Mailbag: 'Your bias is apparent'
An unruly political season has produced a bounty of reader commentary. Here’s a sampling of recent emails from readers about our fact-checks, edited for space and clarity.
Our most commented-upon recent topic was the False rating we gave to Bernie Sanders’ statement that "when you're white ... you don't know what it's like to be poor." We heard it from both sides.
Several readers said we cherry-picked the part of the quote to check.
"He was making no reference to actual poverty levels," one reader wrote. "Rather, he was -- albeit, poorly -- continuing the details of his previously mentioned story about his black friend who could never hail a taxi cab, and how surprising that was to Bernie, a white man. Because he wasn't making a statement about numbers or data, it's unfair to rate it as such. The ‘fact’ that should be evaluated here is the number of imprisoned poor blacks versus poor whites, or the different levels of police brutality experiences among poor blacks, whites, and other races. I'd love to keep being a fan of this site, but this one really stings and gives me doubts."
Another reader argued that we shouldn’t have rated the claim because Sanders simply misspoke.
"This is pretty much a straightforward misrepresentation of his position, and I would hope that an unbiased fact-checking organization would not do something like that, or at least would state up front something like, ‘Sanders does not actually espouse this view, however, others apparently do so we're fact-checking it anyway.’ "
A third reader said Sanders was, in fact, correct. They wrote that they were "appalled" at our article, which "reeks of white privilege."
"As a white man myself, I have taken the time to try to understand what people of color experience in life. As white men, we will never experience this ourselves but we must recognize that institutional racism does indeed exist. As a college student, I lived in an impoverished neighborhood in Washington, D.C., that was 99 percent black. I saw firsthand what poverty was like for them. It is very, very different from the experience of poor white people. The institutional racism they face on a daily basis, ranging from healthcare to home security to food shopping is not seen in the poor white population. There are so many layers to poverty that you cannot just define poverty based on income assets."
Meanwhile, a number of readers said we went too lightly on Sanders by only rating his statement False.
One wrote, "How was Bernie Sanders' comment about white people not knowing what it is like to be poor not a Pants on Fire? You run a joke of a website. If a Republican had said the same comment, it would have been the Lie of the Year."
The other big topic for reader feedback in recent weeks has been the Supreme Court nomination process. One reader took issue with one portion of our fact-check of Marco Rubio’s claim that "it has been over 80 years since a lame-duck president appointed a Supreme Court justice." We rated Rubio’s claim Mostly False.
"You write that Anthony Kennedy was confirmed in February 1988, an election year. The context shows this is not a comparable example. The nomination was to replace Justice Lewis Powell, who announced his retirement in June 1987. That would be like Justice Antonin Scalia passing away eight months before he did. The only reason it dragged on to the election year is that Democrats refused to confirm President Ronald Reagan's nominee, Robert Bork. I think this is important context that needs to be noted."
Another reader took issue with another aspect of the fact-check.
"Both Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have tried to suggest, or even said outright, that there is a tradition of not nominating Supreme Court Justices in election years. But no such tradition exists. For the last 150 years, whenever a vacancy came about during an election year, the president nominated someone to fill it. The last time a Presidential election was held with a vacancy existing on the Supreme Court was 1860. This tradition is exactly the opposite of what Cruz and Rubio tried to claim. Their statements are by any reasonable standard untrue, and by your standards should be rated Pants on Fire."
A third reader brought up another issue we didn’t mention in our coverage of the controversy.
"Probably the most famous chief justice of all, John Marshall, was nominated and confirmed in an election year by John Adams."
Several readers took issue with our Mostly False rating of Hillary Clinton’s statement about her State Department email practices, when she said, "My predecessors did the same thing."
One wrote, "Yes, we are all aware of the distinction between her use of a private server versus many other government officials using private email accounts for official email, such as Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell. The prevailing misconception about using a private server versus a private email account is that it is somehow worse and illegal. It's actually neither. Hillary did not break any laws in her decision to use a private email server. And even more important, the security implications of using a private email account are actually much worse than using a private email server because the emails reside on servers hosted by a third-party email service providers like Google and Yahoo!, possibly worldwide and in perpetuity, where it can be data-mined for marketing purposes and vulnerable to hackers. That's not to say that her server was 100 percent safe -- no server is. Not even the servers behind the State Department firewall. But from a security standpoint, a private email server with proper safeguards is a safer option than a private email account."
Several readers took issue with our Mostly True rating of Jeb Bush’s statement that "Barack Obama will somehow manage to add more than $8 trillion to the national debt, which is more debt than the 43 presidents who held office before him compiled together."
One wrote, "Surely you must be able to see that this is a Pants on Fire. The issue here is not the amount. It is the blame being apportioned. Bush is saying that every cent of debt added during a president's term is personally added by the president. This is outrageously false. It presupposes that the president has complete control over spending rather than that responsibility resting with Congress, and also that no actions that occurred prior to the president's term can have any impact on the debt once the new president takes office. Both of these assumptions are absurd. Hence Bush's statement is not only wrong, it is ridiculous -- the definition of a Pants on Fire statement."
