Monday, June 28, 2010

The Predict Robyn Blumner's Next Move poll

Robyn "Blumnata" Blumner, editorial columnist for the St. Petersburg Times, periodically recommends socialist solutions from other nations as models for the United States.  Columns over the past few years, for example, have extolled the wonders of the Spanish economy and, more recently, the model in Germany.  The latter, of course, ignored that nation's recent leaning toward market-based economic reform.

In a blog post dedicated to that most recent Blumner column, I promised a poll to allow reader(s) to predict the next Western European socialist nation she would offer as a model for the U.S.

There's probably something liberal enough to call "socialist" in every Western European nation, as least enough to make Blumner think it would be good for America, so I've listed every nation of Western Europe among the selections.  If a new country forms in Western Europe I'll add it to the list.

The poll will remain open until Jan. 2011 unless Blumner tips her hand before that.  Good luck!

Look for the poll in the sidebar, lower right near the bottom.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Blumneconomics XIII: On second thought, Germany is the Western European socialist nation the U.S. should emulate

Roughly two years ago, Robyn "Blumñata" Blumner was touting Spain as the model for the U.S. economy.

With Spain hot on the heels of Greece on the road toward fiscal ruin, however, Blumner needed a different example with which to inspire the envy of downtrodden American workers.  How about ... Germany?
Since 2003, Germany and its 82 million people have either beaten China in export sales or about tied China for first place. The country is arguably the world's leading industrial power, even as its workers enjoy high wages, six-week vacations and other benefits that an American worker only dreams about.
Yeah, Germany!  There's the ticket!

As usual, Blumner was inspired by a book authored by a liberal/leftist.  This time it was a labor lawyer from Chicago by name of Thomas Geoghegan.  And, once again, the message is that socialism is good.

I haven't read Geohegan's book, so I won't critique that.  But Blumner's cherry-picked statistics and incomplete truth-telling are fair game.
And for those who claim that the cost of European socialism is endemic high unemployment, German unemployment at 7.7 percent is lower than the U.S. rate.
The cherry-picking:  Germany ordinarily trails the United States in terms of unemployment rate during recent history.

Germany - Unemployment rate (%)

The rest of the story:  During the recent recession, Germany has kept its unemployment artificially low by cutting back on the number of hours worked.  Part of Germany's recent success may be attributed to Germany's gravitation toward free market principles in its economic reform movement.

My, that was inconvenient.

Blumner again:
Our lower taxes boost per capita GDP but also mean that we are on our own for collective-type goods like college education, retirement, health care, transportation and child care — things that are efficiently bought with taxes for everyone in European social democracies.

I'll be setting up a pool/poll so that readers can vote on which European socialist state Blumner would have us emulate after Germany falters.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Sen. DeMint and unanimous consent--version 2

PolitiFact caught with pants on fire

PolitiFact owned up to the most obvious of the mistakes in its grading of Sen. Jim DeMint on his statements about the Senate's unanimous consent procedure.

And they doubled down on their rating of "Pants on Fire."

The issue:

The issue remains the same as I described it before.  The headline and deck of the story remain unchanged, including the juxtaposition of "DeMint says 94 percent of bills are passed unanimously" with the animated "Pants on Fire" Truth-O-Meter rating.

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor

New writer/researcher.  Same editor.  Inspired with confidence yet?


New writer Louis Jacobson does a better job of explicitly and clearly identifying the issues than did his predecessor:
DeMint's number seemed high to us, so we decided to investigate. We see two broad areas to analyze. One is whether the percentage DeMint cites is accurate. The other is whether DeMint's percentage says anything valuable about how the Senate handles legislation.
The earlier story might have benefited from drawing that same distinction early on, though that judgment is hard to justify based on the rest of Jacobson's story.  Indeed, though Jacobson does more to identify the issues than did Lukas Pleva, he did not go far enough.

Many PolitiFact fact checks grade the literal truth of a statement along with the underlying argument intended by the statement.  In this case we have two different statements from DeMint and perhaps two underlying arguments as well.  Jacobson, like Pleva before, fails to keep the subjects properly separated.

Jacobson follows the pattern of the earlier story by taking DeMint to task for his use of the term "bills":
This is the source of DeMint's 94 percent figure -- 855 bills passed by unanimous consent out of 911 total measures taken up.

DeMint in his speech referred to all of these measures as "bills." But the CRS report broke them down more precisely. Some were formal bills or joint resolutions, both of which are binding. Others were simple resolutions or concurrent resolutions, which do not have the force of a law and do not require the president's signature.
As I argued in my earlier response, the distinction PolitiFact draws is arbitrary with respect to DeMint's statement.  DeMint is entitled to use any legitimate definition of "bill" he wishes and the proper interpretation of his words takes his intent to account.  It is true that the CRS document distinguishes between bills and various resolutions, but that does not eliminate the legitimacy of the term "bill" as DeMint used it.

