Mailbag: PolitiFact is 'wrong, wrong, wrong'

Lots of readers have written us to sound off recently. Here's a sampling.
Lots of readers have written us to sound off recently. Here's a sampling.

As the presidential primary season morphed into the general-election campaign, readers have showered PolitiFact with letters about fact-checks of the presumptive Democratic and Republican nominees, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Here’s a sampling of the emails we’ve received recently.

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Several readers with varying perspectives wrote us about our fact check of Clinton saying, in reference to how she handled her State Department emails, that "it was allowed." We rated that False on May 31 after the release of a State Department inspector general’s report. Prior to that report’s release, we felt there were too many unknowns to put Clinton’s assertion on our Truth-O-Meter.

One reader was grateful to finally see us rate her statement: "Thank you for your fact-check of Clinton's claims. It's been hard to find media that doesn't glaze over the brazen disregard she has shown."

But another reader said we didn’t go far enough: "I guess I should be grateful you finally rated Ms. Clinton's email lies as False. But what took you so long to reach that blindingly obvious conclusion, except that she has a ‘D’ after her name? And why aren't the lies of the Pants on Fire variety? Apart from the State Department inspector general’s report, which confirmed the obvious, all this information was known months and months ago. "

Then again, some readers thought we were too harsh on Clinton. One wrote, "Your review seems to be splitting hairs on whether it was ‘allowed.’ The basic questions were: Was it a secret? Did anyone in the administration ask her to stop? And if the answer to these questions is ‘no,’ then it was allowed. Your rating of False is outrageous and clearly biased. Now, could you say that it was against policy? Perhaps, if you could show a specific policy against it. Was it a bad idea?  Perhaps. But it clearly was allowed since no one stopped it."

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Several readers commented on our fact-check of Trump’s claim that Clinton "wants to abolish the Second Amendment." We rated that False.

"Kind of a stretch there to absolve candidate Clinton, don’t you think? Very seldom does a candidate explicitly say that he or she wishes to abolish a constitutional amendment; it would sound extreme. Hillary Clinton is a lawyer to the tips of her fingers, and has -- as did her husband -- a skillful command of lawyerly, weaseling language. Like the abortion opponents who do not explicitly say they wish to abolish legal rights to have abortions but in practice seek to chip away access by making it prohibitively difficult to exercise that right, Clinton and her team obviously wish to make it difficult for private citizens to own guns."

Another reader wrote, "Yes, Donald Trump slightly exaggerated when he said that Ms. Clinton wanted to ‘abolish the Second Amendment.’ But only your left-wing bias could lead you to call his statement False because his assertion was not literally true. You shouldn't ignore her unrelenting hostility to the right to keep and bear arms, but of course you did. She has made it abundantly clear that she will take every legal step she can, and every extra-legal step she can get away with (thanks to our supine press), to deprive us of our rights to defend ourselves. Even we rubes out here in flyover country have caught on to how you make sausage: You draw or don't draw inferences and phrase issues in a way that makes left-wingers look good and conservatives bad."

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Several readers thought we had rated too harshly a statement by Clinton that Trump "has the gall to say that prisoners of war like John McCain aren’t heroes." We rated that Half True, on the grounds that while Trump has attacked McCain specifically on those grounds, he has never made a more general statement that POWs are not heroes.

"I think PolitiFact is making a mistake here. Did Trump have the gall to say this? Yes, 100 percent. Did he then say contradictory things? Sure. Trump says antithetical things all the time, but this should hardly get him a partial get-out-of-jail-free card. You should be about holding people like Trump accountable, not providing an incentive for them say things all over the map so that no one can nail them down for any one thing they said."

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Another reader applied the same argument to our Mostly True rating for Clinton’s assertion that "Donald Trump says climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese." We noted that Trump tweeted that view in 2012, but he made efforts earlier this year to describe that remark as a "joke."

"It was no joke, as his continued return to the idea shows. Rating this as anything but True is rewarding Trump for his habit of contradicting himself without a moment's hesitation or a blush. He has used the ‘joke’ excuse a couple of other times. Wrong, wrong, wrong."

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Another fact-check of Trump -- a False for his statement that there is "no system to vet" refugees from the Middle East -- drew criticism that we were too harsh on Trump.

"You can split hairs and quibble all you like. The fact is, we cannot adequately vet masses of refugees from areas that pose an existential threat to America and insure the safety of American citizens, which is job No. 1 for government. Anything less is unsatisfactory. You, as media, should be focused on the bottom-line risk rather than trying to play misleading ‘gotcha’ games. Shame on you!"

