Two recent PolitiFact assessments of statements about Wisconsin public workers are badly flawed -- both in ways that lend support to critics of public workers and unions.
On Sunday, PolitiFact awarded a dubious "True" rating to George Will's statement that Wisconsin public employees would be better off than their private sector counterparts even after Governor Scott Walker's proposed benefit cuts. Here's PolitiFact's conclusion:
[I]t's important to consider an employee's total package of wages and benefits when comparing public and private sector compensation. But that's not the issue before us here. Will clearly stated that he was talking about just the benefits side of the equation. And with regard to the changes Walker has proposed -- requiring greater employee contributions to pension and health care -- Will is right that they would still leave public employees "better off" than those in the private sector. We rate Will's comment True.
So, PolitiFact's True rating is based on the belief that "Will clearly stated that he was talking about just the benefits side of the equation." But he didn't. Here's Will's statement, as quoted by PolitiFact:
Will responded, "Donna, what you call the grassroots is a tiny minority of this tiny minority of Wisconsin people who work for the government. Three hundred thousand public employees in Wisconsin went to work -- while the teachers were clutching their little signs that say it's all about the kids, they're abandoning their classrooms, lying to their supervisors, saying they were sick, and going off to protest in defense of perquisites, which if the governor cuts them as much as he plans to do, would still leave them better off than their private sector" counterparts.
Will said that cutting state workers "perquisites … would still leave them better off than their private sector" counterparts. The simplest reading of that sentence is that the word "them" refers to workers, not perquisites. In which case, Will was not "talking about just the benefits side of the equation" -- he was saying even if the benefits are cut, the workers will be better off than their counterparts. You can, I suppose, argue that the word "them" referred to "perquisites," though the word "they" had twice been used to refer to teachers in the same sentence, and though it would be odd for a wordsmith of Will's calibre to describe "perquisites" as "better off." You can argue that was Will's intent -- but it certainly isn't "clear," as PolitiFact claims.
So, basically, the entire premise of PolitiFact's assessment is flawed. There's little reason to reason to give Will the benefit of the doubt that he was referring to how well off workers are in terms of benefits only. And there's no reason to think he was "clearly" doing so. Finally, even if he was doing so, he was being misleading -- as PolitiFact notes, "[I]t's important to consider an employee's total package of wages and benefits when comparing public and private sector compensation." In so noting, PolitiFact refers to a previous fact-check by its Wisconsin bureau, which indicates that when considering both wages and benefits, state employees make less than private sector counterparts.
That PolitiFact Wisconsin entry was deeply flawed, too -- and also in a way that benefited critics of unions. PolitiFact Wisconsin awarded an entirely unjustified "false" rating to Wisconsin AFT president Bryan Kennedy's statement that state workers earn less than comparable private sector employees. We needn't go into much detail here -- a simple glance at PolitiFact's conclusion is enough to see that it is not justified:
In sum, Kennedy did not provide evidence that supports his claim, which itself provides only a partial look at the debate. If any more evidence emerges, we'll review it. In the meantime, we rate Kennedy's claim False.
That paragraph makes clear that, at worst, Politifact should declare Kennedy's claim unproven, not "false." Indeed, by PolitiFact's standards, its assessment of Kennedy's statement is itself false. See, PolitiFact did not prove its claim, therefore -- by PolitiFact's logic -- its claim is false. But I reject PolitiFact's flawed logic, so I won't declare it's assessment "false." Just unjustified.
But that isn't the only flaw in PolitiFact's reasoning. Let's take a look at Kennedy's statement, as presented by PolitiFact:
On the "Upfront with Mike Gousha" public affairs program, Gousha asked Kennedy if state employee unions "have a perception problem with the general public."
"Well, I think that there's been talking points used by those who don't like government to continually bash us and make us look as if we're the haves and we're really not," Kennedy replied during the Dec. 5, 2010 show.
"If you look across the board, we're averaging about 8 percent less than if we all worked in the private sector. Some of our people make half or a third as much as they could make if they worked in the private sector."