Note this from the Government Printing Office:

The following abbreviations stand for types of legislative documents in the Congressional Bills databases. They are included as part of the bill number in the identification code.
H.R. House Bill
S. Senate Bill
H.J.Res. House Joint Resolution
S.J.Res. Senate Joint Resolution
H.Con.Res. House Concurrent Resolution
S.Con.Res. Senate Concurrent Resolution
H.Res. House Simple Resolution
S.Res. Senate Simple Resolution

The entire variety of measures discussed in the CRS document comes from the "Congressional Bills" databases, and the abbreviations to the left constitute part of the "bill number" regardless of whether it is "S. Con. Res." or "H.R."  PolitiFact equivocates on DeMint's statement as to its literal meaning.  The statement is literally true, and DeMint appears to make the underlying argument that Congress does a great deal of its business using unanimous consent.  And his underlying argument is probably a bit more than that, spilling into the underlying argument associated with his subsequent statements about the bills passed unanimously.  As Wesley Denton put it on behalf of DeMint (via PolitiFact):
"Nowhere in DeMint’s speech does he ever say that all 94 percent of these bills are controversial, or that all 94 percent need a roll call vote," Denton said. "DeMint is criticizing the process, not every bill passed by that flawed process. So to try to whittle down the number by focusing on only the bills PolitiFact finds controversial is a disingenuous attempt to discredit DeMint’s factual statement."
Jacobson followed the quotation with this response:
We disagree. We think the fairer test is to focus on the bills that include some element of substance that demands debate.
Jacobson confuses the statement with the underlying argument.  He is correct that it would be better in terms of precision (if not in terms of rhetorical effectiveness) to stick with bills of substance where the lack of debate represents a dire public concern.  But Jacobson makes a mistake in trying to shoehorn DeMint's literally true statement about the percentage of bills passed via unanimous consent into what Jacobson sees as the best way to present the argument.  No matter who is right about the best way to present the argument, the literal statement from DeMint is true.  Jacobson should have focused on whether the true statement communicated the underlying argument without misleading the audience.  Failing in that, Jacobson misleads his audience.

From that confusion between the literal statement and its underlying argument, Jacobson proceeds to the math stage flubbed so memorably in the previous version of the story.  Happily, Jacobson perpetrates no major errors. For what it's worth, I counted 86 bills naming postal service facilities compared to Jacobson's 88 and I found 31 other bills naming various government-owned properties compared to Jacobson's 30.

After Jacobson fiddles away on the numbers for a time he delivers the key graphs:
We now have a couple ways to crunch the numbers. One is to say that 81 percent of non-trivial, binding bills (206 out of 254) were passed by unanimous consent. Alternately, you could separate out the 64 binding resolutions that CRS said were passed by unanimous consent but which received some debate. Doing this would mean that 56 percent of non-trivial, binding bills, received absolutely no debate. (DeMint's office argues that the "debate" on these bills cited by CRS was cursory and thus shouldn't be counted as debate.)

Either figure would be lower than what DeMint said on the floor, and one of the percentages is quite a bit lower. They're also higher than the 27.9 percent we had in our previous article, which we now acknowledge is incorrect.
 The two paragraphs above are best taken as a better comparison than the one DeMint offered--nothing more than that.  Jacobson has nothing through this point to justify judging DeMint's claim as "ridiculous."  DeMint's percentage figure was accurate, and he could have chosen a more appropriate measure.  Either way, the bulk of legislation passed by Congress was via unanimous consent and was notably lacking in the type of debate we ought to favor in our legislative body.

In short, neither the claim on its face nor the underlying claim is ridiculous.

Jacobson tries to suggest otherwise:
(W)e think what's wrong with DeMint's statement is actually broader than the arithmetic. We arrived at the percentages above after first excluding as ceremonial or symbolic 657 measures the senator had counted. These largely non-substantive measures that DeMint included accounted for more than 70 percent of the measures he used in his calculation. This significantly skews the picture of what kinds of measures were taken up in the Senate.
It skews it somewhere between 13 and 38 percentage points.  Ridiculous?   PolitiFact's first attempt at the calculation differed from its second attempt by at least 28 percentage points.  DeMint's percentage was exactly accurate, if applied clumsily to the also-solid underlying argument.  President Obama's claim about Model T gas mileage compared to that of modern SUVs once again provides an illuminating case study in shifting standards.  Obama's claim, like DeMint's, was literally true but a poor basis for comparison.  And Obama's underlying argument, unlike DeMint's, had virtually nothing to recommend it.  Yet Obama warranted a "Mostly True" rating from PolitiFact.

That's hardly a model for journalistic objectivity.

PolitiFact obstinately sticks with their earlier rating:
Ultimately, we find that DeMint's goals, laudable though they may be, are undercut -- not strengthened -- by the math he chose to present in his floor speech. We'll own up to our own mathematical error, but we stand by our overall judgment from the initial article: Pants on Fire!
That standard clearly did not apply in President Obama's case.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Bill Adair:  F

Jacobson's potentially informative research might have earned him a passing grade if he had bothered to tease out the entire set of issues clearly.

How can Adair preside over this stuff?


PolitiFact earned some credit by keeping the old story archived.  Dating the stories and any subsequent updates might also be a good idea.

