Mailbag: 'What a silly bit of analysis you've offered'

The mail brings a fresh batch of criticism (and some praise, too!)
The mail brings a fresh batch of criticism (and some praise, too!)

The past two months have been a lot newsier than summers typically are. And our readers haven’t taken a vacation, either -- they’ve been eager to let us know what they think of our fact-checks. Here is a sampling of recent reader emails, edited for space and clarity.

***

The protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the police shooting of 18-year-old African-American resident Michael Brown riveted the attention of many Americans this summer. We checked a claim on social media that police in the United States are allowed to use tear gas even though it "has been classified as a chemical weapon and banned in international conflict since 1993." We rated that claim Mostly True.

One reader said we overlooked an important historical factor.

"A reason for the ban against tear gas in warfare is not because it is a lethal weapon -- it isn't -- but rather because of the way it was used in past wars, especially in World War I, where tear gas was used to drive soldiers out of bunkers and trenches out into the open, where they could be killed. There was very little use of tear gas in WWII or Korea, but in Vietnam it was used once again for driving Viet Cong troops out of underground tunnels.

"In addition, chemicals that cause nausea were included in gas attacks with lethal chemicals so that it would be impossible to wear gas masks. The vomiting caused by these agents would force soldiers to remove their masks, thus exposing them to the lethal agents. There was a concern on the part of some proponents of the chemical weapons treaty that a failure to ban tear gas -- even if it wasn't a lethal weapon itself -- could leave a loophole that might also lead to the development and use of new types of otherwise nonlethal harassing agents on the battlefields of future wars, similar to what had occurred in the past."

Meanwhile, Neil Corney -- a research associate at the Omega Research Foundation, a United Kingdom-based group that analyses military, security and police technologies -- offered some additional context.

"Also of relevance is Chemical Weapons Convention Article II, 1.a. It says that the use of toxic chemicals for riot control purposes is only acceptable under the CWC if the types and quantities used are consistent with such purposes – and, crucially, this has never been defined. … There is a need for state parties to revisit this issue, as law enforcement agencies use ever-increasing amounts of tear gas for riot control purposes, firing many thousands of rounds, or using rapid fire weapons, which may be inconsistent with the originally defined purpose in the convention."

***

A reader offered a critique of our fact-check of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who said, "In 1952, the corporate income tax accounted for 33 percent of all federal tax revenue. Today, despite record-breaking profits, corporate taxes bring in less than 9 percent." We rated Sanders’ claim Mostly True.

"You may want to consider the increase in the corporate tax rate over the years as a factor in the reduction of corporate revenue collected by the U.S. government. I think most economists would point to the concept of diminishing returns. It appears the corporate tax rate now exceeds the optimum level, so we see corporations hire lobbyists to gain special tax considerations, tax avoidance (if not tax evasion), ‘inversions’ and corporate opportunity costs when companies decide not to headquarter in the world’s largest consumer market."

***

Several readers commented on our fact check of a social-media meme that said that "in 1978, a student who worked a minimum-wage summer job could afford to pay a year's full tuition at the 4-year public university of their choice." We rated that Mostly True. One reader shared their own experience from the 1970s.

"This reinforces my recollections, and what I’ve told my kids, about my college years (1974-77).  I lived at home, and worked during summers at the hot, steamy canning factory for minimum wage -- $2.00 an hour. I’d earn about $1,500 for the summer with a lot of overtime. Half of this was enough to cover my next two semesters of tuition at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  I kept half of each paycheck and turned over the other half to Grandpa, and he wrote the checks to pay the tuition, which I recall as being about $250 per semester. In fact, at the end I had overpaid, and he refunded me $800. The degree cost about $2,500 total including books.  Compare that to today, where $2,500 covers about half of one semester."

