Monday, November 24th, 2014

Mailbag: 'The good stuff overcomes the annoyance'

Happy Thanksgiving from PolitiFact!
Happy Thanksgiving from PolitiFact!

We're constantly getting e-mail from readers about our work. Here are some recent comments, edited for style and length.

Rand Paul and federal workers

We heard from readers about our fact-check of Rand Paul, the Republican senator-elect from Kentucky, who said that "The average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year." We rated it False, because his numbers included total compensation, and because some federal workers make much less than their private sector counterparts. Most of the readers we heard from didn't agree with that.

"I appreciate the thoughtful analysis, but just wanted to let you know that I disagree with the way you rated it because, as a small business owner, I automatically assumed it included total compensation. I believe that government workers are disproportionately protected relative to private industry. If we have to feel the pain of a recession, then they should too. That's only fair since they live off of us."

"You rated his comment of federal versus private sector compensation False. How could you, when you include the total package of salary and benefits his numbers are virtually in line? The cost to the taxpayer includes both so he is correct in the context of the discussion. Are you being BIASED?"

"I recently read your article on Rand Paul's comment to the effect that the average federal employee makes roughly twice as much as the average private employee. I thought your analysis was insightful and mostly accurate. However your final grade of False is clearly not in line with the facts, or even with your own analysis. ... According to your own rating scale, Half True would be the worst rating that one could reasonably give to Paul's statement, although Mostly True would be a more accurate rating as the statement 'needs clarification'. A more honest grading procedure would be appreciated in the future."

"I do not see how you can, with a straight face, rate Rand Paul's claim as false. It's true, of course, that like almost any single statistic used in politics, it's incomplete -- in particular, it isn't a comparison between employees with identical qualifications. But it doesn't claim to be. If my employer pays $10,000 a year into my retirement account, that is part of what I make. Indeed, a comparison that limited itself to salaries would itself be misleading, since what matters, in terms of both the cost of hiring people and the benefit of being hired, is the total package. ... On the basis of this page, I am now unwilling to accept your verdict on any controversial question, although I will of course continue to be interested in the evidence you provide in support of that verdict."

"Thank you for fighting the good fight against politicians' convenient bends of truth, but I think you got it wrong by calling Rand Paul's comparison between government and private sector wages 'False'. At worst, it is a half truth. Yes, the comparison covers total compensation, but consider that salary plus benefits still track back to the taxpayer. You say in your article that the answer is pretty nuanced and yet your classification does not take the nuances into account. Your classification scheme does allow some degree of nuance so I am disappointed that you really botched this one."

Rand Paul and the Gross Domestic Product

On the other hand, we also heard from readers who disliked our rating of Paul's statement, "We now consume at the federal level 25 percent of the gross domestic product. Historically we were at 20 percent. So we've taken 5 percent away from the private sector." His numbers were right, and we rated his statement True. But readers disputed the idea that government had "taken away" from the private sector.

"I accept your analysis finding that he's right on the rise in federal spending versus GDP... but you only critiqued half of his statement. Why did you fail to critique his accusation that 'a 5 percent increase in federal spending resulted in a 5 percent takeaway for the private sector'? That 5 percent wound up in private sector pockets, directly or indirectly, and you are badly remiss for not addressing that phony claim."

"Seems to me obvious that you did not deal with his larger point, that federal expenditures (somehow) take away from the private sector. You dealt only with two numbers he claims support that point. ... I don't understand why you chose to ignore the second part of his comment: 'So we've taken 5 percent away from the private sector.' I think it is a stretch to assume that if government had not spent this money, the private sector would have. The reason why the government had to spend this money was because the private sector wasn't spending enough. The government wasn't replacing private sector spending, it was augmenting it, which makes his statement untrue."

"This missing the point of the assertions you feature is the main annoyance I have with PolitiFact. In fairness, though, the good stuff overcomes the annoyance. I make adjustments -- reject the dumb stuff, consider the sensible. Keep up the good work."