Now, here's PolitiFact's summary of Kennedy's statement and the supporting evidence he provided PolitiFact:
He said Wisconsin state employees are "averaging about 8 percent less" in pay than if they worked in the private sector. But the figure he relied on was from a national study that combined pay and benefits.
Notice that the words "in pay" aren't in quotes? That's because Kennedy didn't say them. PolitiFact is hitting Kennedy for supporting a specific comment about "pay" by providing information relating to "pay and benefits" -- but Kennedy's statement did not specify that he was referring only to pay. PolitiFact just inserted that on its own. Here, let's look back at the Kennedy statement in question, as quoted by PolitiFact:
"If you look across the board, we're averaging about 8 percent less than if we all worked in the private sector."
See? He didn't specify "pay" as opposed to "pay and benefits."
Finally, PolitiFact complains that though Kennedy provided a study showing that state workers make 7.6 percent less in pay and benefits than comparable private sector employees, and 11 percent less in pay alone, the study was national in scope. Ok… but Kennedy never said the 8 percent figure referred to Wisconsin state employees alone, rather than national figures for state employees.
In short: PolitiFact altered Kennedy's actual statement, pretending he was more specific than he actually was. Then it completely failed to disprove even that altered statement. And then it declared the altered statement to be false, based on an apparent belief that "unproven" and "false" are synonymous.
Note also that both PolitiFact pieces baselessly narrowed the scope of discussion to a portion of compensation rather than total compensation, even though it acknowledges that it is more useful to compare total compensation, and even though it wasn't clear in either case that the statement being fact-checked referred to only a portion of compensation. In other words, PolitiFact assessed less relevent claims than the ones actually made. Weird.
Fox News promoted Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's claim that the federal government has failed to "do its job" on border security without mentioning that border security efforts have increased measurably under President Obama: Deportations, drug seizures, and the number of Border Patrol agents have all increased.
I've written in the past about the media's tendency to behave as though the top tax bracket is the only one that matters when discussing tax policy. PolitiFact's new round-up of Reagan-related fact-checks links a perfect example I missed a the time: A September 20, 2010 piece about President Obama's statement that "Our tax rates are lower now than they were under Ronald Reagan," the validity of which PolitiFact assessed by looking only at top marginal rates (and getting the data wrong in the process.)
We thought that claim was worth a run through the Truth-O-Meter.
The most obvious way to make the comparison is to use income tax rates paid by people in various tax brackets. Due to the complexity of comparing a dozen or more income ranges that each need to be adjusted for inflation, economists most frequently compare just the top rate.
As PolitiFact noted, the "most obvious" way to compare tax rates now versus tax rates under Ronald Reagan "is to use income tax rates paid by people in various tax brackets." But PolitiFact didn't do that. It used income tax rates paid by people in one tax bracket: The highest. And its approach was a factual, as well as conceptual, train-wreck:
Today, the top income tax rate is 35 percent, starting at $186,825 for individuals and $373,650 for couples.
In 1981, Reagan's first year, the top tax rate was 70 percent, hitting individuals earning $107,100 and couples earning $215,400. The top rate dropped immediately to 50 percent in 1982 and stayed there through 1986. In 1987, the top rate fell again to 38.5 percent, and in 1988, it fell to 28 percent, kicking in at $113,300 for married individuals and $149,250 for married couples. (The 1988 incomes would be equivalent to $209,000 and $275,000 today.)
So, for one year of the Reagan presidency, the top rate was lower than it is now under Obama. For the other seven years, it was higher.
First off, let's note that PolitiFact was simply wrong about the tax rates. According to the Tax Foundation document it links, the current top rate doesn't kick in for individuals at $186,825, it kicks in at $373,650. The $186,825 threshold is for people who are married but filing separately. And in 1988, the 28 percent marginal rate applied to single people making more than $17,850 and married couples making at least $29,750 -- far lower than the threshold PolitiFact claimed. Again: I'm basing this on the same Tax Foundation document PolitiFact relied on. PolitiFact just read it wrong.
So PolitiFact's assertion that "the top rate was lower than it is now" is technically correct, but it's also a deeply absurd way to assess the overall tax picture. For single people in 1988, income above $17,850 was taxed at 28 percent. For single people in 2010, only income above $373,650 was taxed at 35 percent. Obviously, comparing a top rate that kicks in at $17,850 to a top rate that kicks in at $373,650 is pointless. But that's what PolitiFact did.
