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Mailbag: Nitpickers, or 'masters of understatement'?

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

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson May 31, 2011

It’s been a busy spring at PolitiFact, dominated by the birth certificate controversy, the candidacies of Donald Trump and Newt Gingrich and a debate over Rep. Paul Ryan's plan for Medicare.

Needless to say, our mailbag has been overflowing.

We got several emails about our fact-check on President Barack Obama's claim that coverage of his birth certificate drowned out budget proposals in media coverage. We ruled Obama’s claim False.

"You blew it. You rated only the news, while excluding multiple sources of news and media, including radio talk shows (including NPR), television talk shows (like The View), and the Internet. The ‘news’ is more than cable or broadcast networks. Surely you,, should be well aware of that. At worst the rating should be ‘Half True.’ For this rating, PolitiFact gets a ‘Pants on Fire’ from me."

Another complaint: "The substance of his statement was that the media were being dominated by birther discussion, not what week it was. The fact that it started two weeks ago and only dominated one week ago doesn't merit a False, when others with a clear intent to deceive get Half True all the time."

A reader dinged us for two fact-checks related to Trump, one on his claim that a CNN poll shows him competitive in contest with Obama and another that Libya sells most of its oil to China.

"After reading your meter on Trump, I get the feeling that you are bending backward to discredit him.  Not very impartial!

"Trump's statement that a poll was ‘recently’ done that ties him with Obama. You claim that two months is not recent. In the real world where we non-politicians live, two months is very recent.

"In Trump's statement that Libya supplies oil for China, you state that they supply more oil to Europe than China. That's not the point. Trump didn't say that all Libya's oil goes to China, simply that they do supply oil to China, not specifying any amount -- which is true. Most of your meter statements are factual and I used to think all of them were. But as in anything, I've learned that you have to read the fine print and reason for yourself. I've lost trust in you."

Another reader thought we were too soft on Trump for our check of his claim that the U.S. doesn't build bridges anymore, which we rated Half True.

"You provided more than ample evidence disproving Trump's statement. Yet you somehow decided that he was half-true anyway. I understand your reasoning of allowing for possible hyperbole, but that usually doesn't cut it when it's a simple yes or no question. Are we building bridges? Yes. And that means that the Donald is WRONG. At the most, give him a Barely True since the U.S. is producing bridges at a slower pace than most experts think we should -- but even that is incredibly disingenuous."

Yet another reader suggested we inaugurate a new rating category.

"For guys like Donald Trump, you need a new category higher than Pants on Fire. How about ‘nuclear fireball?’"

Several readers accused us of a major omission in our item, "Gerry Connolly says U.S. owns 3 percent of world’s oil but consumes 25 percent," which we rated Mostly True.

"You excluded oil shale from the equation. But including oil shale greatly increases the oil reserves of the USA."

We got a couple letters about a Pants on Fire in PolitiFact Florida for a check on a state legislator who said people in Africa walk up to 300 miles to vote.

"Er, I think either he meant to say ‘yards’ instead of ‘miles,’ or else ‘metaphorically’ instead of ‘literally.’ If neither of them flies, he can always use Sen. Jon Kyl's explanation: ‘This was not meant to be a factual statement.’"

One reader thought we were nitpicking when we checked Obama's claim that the United States has doubled exports during his presidency, which we ruled False.

"I counted over 100 words you quoted from the president’s speech, and about six accomplishments. You picked three words to investigate. I hope the rest is yet to come. Otherwise one might get the feeling Politifact is starting to be more concerned about being perceived as balanced than it is about being accurate."

Several readers felt we were too soft on Obama when we rated his statement that the border fence "is now basically complete." We rated that Barely True.

"You state that the Secure Fence Act of 2006 was passed by a Republican Congress. In the next paragraph you mention that it was amended the next year. Missing is the fact that it was changed by a Democratic Congress. Or maybe to be fair, it should be phrased 'gutted.’"

One reader was irked by our description of the Paul Ryan Medicare plan as one that "proposes significant changes in how Medicare works."

"Wow! Where did they find the likes of you, such masters of understatement? And the Joplin, Mo., tornado caused significant changes in the way Joplin works, too. Both tragic."