June 28, 2010:  added the missing adverb "clearly" to the first paragraph in the "Analysis" section.

Mainstream media smuggling

One of the more insidious forms of media bias comes from the insertion of dubious material in "news" stories as accepted fact.  PolitiFact offered up a nice example of that recently.

What's wrong?

I'll tell you what's wrong.  Look at the deck statement:  "Emanuel says BP apologist Rep. Baron would be chair of (the) Energy and Commerce Committee if GOP regains House."  PolitiFact focused on Emanuel's fortune-telling and found it half-true--quite a feat in itself that PolitiFact was able to make a ruling on a future event months in advance, though I'd have cut Emanuel some slack (charitable interpretation) and take him to mean that Barton would the chair if Republicans were in power in the here and now.

But I digress.

Emanuel, in the immediate context, did not call Barton a "BP apologist":
Rahm Emanuel:
"That's for the Republicans to decide. What I think is more important, you can say it's a political gift for us, and it is. But it's dangerous for the American people, because while the ranking Republican would have oversight into the energy industry, and if the Republicans were the majority, would have actually the gavel and the chairmanship."
In his subsequent remarks, however, Emanuel charged that Barton was making BP the victim rather than the gulf fishermen:
"That's not a political gaffe, those were prepared remarks. That is a philosophy. That is an approach to what they see. They see the aggrieved party here is BP, not the fishermen. And remember, this is not just one person. Rand Paul, running for Senate in Kentucky, what did he say? He said the way BP was being treated was un-American."
There's a fine statement to fact-check:  "They see the aggrieved party here is BP, not the fishermen."

The Republicans (some, not all) see both the fishermen and BP as aggrieved in light of the Obama administration's pressure on BP to set up a $2 billion fund entirely separate from its legal liabilities.

The PolitiFact deck feeds into the meme the Democrats will probably want to push during the coming election season.  There was no need to refer to Barton as a "BP apologist," and that term may even reflect a failure of the author to understand the term "apologist."  It may be that the intent was to say that Barton had offered an apology to BP.  That's not what "apologist" means.

If it was an attempt at a clever pun then it failed the test of journalistic fairness.  It is irresponsible to call Barton a "BP apologist" without explaining in what respect he defended BP.  Certainly Barton was not in the position of saying that BP carried no blame for the gulf oil spew.

July 31, 2010:  Removed an extra "to refer" to avoid redundancy.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Thomas Ricks on the direction of the war in Afghanistan under Petraus

Thomas E. Ricks has the bona fides to produce a worthwhile assessment of the leadership change in Afghanistan:
This week's confrontation between a senior Army general and the president of the United States may have signaled the beginning of the end of the war in Afghanistan. In a year or two, President Obama will be able to say that he gave the conflict his best shot, reshaping the strategy and even putting in charge his top guy, the general who led the surge in Iraq -- but that things still didn't work out.

Then he can begin pulling out.
(The Washington Post)
 The early buzz about Gen. Petraeus' approach to his new command make me wonder if perhaps Petraeus will prove his mettle beyond what Ricks had imagined.  I refer to reports that Petraeus intends to relax the rules of engagement.  The Rolling Stone piece that helped sink Gen. Stanley McChrystal pointed out that the restrictive rules of engagement represent a huge problem for the troops.  A change by Petraeus may help produce the type of mission unity that Ricks doubts that Petraeus can reproduce from Iraq.

Obviously the political liason problem persists, at least for now.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Fact check this?

PolitiFact, the fact-checking operation created by the St. Petersburg Times, distant relative of and supposedly objective cousin to Media Matters for America, announced two fact checks of Rahm Emanuel following his appearance on "This Week" with Jake Tapper.

The key claim from Emanuel apparently will not receive a fact check.  Perhaps that will occur eventually, since it figures to turn into a prime campaign message for the Democrats as election season looms:
TAPPER: Now Barton later apologized for his comments after some pressure from House Republican leaders. But the Svengali of the president's political arm, David Plouffe, has called for him to step down as ranking Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Do you agree?

EMANUEL: That's for the Republicans to decide. What I think is more important, you can say it's a political gift for us, and it is. But it's dangerous for the American people, because while the ranking Republican would have oversight into the energy industry, and if the Republicans were the majority, would have actually the gavel and the chairmanship.

That's not a political gaffe, those were prepared remarks. That is a philosophy. That is an approach to what they see. They see the aggrieved party here is BP, not the fishermen. And remember, this is not just one person. Rand Paul, running for Senate in Kentucky, what did he say? He said the way BP was being treated was un-American.

Other members of the Republican leadership have come to the defense of BP and attacked the administration for forcing them to set up an escrow account and fund it to the level of $20 billion. These aren't political gaffes. You know, I've been in hearings. Joe Barton was speaking from prepared remarks. Rand Paul, who is running Kentucky, a leading Senate candidate for the Republicans said BP, the way they were being treated was un-American.  (bold emphasis added)
Emanuel has offered, as President Obama might say, a "false choice."