Paul Krugman

A few readers disliked our rating of economist Paul Krugman's statement that a recent report from the president's deficit commission was "completely empty" on controlling health care costs. We rated his statement False, finding that the report did include recommendations to reduce health care costs. One reader said the rating was evidence of bias.

"I seem to be noticing a disturbing trend is your rating system: A bias in favor of conservative Republicans. When rating a statement by a conservative, PolitiFact seemingly bends over backward to give the conservatives the benefit of the doubt, each and every time. (He didn't mean it. He or she was misunderstood. They believed it was true.) Even if a statement is 99 percent a lie, PolitiFact finds a way to take the 1 percent and use that as a basis for a Mostly True or Half True rating. Democrats are held to a different and much higher standard. Your analysis of the Paul Krugman statement is a great example: You rated his statement as False, even though your own research showed that 99 percent of what the commission proposed was based on nothing more than 'magical thinking' and hope. Mr. Krugman did admit that there was one proposal that actually might be useful; the IPAB (Independent Payment Advisory Board). So, it's 'one' potentially useful idea for controlling heath care costs vs 'no ideas.' For that you gave Mr. Krugman statement a completely False rating. I think it's a Mostly True statement. I've seen your organization rationalize a much better rating for conservatives too many times to believe that's an accident. I just believe the rules should be applied fairly to both parties."

Sarah Palin and food inflation

We got a few comments on our rating for Sarah Palin's statement on food inflation. Palin, a leading Republican and the former governor of Alaska, said that grocery prices "have risen significantly over the past year or so." We rated that Barely True: Strictly speaking, grocery prices have generally risen at historically sluggish rates during the period Palin is talking about. However, important food categories, including meat and dairy products, have risen at faster rates.

"There you go again! Sarah Palin is wrong, but you understand why she is wrong, so you give her a Barely True??? I guess in your Bizarro world, wrong can be Barely True. Your convoluted reasoning is hurting your credibility. I'm at a loss as to why you even have a Barely True category in the first place. It must be so that you can please different interest groups with equivocation."

"Your research showed that the most significant 'inflation' in food prices is related to animal-based products -- butter, eggs, milk, and meat. That news makes me glad I'm a vegetarian. You also indicated that there's a 2.8 percent hike for sweets and sugar. Can't say I'm glad to be diabetic, and that news makes it easier to reconcile myself to eating fewer sweets and less sugar, even as the food-oriented holidays are approaching. Thanks for the work you do."

Michele Bachmann and Obama's India trip

Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., said on CNN that President Barack Obama's trip to India and other Asian countries was costing taxpayers $200 million a day. But her source was an anonymous news report from India, and experts on international travel said it wasn't possible for the bill would be so outlandishly high. We rated her statement False. A few readers complained.

"I read your 'fact-check' regarding the big trip by the president. Are there no basic facts to come out of the White House? How many people are part of the taxpayer paid entourage? Is it 2,000 as Michelle Bachmann said or 3,000 as the India media stated? How many planes, trains and automobiles are going. Some of that is in your article, but it wasn't clear how many planes are being used. How many rooms, is it the Taj Mahal totally for Obama clan plus the Hyatt? He is going to more that India , isn't the trip 10 full days, start to finish? If you had all of that information we could probably come close to figuring it out. Clinton pulled off a five-day trip 10 years ago for a claimed $50 million, which means it costs more. But let's say it cost $50 million. How many people did he take, where did he stay? You know it costs much more today - especially gasoline, the Taj Mahal."

"How can you assert that that the estimated $200 million per day cost of Obama's India trip is FALSE when you have no hard evidence either way? If you can't either solidly prove or disprove something you shouldn't comment. There are many more instances where your Truth-O-Meter is not supported by your conclusions. Renaming your piece PolitiSpin would be appropriate. SHAME ON YOU!!!"