Speaking of the Ryan plan, here’s one critique of our two efforts to fact-check a liberal ad suggesting that Ryan would throw grannies off cliffs. One claim got a Mostly True, and another got a False.

"Surprised it doesn’t rate a Pants on Fire. It accuses Republicans in general of wanting to commit premeditated murder, which is patently absurd. Just sayin’. To quote one of your own rulings: It's not even close, and the claim is ridiculously false."

One reader felt we were too harsh in our check of a soundbite that tea party leader Amy Kremer made while sitting in Stephen Colbert’s hot seat. We gave Kremer a Half True.

"She threw out one fact that was true, trying to respond in the three seconds she had before Colbert interrupted her and moved onto another facet of the discussion. Her point was that it is technically possible to service our debt, not shut down government, not raise taxes, and not raise the debt ceiling. You made it sound like she proposed a comprehensive plan that would be the best choice to follow."

Another reader took issue with our False rating for GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain’s claim that in the U.S. Constitution, "there’s a little section in there that talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

"I don’t disagree that this phrase's appearance in the Constitution is inaccurate. But the Constitution does guarantee that no person would be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process" in the Fifth Amendment. So the Constitution does guarantee life and liberty, right? Shouldn't that be Barely True at least?"

And several people critiqued our four Truth-O-Meter items on light bulbs.

One reader wrote, "Your piece claiming that incandescent light bulbs are not in fact banned splits hairs. In practice, the conventional 60-watt incandescent will be effectively banned because of the legislation's energy-efficiency requirements. Arguing otherwise is pure sophistry. And no, I am not a Republican; I'm a liberal Democrat and environmental activist, but I think the government is way premature in trying to phase out conventional incandescents, because there is no entirely satisfactory substitute for home use."

Another wrote, "The claim by the Department of Energy and others that the bulbs will save the consumer money in the long run is flawed, like many predictions by the government, because it fails to take into account the reactions by the businesses involved. Here in California, energy companies routinely ask for and are granted rate hikes based upon numerous reasons. Unfortunately, one of those reasons is reduced income due to reduced demand. The power companies are granted rate hikes when we use less energy based upon new energy saving technology.  Why? Because they no longer collect enough revenues from the public to maintain their operations. My point is this: We will not see any reduction in our electric bills because the power companies will react to the decreased demand from the new light bulbs by requesting another rate hike. And, if history is any indicator, they will be granted their desired hikes. So as usual, the public pays more, and the promised savings is never realized."

One reader said they were skeptical of our "In the Works" ratings on presidential promises.

"According to your writers, anything that Obama has ever talked about is at least ‘in process,’ even if there is no plan, no timeline, just words in the ether. In the Works should mean that there’s a written plan with supporting agencies, specific goals, directions and a timeline for completion."

One reader offered a modest proposal.

"How about for every untruth a candidate speaks, he or she is fined $1,000.00? It would be neat if they would pay, and would probably cover the deficit quite nicely."

As usual, we’ll close with a few words of praise from our readers. One reader singled out our new aggregation feature.

"I have been a PolitiFact raving fan since before the 2008 election. I really didn’t think it could get any better, but the Beyond the Truth-O-Meter is a home run! Way to go!"

Another reader praised our quick posting of a Promise Kept for the president on killing Osama Bin Laden.

"Congratulations on getting Obama's promise to kill Bin Laden posted immediately. This is a distinct improvement from the week that the health care bill was signed, in which it took your site three days to acknowledge that anything had happened, and two more before any significant updating of Obama's promises was posted. That was a moment when the words ‘up-to-the-minute tally of all the promises’ were immensely exaggerated -- what you might yourselves rate as ‘Barely True.’"

"In this world, it is often overlooked when something is appreciated. I want to buck that trend and say thank you for your work. The people of St. Petersburg and by extension the rest of the country (including at least one person in Northern Indiana) are very lucky to have web services like Politifact and as the start of any political discussion. Thank you and your staff for their work!"

Another reader vowed to spread the word about PolitiFact. "I did not know about you, but now I do. Thank heavens -- good and responsible journalism is not dead. You will be a vital source of information in the future and I will spread the word. Thank you."

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Mailbag: Nitpickers, or 'masters of understatement'?