Rep. Barton's statement suggests nothing at all about his (or the GOP's) attitude toward fishermen.  Nor does it cast BP as "the" aggrieved party in the gulf oil spew (my recommended name for the phenomenon) situation.

BP is very probably rightly liable for extensive damages because of its actions in the Gulf of Mexico.  BP has affirmed that and has taken steps to shoulder its responsibility.  But in addition to being a party to blame, BP is also a victim of strong-arm tactics from the Obama administration.

BP is both a villain and a victim.  The two states are not mutually exclusive, contrary to what Emanuel suggests with his argument.

Fact check a key Democratic talking point?   Why would PolitiFact want to do that?

Wasn't that really just Emanuel's opinion?
They don't fact check opinion. Or something like that.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Update: The standard of accuracy at the St. Petersburg Times (Updated x2)

Three, three, three irons in the fire.

1)  The St. Petersburg Times still apparently doesn't care that Neal Boortz did not compare Elena Kagan to Shrek.  They've kept that untrue factoid in the text of a Robyn Blumner editorial column.

2)  The Times also does not care that their report(s) that Charlie Crist received $7.4 million in public campaign financing are false.  The figure remains esconced in a Times news report as well as in a subsequent editorial.

3)  The Times' fact checking project, PolitiFact, published a national story about Sen. Jim DeMint that included yet another false claim.  According to that story DeMint was incorrect that the percentage of all bills passed via unanimous consent was 94 percent.  PolitiFact absurdly claimed that the real figure was 27.9 percent.  PolitiFact has yet to address the problem.

I've contacted the Times' corrections department about the first two instances.

A PolitiFact FaceBook fan, Scott Tippetts, reported that he sent PolitiFact a note pointing out the problem with its percentage figures.
(btw, I have sent Truth-O-Meter a mroe (sic) detailed email explaining the errors in their logic & calculation.)
Thursday at 6:55pm
--Scott Tippetts.
Today I sent a message directly to the story's author, thinking that if the author came to believe that the story contained false information then their investment in the story would motivate an effort to fix it.

And nothing happens.

We'll keep watching.

Our standard at the St. Petersburg Times is simple: to get things right the first time. This being a human endeavor, we sometimes fall short.

When this happens in the news report, our policy is to correct factual errors, promptly and prominently. Readers who spot factual errors are encouraged to contact the news department, by telephone, letter or e-mail, so that we can address the mistake.

Our contact numbers are in the directory. Readers may also call our main City Desk at (727) 893-8215 between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m., or send an e-mail to
(St. Petersburg Times, bold emphasis in the original)

It's getting rather difficult to believe.
Your question about the Times' standards of accuracy and their application has been forwarded to me. Those standards do indeed apply to the entire paper. With respect to editorials and opinion columns, readers often have differences with the opinions expressed in those pieces. As I'm sure you understand, those are differences of opinions and not questions of fact.
(e-mail from Tim Nickens, the Times' editor of editorials)


Following the course I chose in the third instance, I contacted the author of the news report containing the second error.  Steve Bousquet (responding promptly to my message) has affirmed that he will follow up with an editor with respect to publishing a correction.  Props to Steve Bousquet.

Update 2 (Nov. 1, 2011):

Much has happened, at least from my end of things, without an update.  To recap the gap:

PolitiFact did fix the badly wrong 27.9 percent figure in the DeMint fact check (though the fact check continues to contain egregious flaws).  So one of these three irons came out of the fire.

As for the inaccurate reporting on public campaign finance in Florida, nothing happened subsequent to Bousquet apparently acknowledging the problem.  I followed up by contacting the St. Petersburg Times' president, Paul Tash, with similarly invisible results.  Today, I phoned the Times' directly.  I briefly explained the problem and the friendly phone person said my inquiry fell in editor Jim Booth's department.  But Mr. Booth was out and would not return until 11 a.m.  The phone person asked for my phone number so that Mr. Booth could phone me and I gave it.

It's 3:04 p.m. as I type this, and I have received no call.

At about 11:30 a.m. I also sent Mr. Booth the links he would need to easily find the information at the Florida Division of Elections website along with the two stories containing the inaccurate numbers.

And the inaccurate information remains in both stories.  Hopefully the next update will contain better news.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Sen. DeMint and unanimous consent (Updated)

This is bad.  Just a warning.

Update:  PolitiFact assigned a new reporter to the story and produced a different version.  See my separate review of the second attempt here.

The issue(s):

The image immediately below occurs on a page listing the most recent of PolitiFact's national stories.  The caption below the flaming "Truth-O-Meter" graphic will turn out ironically prophetic.

The second image (below) repeats the main fact-check claim and comes from the page that includes the fact check story.  The deck below the headline material features a somewhat different claim, that 94 percent of bills are passed unanimously.  That is, a particular procedure called "unanimous consent" is used to pass bills in the Senate at the 94 percent rate.

The second image features the flaming "Truth-O-Meter" image nearby, so the reader may infer that both claims mentioned in the image are ridiculous claims according to PolitiFact standards.

