Saturday, October 25th, 2014

Mailbag: 'You're keeping my head from exploding'

The latest batch of mail brings both criticism and kudos for our Truth-O-Meter rulings.
The latest batch of mail brings both criticism and kudos for our Truth-O-Meter rulings.

This week's mailbag brought lots of thoughtful criticism, including several complaints about our fact-check of a posting on Facebook that was widely distributed by supporters of Occupy Wall Street.

The Facebook post argued that congressional Republicans have introduced dozens of bills on social issues and other topics, but "zero on job creation." We ruled that Pants on Fire, because the data the post was based on were flawed.

One reader said: "If the definition of what constitutes a ‘job creation’ bill is open to significant debate, as you say, then why would you attempt to rate this claim at all? I thought you had a policy of not rating rhetorical assertions that were difficult to assign a truth value to. Alternatively, you must have arrived at a definition of "job creation bill" in order to rate the claim. What is that definition?

"The article itself leaves me wanting more information. If Republicans have introduced all these ‘job creation’ bills, why couldn’t you name just a few examples? Doing so would have given your readers the opportunity to understand and critique your definition of ‘job creation bill.’

"Finally, why did you rate it Pants on Fire instead of simply False? The language you use isn’t particularly condemnatory ("just isn’t supported"). Also, you cite that the conclusion comes from a "methodological quirk." That sounds to me like an honest mistake, if anything. By choosing the most severe rating for a "methodological quirk," it seems to me that you are holding an anonymous Facebook poster to a higher standard than you have for most public officials and candidates you have rated."

Several readers criticized our rating of a claim by Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, that the departments of Commerce, Education and Energy and the EPA saw their spending increase by between 130 percent and 219 percent between 2008 and 2010. We actually rated this twice -- once before Hensarling’s office got back to us, and once after the office provided us with information to back up his claim -- but ruled the statement False both times, in large part because Hensarling included all spending for the stimulus into the final year of the comparison, even if that money wasn’t actually spent that year.

"Jeb Hensarling deserved a Mostly True for his claims about the growth of various government agencies. Your nitpicking about outlays versus spending the money is absurd. The point he makes is very clear; even if they didn't spend it yet, that is now money that has been allocated and that we may no longer use freely."

Another reader added, "What percent did those departments really grow in those years? … You quote OMB numbers, and the smallest was 39 percent. I would love to have had my income increase that much over those years. And those numbers alone would constitute obscene growth at a time when everyone else is hurting. But you didn't look at his "larger point" (the benefit you gave to others) and implied his remarks had no merit with a False rating. ...

"The congressman said (1) ‘when you add in the stimulus,’ (2) ‘with the stimulus’ and (3) ‘which accounts for a large temporary growth in our discretionary budget.’ Yet you guys have the AUDACITY to say he ‘obscured the fact that much of the enormous increases he cited stemmed from temporary factors (including) the stimulus. ...‘

"As I see it, Hensarling deserves at least a True or Mostly True because (1) he did say the stimulus was a large temporary bump, which you say he didn't, (2) spending did go up a lot more than the rate of inflation and was unreasonable given how the average American was suffering (a point the congressman tried to make and that you ignored), and (3) he used CBO numbers, and he was talking to a CBO official about those numbers. That seems appropriate to me and based on the numbers he got from the CBO, his percentages were correct. Your gripe is with the CBO, not with Hensarling."

A few readers took issue with our rating of an Obama 2012 Internet ad that proclaims, "Because of Barack Obama … 32 million new people will have health care." We gave it a Mostly True, noting that as things now stand, the predicted number holds up. While it’s an estimate, it comes from a nonpartisan source, the Congressional Budget Office. That said, the health reform law, and the individual mandate in particular, faces serious challenges. If it is ultimately struck down by the Supreme Court, millions fewer will gain insurance coverage.

"There are two problems with this statement," one reader wrote. "First, no one tried to estimate how many will have ‘health care,’ which is an undefined term. What they measure is the number who will have health insurance.

"Second, one of the fundamental rules is that there is no such thing as a future fact. A True statement would have been, "According to the CBO, 32 million more people will have access to health insurance." As written, the statement is generally unknowable and certainly can't be judged today. Does anyone remember ‘Mission Accomplished.’ Perhaps you should have a ‘counting your chickens’ category?"

We also got lots of complaints on our check of another anonymous Facebook post that included an unsourced chart listing the ratio of CEO pay to average worker pay in the U.S. and nine other countries. The smallest ratio is Japan’s at 11 to 1. The United States is highest at 475 to 1. While we did find studies showing the latest ratio for the U.S. to be 185 to 1 or 325 to 1, we found no study in recent years that measured international comparisons, and we were able to trace the chart as far back as an unfootnoted student paper written in 2005.

"It doesn't seem that you proved it false, merely that you couldn't substantiate it," one reader wrote. "Basically the article clearly says there are different studies and nobody agrees. I agree that it may False, but you didn't prove that, any more than these people proved it True. Maybe you need a category called ‘Unable to prove or disprove,’ or just don't bother until you have facts."

And one reader took exception to the underlying value of checking politicians’ flip flops, as we have done recently here and here.

"I'm sorry, but one of the most annoying changes in political language was when ‘flip-flop’ came to mean ‘changed your mind,’" said one reader. "It loses all value when used in that manner, and I'm disappointed to see you use the term that way as well. ‘Flip-flop’ is not just changing your mind (a flip) but also involves changing it back (flop), sometimes repeatedly, depending on the audience you are speaking to.

"I don't care that people's opinions have evolved. I expect that to happen to everyone! I care about the opinion itself, or if someone's opinions seem to be driven solely by the mood of the day."

As usual, a few readers wrote in to praise our work.

"I absolutely love the way you guys are expanding your practice," said one reader. "The mobile phone app, the multi-state approach (hopefully one day in every state), this new, innovative way for spreading factual and objective reporting (the PolitiFact Lab), and letting no claim by without inspection -- this is what I can only wish that major cable news networks would do, instead of having to ‘leave it there’ all the time. … Everyone should have to own up to the facts so that we can take a sober look at reality and behave accordingly. Best of luck to you and your new enterprise."

And finally, one reader wrote, "Amid outlandish venomous charges, amid sounds-plausible slams, there is you. Thanks for making the national campaign scene bearable. You're keeping my head from exploding."