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Mailbag: 'You idiots!' or 'You guys rock!'

By Angie Drobnic Holan
Published on Monday, August 8th, 2011 at 10:46 a.m.

Readers always let us know how we're doing. Here's the latest from our e-mail inbox, edited for style and length.

Tom Coburn on economic growth

Many readers disagreed with our fact-check of Tom Coburn's statement, "The government's twice the size it was 10 years ago. It's 30 percent bigger than it was when (Barack) Obama became president." We initially rated it Mostly True, primarily because federal outlays did indeed double over 10 years. After reading some of the arguments our readers made for a different rating, we reconsidered and changed the ruling to Half True.

Here's some of those comments.

"Government spending is always referred to in inflation-adjusted terms by anyone who wants to give people an accurate picture. Coburn wanted to make the situation sound even worse than it already is ... The growth was really in the 39 percent to 60 percent range, which should have rated no more than a Half True rating, since the actual growth was about half of double. The assertion about the growth of government since Obama became president is even more egregious, since he didn't become president until 2009 and Coburn used fiscal year 2008 as his baseline. ... Come on, 'fess up and change your rating when you goof it up the first time around."

"Given how much I admire Politifact, it was heartbreaking to me to see how you handled Tom Coburn's comment about the size of government. ... To defend your rating by using analogies of a person's height or the size of a university was nonsensical. A person's height is not relative to time and a university's size is not relative to the size of the population since it doesn't have to serve that entire population. The federal government does! It provides services to everyone in the country and those services are a function of its population and its economic activity (GDP). Its size, expressed in dollars, is time sensitive due to inflation. This is basic economics. Your explanation just doesn't make any sense and, I'm really sorry to say this, comes off like you don't know when to admit you made a mistake."

"Sorry, but your justification for not providing an inflation adjustment is ridiculous. The term 'size of government' presumably refers to the total value of all goods and services of every type purchased by the government. All adjusting for inflation does is keep that value constant over time. If all the government does is buy a stick of gum that costs $1 in year 1, and because of inflation that very same stick of gum costs $10 in Year 5, the size of government has not gone up by a factor of ten. ... Thanks for your excellent (85+ percent of the time) work."

Harry Reid on job losses

We gave Harry Reid, leader of the Senate Democrats, a Pants on Fire for his statement that there was a "loss of eight million jobs during the Bush eight years." To arrive at that eight million number, Reid counted job losses that actually happened during the Obama administration.

A couple of readers said we were too harsh.

"The whole point of the statement on jobs is to reference the differences between the economies of those two administrations. You could remove the entire reference to the 'loss of eight million jobs' without affecting the point or understanding of his argument. That whole sentence containing the job loss reference is rough and jumbled. I would be more inclined to think he got a little 'off script' at that point, than to see this as an intentional, scripted statement with a clear intent to misrepresent the facts."

"In my view, Harry Reid was correct. The recession began in December 2007 and did not end until June 2009. Even though the recession ended in June 2009, there were many months with further job losses. Placing the blame with President Obama for any portion of the 22 straight months of job losses is like blaming the fireman for not being able to save the roof once the house caught fire."

Romney on free emergency room care

We fact-checked a statement from Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and a Republican candidate for president. He said, "Federal law requires that hospitals treat people whether or not they can pay. So someone (who) doesn't have health insurance -- they can go to the hospital and get free care." We rated that Barely True (now called "Mostly False"). We concluded that emergency rooms are required by law to treat people who are in "serious jeopardy," but they are not required to offer extensive or regular treatment. We thought Romney's statement implied otherwise. 

"Oh Politifact, I'm growing weary of you imposing your ideas about what people mean to evaluating facts. With your most recent evaluation of Mitt Romney's statement on emergency medical care, you have somehow come to the conclusion that Romney is suggesting more extensive treatment is required by federal law than is actually mandated. I am not sure why you have come to this conclusion. In fact your experts suggest that people do rely on emergency room care, and Romney said 'someone (who) doesn't have health insurance...can go to the hospital and get free care.' Unless there is some pertinent information from his quote that you've withheld then there is nothing to indicate that he means anything more than emergency care, this care being an economic drain that required his passing the health care bill."

