Friday, September 19th, 2014

Mailbag: 'Everyone fails this fact-check'

Some of our readers' comments recently have been as colorful as these mailboxes.
Some of our readers' comments recently have been as colorful as these mailboxes.

It’s spring. The flowers are blooming, the birds are chirping … and PolitiFact’s readers are still giving us an earful.

Here’s a selection of commentary by our readers in recent weeks.

***

One reader took exception to our Pants on Fire rating for a claim by Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that under current policies, "we're going to reduce the overall debt of the United States by $3 trillion over the next 10 years." We concluded that while it’s obvious in retrospect that Durbin meant deficits, not debt, that doesn't mean it was obvious to everyone watching him say it on television. We said Durbin, who has been in Congress for 30 years, should be able to articulate the difference.

"According to your site, a Pants on Fire statement must include a ridiculous claim. But Durbin wasn't making a ridiculous claim. His claim was quite reasonable. He simply misspoke. It seems completely unfair to me to judge his statement as though he meant to say debt instead of deficit. A slip of the tongue isn't equivalent to making a ridiculous claim."

***

One reader, who wrote that he is a professional demographer, took issue with our Half True rating on a claim by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that Cuba has "a lower child mortality rate than ours. Their life expectancy is now greater than ours." We said Cuba’s statistics should be taken with a grain of salt, but the reader said they should be disregarded entirely.

"It is the height of irresponsibility (and gullibility) for Sen. Harkin to compare data between cultures and political systems that are as different as Cuba and the United States. … I realize that people do this all the time, but that doesn't make the comparison valid. It is incorrect -- not ’Half True’ -- to say that infant mortality in Cuba or the United States is this or that. You are comparing apples and oranges. That comparison is pants-on-fire invalid. Period."

***

A reader thought our Mostly True rating for a claim by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was too generous. Jindal, a Republican, said, "Our economy (in Louisiana) has grown 50 percent faster than the national GDP, even since the national recession."

"One of the things missing in your article was the fact that a huge amount of money was spent in Louisiana as a result of the reconstruction efforts from Hurricane Katrina. With multi-billion dollar construction projects that started in 2007, it seems a little unfair to not mention that the job growth had nothing to do with the governor’s policies."

***

One reader added another incident to our list of presidential oversteps in our evaluation of a claim by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that President Barack Obama "is the first president we've ever had who thinks he can choose which laws to enforce and which laws to ignore." We rated Cruz’s claim False.

"One of the most egregious examples of president’s ignoring the law was President Andrew Jackson ignoring the Supreme Court after Worcester vs. Georgia and using federal troops on Cherokee land to facilitate their forced removal."

***

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University took issue with our True rating for a claim by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, that "the average family (is) now bringing home $4,000 less than they did just five years ago."

"His statement is not literally accurate. He was being deliberately deceptive. He said ‘just five years ago’ -- but ‘just five years ago’ would have covered only Obama's presidency, and that was what he was clearly implying. However, the actual data he uses (the most recent available) only covers three years of Obama's presidency -- 2009 to 2012 -- along with two years of Bush's presidency, 2007-2009. And those two years of Bush's presidency were very bad years for the economy. Median household income in constant dollars fell by $456 between 2007 and 2009, then rose by $1,240 between 2009 and 2012.  So all of the decline occurred in the first two years, during the Bush presidency. The results would have looked different if he had only included the years available from Obama's presidency."

***

A reader took issue with our False rating for a claim by the free-market group Americans for Prosperity that millions of Americans are "paying more and getting less" under Obamacare.

"You guys need to re-evaluate your logic. If a vegan goes to Pizza Hut and is forced to buy a meat-lover's pizza instead of a garden special, they are indeed paying more for less. The pizza comes with less of what they want, even if it has more ‘stuff’ overall. Now they have to pick off all the meat and get no veggies to boot. That's what I'm getting under Obamacare. My insurance costs a lot more money and covers stuff that I don't need, while benefits that I would appreciate are left out."

***

One reader agreed with our Pants on Fire rating for a chain email but thought we soft-pedaled its offensiveness. The chain email said that Obama told a room of students, "Children, every time I clap my hands together, a child in America dies from gun violence." The email said a child responded that he could solve the problem by not clapping any more. We concluded that earlier emails making fun of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and rocker Bono made clear that this was a joke being passed off falsely as a real anecdote.

"The fact you would call that chain mail an ‘old joke’ shows your lack of journalistic integrity. This was not a joke."

***

One reader took issue with our False rating for the claim by a Facebook meme that "22 Countries Invaded by the U.S. in 20 Years." Among other things, we noted that one of the "invasions" listed in the meme was one of the Virgin Islands -- a U.S. territory -- in 1989.

"Okay, you're right: The U.S. didn't invade the Virgin Islands in 1989. The U.S. bought the Virgin Islands in 1916 from the Danish, who took them by force from their original inhabitants and the Spanish conquistadors. I’m not sure if this is supposed to make me feel better about American imperialism. What is even crazier about the supposed debunking of the meme in this fact-checkish way is that you acknowledge three ground invasions in 20 years matter-of-factly. This is the absurdist edge of objective journalism: Some pacifists on Facebook are lying because they exaggerated the extent of American militarism. Go about your business, and ignore the next drone strike. Everyone fails this fact-check."

***

One reader was mystified at our rating of Half True for a claim made by the Democratic group Organizing for Action that a group funded by the libertarian businessmen Charles and David Koch is "going to college campuses, giving away free booze to try to bribe young folks out of getting health insurance."

"The statement you checked doesn't appear to read that (a) there was booze, and (b) there were bribes. My reading is that free booze in and of itself constituted an attempt at bribery. Your final verdict mentions that the group ‘didn’t bribe students, but they did offer alcohol to young people.’ For an organization that has repeatedly said that ‘words matter,’ I believe that you are significantly distorting what the email claimed."

***

Numerous readers said our False rating for a chain email was actually generous. The email claimed that a widely circulated photograph represented "the first time since World War II that five nuclear-powered aircraft carriers were docked together."

"I would have given this a Pants on Fire ruling, considering that nuclear-powered ships didn't exist during World War II. They didn’t exist until 1955, after the Korean War."

***

One reader, presumably a Floridian, offered some gallows humor upon reading our Mostly False rating for a claim by Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson that "my state of Florida is now the third-largest state. We have surpassed New York in population." We concluded that New York was still in third place in population.

"How will Florida be such a huge state when it's projected to go under water in the future due to climate change? Perhaps it will be a temporary growth before the entire state sinks?"

***

A reader took us to task for unfairly picking on the Koch brothers when PunditFact gave a True rating to a claim by Democratic Fox News contributor Bob Beckel that the brothers "are one of the biggest polluters in the country."

"Pollution is pollution even if it is legal. By your logic every person, plant and animal on the face of the planet is a polluter. Meaningless and stupid."

***

Finally, a few readers made the effort to thank us for what we do.

"I just bought your app and love what you do! Why any of us believe what is said by our political leaders without challenge amazes me. Do the journalists and reporters subscribe to your service?  Give it to them for free. Maybe we can get our journalists to be more thoughtful. I particularly love the full explanations you give as to why you rate a statement as you do. That part is particularly awesome. Thank you for what you do."

"I’m so glad I found this page. Thanks. Don't change. Never change. America needs you. I like how transparent you guys are. Even if I don't agree, I don't question your intellectual honesty."