Mailbag: 'You are not very good at fact checking'

Some criticism, with a little praise, in the latest mailbag.
Some criticism, with a little praise, in the latest mailbag.

Now that Election Day 2014 is in the rear-view mirror, it’s time to take a look at some of the feedback we got from readers about our recent fact-checks. Here’s a sampling.

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In one of the more widely discussed charges from the pivotal Iowa Senate race, we gave a False rating to Republican Joni Ernst’s claim that her Democratic opponent, Bruce Braley, "threatened to sue a neighbor over chickens that came onto (his) property."

One reader wrote, "I would not rate Joni Ernst’s claim False. He ‘threatened’ to sue his neighbors. He mentioned a ‘litigious situation’ as a possibility. He is a lawyer. C’mon, you know exactly what the outcome would have been if they hadn’t built that fence."

Another called our rating "mind-boggling."

"Tell you what: Go to your organization's lawyer and say to him, ‘We just got a letter from the former president of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association who says we've screwed up and he wants to solve the problem in a non-litigious manner,’ and ask your lawyer whether he thinks that's a threat of a lawsuit. The fact Braley didn't actually write the words ‘or else’ doesn't change the meaning."

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Several readers wrote to criticize our Pants on Fire ruling for NARAL Pro-Choice America’s claim in another key Senate race, in Colorado. The abortion-rights group ran an ad saying, "If Cory Gardner gets his way, you'd better stock up on condoms." We concluded that the most obvious interpretation of the claim was that Gardner wanted to ban condoms -- something based on an incorrect interpretation of the measures Gardner has supported in the past (and which he later distanced himself from).

One reader wrote, "You are not very good at fact checking. Somehow, you jump to the claim that condoms are being outlawed. Really? Did you people flunk biology? Let me help. ... If I am planning to have sex and my partner's birth control has been outlawed, what will I need to stock up on to prevent pregnancy? Wine? No. Barry White records? Maybe. Condoms? Yes-- condoms! Far from Pants on Fire, this deserves a True."

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Rob Richie, executive director of the election-reform group FairVote, took issue with our False rating for Larry Pressler, an independent candidate running for Senate from South Dakota. Pressler had said, "All four (presidents) on Mount Rushmore, they were all independents at one critical point in their career."

Richie wrote: "I would think Pressler meant that they were all political insurgents who took independent stances, such as being part of new parties. That clearly applies to Roosevelt and to Lincoln, who were part of new party movements. (TR's failed and Lincoln's succeeded.) Jefferson was key to formation of a party as well. I think you're making a mountain out of a molehill. It gets down to the definition of ‘independent’ -- whether that means running without any association to others or making an independent break from the status quo."

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A number of readers took issue with our coverage of "Fangate" -- the odd moment when Florida Gov. Rick Scott initially refused to appear on stage with challenger Charlie Crist at a debate because Crist had a fan behind the podium -- contrary to the agreed-upon rules, the Scott campaign argued. Most referred to the wording of the pre-debate agreement.

"The coverage keeps referring to an ‘electronic’ fan, but ‘electronic’ does not mean the same as ‘electric.’ To be electronic, a device needs to have smaller pieces, generally logic pieces -- transistors, computer chips, things like that. (Don't trust me -- look it up.) While it would be possible to build an electronic fan (one that detects the temperature, say, or repositions itself automatically), that's not the default. The pictures I've seen of the device make it look like a very simple one, pretty much a motor and an on-switch, and that would make it electric, but not electronic.

"Whether the clause (in the debate agreement) ‘electronic devices (including fans)’ is meant to mean ‘including any fans which are electronic devices’ or to mean ‘all fans will be considered electronic devices for the meaning of this sentence’ is a question for the lawyers. I have to say, though, that had Crist pulled out a folding hand fan and begun waving it, I doubt anyone would claim that that qualified as an electronic device (mainly because everyone would be too busy making ‘Lordy, I got the vapors!’ jokes.) I'm not a Floridian, so I don't have a dog in the political end of this fight. I am a writer, however, so I do feel that words matter."

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A couple of readers had reservations about PunditFact’s Half True rating for Fox News host Tucker Carlson’s claim that Democrats give "Newports to the homeless to get them to the polls."

One wrote, "I like your site and appreciate all the research you guys do, but the Truth-O-Meter ratings themselves seem like they're determined by randomly spinning an arrow on a wheel. Half True? Seriously?  

"First, he says it in the present-tense; this happened 14 years ago.

"Second, you wrote, ‘We don’t know, however, if they were promised the cigarettes in advance or asked for a smoke afterwards and were treated to a full pack. And we don’t know if the promise of cigarettes was in exchange for a vote.’ You just admitted there's no proof what he said was true at all.