The fact checkers:

Lukas Pleva:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor

This is my first review of Lukas Pleva's work.  The PolitiFact site identifies him as an intern from the University of Chicago.


Pleva most likely pleased the rest of the PolitiFact staff no end with the cheesy opening paragraph.  Such openings occur often in PolitiFact stories and are meant to convey the bold attitude of their fact checks.  That type of communication has no place in objective journalism, yet PolitiFact continues to present its stories, internal content aside, as objective journalism.  I won't count that against Pleva.  Most likely they made him do it.

On to the content:
On May 26, 2010, Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, posted a video of one of his speeches on YouTube. Speaking about legislative openness, DeMint said that Congress is plagued with secrecy and lack of debate on important issues: "At this point in the Senate, 94 percent of all the bills are passed unanimous consent --  94 percent. So this is hardly a lack of productivity. And what this means is 94 percent of the bills that pass the Senate have no debate, no vote, no amendments, no reading of the bill, no online disclosure, and very often no score from the Congressional Budget office."

DeMint's number seemed suspiciously high, so we decided to investigate.
Ignoring the first paragraph, the fact check is great through this point.  It communicates Sen. DeMint's message with reasonable accuracy and offers a full quotation of DeMint with no ellipses.  The fourth graph sustains that standard by recounting how PolitiFact contacted DeMint for the source of his claim.

That's where the trouble starts:
We found (DeMint) ignored key details in the report.

To begin, of the 855 measures, only 327 were legally binding bills and joint resolutions, according to the CRS report. The rest were simple and concurrent resolutions which do not have the force of a law and thus do not require the President's signature. An example is a resolution "congratulating Charles County, Maryland, on the occasion of its 350th anniversary." We wouldn't expect any debate on that one.
As we wonder why the above constitutes a key detail, Pleva goes off the rails:
That leaves 327 binding measures. Of those, however, the CRS report says 64 were actually passed with debate. We're down to 263. Of those, nine had similar versions in the House that were debated. That leaves 254. Finally, CRS notes that 42 were passed unanimously the same day that they were received, which means that some discussion may have happened, but it would have been very limited. But we'll be generous and let DeMint count the 42 anyway. Still, only 254 bills were passed by the Senate with no debate and no amendments. That's 27.9 percent -- significantly less than the purported 94.
(colorful highlights added)
Pink:  We are left with 327 binding measures.  On what basis did we just discard the bulk of the measures?  Because they are not "bills"?  Because the president doesn't need to sign them?  What?  The best way I can take Pleva's approach is to assume that he feels that if certain bills were not very important then it is irrelevant whether they lacked debate, a vote, reading, online disclosure or ("often") no CRS scoring.  They just don't count.

In short, it looks like Pleva invented a criterion for not considering the bulk of the measures as meeting the standard set by DeMint.

Less charitably, I can assume that Pleva decided that simple or concurrent resolutions do not count as bills despite the fact that each is assigned a bill number.

Orange:  The CRS reports says that 64 passed with debate?  Oh, really?  What kind of debate?

From the report:
If any Senator made a statement at the time the measure was approved, even if it was an extremely brief explanation of the legislation, then the measure was listed in Attachment 5. Inclusion in this list is not necessarily an indication of lengthy debate, and in fact it is likely that some of these measures were cleared through the telephone hotline. Attachment 5 lists 77 measures as having passed by unanimous consent with at least some discussion.
In Pleva's account, measures from Attachment 5 were measures "passed with debate."  PolitiFact readers apparently do not deserve the rest of the story.  That supposedly debated measures may not have received any significant debate does not count as a significant detail in the PolitiFact version of the story.

Green:  Pleva claims we're down to 263 bills that might meet Sen. DeMint's 94 percent criteria, despite the fact that some of them may not have received any significant debate.  This miserly approach ends up with a counterbalance when Pleva grants DeMint the benefit of the doubt on unanimous consent bills passed the same day they were introduced.  Is this a precise version of fact checking?  No, of course not.  Pleva ends up helping himself to the type of imprecise communication that PolitiFact often criticizes when it comes from others.

Yellow:  This is the whopper of whoppers.  The claim that only 254 bills passed the Senate via unanimous consent forces us to discard the more charitable of the two interpretations I suggested for Pleva's claim.  If Pleva had proposed that only 254 significant bills had passed the Senate via unanimous consent then the statement would have been consistent with the notion that he was only counting significant bills, even if the standard was apparently arbitrary.  Rather, Pleva does appear to be making the ridiculous claim that most numbered bills listed in the report do not count as bills but are instead merely "measures" and thus cannot count toward DeMint's 94 percent figure.

Blue:  OK, we have a bit of a contest for whopper of whoppers.  Pleva takes the 254 bill figure that he reached chiefly by ruling out mere "measures" and uses that figure to derive a percentage of 27.9 percent (254 divided by 911).  But if measures do not count as bills, then Pleva has no justification for using 911 as the denominator in his equation.  The percentage of bills that received no debate--otherwise sticking with Pleva's method--should be calculated as 254 divided by 376 (911-535), or 67.6 percent.

