Sunday, December 21st, 2014

Mailbag: 'PolitiFact is a hack for the fantasy of centrism'

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.

Summer’s here, and the temperatures are rising -- both outdoors and in the PolitiFact email inbox. Here is our periodic selection of recent reader comments and concerns. Comments are edited for length and style.

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One of our most controversial rulings in recent weeks was the Mostly False we gave to Everytown for Gun Safety for its claim that there have been 74 "school shootings in America since Sandy Hook." We found their count relied on an overly broad definition of school shootings, giving the impression that mass shootings like the one at Sandy Hook are more common than they actually are.

You call the statement Mostly False because the shootings don't all resemble Columbine? Drug shootings in schools fit a different definition? Suicides? Are we that jaded now? A school shooting, so far as I can parse it, is a thing that occurs when someone shoots off a gun at a school. Period. Is PolitiFact the new print arm of the NRA?"

"Once again you abandon the plain meaning of a statement and contort the facts to arrive at a politically comfortable answer. Everytown defined ‘school shooting’ and then counted incidents that fit the criteria they described. If the count of those incidents as they described them is accurate, then you have no choice but to rule the claim True. Politifact is a hack for the fantasy of centrism."

A teacher from Sarasota, Fla., wrote, "I’d like you to know that any shooting within a school, or on its property, should be classified as a ‘school shooting.’ Just because there may not have been a significant number of people harmed during those events, the fact is they did occur. Perhaps they were stopped from being mass murders by a brave soul, or perhaps the gun jammed. Yet the capacity existed simply because guns were used in or around a school. I doubt if these events were taking place at worksites such as yours, you’d have some ‘magic’ number of killings per site before finding the need to count them. I find your methodology flawed."

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Several readers took issue with our check of Hillary Clinton’s claim that she and Bill Clinton "came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt." We rated that Mostly False.

"The Clintons had debt that exceeded their assets. In no uncertain terms, and even by your own words, this means the Clintons were broke. Did they have the belief that they would become more enriched over time? Yes. But had either Bill or Hillary Clinton died a sudden death in February 2001, each would have been left with liabilities in excess of assets.  Ask any accountant: This means they were broke. At worst, her claim is Mostly True, not Mostly False."

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The office of Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., took issue with our rating of the senator’s claim that the death penalty "is a deterrent that does affect and impact people." We rated it Mostly False.

"I was disappointed in your reasoning in this piece. It hurts the credibility of PolitiFact, which is a valuable tool. Your piece essentially says ‘we don’t know’ on the deterrence question, yet you declare Sen. Coburn’s statement Mostly False. If you don’t know, how can you say it’s false?  The only way to say it’s false is to demonstrate he’s wrong, which you did not do.  If it’s an open question, you should say his statement is unknown or undecided. Moreover, Dr. Coburn said, ‘I think.’ He didn’t say he had proof. Policymakers have no choice but to make decisions based on imperfect data.  If his statement is false, show us proof the death penalty is not a deterrent."

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A reader took issue with our fact-check of columnist George Will, who said that the incandescent light bulb "has no effect whatever on the planet." We rated that claim False.

"I generally agree with your assessment. However, one or your comments stood out. You said the U.S. Department of Energy ‘has encouraged the use of more efficient alternatives such as as compact fluorescent bulbs.’ I rate your assertion Pants on Fire. A better choice of words would be ‘forced the use.’ The switch to different bulbs has been mandated by law in a one-size-fits-all plan, irrespective of what consumers want."

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A reader found fault with our analysis of campaign finance in a fact check of Dan Sullivan, a Republican U.S. Senate candidate from Alaska. Sullivan said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, "has taken campaign cash from" libertarian donors Charles and David Koch while he, Sullivan, hasn’t. We rated that claim Mostly False.

"You take great pains to repeat that (1) Dan Sullivan hasn't taken any Koch money directly; and (2) Begich has. However, you allow yourself special permission to move beyond the ‘letter of the law’ to insert your own caveats into the story -- about political action committee money that campaigns are not allowed to take, and a dismissive (but incorrect) assertion that the amount of money Begich took from the Koch Brothers negligible. On many other fact checks, you avail yourself the opportunity to remind the reader about the ‘letter of the law’ reading of what someone said. However, in this case, you allow personal liberty for editorial assessment. On its face, there's no way that either assertion in Sullivan's statement is incorrect, let alone Mostly False."

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One reader said we should have gone further with our fact check of Hillary Clinton’s claim that "the U.S. military footprint in Africa is nearly nonexistent." We rated that claim True.

"From recent mainstream media news reports easily found on Google, there have been many additional advisors dispatched to Africa in many locations for multiple reasons. I understand that the number of advisors are not large when compared to a battalion or regiment of regular forces, but the numbers are going up."

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A reader argued that we shortchanged the Tax Foundation in our analysis of its claim that "Americans will spend more on taxes in 2014 than they will on food, clothing and housing combined." We rated that claim Half True.

"PolitiFact completely ignored the ‘hidden’ taxes that are paid by the consumer. We have multiple commercial properties that pay property taxes. Those taxes are paid by the tenant in the form of higher rents, which offset landlord costs. The tenant passes those costs along to consumers in the way of higher prices for goods or services so that they can cover their costs. This doesn't show up as ‘taxes,’ but that's exactly what some of the price is whenever one purchases anything. ... Keeping the taxes hidden in higher prices by taxing businesses doesn't mean that the end consumer isn't paying the tax."

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One reader offered a footnote to our fact-check of radio host Laura Ingraham, who said that Americans "invented the automobile." We rated that claim False.

"It may be of interest to readers to be aware that even Ingraham’s assertion that Americans invented the airplane can be disputed. In 1902, months before Kitty Hawk, a New Zealand farmer named Richard Pearse flew his heavier-than-air machine a distance of approximately 350 yards. Or so New Zealanders claim."

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One reader offered a critique of our Flip-O-Meter, which measures whether someone changed their position on an important issue.

"I noticed that a recent comment made by Mark Warner was labeled a flip-flop. Flip-flopping is historically seen as a negative in politics, but the reality is that if someone changes their mind on an issue, there is a strong possibility that they changed it due to a new thought process or experience. It displays a progression on the part of that individual. Is there a chance this position changed because of a negative influence? Certainly, which is why I still think it needs to be pointed out. But I'm asking that it not be pointed out in such a way that makes the person look like an idiot. Because frankly, if people in our political system don’t start changing their minds about things, we're going to continue down a bad road."

Indeed, we feel similarly. Here’s an excerpt from our "The Principles of PolitiFact, PunditFact and the Truth-O-Meter" page.

"The Flip-O-Meter rates an official's consistency on an issue. The rating is not making a value judgment about a politician who changes positions on an issue. Indeed, voters often like politicians who are flexible and have the ability to compromise or adapt their positions to the wishes of constituents. Still, accusations of shifting positions are so common in politics that it is valuable to have us provide an analysis of a shift and rate the amount of change."

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Finally, a reader wrote to express appreciation for what we do.

"The work you do is strategically important to our nation. I believe you help to reduce the number of voters who make decisions based on candidates' pronouncements that distort the truth for personal gain. Their statements provide a cowardly disservice to our nation and, if left unchecked, our nation could be led by those politicians who lie the most convincingly. … Thank you for your very important work!"