Several readers objected to our decision to put a statement by Sanders to the Truth-O-Meter -- the one in which Sanders said, "Tell me what Madeleine Albright’s position was on the War on Iraq. I wouldn’t be surprised if she supported it." After looking at her comments before the war, we concluded that while Albright voiced support for the troops and said she understood the rationale behind the war, her comments suggested that she would have rather avoided the invasion. We rated it Mostly False.
"You have no business rating this statement at all. He said he didn't know but he wouldn't be surprised if Albright had supported the war. He did not make a factual assertion. In the past, I have wondered whether you were objective but gave you the benefit of the doubt. That's over. Your bias is apparent. Too bad."
One reader provided some additional context we didn’t include in our fact-check of Sanders’ comment that "making public colleges and universities tuition-free -- that exists in countries all over the world, used to exist in the United States." We rated his statement Mostly True.
"Perhaps you forgot that in 1944, the Serviceman’s Readjustment Act appropriated funds for free college education for veterans returning from World War II. By 1955, some 3 million vets had taken advantage of that program—free tuition, fees, books and a monthly living stipend. I was one. I received an AB and an MS from the University of Chicago, which led me to college teaching and a lengthy career in Washington, D.C. in intelligence."
Another reader wrote us after reading our fact-check of Clinton’s claim that there is "a higher rate of tested lead in people in Cleveland than in Flint." We noted that Cleveland’s problem comes from lead paint rather than water, but still rated the statement Mostly True.
"Soil is also a source of lead poisoning, coming from all the tetraethyl lead in gasoline used after World War II, and fewer people know about it. The fact that city soil contains significant amounts of lead means the scope of the problem is likely underestimated. Here's some additional information on lead in soil."
One reader took issue with one aspect of our fact-check of Bill Clinton’s claim that "the people that perpetrated (the shootings) in San Bernardino had never been to the Middle East." We rated the statement Pants on Fire.
"I will quibble with your inclusion of Pakistan in the Middle East. Before partition, it was part of India and was firmly considered part of South Asia. Afghanistan, to the north, is part of Central Asia. So you are correct that the woman was raised in the Middle East, but not that she was born there."
And another reader raised a separate question about the region’s borders, stemming from our check of Hillary Clinton’s statement that Sanders advocated putting "Iranian troops into Syria to try and resolve the conflict there. Putting them right on the doorstep of Israel." We rated that statement Mostly True.
"In the article, you stated, that ‘Syria of course shares a border with Israel.’ I feel a small correction should be made. Syria in effect does not share a border with Israel. The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force maintains a manned buffer zone between the Israeli-occupied Golan heights and the rest of Syria."
One reader in New Hampshire took issue with our False rating for Sanders’ claim that "not one Republican has the guts to recognize that climate change is real."
"I did not vote for Bernie in the recent primary," the reader wrote. "Nevertheless, I think you are wrong in your ruling. I have personally spoken to John Kasich, Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush and Rand Paul. While they make vague comments about the climate warming, they will not admit that humans are the primary drivers. This is critical because if humans are not primarily to blame then there is little we can do about it."
Several readers wrote in about our Pants on Fire rating for Donald Trump, who said that in the Philippines more than a century ago, Gen. John Pershing "took 50 bullets, and he dipped them in pigs’ blood," and shot 49 Muslim rebels. "The 50th person, he said, ‘You go back to your people, and you tell them what happened.’ And for 25 years, there wasn’t a problem."
Kim A. Wagner, a senior lecturer in British imperial history at the University of London, wrote us to say that "Trump’s fantastic tale, told to an audience that included a woman wearing a T-shirt that read ‘Make Racism Great Again,’ accordingly consists of bits and pieces garnered from half-remembered and misquoted historical anecdotes, crystallized into one neat anecdote about something that never happened, and certainly never had the effect attributed to it. Worse than that, it reiterates some of the worst stereotypes about Muslims and non-Western people and turns the racialized brutality of colonial warfare into a useful model that can supposedly be emulated in the 21st century."
Another reader wrote, "First-rate job on this. Going beyond the facts of did or did this not happen was what made it. Knowing how accurately our leaders recall facts is not nearly as important as the impact it has on the argument or policy the are advocating."
Another reader praised our article about who deserves blame for the Flint water crisis.
"Kudos to you. We are from Michigan and while we've been visiting Florida for several weeks now and thus not reading our local papers, prior to our leaving, the scant publishing and sound bites on television left us with many questions about how this situation could have occurred in the first place. It has seemed from our perspective that the water problem has provided fodder for political candidates with no real effort being placed on addressing and correcting a very serious problem. Keep up the good work."