Friday, November 28th, 2014

Mailbag: 'What are you? The kings of truth?'

Some of our recent feedback from readers has been chilly; some not so much.
Some of our recent feedback from readers has been chilly; some not so much.

It’s been a busy couple of months at PolitiFact. We hereby present our first selection of reader commentary of 2013.

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One reader took issue with our Pants on Fire rating for a statement by House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, that "there's no plan from Senate Democrats or the White House to replace the sequester."

"The official White House plan is not actually a plan. It's a list of numbers. That, in the real world, is what we call a ‘goal.’ There's no proposed legislation or explanation. There's not even a breakdown attached. … Before you make a pronouncement like the one published in this article, I would ask that you consider that calling something a ‘plan’ does not make it one."

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Another reader took issue with our Mostly False rating for President Barack Obama’s claim that under the sequester, federal prosecutors will have to "let criminals go."

"You people need to stop bending over backwards to rate President Obama's claims more false than true. Given what he said, and your own research and interviews, there will clearly be fewer cases prosecuted, and therefore criminals who would otherwise be tried and punished won't be. You had to stretch it out to something he didn't even say -- ‘conjures up images of opening the prison doors’ -- in order to find it Mostly False."

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A reader said we shouldn’t have taken congressional complaints at face value in our check of a claim by Obama that "throughout, we have kept Congress fully informed of our efforts" to create a legal framework on counterterrorism. We rated his statement False.

"I simply cannot understand how you can ‘fact check’ a matter of opinion. Of course members of Congress from both sides of the aisle will tell you they don't feel they were fully informed. Competing with party loyalty is branch-of-government loyalty, where elected officials don't want to give up any power held by their branch, or see another branch get more."

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One reader went to the history books to say we were too generous when we gave Obama a Half True for saying that his administration has made "progress" on border enforcement by "putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history and reducing illegal crossings to their lowest levels in 40 years."

"I'm sorry to be nitpicky here, but I disagree with your ruling that President Obama was accurate in his State of the Union Address when he said that his administration has been ‘putting more boots on the southern border than at any time in our history.’ While this may be accurate in terms of border patrol agents, those were not his words. According to CNN.com, there were 18,506 Border Patrol agents in 2011. However, as a U.S. history teacher, I must say that we have fought a war on our southern border -- the Mexican-American War. According to pbs.org, ‘26,922 regulars and 73,260 volunteers served at some point during the Mexican War.’ That's a total of 100,182 ‘boots on the ground’ over the three-year period, which would average to 33,394 per year. It's a small thing, but your site often is very specific when it comes to language like this, so I wanted to bring it up."

We should point that we did mention the Mexican-American War when we examined a similar claim in 2010. That was the simple claim from Obama, "Today, we have more boots on the ground near the Southwest border than at any time in our history." We rated it Mostly True.


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One reader added one more wrinkle to our rating of a claim by Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., that "with the exception of slavery and the Chinese Exclusion Act, our laws have never barred persons from becoming citizens." We gave Lofgren a Mostly True.

"There is one other exception not noted. Many Native Americans were not citizens until passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924. From what I can find, laws regarding citizenship for Native Americans were something of a patchwork, but I did find a statistic that before the 1924 law, 125,000 Native Americans (out of 325,000 total) were not already citizens. (It should be noted that many tribes did not want citizenship, fearing that it would destroy their cultural identity and possibly force them to give up their tribal affiliations."

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A reader took exception to our Mostly True claim by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., that "even members of the NRA, when they were polled recently, were under the impression that everyone has a criminal background check."

"The ‘correct’ answer to this question depends on the state one resides in. Many states do require background checks on all gun purchases (including private sales) and a ‘yes’ answer from a California, New York, or Pennsylvania resident would be absolutely correct. In all, 38 percent of the U.S. population resides in jurisdictions that do require more stringent background checks than demanded by federal law. You need to do a bit more work on this one."

