Mailbag: 'Be real journalists!'
As the 2016 presidential race has heated up over the summer and early fall, we have received lots of reader commentary about recent fact-checks of the presidential field. Here’s a rundown of recent complaints, comments and even a few compliments from readers, edited for space and clarity.
A number of readers took issue with our Mostly False rating for Carly Fiorina’s claim in the first Republican presidential debate that one of the undercover videos about Planned Parenthood shows "a fully formed fetus on the table, its heart beating, its legs kicking, while someone says, 'We have to keep it alive to harvest its brain.' "
"Is it too late to switch your rating to false? Your rating implies a sliver of truth, and yet by your own analysis, the video that Ms. Fiorina mischaracterizes, even when stripped away of all distortion, still amounts to no more than a grisly montage of stock footage laid over what is essentially a hearsay account of an abortion. It didn't contain any truth to distort."
Several readers criticized another fact-check related to abortion and Fiorina. She said Planned Parenthood "is an organization that funnels millions of dollars in political contributions to pro-abortion candidates." We rated that Mostly True. The critics took issue with the fact that we didn’t specifically address Fiorina’s use of the phrase "pro-abortion."
"You can't be factual if you are careless about your semantics. The dictionary says ‘pro’ means ‘in favor of,’ which in this case would mean that they are in favor of abortions. I doubt even a single candidate to whom this money was given is ‘pro-abortion.’ Rather, they are in favor of giving women the choice."
Two readers wrote us to add some additional context to a check we did of Mike Huckabee’s claim that the government "made accommodation to the Fort Hood shooter to let him grow a beard" for religious reasons. We rated the claim Mostly False.
"While I certainly disagree with Mike Huckabee on just about everything, and while you are certainly correct in your assessment of his statement, it would be a mistake to not at least mention in your article the relevant and recent Supreme Court case Holt v. Hobbs, in which the court ruled, 9-0, that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act overturned an Arkansas prison policy that banned beards in the prison, even for religious reasons."
One reader thought we were being churlish in giving a Mostly True rating to Bernie Sanders’ claim that "the top 1/10th of 1 percent today in America owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent."
While acknowledging that "there may be some academic criticism over methodology in the paper" Sanders was citing, the reader asked, "Would Sen. Sanders have to make note of all possible academic criticism in his stump speeches? What exactly is the standard here for a person's words to be 'true'?"
Ron Hira, an associate professor of public policy at Howard University, wrote to say we should have taken more care in distinguishing between guest workers and immigrants in our analysis of a viral image critical of Bernie Sanders. The image we were checking claimed that Sanders opposes plans to raise visa caps to let more immigrants move to America legally, but the evidence for this stems from Sanders’ opposition to increases in visas known as H-1Bs, which are for temporary guest workers, not immigrants.
"Calling holders of an H-1B an immigrant is completely misleading. Some H-1Bs do get sponsored for permanent immigration, but the majority do not, and sponsorship is at the discretion of the employer, not the worker. This isn't some minor distinction. It goes to the heart of the spin campaign made by those pushing for legislation known as the I-Squared Act. They have repeatedly and purposely conflated H-1Bs with green cards. And it goes to the heart of the claims about Sanders. He's critical of guest worker programs like the H-1B program, while Hillary Clinton favors more guest workers."
Several readers had opposite reactions to our check of the claim by Martin O’Malley that "the cascading effects" of climate change contributed to the rise of ISIS. We rated that Mostly True.
"You say that O'Malley's statement is backed up by the experts and was carefully worded to reflect the facts rather than overstated. That would make it ‘accurate with nothing missing’ -- your definition of True. The least you could do is to be true to your own guidelines and give him credit where it is due."
Another reader, however, wrote, "I can go along with the claim that the drought led to the rise of ISIS, but to say that climate change led to ISIS is taking it a big step further. Droughts have occurred throughout time, and I know of no credible evidence that the drought experienced by Syria was a consequence of ‘climate change.’ I rate your rating half true."
