Mailbag: 'You fail to be helpful' on amnesty
By Louis Jacobson
Published on Thursday, April 25th, 2013 at 9:33 a.m.
Over the past month, the nation has grappled with a string of major news stories, including terrorism, gun legislation, and immigration. Our readers have written us about these topics -- and more. Here’s a selection of reader mail we’ve received recently.
One reader wrote to say we didn’t take into account the implications of a claim by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., that the Boston Marathon bombing "is the fifth case" in which U.S. government officials examined individuals potentially involved in terrorism "and felt they were no threat and they went on to carry out terrorist murders." We rated that claim Mostly True.
"It is Mostly True, in the strictest literal sense. Yet in the past you've occasionally been willing to call the speaker to task for misleading with the truth. The implication of King's statement is obviously that somehow the FBI is not doing their job, when having five people escape their scrutiny would in fact be a phenomenally good record, given the task of investigating everyone suspicious in the United States. If you had included some context in your detailed ruling -- perhaps some statistics on how many such warnings the FBI receives and investigates -- I think that would have better served the whole truth. Remember, we cannot lock people up for crimes that we imagine they may one day commit."
A reader took issue with our True rating for a claim by former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords that polls show Americans "overwhelmingly" support "expanding background checks."
"I don't doubt that the polls show public support for the idea of background checks, but I do doubt it’s a support for the particular bill in question. None of the polls really go through the notion that background checks currently exist at both federal and state levels, but there are some mechanisms by which guns can be sold without such a check, and that current proposals say that the checking requirements be expanded to be universal. The results of the poll that questioned transfers between family members particularly highlights this. So if you look at the actual legislation, I'm not sure that this should really be a full True."
One reader thought we were needlessly harsh in our Half True rating for a claim by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., that the immigration proposal he helped craft "is not amnesty."
"Your information is well-researched and generally beyond bias, so I hesitate to criticize. But I cannot understand why you rate it less than true simply because some people disagree. Should anything matter here other than the definition of the word? The bill clearly is not a ‘blanket abolition,’ to quote the definition you cited. A simple dictionary check I made traces the meaning of the word to the same Greek origin from which we get ‘amnesia’ It might therefore be said that to grant amnesty is to treat an offense as if it never happened by choosing to wipe it from memory. The word ‘amnesty’ has gained substantial emotional weight that is fueling our national divide. You fail to be helpful when you do not clearly remind us of what the word in fact does and does not mean."
A reader thought we were too critical of a claim by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., that "in the last two years, we have reduced the deficit by $2.5 trillion." We concluded that the number represented a projection of what is expected, but not guaranteed, to happen over a 10-year period, rather than deficit reduction that has already been banked over the past two years. For that reason, we rated it False.
"I think a False rating is unwarranted. Given the interpretation of his statement that the deficit to which he was referring was the projected deficit, his statement is true. Now granted, he didn't specify that he was referring to the projected deficit for the next 10 years (though to readers experienced with the budget debates, that should be obvious), and he probably should have, but that doesn't make his statement False. Lack of important context means you generally rate a claim Half True or maybe Mostly False."
A reader took issue with our discussion of a comment by New York City Democratic mayoral candidate Sal Albanese that an annual income of $500,000 "in Manhattan, believe it or not, is middle class." We rated the claim False.
"Albanese and PolitiFact have conflated ‘middle class,’ which is a social term, with ‘middle income,’ which is an economic term definable by statistics. The term ‘middle class’ originated to define a group which was outside the old feudal order of wealthy landowners and peasants/serfs; it originally referred to merchants or business owners. It still meant that to Karl Marx. Since then, improvements in wages have allowed industrial workers to live a ‘middle-class lifestyle,’ which has led to changes in perception about what is middle class. In the future, when discussing claims about the middle class, please note that the term has become so vague as to be useless and be explicit that what is under discussion is ‘middle income.’ "
A couple readers commented on our story analyzing whether Americans are moving to states with low taxes and away from states with high taxes. Without providing a Truth-O-Meter rating, we concluded that there is some correlation, but it’s pretty modest, and it’s not clear that taxes, as opposed to other factors such as the climate, are driving such shifts.One reader added a factor we hadn’t discussed:
"Regardless of any tax or climate considerations, culture is what keeps me from ever even thinking about moving to a Sunbelt state. No matter how nice the weather, or how low the tax burden, I would find it intolerable to live among those whose values are so alien to my own, or to be represented in either the Senate or the House by equally alien beings who I would have no chance to vote out of office. I know a lot people who, if it were not for the culture factor, would go south or southwest."
A reader thought we were too generous in giving a Half True rating to a claim by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., that "we have the fewest people employed in this country since 1979." We concluded that her statement was not correct -- far more people are working now than in 1979 -- but we added that a different statistic that takes into account population growth is indeed lower now than it’s been since 1979.
"Is this something new for PolitiFact? Her statement is completely false, even Pants on Fire. You, however, decided to make a guess as to what she might have said, which would have been Half True. I can recall numerous instances where your rating has ignored what the person might have said or might have been thinking, which were determined solely on the basis of what the specific wording was. I have no disagreement with you making an effort to impart facts to your readers, but I totally disagree with you rating something that was not said and applying that rating to what was actually said."
One reader thought we were needlessly generous rating Mostly True a claim by Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that the federal government is supporting a study in Hawaii to "develop a menu for when we colonize Mars."
"Though he was correct in that a study was being conducted to determine what food a mission to Mars might necessitate, everything else he said about it was false, and you hardly marked him down at all for that. You pointed out that not anyone can qualify and that this wasn't intended for a menu to colonize Mars. You pointed out that college students didn't merely come up with ‘pizza’ from nothing -- they evaluated the quality of the food by a variety of criteria. And yet you gave him a Mostly True rating. Why? He dismissed, via falsehoods, the value of the study in order to back his point that it was wasteful."
One reader complained that we wasted our time when we fact-checked a claim by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that "we have a federal government that thinks they have the authority to regulate our toilet seats." We rated the claim True.
"Just how long and hard did you have to search to find something Cruz said that is True? Well you did it. But you had to go to the toilet to find it. Hooray. Are you not proud?"
(For the record, Cruz’s record on the Truth-O-Meter, as of this writing, is one True, three Mostly Trues, three Half Trues, no Mostly Falses, four Falses and four Pants on Fire.)
Finally, some readers wrote to praise our work.
"I'd like to thank everyone at PolitiFact for the excellent work you are doing every day to try to bring some semblance of objective reality to what sometimes seems to be an almost unnavigable swamp of spin, self-interest, and half-truths. I really enjoy your work, and while I can't always agree totally on the conclusions, the efforts you and your colleagues in other parts of the media are putting forward are something to turn to when media itself is becoming increasingly polarized."
Emails from PolitiFact readers.
Researchers: Louis Jacobson
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