The reader continued, "I notice the group that made the claim seems to be focused on raising the minimum wage. If the goal is to raise the minimum wage to a level such that working all summer at that minimum wage would allow you to cover the next year of tuition, then what would that wage be? Twelve weeks times 40 hours a week is 480 hours. UW-Madison tuition is $9,273, meaning you’d need a minimum wage of $19.32 an hour. Raising the minimum wage to nearly $20 an hour is not very realistic. I wonder why they aren’t attacking the other side of the equation -- tuition costs."

***

A reader thought we were too generous in our rating of a claim by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, that "we did not seek an impeachment of President Bush." We rated the claim Mostly False, noting that neither the House nor a majority of the Democratic caucus sought Bush’s impeachment, even though a dozen Democratic lawmakers did -- including Jackson Lee herself.

"I cannot comprehend how this statement is anything other than Pants on Fire. By her very own wording, Democrats did ‘seek’ impeachment by sponsoring a bill for impeachment. This rating is just searching for any reason to not give a Pants on Fire ruling. If PolitiFact wants to truly sell itself as unbiased, then it needs to slap deserving rulings on such statements regardless of political ideology."

***

One reader said we were too generous with our Mostly True rating for a claim that Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa, missed "79 percent of veterans affairs committee hearings."

"Your rating leaves out significant information that could affect the interpretation of the statement itself. If Rep. Braley missed a significant number of meetings because they conflicted with another subcommittee meeting, that’s not negligence, as the ad asserts, but failures on the part of the chairpersons who are responsible for scheduling those meetings. So while the number itself is true, the implicit message that he doesn’t care about veterans or that he’s irresponsible is not."

***

A reader offered a factor we didn't consider in our rating of the claim by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that Russia "has an economy the size of Italy." We gave Graham a rating of Mostly True.

"The article did a good job at its analysis, but I feel an important point was under-emphasized -- that because Russia's economy is propped up by natural resources (oil and gas), it would have higher international clout than Italy's. Engaging in a trade war with Russia would result in a serious decline in the supply of these resources, thus affecting the global economy severely. So, while the nominal GDP figures may be equal, what comprises those figures are not."

***

Several readers thought we were too critical of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., for saying that "There were 36 states where Republicans who were in charge refused to implement a state (health insurance) exchange." We rated that claim Mostly False.

"Wasserman Schultz stated that 36 Republican-run states opted not to set up a state-based exchange. You found that, in fact, the number is 29. Subtracting the two that tried to set up a state-based program before opting for the federal program, that still leaves 27, which is 75 percent of the number that Wasserman Schultz cited. My question is, with her number being 75 percent accurate, how do you come to the conclusion that her claim is Mostly False? Her point was to show that Republican leadership is largely the reason why so many states are on the federal exchange. Her claim largely holds."

***

One reader thought we were being too literal when we checked a claim by Hillary Clinton that the number of jobs created and people lifted out of poverty during Bill Clinton’s presidency was "a hundred times" what it was under President Ronald Reagan. We rated the claim False, arguing that the statistics under Bill Clinton were incrementally better, not 100 times better.

"If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times: ‘A hundred times better’ is frequently used as a figure of speech meaning merely ‘a lot’ or ‘much better.’ For example: ‘The coffee I made today was a hundred times better than the truck-stop coffee I drank yesterday.’ What a silly bit of analysis you've offered here."

***

One wag took aim at our tongue-in-cheek Full Flop rating for President Barack Obama after he wore a beige suit for a news conference. Obama once explained in a magazine interview that "I wear only gray or blue suits."

"A flop? Written by guys who undoubtedly sit around in wrinkled khakis and polo shirts."

***

A few readers wrote us to express their gratitude for what PolitiFact does. Here’s a sampling:

"What you guys are doing is outstanding. Every news organization should make it their ultimate goal to provide unbiased reporting; it is so rare to see an organization actually do it."

"You all have taught me more about a lot of things than all of the TV pundits combined. Keep up the good work!"

"What I find is, whichever party you are calling out is the one that screams about being partisan in the other party's favor. Which says to me you are doing your job just fine."