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Many readers took issue with our True rating for pundit Mark Shields’ claim that since 1968, "more Americans have died from gunfire than died in … all the wars of this country's history." Several noted that recent research has suggested a larger number of Civil War casualties than the source we consulted in our article.

"The New York Times in April 2012 reported that the total casualty number from the Civil War had been raised from 618,222 to 750,000. In your article, you reported total Civil War deaths at 525,000, which is still too low than the traditionally accepted casualty number."

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Meanwhile, a reader thought we missed the forest for the trees when we gave a True rating to the claim in a Facebook post that "in 2011, more people were murdered with knives, ‘hands or feet’ or ‘clubs and hammers’ than with any type of rifle.

"I agree technically the statement is factual, but leaving out the number of people killed with handguns is extremely, and blatantly, misleading in the service of a false point -- that not many people are killed with guns. The claim would fit better under Mostly True since ‘the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.’"

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We gave short shrift to the story of one of the men the young Abraham Lincoln wrestled, at least according to a descendant who took the time to write us. We addressed Lincoln’s grappling prowess when we fact checked Donald Rumsfeld’s claim that wrestling was a favorite sport of the late president.

"‘Jack’ Armstrong of the ‘Clary Gang,’ a ‘neighborhood bully,’ who wrestled Abe Lincoln in New Salem (technically, Clary’s Grove, Ill.), was my ancestor. After the contest, Abraham Lincoln became a fast and trusted friend to Jack Armstrong and his wife, Hannah. He lived with them for several years in Sand Ridge precinct in Menard County, Ill., during the Blackhawk Wars, when he would rock their children and ‘Aunt Hannah’ would feed him, and clean and mend his clothes.

"Jack’s half-brother, Bowling Green, was a judge who mentored the young Lincoln in law and shared his legal library with him, also housing for a while the disconsolate Lincoln after his first love, Ann Rutledge, died unexpectedly. Abraham Lincoln successfully defended their son, William ‘Duff’ Armstrong, in the famed ‘Almanac trial’ – gratis, out of family affection. During the Civil War, when all five of her sons had enlisted and been sent to war, Hannah -- Jack being long dead -- wrote letters to the president requesting dispensation for one of her sons, so he might help her with the farm. Frustrated with the lack of response,  Hannah traveled by train to Washington to see Abe directly. As she was turned away from the White House gates, she requested a message be sent to the president telling him that ‘Aunt Hannah from Petersburg’ was here to see him. Minutes later she was escorted into the White House, where she was personally greeted by the president himself. In front of her, he signed the dispensation letter for her son. When the letter of discharge was presented to Duff Armstrong, it had a $20 bill pinned to it.

"So, in wrestling Jack Armstrong, Lincoln was also making a life-long friend. I wanted to forward this point of family pride, in hopes the memory of the Armstrong family of Clary’s Grove not be forever relegated to collective oafish brutishness."

Poetry fans on the PolitiFact staff would like to note that Hannah Armstrong’s visit to the White House was immortalized in an eponymous poem, part of the American classic Spoon River Anthology, by Edgar Lee Masters.

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One reader had some fun with our habit of concluding our Truth-O-Meter items with the boldfaced heading, "Our ruling," an affectation he considers presumptuous.

"My ruling

"It is condescending to title what is clearly an opinion at best, a finding, at worst, a ‘ruling.’ But ‘our ruling’? What are you, the kings of truth? Spare me.

"Cordially,

"King Jim

"P.S. Where is the rent you owe me! Off with your heads!"

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We did receive some praise from readers, however.

"I have been a long-time reader of your site, and while I have disagreed on some small points every now and again, I think that you are doing a great service to many people who do not have the time to become educated on every issue that our nation faces. Keep on keeping on."

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"You guys represent the best of both worlds -- a private business serving the most important public interest, which is keeping all the important national players accountable. I absolutely love your site. Keep up the excellent work"

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"In this mad, mad world, thank you for a slice of sanity."

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And finally, a tweet:

"@politifact stop using your facts to distract me from my truth! I spent a lot of time and effort burying my head in the sand!"