Several readers said we missed the point of a claim by Ben Carson that there is not "one of the Muslim nations" that doesn't have "discrimination against women, discrimination against gays, subjugation of other religious beliefs." We rated that claim Mostly False, noting that his broad-brush statement glossed over the fact that numerous Muslim-majority countries offer freedoms in each category.
One reader said we took Carson’s statement out of context. "He is speaking about Muslim governments and sharia law application. Your analysis focuses on Muslim-majority countries, even though countries like Turkey do not incorporate sharia law. If you limit your analysis to Muslim countries where sharia laws are predominant (about 30 countries) then the statement gains a grain of truth." The reader added that it’s tricky to define "discrimination," arguing that "some would say that even the United States is discriminatory against women, gays and other religions."
Numerous readers took issue with our Mostly False rating for Sanders’ claim that the nation’s largest low-wage employer "is not McDonalds or Walmart but the U.S. government." They were most concerned about our argument that Sanders should not have considered all of these workers to be directly employed by the U.S. government, because they actually worked for private companies fulfilling government contracts.
One reader who called our ruling "disingenuous" wrote, "A subcontractor without work is a subcontractor that has to lay off employees. Therefore, the government, by providing work to subcontractors, enables these subcontractors to provide for their well-being in much a way that the government would do if it were a direct employer. Please don't allow this kind of small-minded distraction to become mainstream on your site."
Another reader added, "The fact that many of these workers are not technically employees but rather contract workers is part of the very problem that Sen. Sanders was exposing in his recent speech. Contract work is a way of systematically underpaying workers both in the private and government sectors."
One reader took issue with our False ruling for Hillary Clinton’s claim that the current Benghazi probe is "the longest-running congressional investigation ever." We wrote that while the Benghazi investigation has lasted about 17 months, other investigations have lasted 30, 40 and even 90 months.
"Sorry, but Congress has been investigating Benghazi for more than three years in all. Remember, this is the third investigation, not the first one. The current investigation is only being done to make Hillary look bad to voters, and Republicans in Congress know it. And you guys should know it too. Be real journalists!"
Finally, many readers wrote to express disappointment with our fact check of Sanders’ claim that "we are imprisoning or giving jail sentences to young people who are smoking marijuana." We rated that Mostly False, noting that being sentenced to prison for marijuana possession by itself can happen -- but it’s exceedingly rare. We added that Sanders would have been on safer ground had he kept to pointing out continuing high levels of arrests (but not prison) for marijuana possession.
"Charging people with felony possession of marijuana is a big revenue generator for small towns, which jail defendants and then charge them a fee for the stay. Those people are then indebted to those counties, and if they don’t pay, they end up getting put right back in jail, where the debts continue to pile up. And it’s hard to pay when you can’t get a job because you’re a convicted felon."
Another reader said that many cases don’t show up in the official data: "You would have to analyze the county, city, and municipal records for an accurate review of possession charges. Most possession charges result in sentences of less than one year. That means the inmates do not get sentenced to a state facility. Therefore, few ever get surveyed by the Justice Department unless they have charges in addition to the possession charge. This means that the research is still significantly incomplete."
Another spotlighted the difference between having enough marijuana to sell and actually intending to sell it. A lot of people "simply wish to have enough to last them a while. It's the equivalent of buying a case of Gatorade from Costco instead of a six-pack from an ordinary grocery store. This is hard to quantify, but it shows how much more complicated the issue of arrests and jail time are for marijuana possession than your post makes it out to be."
Lastly, we heard from a reader who said he spent several nights in jail on a probation violation for smoking marijuana, and was lucky enough and affluent enough to be able to avoid prison time: "This may still seem rare, but consider just how many people are under state supervision who cannot smoke weed without severely risking their freedom. Court systems are flooded with cases like mine, and they may not appear on paper to be about smoking weed, but they most definitely are. Please give Bernie the credit he deserves and help to educate people about the horrors of our drug war. Thank you!"
As usual, we also heard from a few readers who thanked us for our work:
"I love your website. You are my heroes!"
"Love the site. Keep doing what you are doing."
One specifically thanked us for our new PolitiFact Missouri affiliate.
"Just wanted to say thanks for your efforts -- nationally, but especially in Missouri. Keep up the good work! This site is a gem."