PolitiFact gets recent history wrong:
[W]e should note that Obama has not raised income taxes. Thanks to a compromise he brokered with Republicans at the end of 2010, income tax rates are staying the same for people of all incomes. Obama had favored raising taxes on high earners, but he gave up on that as part of the tax deal.
Nonsense. Obama would not have "raised income tax rates" even had the compromise not occurred: The rates would have gone up in accordance with the tax law President Bush signed. Here, let's let PolitiFact explain, via a December 1, 2010 fact-check headlined "'Obama tax hikes'? Just as easily call them the Bush tax hikes":
The tax rates are expiring on Jan. 1, 2011, because of the way they were created in the first place. Back in 2001 and again in 2003, Republicans used a process known as reconciliation that only requires 50 votes to pass the Bush tax cuts. ...
But there are a number of rules that govern reconciliation, and one of those rules says that you can't include things that affect the budget for more than 10 years. That's why the tax cuts are expiring. Republicans didn't have the 60 votes they needed in the Senate to make the tax cuts permanent.
We should point out that the 2001 reconciliation bill passed in the Senate with some Democratic support, 58-33. In 2003, the vote was closer, 50-50, with then vice president Dick Cheney breaking the tie.
"Republicans very deliberately engineered this set of tax cuts to expire after 10 years," said Norman Ornstein, a long-time observer of Congress and politics and a resident scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. "They did it for utterly political reasons."
And on January 1, PolitiFact explained: "The tax rates, passed during President George W. Bush's administration, had an end-of-the-year expiration date and were set to go up in 2011 unless they were extended."
So when PolitiFact now says that absent the Obama-GOP compromise last December, Obama would have "raised income taxes," that's nonsense. He wouldn't have "raised income taxes," he would have done nothing. The tax rates would have changed as scheduled, in accordance with the provisions of the law Bush signed. PolitiFact knows that.
And the lack of precision matters -- a lot. It fundamentally skews the debate in favor of lower taxes and, therefore (take your pick) higher deficits or deep cuts in government services, as I've previously explained:
If the expiration, on schedule, of tax cuts that were always scheduled to expire is described as a policy of raising taxes, that makes a mockery of the entire tax policy debate of the past decade. It rigs tax debates in favor of Republicans, who find it easier to argue for tax cuts for the wealthy if they can argue that the cuts won't cost very much -- by making them "temporary" -- but who then get to argue that the scheduled expiration that they included in order to make the cuts look affordable would constitute a tax increase. The GOP gets to have it both ways, describing tax cuts as temporary when it helps them, and pretending they were intended to be permanent when it helps them. It's no great surprise Republicans want to have it both ways -- but that doesn't mean the media should go along.
In addition to extending the Bush tax cuts, last December's tax deal reduced payroll taxes for a year. By the "logic" used by PolitiFact and other media to claim that allowing the scheduled expiration of tax cuts constitutes raising taxes, if the President and Congress do not agree to extend that payroll tax cut, they will be actively raising taxes. But that's obviously nonsense: The payroll tax reduction was always discussed as a temporary, year-long measure. Labeling everyone who allows it to expire as planned a tax-raiser would be false and badly distort public policy debates. The same is true of the Bush tax cuts.
Note, by the way, that PolitiFact seems to be laying the groundwork for just such a distorted debate over the payroll tax. Here's the full paragraph I excerpted at the beginning of this post:
Before we rule on this item, though, we should note that Obama has not raised income taxes. Thanks to a compromise he brokered with Republicans at the end of 2010, income tax rates are staying the same for people of all incomes. Obama had favored raising taxes on high earners, but he gave up on that as part of the tax deal. In exchange, he gained a a 2 percent reduction in payroll taxes for all workers. When you combine that with small tax cuts that were part of the economic stimulus, most taxpayers have seen reduced rates under Obama's administration.
No. Obama gained a temporary reduction in payroll taxes for all workers. PolitiFact left out the word temporary -- an omission that will come in handy when people start accusing people who want to allow them to expire of wanting to raise taxes.