A pair of commenters at PolitiFact's FaceBook page caught the mistake before I looked into this item:
Not that I agree with his assesent at all but in the interest of fairness which this site helps assure (and maybe I'm not following the logic), if we are looking at the percentage of binding bills passed with no debate, wouldn't that be 254 bills out of 327, which would be 71%. Still makes the statement wrong but not AS pants on fire as suggested. PLEASE, correct me if I'm not using the right numbers.
Thursday at 6:33pm
-- Ruth Robertson-Gouge

@Ruth, you are close to be(ing) correct in your statement. There were another 66 bills (911-855) that were presumably debated as well - i.e., the 6% that DeMint claimed. If these were also binding legislation (almost certainly), then you'd have a relevant population of 327+66= 393. So, 254 / 393 = 64.6%. Thus, while DeMint is still "Liar, Pants on Fire!" it is not by nearly as much as the Truth-o-Meter incorrectly calculated.
Thursday at 6:54pm
--Scott Tippetts
Ed. note: Tippets' percentage differs from mine because he used a 66 bill figure where he should have used 49 (911-855-# of non-binding measures where unanimous consent was not used for passage)
Pleva flubbed the math and his editor, incredibly, failed to catch it.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What's with the photograph?

I ran across a nice story on the JLTV competition a few days ago at the Army Times Web site.

Just one problem.  Why does a picture of the Combat Tactical Vehicle accompany the story with no explanation?

Fewer copyright hurdles?  I'd think that the companies involved would fall all over themselves to allow one of their vehicles to appear as the face of the JLTV.  Or maybe that's the reasoning for using the CTV.  It's the neutral choice since it's not part of the competition in the first place.

Video: BAE Systems/Navistar JLTV

Completing the trio, a third JLTV video with video of the testing phase:

A hearty hat tip to "wildfrespo," who uploaded all three videos at YouTube.

Others in the set:
Lockheed Martin

Video: General Tactical Vehicles JLTV

General Tactical Vehicles was the name given to the partnership that included AM General, maker of the Humvee, and General Dynamics.

Video: Lockheed Martin JLTV

A recent video, which apparently includes footage of the Lockheed Martin JLTV going through some of its paces at Aberdeen.

Grading PolitiFact (Georgia): Roy Barnes and scraping gold off the capitol dome

PolitiFact's national operation seems to be getting a clue about hyperbole, though the process is achingly slow.

PolitiFact Georgia will apparently need to go through that process from scratch.  But they may be ahead of the game compared to the main operation because they at least acknowledge the existence of hyperbole right out of the chute.  By name, no less.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Jim Tharpe:  writer, researcher
Jim Denery:  editor

Tharpe and Denery work for the Atlanta Journal Constitution.


They started out so well:
Okay, okay. We here at PolitiFact Georgia know that politicians are occasionally given to hyperbole.
Dear reader, you don't know how encouraged I felt with that first line.  Fact checkers who understand hyperbole!  What a concept!

But it was downhill from there:
From time to time the political class seems driven to test the bounds of rhetorical gravity. And we feel inclined to test what they say.
If that sounds like a declaration that Tharpe (and Denery, by extension) doesn't really understand hyperbole as a figure of speech rather than as simple exaggeration then you won't be surprised by the rest of the fact check.

What did Roy Barnes say?
The former governor, a Democrat, hammered current leaders for "cheating the next generation" by cutting education.

"If we have to scrape the gold off the gold dome, you make sure that education comes first," Mr. Barnes told the group.
(Chattanooga Times Free Press)
Seriously, does it look like Barnes is suggesting it would be a good idea to scrape the gold off the dome to bring in more cash?

Tharpe makes a good move.  He asks the Barnes campaign about the comment:
Chris Carpenter, Barnes’ campaign manager, said Barnes made the statement to show how important he considers education. The former governor has also mentioned closing the Governor’s Mansion and the state Capitol – the same one he wants to relieve of its gold top – to raise money for state schools.

“He just thinks public education is the No 1 priority,” Carpenter said.  “Obviously there is some rhetorical flourish there.”
Carpenter spelled it out.  It was H-Y-P-E-R-B-O-L-E.  Exaggeration not merely of the facts but rather exaggeration broadly understood by speaker and audience as making a particular point.  When the lovestruck suitor declares that he would lift the world for his beloved, he does not expect her to think that he might actually perform the feat, nor even to consider that, relatively speaking, the world is somewhat displaced if he does a push-up.  That isn't the point.  The point is that he would extend every effort to demonstrate his love.

But apparently the clever staffers at PolitiFact Georgia don't understand that:
Flourish, smourish. We wanted to know how much the state could get if it the gold leaf was actually scraped off the venerable old dome and sold.
To repeat the point I've made during numerous other instances where PolitiFact treated exaggeration for emphasis in wooden-literal fashion, I have no problem with fact-checking whether or not the state could make a buck off the dome's gold leaf.  Fine.  Do that.  But acknowledge hyperbole for its actual role in human communication and don't put "Pants on Fire" next to any politician's name based on your own misunderstanding of a common figure of speech!  Give the "Pants on Fire" rating and all you're doing is communicating the fact that you don't understand plain English.

