Mailbag: Readers call out our recent turkeys

Two turkeys participate in a media availability ahead of being "pardoned" by President Barack Obama at the White House on Nov. 24, 2015. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Two turkeys participate in a media availability ahead of being "pardoned" by President Barack Obama at the White House on Nov. 24, 2015. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

These days, it seems like the 2016 presidential contenders are everywhere. It’s equally clear that the presidential race is what’s animating most of the readers who wrote us to critique our work.

Below is a selection of recent emails from PolitiFact readers, edited for length and clarity.

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Two readers took issues with separate fact checks that they said downplayed the significance of suicides -- as opposed to homicides -- by guns.

"I have noticed that you seem to count suicides as somehow a lesser form of gun death, when really, as seen in places like Australia, gun control can sometimes have the greatest effect on suicide frequency, rather than other forms of gun deaths."

The other reader added, "I cannot understand your blatant attempt to ignore suicide by gun as one aspect of the presence of guns in American society.  Death by gunshot is death, whether homicide, suicide, intentional, or accidental. It is the fact of the availability of guns that is the immediate cause of death by gunshot and that fact should not be downplayed in any discussion of this "disease.’ "

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Several readers thought we were too generous in giving Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump a Half True rating for the claim that because of Obamacare, "people’s premiums ... are going up 35, 45, 55 percent."  

"Trump did not specify that for a very few, premiums would go up 35, 45, 55 percent if they kept their current plan. He made it sound like it affected the majority of people, if not all. Shouldn't the ruling be Mostly False?"

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Many readers wrote to complain that we misunderstood the gist of the claim by Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson that "German citizens were disarmed by their government in the late 1930s," which allowed the Nazis to "carry out their evil intentions with relatively little resistance." They argued that our False rating was too harsh.

"I strongly disagree with your conclusion. Your article proves that when a group is stripped of all defenses, it is vulnerable to attack. The Jewish population's disarmament was directly related to the group's extermination. Your attempt to lump Jews in with the general German population is misleading and distorts the point Dr. Carson was trying to make. While he may have said German citizens, which the Jews were, I think any reasonable person would come to the same conclusion. Unfortunately, it seems that you missed the point of your own fact checking."

Another reader wrote, "Your article failed to mention what Dr. Carson spoke of after he was interviewed with CNN. Carson did say that the Jews in the (ghetto in Warsaw) had guns, and if more of them were able to keep them, the Nazis would have had a difficult time deporting them to concentration camps, confiscating businesses and seizing personal property. The Jews of Warsaw fought off the Germans from January to May 1943. If you are going to say that he was incorrect, it was only because he didn't have the time to detail the whole history of the war."

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Many readers also took issue with our rating of another statement by Carson -- that he "didn’t have an involvement with" nutritional supplement company Mannatech. We rated that claim False.

"Dr. Carson's response clearly indicated that he made ‘paid’ speeches for Mannatech. What may be misleading is the number of speeches and the amount that he promoted the product, but is not an outright false statement."

But another reader wrote, "Great job as usual, guys. But I’d personally rate Carson Pants on Fire for this one. Guess it’s a question of degree."

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Another fact-check of a Carson statement attracted a number of reader comments -- his assertion that "every signer of the Declaration of Independence had no federal elected office experience." We rated that Pants on Fire, even after Carson sought to clarify his statement, adding "federal" to "elected office."

"I think you are being generous to merely say that there was no federal government, therefore it’s nonsensical to say no one had federal elected office experience. The Continental Congress was at least a precursor to the federal government and was intended to try to make a federated entity of some sort. Thus, all of those elected to the Continental Congress -- most of those listed -- had as much experience in federal elected office as was possible at the time. Maybe you should have a new rating beyond Pants on Fire when a position that is already Pants on Fire gets amended to try to improve it yet remains a Pants on Fire -- a Pants on Fire squared, perhaps."

Another reader wondered why we didn’t look into a different part of Carson’s quote: "Just wondering about his claim that that the Founding Fathers had a ‘deep belief that freedom is a gift from God.’ Weren't they part of the Enlightenment, which sought to create a world based on science, not theology? Wasn’t the founding principle of the country the idea of freedom of -- and by extension freedom from -- religion?"

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One reader said we let Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie get away with one when we checked his comment that the United States is in "the worst recovery from an economic recession since World War II." We rated that claim Half True.

"It is Christie’s own Republican Party that has pushed the sort of austerity measures that are shrinking the public sector, and they are promoting more of the same should they be elected. Bemoaning slow growth and implying that it is the fault of your political opponents -- while advocating the very policies that are holding back growth -- is a significant sleight of hand. By failing to bring this up in your analysis ignores facts that might give an alternative impression."

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Many readers took issue with our check of a claim by Republican presidential candidate marco Rubio that "welders make more money than philosophers." We rated that False.

"Sure, a philosophy professor makes plenty of money, but the elephant in the room is that many philosophy majors don't become professors -- they become baristas! Because he was specifically talking about education, it is safe to assume that he was referring to people majoring in philosophy."

Another argued that our fact-check "totally misses the point. … Rubio made an excellent point about vocational education, and it deserved more sympathetic treatment in your column. Workers in the trades -- welders, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, and the like -- can easily make $40 to $60 an hour or more, especially when you count overtime and seniority. There is such a shortage in these areas that jobs are going begging. Trained individuals have no trouble finding jobs in these fields. America needs more people going into the trades. Is this so hard to recognize? By contrast, there are many more graduates in the liberal arts than we need as it is, and as a consequence, kids return home after college to work in underpaid part-time jobs for years on end. I speak from experience here."