The emergency room law passed under President Reagan "was a safety net to protect individuals who didn't qualify for Medicaid but had no insurance. Prior to (the law), a woman in this situation would deliver a baby on the sidewalk outside the emergency room because they did not have to admit her and could refuse if she could not pay. Reagan's law protects vulnerable members of society who need emergency treatment. Twenty-plus years later and this safety net is abused. People decide to not buy insurance or underinsure themselves and then use the emergency room as a clinic. It has had terrible effects on the hospital systems in New York and elsewhere in the U.S. ... You issue is in Romney's phrasing of the law as written. But what he is describing -- that this law is an immediate danger to receiving quality care and his law in Massachusetts does address this -- is true. So you do his intended message a huge disservice when you focus largely on semantic definition and not reality and label the comment as Barely True."

We also heard from the American College of Emergency Physicians, whose spokesperson Julie Lloyd e-mailed us:

"Nice article except for this, which is inaccurate: 'Experts told us that one aspect of Romney's argument has some validity: Many people rely on emergency rooms for care when they have nowhere else to go, which is expensive and a burden on the health care system and the larger society.' Although emergency care has been the whipping boy of the entire health care reform debate, it comprises only 2 percent of all health care spending. Just 2 percent. Rather than looking at ER visits are a burden on the health care system, it would be more productive to look at the health care system as a burden on emergency care. ERs continue to close at an alarming rate because of the amount of uncompensated care, either from uninsured or underinsured patients. Given that every single person in the country counts on the emergency department as their safety net, wouldn't better funding seem like a smart idea rather than trying to divert patients elsewhere?"

Fact-checking Social Security

Whenever we fact-check Social Security and how its trust funds work, we get e-mails telling us we got it all wrong. PolitiFact Rhode Island checked a statement from Barry Hinckley, a Republican seeking the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Sheldon Whitehouse. Hinckley said, 'There's no money in Social Security,' and we rated that False. We found there's money coming in today, and that Social Security has a trust fund of government bonds. 'Saying that Social Security has no money is akin to saying that you're broke if you have 20 cents in your pocket but $20 million in the stock of a heavily leveraged company,' we concluded.

Wrong, said readers.

"Social Security actually doesn't have any money. When you and I make a trust fund, it is separate from our individual accounts. When the government makes a trust fund, it's just an organizational gimmick. The money from Social Security goes to a general government account, which can find the way to pay out Social Security in any way it can scrap the cash together. So, technically speaking, Social Security never had any money."

"If you could, please, re-check your facts on this one. You will find that over time all the funds that were put away into the so-called Social Security Trust Fund were indeed spent on other things, such as wars, Medicare and so on. What remains is basically an IOU from the U.S. Government to the trust fund. ... So if the government goes belly up like Central Falls, there is no pot of money set aside to pay those millions of retirees, but only those monies that the government acquires each year such as taxes, fees and other sources. I really hope you will research this and report on it as I feel like many of my fellow seniors don't realize how 'at risk' our pensions are."

Fact-checking Medicare

We're still getting complaints on our fact-checking of claims from Democrats who say Republicans want to end Medicare. We continue to rate that False, because Republicans want to turn Medicare into a voucher-like plan, but they don't want to end it.

Wake up, said one Medicare recipient.

"Tell you what. When you get to Medicare age and find that you don't have enough money to pay what will be outrageous premiums from private insurance companies, and that they aren't required to cover you despite any pre-existing conditions they might care to define, and that they're free to drop you whenever they like claiming 'fraud,' and that they can slap you with a life time coverage limit, then let me know if you think 'Republicans ended Medicare' still strikes you as false. Get your head out of the literal trees and look at the real forest, you idiots."

What Reagan wore in the White House

We looked at what Ken Langone, co-founder of Home Depot and a well-known Wall Street figure, said about how Ronald Reagan dressed when he was president. Langone said President Obama was acting "petulant," adding, "Ronald Reagan would never go into the Oval Office without his jacket on — that's how much he revered the presidency. This guy (Obama) worked like hell to be president, okay? He’s got it. Behave like a president."

We found evidence that Reagan did indeed go into the Oval Office without a jacket and found photos to prove it. We rated Langone's statement Mostly False, which a few readers argued.

"Did Reagan NEVER go in the Oval Office without a jacket and tie? Well, ALMOST never. Certainly it was his NORMAL HABIT to dress up, according to your own research. So it is 'mostly true' that he never went to the office dressed casually. I know, I know, TECHNICALLY the statement is either true or untrue. But in the actual sense that you apply your ratings, the claim gets a Mostly True. ... Are you guys liberally biased? Nah, not really. You mostly do a pretty good job of sticking to the facts in your discussions. But sometimes (not real often, but sometimes) I get the impression that you're choosing to rebut something that only needs rebutting if you have a stake in the outcome."