Speaking of which, let's skip over the discussion of how scraping the gold off would probably lose money for the state of Georgia and get to PolitiFact's conclusion:
In fact you would lose money, and end up with a naked Capitol dome. And nobody wants that. We give the former governor a Pants On Fire for this one.
You give journalists a bad name with this one, PolitiFact Georgia.

The grades:

Jim Tharpe:  F
Jim Denery:  F

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Job creation and the minimum wage

Hat tip to Hot Air.

Orphe Divounguy finishes his presentation by challenging minimum wage supporters with a more advanced application of minimum wage logic. Why not increase the minimum wage to $100 per hour or the like?

I tried a similar challenge with a liberal at a FaceBook page some weeks ago. What if we gave everyone a government job paying $1 million per year? I pressed "Garrett Fitzgerald" for an answer over a period of time. This was probably his best attempt:
"it would wreck the money wouldn't be worth anything...The idea of a stable system is no one is too rich and on one is too poor...and you have a big middle in between."
Fitzgerald had an accurate sense that employing everyone with million-dollar jobs would devalue money, but his secondary reasoning  suggested that he had no real idea why that was the case.  Instead of reaching the conclusion I tried to draw him toward, that the value of money is a function of the (market-determined) value of work, he came up with this fantastic idea that a monetary system needed to avoid having too many rich or poor people.  Naturally I subsequently pointed out to him that, relatively speaking, million dollar salaries for all effectively eliminated "too rich" and "too poor."  The "big middle in between" was guaranteed about as much as possible in a realistic scenario.

Fitzgerald never reached the conclusion that I tried to draw him toward, but he did eventually try to dodge the discussion of economics and other issues by using FaceBook's "ignore user" application.

Do liberals tend to be somewhat clueless about economics?  I think so, though the linked study does have its flaws.

Grading PolitiFact: George Will on perfect game umpiring

Sometimes PolitiFact fact checks claims about sports.  I guess it beats delving into whether or not Sen. Barbara Boxer is certifiably insane when she claims the Deepwater Horizon oil spill serves as an example of the harmful effects of "too much carbon."  That in the context of defending the EPA's claim to regulatory power over carbon dioxide emissions.

The issue:

While arguing that Major League Baseball should not overrule the baseball umpire, Will stated that the last pitch in Don Larsen's World Series perfect game was "a foot and a half, probably, high and outside."  My transcription is better than the one PolitiFact used, for the record.

The key portion occurs at about the 2:15 on the video.  PolitiFact chose to fact check the distance factor on Larsen's third strike to Dodgers batter Dale Mitchell.

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Morris Kennedy:  editor


While providing the background information on the fact check, Louis Jacobson took a curious step outside the normal realm of objective reporting.  "This Week" host Jake Tapper had introduced earlier portions of the Round Table segment by tipping the audience and the panel that the later discussion would include the much-publicized baseball controversy.  Jacobson wrote that Tapper asked Will about the perfect game that wasn't.  Note how Jacobson starts the subsequent paragraph:
Will -- a bestselling author on baseball and one of the game's most prominent fans -- took Tapper's bait as if it were a hanging curve ball.
Hanging curve ball?  A hanging curve ball is mistake.  Tapper wasn't trying to strike anybody out.  He was pitching batting practice.  It wasn't "bait."  It was just another part of the buffet.  The implication that Tapper was out to somehow trap Will is ridiculous.

Jacobson never really recovers from the bad beginning:
"In the most important perfect game ever pitched -- 1956, Don Larsen in the World Series -- the 27th out was made by Dale Mitchell," Will said. "A wonderful batter's eye he had. He struck out 119 times in 4,000 Major League at-bats. The umpire (Pinelli) -- it was his last game, by the way -- called strike three on Dale Mitchell. It was a foot and half probably high and outside. He was so eager to get the game over."

A foot and a half outside the strike zone seemed to us like a pretty badly blown call. We thought it would be worth checking to see if Will was correct in how he described Pinelli's call.
I have no problem with PolitiFact placing a focus on the amount of space between Larsen's pitch and the strike zone.  But the fact check will not be complete without keeping to the context of Will's remarks.  Even if taken literally rather than as hyperbole, Will is reasonably entitled to the normal imprecision we employ with numbers.  "A foot and a half" is a reasonable expression of 15 inches.  That is, it represents the standard round-up from the halfway point between one foot and "a foot and a half." 

I wonder what sort of measuring tape Jacobson will use to fact check Will?