We've already seen numerous examples of the Washington Post printing the false "death panel" claim about health care reform without noting its falsity. The "death panels" lie, as you may remember, was so pernicious PolitiFact named it "Lie of the Year" for 2009. Unfortunately, that didn't stop the Post from frequently repeating the claim that health care reform would result in "death panels" -- and didn't inspire the Post to ensure that it always corrected the falsehood.
PolitiFact's 2010 "Lie of the Year" was the claim that health care reform constitutes a government takeover of heath care. The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler notes: "This snappy talking point is used by Republicans repeatedly to bash Obama's crowing [sic] legislative achievement, but it is simply not true. In fact, PolitiFact.com labeled this claim the 2010 'lie of the year,' but that has not stopped lawmakers from making this claim."
Nor has it stopped Washington Post bloggers from making this claim. Here's Jay Sekulow, the Post's Religious Right Now blogger:
ObamaCare is bad for the economy. The federal government is taking control of what some have estimated to account for as much as 1/6 of the economy while simultaneously creating yet another entitlement program doomed to failure.
The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler rightly criticizes politicians for telling the "Lie of the Year." It would be nice if the Post would hold its own personnel to the same standard.
If you come across a PolitiFact "Truth-O-Meter" entry that begins like this …
… you'd probably interpret that as meaning that the "Ground Zero Mosque" (which isn't at Ground Zero) is a mosque, right? After all, if the claim that it is "not a mosque" is "False," then it makes sense to assume that it is a mosque.
But if you kept reading for nearly two dozen paragraphs, you'd learn that PolitiFact "agree[s] with those who say it's imprecise to simply refer to the New York project as a mosque."
The problem (as I've written before) is that PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" gimmick and its framing sometimes obscure the truth rather than illuminating it. In this case, PolitiFact would have better served its readers by simply presenting the facts of the controversy, rather than framing the piece as a fact-check of Al Hunt's comment and leading with the "False" rating on its "Truth-O-Meter." Had it done so, it could have gone with a headline and lede that did not create an impression that PolitiFact itself finds "imprecise."
Meanwhile, take a look at PolitiFact's assessment of the claim that the "Ground Zero Mosque" is at Ground Zero:
Barely True? No! It's false! Don't take my word for it; here's PolitiFact (again, this passage is buried all the way at the end):
Again, we realize many politicians and media figures are using the phrase the "Ground Zero Mosque" -- or as Lazio did, "a mosque at Ground Zero" -- as shorthand to describe the controversial project. It's nearby -- close enough to carry symbolic value to those who oppose it, and even to those proposing the project. But we think those characterizations often give the misimpression that the project is either on the old World Trade Center site or immediately next to it. And that's not right. And so we rate the claim Barely True. [Emphasis added]
It's "not right" -- and so PolitiFact rates it "Barely True"? That simply does not make sense. And, again, it's the result of PolitiFact's insistence on using a "Truth-O-Meter" gimmick with arbitrary and confusing labels. And of an apparent inconsistency in how rigidly it applies those labels.
Rush Limbaugh claimed the country hasn't "had nine percent unemployment for two years consecutively since the 1930s," falsely suggesting that this is currently the case. In fact, the unemployment rate has exceeded nine percent for 14 months, a period which was exceeded in the 1980s under President Reagan.
As much as novelty fact-checking (news outlets creating fact-check gimmicks when it should be a normal part of reporting) may be trivializing an important issue, it's good to see Christiane Amanpour continuing the practice on ABC's This Week which she helmed for the first time as its new host this weekend.
Back in April, This Week guest-host Jack Tapper partnered with PolitiFact.com to offer fact-checks each week of ABC's important Sunday show.
PolitiFact editor Bill Adair told Media Matters, "I met with This Week's executive producer Ian Cameron a few weeks ago and we decided that we really liked how it was going and that it was a valuable service for This Week's viewers and PolitiFact readers." Adding, "so, we decided to keep it going."
Thus far, This Week remains the only Sunday morning network political talk show to offer an independent fact-check. Media Matters' partner organization Political Correction has been providing fact-checks of the Sunday shows for seven months.