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Several readers disagreed with our Pants on Fire rating for an ad run by the Clinton-aligned group Priorities USA Action that charged that Trump said of women, "And you can tell them to go f--- themselves." We concluded that the use of that phrase was a bait-and-switch -- the ad offers no indication that the "f--- themselves" line refers to anything but women, yet it actually comes from a Trump comment about businesses that left the United States.

"It is true that the last Trump quotation has a different topic than all the others. But my own reaction when I saw the ad was that the final quote was meant to highlight Trump’s crude manner of speaking -- language that most of the Republican ladies I know would never approve of. To me, the ad’s ‘does he speak for you’ question meant, ‘Do you want someone this crude speaking for you.’ I am not a Trump supporter, but I am a woman. I think my interpretation is at least as plausible as yours."

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One reader felt our research was incomplete when we gave a Mostly False rating to Trump’s statement that in California, "windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles."  

"It would be germane to the discussion of whether or not wind power hurts bird populations to also compare against the number of birds that are killed by other energy sources.  Coal devastates bird populations through pollution -- there's a reason the phrase ‘canary in a coal mine’ exists. Here's a collection of analyses of bird deaths from various energy sources. According to this, coal, which Trump wants to increase, is responsible for about 33 times more bird deaths than the average estimate for wind power. To me, this puts his claim closer to a Pants on Fire."

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Two readers took issue with some of our lighter fact checks, such as television character Kimmy Schmidt’s claim that "Dolphins are rapists. Look it up" (False) and Rush Limbaugh’s assertion that the presence of gorillas calls into question the concept of evolution (also False)

"People come to this website for a serious analysis of what's being said and keeping people in check. We don't come here for levity, nor should we be. You guys may want to have fun doing your jobs, which is great, but can we please stay professional when it comes to what you publish?"

Another reader criticized our decision to spend time fact-checking comedian Amy Schumer. We gave her a Half True rating for saying, "You can absolutely get a gun if you have several felonies as long as you buy it on the Internet or at a gun show."

"Are you serious, or is this part of another comedy sketch? Maybe you should look into the number of times Jerry Ford fell down, compared to the number Chevy Chase did while playing Ford on Saturday Night Live? Did you hire a new fact-checker just to keep sketch shows on the up-and-up? You should take a hard look at Key & Peele next. Booo!"

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Meanwhile, two German-speaking readers appreciated our effort to translate "Mostly False" to "Meist Falsch" when we rated Trump’s statement that Germany "is crime-riddled right now" because of migration to Europe. They suggested "größtenteils falsch" instead.

"Although the translation is correct, the term ‘meist’ is generally used in the context of ‘often’ (as in, ‘We go to McDonalds mostly on Fridays’) or if you speak about quantities (as in, ‘The bell peppers I harvested yesterday were mostly red ones.’ The term ‘größtenteils’ is used when you want to say that a single thing is something ‘for the most part,’ such as, ‘One of the bell peppers was mostly red with some green splotches.’ "

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One reader took issue with our terminology (English, this time) for "flip-flopping."

"The term ‘flip-flop’ has taken on a pejorative connotation, meaning that someone is being less than truthful. In some circumstances this is justified. In others it is not. Same-sex marriage is a good example. The majority of the country was against same-sex marriage. Over time this changed. Would we say the country flip-flopped, or ‘evolved’? I think the latter is a better description."

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Finally, a few readers wrote us to express their gratitude for the work we do.

Jane P. White, director of the Michigan Human Trafficking Task Force, praised PolitiFact Ohio’s Mostly False rating for the statement that, in Ohio, "each year an estimated 1,000 children become victims of human trafficking, and over 3,000 more are at risk."

"Congratulations to Nadia Pflaum, PolitiFact and (PolitiFact affiliate) WEWS," White wrote. "It is time to be rigorous about the need for systems and the process for collecting of data. Thank you."

A reader from Riga, Latvia, thanked PolitiFact for the article, "The facts about gay men and blood donation in Orlando."

"I got in a big discussion about this on Facebook yesterday," the reader wrote. "Thank you for doing the legwork on the issue, and thank you for PolitiFact in general. You are such an important resource."

And another reader wrote, "I often disagree with the verdicts that PolitiFact makes, but it is one of the only places where you can get reliable sources for things that politicians talk about so I can make up my own mind. That alone makes PolitiFact worthwhile."