statement. You are imputing some kind of meaning in order to award a lesser verdict, and that's patently unfair and unworthy of you. Whether people of KY have or don't have some kind of opinion about the teapartiers is absolutely irrelevant to Mr. Kaine's statement. How is it Half True when someone makes a true, factually verifiable statement? I award you a False for that atrocious ruling."

Sarah Palin on Barack Obama and the oil companies

We wrote a report about Sarah Palin's comments about President Barack Obama, and how much money they both got in campaign contributions from oil companies. We got a few interesting comments.

"I find it very disingenuous of Palin to make any comments about oil. I think she should be forced to collect all of her 'Drill, Baby, Drill' t-shirts and head down to the (Gulf of Mexico) and use them to soak up the oil."

"I was left a little confused about some of the information in the article about campaign contributions to Obama, Palin, and McCain ... In the article, you referred to campaign contributions from PAC's and contributions from employees of BP. As I read that, I realized that I have always assumed that reports about contributions from a company to a candidate referred to contributions from the company itself or its management, with the contribution meant as an attempt to support or influence a particular political position. However, as I read the article, I had an 'aha moment' in which I realized that the line I fill out on campaign contributions giving my occupation and employer is used to total the contributions from employees at all levels in a company to a particular candidate. Thus, the employee versus PAC (whether it is union or management) distinction becomes highly important. For example, Obama might receive money from line employees, and McCain might receive more money from management employees, but all of these contributions are different from money coming from the company as an entity. I don't know if other people have this confusion, but my realization of the distinction will certainly affect my interpretation of future reports about campaign contributions."

Halliburton money for Dick Cheney

We checked a remark from MSNBC host Chris Matthews, about whether Halliburton gave Dick Cheney a $34 million payout when he left the company to join the presidential ticket. We rated that True. But a reader disliked that we paraphrased Matthew's exact words, that when Cheney "was signed for vice president, the oil company gave him a $34 million signing bonus to become vice president of the United States."

"I find your Truth-O-Meter articles to be very well researched but in the case of 'Halliburton gave Dick Cheney a $34 million payout when he left the company to join the presidential ticket', I have a bone to pick with you. I do not believe you should give Chris Matthews artistic license on his comment. Mr. Matthews presents himself as a serious commentator, not as a comedian, and having seen the interview I do not believe Mr. Matthews was joking. He also said Cheney received 'a cash check'. Your own research points that out as untrue. If anything, this statement should be rated as Half True. He was correct about the amount of money but not how and why Cheney earned it. I am an independent and not a Cheney supporter or denigrator. What I support are news websites who tell the truth no matter where it lies. I hope you continue to do so."

Arizona's new immigration law

We got several e-mails quarreling with our coverage of the new Arizona immigration law, mostly from defenders of the new law.

"What's wrong with you people? Someone should put you through your own Truth-O-Meter. Read the law, for God's sake, and stop slanting the truth about it. It is, as a fact, not as harsh, though fair, as the same Federal Law, approved by the Supreme Court. Do your jobs, you dumb jerks! Or get off the Internet. We have enough propaganda sites without adding you to the list. Hiding behind your Truth-O-Meter won't get you off the hook on this one."

Fact-checking the pundits: Should we or shouldn't we?

We get differing opinions from readers on our ongoing efforts to fact-check the pundits.

"When you post a Truth-O-Meter for Michael Savage, you're only encouraging him. He's not a journalist and he doesn't care about telling the truth. He's very entertaining, for what it's worth, which is good because that's what he is -- an entertainer. If you had to put a Truth-O-Meter up for all the entertainers making idiotic comments like those of Savage, you'd go broke from the size of the database that would be required. Just a suggestion. Take it or leave it."

"I want to commend you on your pundits section, which is BADLY needed. The pundits, in particular, the Fox News and right-wing talk radio pundits need to be held closely accountable for the 'truths' their listeners and viewers hear them speak. They hold vast amounts of influence ... The right-wing public apparently relies more on pundits for INFORMATION than they do news sources, and in fact, consider their pundits reliable news information. This is a travesty and dangerous as well."

Fact-checking Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan

We heard from people who thought we were off base in our fact-checking on the nomination of Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the U.S. Supreme Court.

We checked Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, who said that military "recruiting went on at Harvard every single day throughout the time (Kagan) was there." (Kagan was dean of the Harvard Law School.) We found that the military's access was limited at times and rated his statement Half True.