David Corn weighs in on the Arianna Huffington/PolitiFact dispute, making the key point that PolitiFact missed an essential element of the story. (Quick background: On ABC's "This Week" in June, Huffington said Halliburton has "defrauded the American taxpayer of hundreds of millions of dollars." Liz Cheney, whose father Dick Cheney ran Halliburton back when it was selling oil equipment to Saddam Hussein, said Huffington's assertion had "no relationship to the facts." PolitiFact weighed in on Huffington's quite reasonable statement, declaring it only "half true.") Here's Corn:
Readers can judge for themselves if Huffington was ill-advised or justified in using the word "defrauded" on the basis of all those investigations and findings. (I lean toward calling fraud "fraud.") But what is beyond dispute is that Liz Cheney was dead wrong. On "This Week," she said that Huffington's charge had "no relationship to the facts." Given that even the stingy vetters of PolitiFact concluded there is "much in the public record to support [Huffington's] statement," Cheney's denial deserves the Truth-O-Meter's "Pants on Fire" rating.
Yet PolitiFact didn't evaluate Cheney's remark. So here's the real problem: Huffington made a charge that was rooted in reality. Cheney responded with a statement that had no basis in reality. Yet PolitiFact zeroed in only on the former and let the real lie escape. True, Huffington had dared PolitiFact to review her remark. But Adair and his intrepid band were free to expand the mission. The greater public service would have been to compare Huffington's and Cheney's comments and determine who was closer to the truth. This is where PolitiFact truly fell short.
Corn is, of course, right: In narrowly focusing on Huffington's statement rather than the entire exchange, PolitiFact missed the forrest for the trees -- even if you think its assessment of Huffington's statement is correct. This strikes me as another occasion in which PolitiFact's decisions about presentation -- and, in particular, its "True," "Mostly True," "Barely True," etc classifications -- stand in the way of actually giving readers a clear understanding of what the truth is and who is (and isn't) telling it.
OK, one more point about Howard Kurtz's fact-checking segment yesterday. Earlier, Eric Boehlert noted that Kurtz seemed to go out of his way to find a reason to slap a Democrat on the wrists, and I showed that his "fact-checking" of Bill Clinton and Tim Geithner wasn't actually a fact-check. So how did Kurtz do with Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell? Not well.
On the April 18 CNN broadcast of State of the Union With Candy Crowley, McConnell reiterated his contention that Senate financial reform legislation is "a bailout fund that sort of guarantees in perpetuity that we will be intervening once again to bail out these big firms."
Speaking of fact-checking the Sunday shows, I really don't understand the point of fact-checking Bill Clinton's statement that Democrats never had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate during his presidency. Clinton made that true statement on ABC's This Week a week ago; Politifact then explained that the statement was true.
Why bother? It seems to me, the fact-checking should focus primarily on correcting false claims rather than validating true statements. I can see some merit in occasionally validating true statements, particularly when the statement gets at a contentious topic in much dispute. For example, given the amount of claims and counter-claims flying around about how health care reform will affect the budget deficit, you can certainly argue it is worthwhile to point out the truthfulness of a statement that CBO says reform will reduce the deficit.
But spending several paragraphs confirming Bill Clinton's statement that he never had a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate? What's the point? There isn't exactly a raging controversy surrounding the partisan makeup of the Senate 15 years ago. If there's a reason for devoting fact-check segments or articles to obviously true and relatively inconsequential statements, I'd love to hear it. But it seems to me that it's just a distraction, and a trivialization of the whole exercise.
For a while now Media Matters Action Network, our partner organization, has been offering up fact-checks of the vaunted Sunday morning network political talk shows. Media Matters president Eric Burns announced the endeavor in January:
Every Sunday morning, some of the country's most powerful and influential legislators, government officials, journalists, and newsmakers appear as guests on network talk shows. The programs -- ABC's This Week, CBS' Face the Nation, NBC's Meet the Press, and Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday -- occupy a unique place in our media landscape. As the agenda-setters for the next week's worth of political news, they shape conventional wisdom and determine the terms of debate on crucial issues.