Obama on Reagan

In another fact-check about Reagan, we looked at Obama's statement that Reagan "repeatedly talked about how irresponsible it would be to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be impaired in any kind of way." We rated that Mostly True. 

We should have just rated it True, a few readers said.

"So, you find that what he said was literally true. You find that what he said was also in the spirit of being true. However, since he was talking about another person's words, and since that person talked about something else MORE, you decide that what President Obama says is only 'mostly' true? That doesn't make sense. If I say that Rep. Anthony Wiener showed women pictures of himself on twitter, and he did, that does not imply he did not do other things. Rep. Wiener was NOT politically about showing pics on twitter, but he did it. Similarly, Pres. Reagan was not necessarily primarily about the full faith and credit of the U.S. (although, I think your historian MAY argue he was), but he did do what Pres. Obama said. Pres. Obama's statement was literally true, and in the correct spirit. Why only a 'mostly?'"

John Boehner on tax increases

We fact-checked Speaker of the House John Boehner's statement on taxes. The Ohio Republican said, "The American people don't want us to raise taxes." We rated that Barely True (now Mostly False), because majorities say they support increasing taxes on the wealthy and corporations.

One reader said we needed to dig deeper. 

"I'm really glad you are trying to bring more transparency to light. This is crucial to the prosperity of our society. I also appreciate your publication of critiques of your judgments. However, I find that sometimes you get a little bit stuck on the details and miss the more important point. For example, the statement by Boehner ... (His extended comment has) so much important stuff in it, like his claim that raising taxes is going to destroy jobs. I know this is a huge economic question, but golly gee, it's pretty much the real heart of the issue. It matters less whether Americans believe raising taxes is good or bad, and much more whether raising taxes on the rich actually does help the economy. It would have been a real service to tackle this question with economists, since this is really and truly the issue at heart here. And this claim is bandied around so much, it could stand a good de-bunking for once."

Fall in love with Ron Paul!

Another reader asked us to do more fact-checks on Ron Paul. We couldn't resist sharing this reader's enthusiasm:

"Why don't you put up some facts about Ron Paul? Did he or didn't he predict the state America is in at this time years ago? You want to have a website about false and true statements, but you leave out the most important politician in history. Ron Paul, no one can touch that man. You want to give your readers some encouragement, try writing about Ron Paul. Don't be scared, it's OK to fall in love with him. I'll put money on it that the ones who start reporting about him fall in love. All it takes is a little bit of logic and common sense. Ron Paul is the hottest topic of the decade. Please help save America and report about Ron Paul. I'm not saying glorify him. Just write the facts. He's so flawless I don't have a worry in the world."

Keep Obama honest

A fan of Barack Obama told us to keep fact-checking Barack Obama:

"I have to admit I am not very happy with The Republicans. I think they are putting our country at great risk. Conversely I fully support the president. I believe he is truly trying. So, when you call him to task for not being fully honest it upsets me. But, please, keep calling him to be better. You guys are what journalism is about: truth. This is the third time I have urged you to do what you do. You really don't need me to tell you, but I want you to know that I am one of those who wants to see more journalism like yours."

The GOP Pledge-O-Meter

Another reader facetiously said our GOP Pledge-O-Meter, a database of Republican campaign promises, was ignoring a promise from tea party Republicans.

"You're ignoring the promise that they would destroy this country to get their own party elected to the White House. Just thought you'd like to know that, PolitiFact."

You're biased

It wouldn't be a mailbag without accusations that we're biased. This one comes from a reader who recently bought the PolitiFact app for smart phones
"Man, are you guys biased against the GOP. I was at least hoping to get some fair assessments, but man this is a lot of bias. Wow ... I may have to ask for my money back. I was not expecting to be misled, but this is horse doodoo."

Praise

We end with a few notes of praise.

"I love your site and read it each day to gain a little perspective and sanity."

"Can't miss an opportunity to tell y'all once again how much I appreciate what you do. It's awesome. You give me hope that there are still some intelligent, rational and reasonable people left in this country."

"Thank you guys SO MUCH for coming up with this website. I refer to it quite often. We need more quality journalism like this in America, someone reporting unbiased facts on politics to the American people. Please never quit and never get sucked into putting out bad information for monetary or other gain!"
"You all have a tough job and I hope you realize how much your work is appreciated and needed. Keep it up! You guys rock!"

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Sources:

Letters from our readers. You can email us, too! It's truthometer@politifact.com for comments about Truth-O-Meter ratings orobameter@politifact.com for Obameter ratings.

Researchers: Angie Drobnic Holan

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