Mailbag: Post-election edition
With the 2018 election season now complete, it’s time to go back and look at some of the reader commentary our articles have inspired. Here are a selection of emails we received from readers -- positive, negative, and neutral. They have been edited for length and clarity.
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One reader took issue with our fact-check of President Donald Trump’s statement that under the North American Free Trade Agreement, "we lost thousands of plants." We rated this Mostly True. The reader said this may still end up being the right ruling, but added that the data point we used -- "manufacturing establishments" -- was not identical to the word Trump used, "plants."
"A simple example would be a home-based business, which could be labeled a ‘manufacturing establishment.’ Somebody making fly-tying fishing lures or creating a woodworking item for an art fair are using ‘manufacturing establishments,’ but these are not ‘plants.’ Many of these ‘manufacturing establishments’ have never had, and never will have, employees other than the business owner. They also are affected by the local economy, including the Great Recession, but not by NAFTA. Just thought you should know."
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One reader raised an issue with our fact-check of a statement by West Virginia congressional candidate Richard Ojeda, who said, "We have lost more lives in the last two years" due to opioids "than all of the lives lost during the Vietnam War." We rated that True, noting that more than 90,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016 and 2017 combined, compared to 58,220 U.S. service members who died in Vietnam.
"You forgot to count the Vietnamese lives lost. He said ‘all lives lost,’ not ‘American lives lost.’"
(Vietnam has estimated that 2 million civilians and 1.1 million North Vietnamese and Viet Cong fighters died.)
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One reader took issue with out fact-check of Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., that the "Trump tax cut benefits all congressional districts, up to $44,697 per family." We rated this Half True, noting that the statistical parameters used in the study McCarthy cited tended to exaggerate the typical benefit per family. Estimates by other organizations suggested that a middle-income household would save between $780 and $800 per year, we found.
"I think there is one important factor that you left out of your analysis in this and probably other tax-cut related analyses. The tax cut doesn't necessarily ‘save’ or ‘benefit’ any particular family, since it's not a gift of money -- it’s more like a loan. The U.S. is operating with a heavy deficit, and a family's ‘savings’ from this tax cut will have to be repaid, in some manner, by a future group of citizens and businesses, especially since the evidence is that such tax cuts never pay for themselves.
"The words 'deficit' and 'debt' are missing from your analysis. While it's unpredictable who will eventually repay the debt and by how much, it's misleading to characterize the tax cut as ‘free money.’ I'm sure the Republicans are delighted with the perception the perception of a giveaway, but I wish that news organizations would make it clear that this is more of a loan that must eventually be repaid in some manner."
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Another reader critiqued a fact-check that touched on the federal debt -- our article analyzing a statement by Joe Scarborough of MSNBC that "President Trump’s Republican Party will create more debt in one year than was generated in the first 200 years of America’s existence." We rated that Mostly True.
"In the article, you write that a lot of the debt is caused by mandatory spending that both parties have caused. But why are we just looking at half the picture here? Obviously debt depends as much, if not more, on the revenue that was generated. Spending reduction only works to a certain point -- at which you spend zero. By comparison, revenue generation -- by raising taxes, passing additional taxes, closing tax loopholes, or a number of other things -- could be near infinite."
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One reader who’s familiar with the general aviation sector offered some additional context we had not considered in a fact-check. We checked a Senate Leadership Fund ad against Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that accused the incumbent of saying "about private planes, ‘that normal people can afford it.’" We rated this Half True, noting that while McCaskill did say those words, the full footage indicated that she was referring to "normal" users of private planes, as opposed to "normal" Americans more generally.
The reader made the case that McCaskill’s statement would have been defensible even if she had been referring to "normal" Americans more generally.
"You may have the wrong impression of a ‘private plane.’ A private airplane is usually not a great big shiny business jet, but a Piper or Cessna or Beechcraft with two to four seats and a propeller on the nose. According to the Aircraft Owners’ and Pilots’ Association, the value of a typical privately-owned airplane in the United States is less than $40,000 – and many of them are shared across several pilot-operators, who jointly cover the costs of ownership. Owning – or at least operating – a private airplane is entirely affordable for large numbers of ‘normal people.’
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One reader questioned our math skills in our analysis of the DNA test taken by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., to determine whether she has native American ancestry. The reader pointed to a section in our article that said, "Counting back the generations, (a specific Warren ancestor) would have been born roughly in the middle of the 1800s."
"In fact, it would have been the middle of the 1700s. As a quick check, I ran the information from my own family. Everyone has a total of 64 great-great-great-grandparents. Of my 64, the birth dates for 49 are known. The years range from 1735 to 1793, with the average or mean being 1770. I'm 66 and Elizabeth Warren is 69, so an age difference would not skew the results."
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We received an interesting response from the subject of a fact-check -- a satire website that published the joke article titled, "Canada Pays Off Entire Federal Debt One Day After Marijuana Legalization." After the story went viral, we rated it Pants on Fire, though we noted in the article that the publication made it clear that it was satire. Here’s what the Canadian website, called the Daily Bonnet, had to say:
"Thanks for the email. The Daily Bonnet mostly does satire about Mennonite culture and issues, but occasionally we write on more general topics, such as the piece you are referring to. It's always a pleasant surprise when anything goes viral. If I could predict that something would go viral, I would write viral articles all the time. I wrote that article a few months ago, scheduled it for Oct. 18 (when Canada officially legalized recreational marijuana) and, to my surprise, it was quite popular. This is especially surprising since it doesn't have anything to do with Mennonites, which is the main theme of the website. A few other Daily Bonnet articles have gone viral, such as an article I wrote about Donald Trump building a wall to keep out the Mennonites, or Mennonite bikers clashing with Hell's Angels at Sturgis. But a viral post of that magnitude is quite rare.
"I think satire plays a vital role in political discourse and has for a long time. That particular article was intended to amuse, of course, but it's also a critique of Canada's unbridled enthusiasm for cannabis, as well as a critique of those who overestimated the economic benefits of legalization. I think anyone who reads the article all the way through would see this. It's certainly not intended to deceive.
"But, of course, part of the problem is that some people are only reading headlines. Some people treat articles, even satirical ones, like memes. None of our regular readers confuse our articles for real news, but in the case of a viral post, you can't really control who sees it and, yes, a small percentage of people may be confused. Still, I can't imagine someone reading all the way through the article, including comments about the prime minister's blood-shot eyes, for example, and still not see that it's satire. I think the main issue with Facebook and fake news, including both satire and deceptive news, has more to do with literacy (or lack thereof) than anything else. When someone mistakes fake news for real news, it isn't Facebook's fault, or the fault of content producers. This is a literacy issue, plain and simple, and it can only truly be solved through education."
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We also received several thank-yous from readers about the work we’ve been doing.
• "I am finding it harder to distinguish true reporting and news that acts like entertainment, which it should never do. I applaud your efforts."
• "Thank you for being a source for truth in these dreadful days. God bless you."
• "I wish more people relied upon your work and that of your peers and believed in the determinations -- whether or not those determinations agree with their own politics."
• "It is nice to have an organization that bases its information on facts rather than on politics. I am grateful for your help."