These shows also present a critical opportunity to educate the public and correct damaging misinformation -- a responsibility that too often fails to be met. As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has explained, the Sunday show format is broken. Shows like Meet the Press and Face the Nation routinely serve largely as hyper-partisan forums that provide little in the way of fact-checking.
To begin addressing these problems, Rosen offered a simple and valuable suggestion: in order to hold politicians and media figures accountable, the networks should produce mid-week fact-checks of the statements made on their Sunday shows. It was an idea that quickly received the support of CNN's Howard Kurtz.
We're not holding our breath while the network heads decide whether or not to act. Instead, we're announcing the creation of a new Media Matters product. Every Monday morning, the Media Matters Action Network will publish a memo correcting the conservative misinformation that was left unchallenged the day before. Over time, we hope that our work will help contribute to a culture of accountability that is currently lacking on Sunday morning.
Good thing we didn't hold our breath because it took nearly four months for one of the shows to move on the idea.
ABC's This Week, which announced last month that CNN's Christiane Amanpour will be taking over as host, is set to make another major change. Writing about Rosen's suggested fact-checking of the Sunday shows, PolitiFact.com's Bill Adair makes the announcement:
Jake Tapper, the interim host of This Week, liked the suggestion and asked us to fact-check the show on a trial basis. So starting this Sunday, we'll be fact-checking the newsmakers who appear on the program. We'll post the items on our home page and on the show's Web site. The items will also be archived on PolitiFact's This Week page, so you'll be able to check back periodically and see how the newsmakers are doing.
It's great to see Tapper -- who regularly seeks input for the show on Twitter as well -- take this great advice, even if it is only on a "trial basis" thus far. Perhaps Amanpour will follow Tapper's lead and make the partnership permanent when she takes over hosting duties.
So, to the other Sunday shows -- NBC's Meet the Press, CBS' Face the Nation, Fox Broadcasting Co.'s Fox News Sunday (and the cable/syndicated ones too, you know who you are) -- the ball is officially in your court.
From a March 17 Politifact.com post:
On his March 9, 2010, talk show, Rush Limbaugh claimed that, "fishing is on the verge becoming a privilege controlled by Barack Obama." He went on to say that he's only had a few experiences with the sport, but that, "I know a lot of people, former professional athletes, who go into shock after hearing they can't go fishing anymore because of Obama."
To support his claim, Limbaugh points to an article that appeared on ESPNOutdoors.com on March 9, 2010. The article, written by Robert Montgomery, reported that, "The Obama administration will accept no more public input for a federal strategy that could prohibit U.S. citizens from fishing the nation's oceans, coastal areas, Great Lakes, and even inland waters." This quote was pulled from the Web site of left-wing media watchdog Media Matters. Montgomery later changed his column, so the original language is no longer on the ESPNOutdoors site. But more about that later.
Like many things we check at PolitiFact, this claim is like sausage: it went in the meat processor that is the Internet as one thing and came out quite different. An opinion piece that argued Obama's effort could ban some fishing was chopped up, reprocessed and put back together as a claim that Obama wants to ban all fishing. In fact, the draft framework says nothing about banning fishing. Limbaugh has taken an early discussion about the use of waterways and twisted it to make it sound like Obama is outlawing a popular pastime. While the panel's recommendation could change fishing practices in some areas, the framework is still in draft form; the administration has not made any final decisions on what the framework will look like. But Limbaugh is grossly distorting the truth. Pants on Fire!
Echoing claims made by John McCain's campaign, PolitiFact.com again characterized as a momentary lapse McCain's admittedly false claim that "[i]t's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran." PolitiFact repeated its earlier claim that "McCain recovered quickly" but failed to note that McCain made the misstatement more than once during a press conference and did so as well the day before in a radio interview.
In noting Sen. John McCain's false statement that "[i]t's common knowledge and has been reported in the media that Al Qaeda is going back into Iran and is receiving training and are coming back into Iraq from Iran," PolitiFact.com asserted: "We're not trying to pile on to Sen. John McCain over his misstatement on the link between Iran and al-Qaida. Maybe he was confused just for a moment. He did correct himself quickly." PolitiFact did not mention that McCain made the same error twice, and that he had made it the previous day.