"I think Leahy made a 'True' statement when he said that military recruiters were recruiting every single day at Harvard Law School during Elena Kagan's tenure as dean. I just don't see much difference between recruitment that occurs through the Office of Career Services and recruitment that occurs through a student-run veterans organization. Sure, logistics for the latter may be more meager than the former, but any college student knows their way around campus and knows where to find military recruitment on campus, no matter the budget or administration of the office that the military recruitment occurs in."

Another reader said we went to easy on Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, who said that Kagan "violated the law of the United States at various points" with her opposition to military recruiters. We went through all the court rulings on the topic and concluded Sessions' statement was Barely True.

"You've seemingly bent over backward to give Sen. Sessions the benefit of several doubts to avoid calling it what it is: A carefully constructed and calculated lie. I love your work and stop by on a daily basis to check out what's new. The researching of statements to see if they are indeed factual is the kind of thing that is horribly missing from what poorly passes as 'journalism.' these days. I would suggest, however, adopting some kind of percent based scale. Some Barely True, statements seem to only contain the faintest whiff of truth. In the Sessions statement, for instance, It's not 100% false but it's only 10-15% true. So, I think a 15% true, 85% false score would be more accurate than calling something 'barely true.' She did have interaction concerning the recruiters, true ... but that's about as far as that went. She opposed them not because they are military but because of their policy of discrimination and tested the law but did not break it 'on multiple occasions.' So, his statement is mostly false but it's tied to just the barest smidgen of fact."

Bill Maher's fans dissent

After the Deepwater Horizon disaster that spewed oil into the Gulf of Mexico, liberal comedian Bill Maher assailed America's addiction to oil on ABC News' This Week. But we found that he erred when he made the statement that "Brazil got off oil in the last 30 years." We rated him False because Brazil consumes a lot of oil and pursues offshore drilling. Maher's fans told us we were too strict with our ruling and missed his point.

"Actually, I would have to rate you an incomplete on your analysis of Bill Maher's comment about oil use in Brazil. Maher forgot one word, IMPORTED. In the 1970s, Brazil was hit hard by embargoes and oil price hikes. The government goal was not to get OFF oil completely, but to lessen and eliminate the impact that foreign oil would have on the Brazilian economy. They haven't stopped looking for oil. They never really planned to in the foreseeable future, but that wasn't the primary goal. Lessening or eliminating foreign imported oil was. With that one word, Maher's statement becomes a lot more accurate... AND NOT FALSE. So, you need to review your call there. If you do not, then it is your site that are being misleading ... and not truthful."

"It hardly seems fair to label him untruthful, when he pointed out he wasn't sure, and actually asked for a PolitiFact check in nearly the same breath. At least mention he was trying to get it correct!"

"It's great that you fact check these politicians and pundits. Unfortunately, even when you do many of them continue to spout the same lies on other shows. It'd be great to add to your site, when these people continue to lie even when called out on their lies. Bill Maher, on the other hand, admitted to his mistake this past Friday on his show. Check it out in the event you haven't. ... You rarely, if ever, see this happen."

That old chestnut: Media bias

We get a steady stream of e-mail about our fact-checking efforts and media bias. Here are the latest comments.

"Is this site supposed to be unbiased? I note that the vast majority of Pants on Fire come from the right. I find it hard to believe that the left is so very innocent. May need to do a better job on what/who you fact check if you want people to believe you are unbiased."

"You guys do a great job of keeping just enough of your liberal bias out of your 'evaluations' that you almost pass for a credible source ... ."

"I subscribe and read your web site with great interest, however I find (perhaps from my conservative leanings) that if you were to trip and fall you would have serious injuries to your left side. Please be careful and stay safe."

"Great site, the graphics are funny and easy to understand. What if you kept score ...the Republicans versus the Democrats, who lies more, what is the biggest lie of the day. I wish you would at least identify the party the liars are from and then drop them in a category. Or liberal versus conservative talk show hosts that lie, and put a meter to those folks, then your site would have some real traction and risk."

Praise

As usual, we like to end with a few words of praise.

"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! You should win a Pulitzer. (Or have you already?)" [Funny you should ask, we have won a Pulitzer!]

"I like that the Truth-O-Meter for states is now mixed with the national Truth-O-Meter because many state fact checking curry national interest: please keep doing this!!"

"I really appreciate the hard work and good research of PolitiFact and consult your site regularly in an effort to defuse the silly and focus on the substance."

"Thank you for PolitiFact. Wish it was on everyone's favorite list..."

"I love your site and use it to fact check every topic possible. ... Thank you and keep up the good work!!!"