Guest column: Fact-checking made easy
Editor's note: Jason Altmire is PolitiFact's Democratic guest columnist and a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives serving Pennsylvania’s 4th congressional district from 2007-13. Read more about the guest columnist position here. See other critiques here.
Sometimes fact-checking is painfully difficult, evaluating nuance and weighing the relative merit of half-truths and accurate but misleading statements. Sometimes, however, fact-checking is easy, especially when the source is openly lying or the story is an outright hoax. Two recent PolitiFact columns provide excellent examples.
In an April 20 fact-check, PolitiFact accurately rates as Pants on Fire a statement by the Republican opponent of Montana’s senior U.S. senator, Jon Tester, claiming that the Democrat had recently voted himself a pay raise.
In fact, no such vote had occurred.
Referring to the senator’s March 23 vote in favor of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which passed with bipartisan support, Tester’s opponent, Matthew Rosendale, said the senator "just took an income raise in the omnibus bill." Rosendale, himself a statewide public official in Montana, should have known better. Not only did the bill not include a raise pay for members of Congress, it contained language specifically prohibiting a raise. Rosendale’s claim was simply made up out of whole cloth. Rosendale’s statement may have played well to a partisan audience willing to believe the worst about a political opponent, but it could not escape the scrutiny of a nonpartisan fact-check.
Few issues irk constituents more than the idea of members of Congress voting themselves a pay raise. America’s most recent Constitutional Amendment, ratified in 1992, prohibits a congressional pay raise from taking effect before an election. And Congress in 2009 prohibited the long-standing practice of the congressional cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) automatically taking effect, a practice that for years gave members of Congress the cover of not having to affirmatively vote on a raise in their own pay. As a result, Congress has not had a pay raise, or even a COLA, in nearly a decade. These facts make Rosendale’s statement all the more preposterous.
Perhaps the only issue that draws greater ire from voters than allegations of a congressional pay raise is the myth that members of Congress receive full-salary lifetime pensions with minimal service. When I was in office, rarely did a town hall meeting occur without the subject being raised, and I regularly received correspondence from constituents wanting to prohibit this unjust practice. But it’s not true. If you’re interested in how "lavish" a pension former members of Congress actually receive in retirement, see this PolitiFact fact-check.
An even more ludicrous claim was debunked in an April 23 fact-check, when PolitFact rated as Pants on Fire a bogus news article about the alleged death of 86-year old Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who remains very much alive. The article was posted on an online blog which disguises itself and its web address to make it appear as if it is affiliated with the New York Times. The nefarious website has been known to purposefully convey fake news, and this case, the article provided specific details of Tutu’s alleged death—details purportedly supplied to the blog by Tutu’s wife.
Tutu’s office soon put out a statement clarifying that Tutu and his wife were both alive and well. Because the article gained traction and was circulated on social media, PolitiFact also completed a fact-check. Interestingly, in one of the first tests of Facebook’s new protocol to flag online hoaxes, the article was quickly marked for Facebook users as likely fabricated.
These are two very different versions of the same old song. In politics and in life, people sometimes lie, and some will lie boldly. Luckily, fact-checking websites are there to correct the record and hold accountable those who would purposely mislead the public.