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Returning to Trump, one reader expressed sympathy for the real estate magnate’s statement that one of his fellow Republican presidential candidates, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, "got lucky with a thing called fracking," which is why Ohio "is doing well." We rated that False.

"All he said was the state benefited from fracking -- he didn't explicitly say that the fracking in question had to physically occur in Ohio. The fracking boom was beneficial to a boatload of Ohio industries that produce materials, technology and equipment needed for the fracking process everywhere. I'm not a Trump guy, but come on, PolitiFact!"

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Also regarding Trump, one reader offered a skeptical view about the comments included in our Mailbag article in which readers wrote to back up Trump’s memory that he "watched in Jersey City, N.J., where thousands and thousands of people were cheering" as the World Trade Center collapsed. Trump’s statement had received a rating of Pants on Fire.

"I was struck by the readers who wrote to defend Trump. None of them, of course, admit to being Trump supporters, which I would suggest is ludicrous, given the comments. But the most telling thing about these people is that, despite their claims to have seen groups of people cheering on television, or in their communities or their workplaces, not a single one of them has a photo, or a video or a link. Not one of them."

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Several readers wrote to say that we were too generous to Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in giving him a True rating for saying that income tax rates under President Dwight D. Eisenhower were as high as 90 percent.

"Sanders' use of this factoid illustrates how a statement can be very narrowly 'true' but grossly misleading. The tax code was stuffed with so many deductions ("loopholes") that almost no one paid the top rate. In addition, state and local taxes were low or nonexistent in Eisenhower's time. Sanders wishes to pile high new federal rates on top of state/local rates that have risen steeply over the years. My state of Ohio had no income tax in the 1950s -- it is now about 5 percent. My city, Columbus, had no income tax in the 1950s -- it is now 2.5 percent. In short, accepting Sanders' talking point at face value is like talking about World War II prices, which were controlled, without mentioning the shortages, rationing, and black markets that accompanied them. It is cherry-picking of a classic kind."

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Numerous readers wrote to us about our fact-check of Sanders’ comment that climate change is "directly related" to the growth of terrorism. We rated that Mostly False.

"Your concern seemed to be that climate change is an indirect contributor to terrorism, magnifying an already tense situation in an area. Given this, I feel the Mostly False rating seems too harsh, giving the impression to a casual reader that climate change does not affect terrorism at all. The only part of Sen. Sanders’ phrasing that seemed to be untrue was the word ‘directly.’ The core message -- that international terrorism and climate are linked -- is correct."

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Alexis Goldstein, senior policy analyst at the group Americans for Financial Reform, took issue with our check of Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina’s comment that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau has "no congressional oversight." We rated that Half True. The group is a coalition of civil rights, consumer, labor, and community groups.

"The CFPB, as PolitiFact said, does not get its funding through annual congressional appropriations. But the bureau is a bank regulator, and not a single one of the other bank regulators – the Federal Reserve, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency  – is funded that way, either. And for good reason: As far back as 1864, when the OCC was created, this country has sought to bolster the independence of bank regulators by insulating them from the politically-charged congressional appropriations process…. (Fiorina) is simply repeating a false narrative developed by banks and lenders against the first and only and financial oversight agency with a mandate to put the interests of consumers ahead of the power and profits of the financial industry. By giving Fiorina credit for being even partially correct, PolitiFact, too, is buying into that narrative." (The group’s full response to our fact check can be found here.)

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One reader offered an idea to better integrate PolitiFact into the presidential debates.

"I would urge you to contact all of the major media outlets to propose that they collectively inform both political parties that they will no longer accept requests for debate air time until every presidential candidate appearing agrees to attend a ‘morning after’ on-the-air program in which he or she would respond to findings that their debate responses were non-factual,  deceitful, erroneous or otherwise incorrect. This may cost the outlets some loss of money, but it would increase their stature within the electorate significantly. It would assure the public of a substantive and worthwhile debate. Otherwise, we’re wasting our time watching or listening, except for the ‘entertainment’ value of the proceedings."

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Finally, we received a few notes of thanks from readers.

"Thank you for such a detailed analysis of the GOP candidates' tax plans. Great work!"

"You guys and the service you provide are awesome. I propose that you host the next whatever party debate. The bunch of prevaricators that want to rule us would never allow it, but it might open up some eyes. Thanks again for your good work."

"Everyone who works at PolitiFact is a hero to me -- please keep up the great work!"

"I have found a particular joy in debunking social media inaccuracies and blatant falsehoods. It’s a hobby, but it helps break up the monotony of the day. You guys perform an incredibly important service with today’s social media. I wish more people were aware of the misinformation. I am going to start sharing your fact checks and newsletter as often as possible."

And one reader from Munich wrote, "What an amazing free (!!!) website you offer to anyone interested in American politics and the upcoming election in particular. I just picked up on this site today -- you were mentioned in a German newspaper -- and I am absolutely amazed by it. There must be a lot of hard work going in to it. Please keep up the great work, so people around the globe can enjoy and learn."

EDITOR’S NOTE, Dec. 2, 2015: After this article was published, the Polish Embassy to the United States drew our attention to the wording of one of the letters we published, which referred to the "Polish ghetto of Warsaw." The Embassy said that the term "Polish ghetto" is "both historically inaccurate as well as vaguely unclear as it confuses the victims with the perpetrators. It was Nazi Germany which occupied and then established ghettos in Poland." We have substituted a more accurate paraphrase for the reader's original words above.