Mailbag: Washington's Birthday edition
Mount Rushmore: (from left) George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln. Mount Rushmore: (from left) George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Mount Rushmore: (from left) George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln.

Angie Drobnic Holan
By Angie Drobnic Holan February 20, 2012

On the holiday of Washington’s Birthday, also known as Presidents Day,  we’re turning to our email inbox for comments from readers, who wrote to us about our recent fact-checks on the DREAM Act, privatizing prisons, Glee, and how many Americans are conservative.

Remember, you can always contact us via email, Facebook or Twitter. Comments are edited for style and length.

Marco Rubio and the DREAM Act

We fact-checked a television ad from Presente Action, that said 91 percent of Latinos "support the DREAM Act, which allows undocumented youth to attend college," but Marco Rubio opposes it. We rated the statement True.

"The problem is that that statement badly misrepresents the DREAM Act.  As written in your fact check, the DREAM Act offers a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who go to college. Undocumented immigrants can already go to college. (In some states,) they can get in-state tuition rates. I'm willing to agree that 91 percent  of Hispanics favor the DREAM Act and that Rubio does not. … (But the) overall statement should be at most Half True, as it misrepresents both the Act itself and the listed polling on the Act."

Privatizing prisons

As the Florida Legislature debated whether to expand private prisons, we looked into a claim from a chain email that said, "Private prisons do not chase escaped inmates past the perimeter like the public prisons do, which means more escaped prisoners in our communities." We rated that Half True.

A reader who claimed correctional experience said security wasn’t the issue with private prisons. Rather, they would save the state money.

"I have worked both sides of the correctional arena for state and presently private (prisons). Private prisons follow the same protocol as the state in every one of the 12 emergency plans including escapes. … What nobody is really saying is the real difference between the two is the
STATE PENSION. That will be the real savings, unlike the 401(k) that private officers have to contribute to. True, jobs short-term will be lost, however, the same positions will have to be filled. These are trying times for Florida, and I support whatever sacrifices that need to be sought out. I wish only the best for my fellow correctional staff and for all to be given the respect that we deserve for what we do."

Fact-checking Glee

We looked into a statement we heard on Glee. Latino singer Ricky Martin played a character who said on the show, "The U.S. Census believes that by 2030 the majority of Americans will use Spanish as their first language." We were skeptical of that number, and sure enough, the statement was wrong -- the census projected no such thing. We rated it Pants on Fire.

"You paid people to research, document, interview, write, edit and publish an essay ‘revealing the truth’ about a line in a comedy show. Extensive documentation. Eight interviews. Eight! That waste of other peoples’ time and money is reprehensible. … Every one of those interview victims is a government employee. You abused your clout as a news organization to take advantage of them, waste their time and waste taxpayer money. This speaks very poorly of your professional standards and ethics."

"Glee says the Census Bureau projects the majority of Americans will use Spanish by 2030? I thought this was a gag when I heard about it. Wasn't there ANYTHING else going on anywhere in Florida for you to cover?"

Another reader didn’t appreciate a brief description of the item on the homepage: "We'll sing it gleefully: This claim was out of tune."

"I don't appreciate you singing it ‘gleefully‘ (clever wordplay though it was) that the statement was false. It shouldn't be seen that PolitiFact is happy Spanish won't 'take over', no matter how the
person who fact-checked feels about the language. I would prefer neutrality on this subject as on all others."

Marco Rubio and "The majority of Americans are conservative"

We looked at a claim from Marco Rubio that "The majority of Americans are conservatives." We looked at extensive polling from Gallup that showed of three political ideologies -- conservative, moderate, liberal -- conservative was the most popular response. However, at 40 percent  it was not a majority. But because conservatism out-polled liberalism by 2 to 1, we rated the statement Mostly True.

A trickle of complaints turned into a torrent after MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow criticized us on her show. Most said we should have kept Rubio to a more literal standard.

"Maddow's right! Calling something Mostly True when the accompanying explanation clearly indicates that it's not, makes no sense whatsoever and  is highly misleading. Marco Rubio's statement about the majority of Americans being conservative can't be called mostly true when your own article indicates that those who consider themselves conservative don't cross the 50-percent  line. A plurality, as your article states, is not a majority, so it makes no sense to call his statement mostly true. Besides, most people don't have any clear sense of what the terms conservative and liberal mean, anyway. In fact, neither do most politicians."

"It seems interesting to me, that a Democrat can make a statement that is factually true, and you rate it only half true based on what you think the motives are. However, a Republican makes a statement that you discuss in your write-up as false, and you give it a mostly true.  If you’re going to give context to your ratings, then the context should support your rating."

"Lately, it seems to me that your organization is functioning as some kind of political advocacy group and not as ‘independent fact-checkers,’ whatever that means. It is too bad that your shoddy work is sullying the good name of a great newspaper."

"I've been reading your fact-checking a lot and have found that you frequently go against your own fact-checking in reaching a conclusion. But the recent fact-check of Sen. Marco Rubio's statement that a majority of Americans are conservative takes the cake. You state that 40 percent of Americans self-identify as conservative. You state that the number has never risen above 50 percent in Gallup polls. And then you state that Rubio's statement is Mostly True. Perhaps your writers and editors should look up the dictionary definition of the word ‘majority.’
There are only two possible explanations for your conclusion in this case: 1. Your writers/editors are conservatives and their bias is showing; 2. Your writers/editors are boneheads. Which is it?"

"Do us all a favor and either take some remedial math classes or get out of the business of telling people what's true."

"Huh?  Rubio says, unequivocally, that ‘the majority of Americans are conservatives.’  You produce documentation that 40 percent of Americans call themselves conservatives.  You acknowledge that 40% is not a ‘majority.’  You note that, indeed, the percentage recorded by Gallup has never in 20 years of polling crossed the 50-percent  line -- i.e., never been a ‘majority.’  But you rate the statement Mostly True?  Why would that be?  Because ‘majority’ and ‘plurality’ both end in ‘-ity’?  Are you nuts?"

"Disappointed you left out the fact that labels like ‘conservative’ can be very misleading or just plain wrong.  When you break down say the most pressing social or economic issues of the day, a majority of Americans hold liberal or progressive views.  On taxing rich people more, on gay marriage, on covering birth control by insurance companies, on a woman’s right to choose, on ending the wars and on and on.  The majority of Americans hold the liberal view on these topics
and many more, yet might call themselves conservatives."

"I realize that mathematics education in America has deteriorated, but even a grade school student should know that the term "majority" means more than half, not 40 percent.  There is no room for debate or interpretation or nuance here. The statement is mathematically false."

On the other hand …

Despite all the criticism for being too easy on a conservative, we still got the complaint that we’re actually out to get conservatives.

"I just reviewed PolitiFact. I am an independent. I find that your site leans very much to the left.
To check out what I am saying, go to your site and under Truth-O-Meter, click on True. Simply review the first page. You will find almost exclusively that all comments either beat up Republicans or make Obama look great. I guess I am just disappointed because at first glance it looks like a true information site, not leaning to the left or right. In a perfect world media sites would not interject their personal positions between the information and the audience, but it seems that is impossible to find these days."

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Mailbag: Washington's Birthday edition