"Please stop indicating that you are a 'truth-o-meter.' Of all the stupid things said in the political area, PolitiFact focus mainly on pointing out the GOP remarks, not only do you go the extra mile to find fault with the GOP, but you also criticize more harshly their comments than any Democrat's stupid comments. In fact, I do believe that PolitiFact actually refuses to focus on the outrageous lies told by the Democrats. In today's line-up, there were six Republicans quoted with only one telling the truth (which would be hard to say he was lying when the public knows the truth), but you had two of the GOP with Pants on Fire. However, there were only four Democrats quoted and as usual they get a pass on labeling their statements Pants on Fire. Please refrain from labeling yourself as political fact finders and just admit that you are a leg of the Democratic Party with the entire intent of smearing conservatives at every opportunity."

Mitch McConnell's main goal

Right before the midterm elections, Obama said in his weekly speech that he was troubled by recent comments from Republicans that indicated they were less than eager to work in a bipartisan manner. "The Republican leader of the Senate said his main goal after this election is simply to win the next one," Obama said, referring to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. We rated Obama's statement Half True, because McConnell had also said he was willing to meet the president halfway. Readers said we were giving McConnell too much credit.

"I'm a big fan, but I must take issue with your Half True rating on this statement. Sen. McConnell has repeatedly defined 'compromise' as the Obama administration 'acquiescing to Republican positions' (a.k.a. 'the voice of the American people'). That is not a compromise. He may have said in that specific interview in an off-hand remark 'If the president is willing to meet us half way...' -- but he has more often claimed that the president must adopt or agree with Republican positions or be run out of office in 2012. Do some further research."

"Boy, you really went out of your way to appease the Republicans. How can it be Half True when you're directly quoting someone -- context notwithstanding. By the way, you're really stretching on the context part too. I hope you're half as gracious for Democrats!"

Truth Shining Bright?

We also got a couple of interesting suggestions from readers for modifications to our ratings system:

"I suggest that the icon for True should be just as eye-catching as the icon for Pants on Fire. If PolitiFact's aim is to be nonpartisan, then attention should also be brought to those who are speaking in facts."

"Love your site! Thank you for all of your hard work ... some of us are paying attention! I thought it would be helpful to understand the chronological context of a fact you have researched. Was a correction offered by the person or group immediately? Do they continue to repeat it? Those would be the far ends of the scale with 'next day' corrections, and 'too late to count' (impact of statement has already had its desired effect) somewhere in the middle. The intent of a person or group would be more fairly conveyed to your readers if they could see how the statement was dealt with after they said it. Maybe a new symbol next to Barely True though Pants on Fire statements indicating: 'QC' for quickly corrected, 'M' for modified towards true in the future, and 'RO' for repeat offender."

A few words of praise

We end with some kind words from our readers.

"Just wanted to say thanks for the job you do. I reference your site more and more frequently, and appreciate the effort all of you put into it. It's nice to have a voice of reason, sanity and truth in this weird Fox opinion channel propagated world. Journalism used to be about truth, you guys are helping to make that happen again."

"Thank you so much for this public service. I don't give a fig about negative campaign ads, feeling that judgement is mostly in the eye of the beholder. I do insist that they be accurate, however, and your series is giving voters a valuable tool to judge candidates. I hope those who fabricate or exaggerate their opponents positions will be punished at the polls. Such desperation and lack of integrity has no place in politics."

"Just wanted to say 'Thank you' for setting the record straight. Your Truth-O-Meter should be required reading for all Americans, young and old. Voters can not make informed decisions with the hype, misinformation, and lies that are fed to us. We deserve better than that. I believe that politicians who lie or distort the facts should be exposed and banned from political office. I just wish that you were on primetime television each night -- on all channels. Good job, guys - thank you!"

"Keep up the good work. What you are doing takes a LOT of effort, but it is well worth it to the public. Thanks."