"What the hell goes on in your offices when you come up with these? The research is great. The ratings are a mess."

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Readers also took issue with fact-checks we did beyond campaign coverage. For instance, we rated as Mostly False a Facebook post that said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., "lives in a $5.4 million mansion." We found that while Warren lives in a desirable neighborhood in an expensive urban center, the house’s estimated value is less than half of the stated $5.4 million, and calling it a mansion is a stretch.

"You rated this as Mostly False but admitted she lives in a multimillion dollar house, which some would consider a mansion," a reader wrote. "The problem is that Warren attacks the rich for doing well but is obviously rich herself. You’re quibbling over whether it’s $2 million or $5 million. A big majority of Americans would consider either amount extremely high. It should have been rated Mostly True."

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One reader was critical of our False rating for the claim by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, that President Barack Obama, "instead of nominating a health professional, he nominated someone who is an anti-gun activist" for surgeon general. We noted that Obama’s nominee has a long list of credentials showing he is a health professional, including his position as an attending physician at a leading hospital.

The reader wrote, "Ted Cruz was absolutely incorrect about the nominee being a health professional. However, he was absolutely correct about him being an anti-gun activist. This should have been rated Half True."

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A reader raised a question about our False rating for a claim by Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., that "in 2011, (the Islamic State) attempted to attack Fort Knox."

"You say it’s False under the argument that ‘there is no public evidence of this.’ So does that mean everything that does not have ‘public evidence’ is rated False? Even though it could be true, just no public evidence for it? Can't you make up a new rating of, ‘Beats the heck out of us?’ Seems odd to rate something True or False when you don't know the whole story."

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Stan Collender, a veteran budget analyst in Washington, wrote to take issue with our check of a claim by President Obama that "When I took office, the deficit was nearly 10 percent of our economy. Today, it's approaching 3 percent." We ruled it Half True, noting that the deficit reached 10 percent of the economy several months after Obama took office, not on his first day, and that Obama is effectively laying the blame for the high deficit-to-GDP ratio entirely on his predecessor, George W. Bush, when the figure covers time in office for both presidents.

Among other things, Collender wrote that PolitiFact was "trying to be way too precise with the concept of when Obama took office. By budget standards, Obama had to deal all year with the deficit that existed under current law. He’s not wrong, therefore, is saying that the deficit has fallen precipitously while he has been president."

Collender added that while Obama doesn’t deserve all of the credit nor all of the blame, he does deserve credit "for the deficit reductions that happened because of an improving economy. After all, he’d be blamed for a rising deficit if the economy was getting worse. The bottom line is that this has been one of the largest and most precipitous drops in the budget deficit in U.S. history."

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Finally, a few readers wrote us to say they appreciate what we do.

One wrote, "Keep up the excellent work! I don’t believe it’s possible to "keep ’em honest," but at least you are providing a reliable source for those who wish to utilize it."

Another added, "I just wanted to thank you for all you do to try to bring truth into our politics. I have been following you since you started and have grown to really appreciate a place to go to and find the facts. There is so much BS out there these days. I just wish you could expand into all the states and that more people were aware of what you do."

Gary Bowen of Haines City, Fla., published a letter in his local newspaper, the Lakeland Ledger, which syndicates PolitiFact content. We’ll reprint it here.

"Recently, a Ledger reader called liberals and Democrats ‘fools’ and ‘liars.’ He also called PolitiFact ‘heavily biased.’ My friend is a conservative Republican who watches right-wing-biased Fox News. I am a liberal Democrat who watches left-wing-biased MSNBC. We bring these biases with us when we get together (almost daily) to debate politics. Occasionally, we argue. But we respect each other and each other's opinions. Two words that we have never uttered about the other are ‘fool’ and ‘liar.’

"After we air our respective biases, we turn to PolitiFact. We don't always agree with their ratings, but we do agree that PolitiFact does excellent research and reaches conclusions that are well supported through documented records, statistical evidence and the expertise of conservative, liberal and non-partisan experts in the subject field.

"Unfortunately, far too many people today are political extremists. They view politics as a blood sport pitting ‘us against them.’ They view Americans with different opinions as their political enemies. They are incapable of having reasoned and respectful discussions with people who disagree with them because they do not respect them and their positions. Rhetoric such as ‘fools’ and ‘liars’ proves my point.

"Regardless of your political leanings, about half of PolitiFact's rulings will not support statements made by your favorite politicians and media pundits. Political extremists will choose to cheer their favorites and argue that PolitiFact is either misinformed or biased. I'll put my trust in PolitiFact every time over the politicians and pundits. If you are an open-minded person seeking political accuracy, fairness and truth, PolitiFact is a great resource. Kudos to the Ledger for utilizing PolitiFact on a more regular basis."