Jacobson tried to contact Will to see if he had viewed the game.  That was a sensible move, but Will reportedly did not respond.  Jacobson then started picking over other aspects of Will's statement, such as the claim about Mitchell's sense of the strike zone:
Let's note that Will is correct about Mitchell's career statistics -- he struck out only 119 times in 3,984 at bats -- but did not mention that Mitchell was at the end of his career, with some baseball experts saying he'd lost a step. Mitchell's plate appearance against Larsen was the second-to-last of his career, and he batted just .204 (11-for-54) during the 1956 regular season and went hitless in four at-bats in the World Series.
Losing a step doesn't typically affect a player's sense of the strike zone.  Taken literally, it makes him slower to first base.  Taken charitably, it makes his bat slower.  The latter can make a player more susceptible to striking out even if he has a good sense of the strike zone.  But none of that, including the stats provided by PolitiFact, seems to affect Will's point that Mitchell had a good sense of the strike zone.

Jacobson then takes up a second distraction, noting that Will was not correct that Larsen's perfect game was not the last as umpire for Babe Pirelli.  It was his last game as a home plate umpire.  I'd say that was probably what Will meant, but PolitiFact doesn't show much of a propensity for using charitable interpretation.

Next, Jacobson provided a series of quotations from expert sources affirming that the called third strike was outside the strike zone.  Jacobson's assessment followed:
But none of this proves that Pinelli's call was as flagrantly out of the strike zone as Will suggests.
Barbaric grammar aside (Pinelli's call might have been flagrantly wrong, but the issue isn't whether the call was outside the strike zone), Jacobson is correct that the expert sources do not confirm the distance figure offered by Will.

Jacobson finishes by noting that the bulk of the experts he contacted agreed that Will was exaggerating but that the pitch was likely not a strike.  Some experts defended the call on the basis that the pitch was "too close to take."  With that, Jacobson is ready for his conclusion:
So let's recap. There's ample evidence -- including the players' eyewitness testimony -- that the pitch was not a down-the-middle, obvious strike. In all likelihood, it was somewhat out of the strike zone. But we found wide agreement among our experts that Will is exaggerating when he says that Larsen's pitch was a foot and a half outside the strike zone. And if it wasn't a flagrantly bad call like Joyce's earlier this month, then the example's value for Will is reduced. As umpire, we rate Will's statement Half True.
Note Jacobson's assertion that "the example's value for Will is reduced" if the call was not as blatantly wrong.  Jacobson appears to have missed the point of the example.  Will, after describing the bad call by the World Series umpire, went on to suppose that baseball's commissioner was in the stands and that he might move onto the field and call a do-over.  The example drew its strength from the critical (and now historic) situation more than from the degree of poor judgment from the umpire.

As always, I have no problem with noting exaggeration where it has likely taken place.  But PolitiFact would improve its service to its readers if it more often recognized the legitimacy of hyperbole in normal communication.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Morris Kennedy:  F

The sheer amount of ridiculousness easily overshadows the potentially valuable survey of expert sources.  And it could have been mentioned that Will himself is arguably as expert as any of the others.


I was bugged by one particular aspect of the video material for the Don Larsen's World Series perfect game.  The camera angle for every pitch except the final pitch was from directly behind the plate.  The camera angle for the final pitch--the one allegedly high and outside--was from the right of the plate.  The altered camera angle makes it more difficult to gauge the degree to which the call was blown.

I find it hard to imagine that the cameraman suddenly decided to move over to the right (and back?) in between pitches during what might turn out as the final out of a World Series game.  Most likely a different camera angle was used to make it less obvious that the call was questionable at best.

Follow this link to see an at bat by Duke Snider in the same game.  Every pitch matches the camera angle at left in the image above.

I'd be interested in hearing from anyone who has viewed the third strike to Mitchell from the left camera angle, or who knows the story behind the different camera angle we see on the right side.

July 22, 2010:  Clarified Pirelli's "last" as umpire.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Piquing PolitiFact: Did Charlie Crist receive $7.4 million in public campaign funds?

Following up on the editorial faux pas noted in my previous post, I submitted the mistake as a "semi-pundit check" to the fact checkers at PolitiFact.

We shall see to what standard, if any, the organization cleaves.

I'm still half expecting PolitiFact to start moderating its FaceBook comment page to prevent harm to the brand.  That is, if they don't eliminate commentary entirely.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Private campaign financing is bad, mmm-kay?

I went hunting today for a new Robyn Blumner editorial to club to death.  There's nothing new from Blumner in the St. Petersburg Times--at least not under her byline--but a target-rich bylineless editorial did appear.  The readers were all over it, so for the most part I'll let letter-writers point out the problems in the editorial.

Let the game begin with the lead paragraph:
In California, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent more than $70 million of her own money to win last week's Republican primary for governor. In Florida, former health care executive Rick Scott has spent more than $12 million to become the front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor. Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene is virtually tied for the lead in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Yet the U.S. Supreme Court continues to gut efforts to level the playing field and allows those with the fattest wallets to have the loudest voices and drown out everyone else. 
 Any consideration for the fact that the election is shaping up with a strong anti-incumbent and anti-Washington spirit?  Rich candidates are nothing new.  Steve Forbes.  Ross Perot.  Michael Huffington.  The list of moneyed losers is quite long.

And now a word from a reader:
So where were your editorials when big money from Goldman Sachs and the hedge funds were financing Obama's campaign?
The second paragraph of the editorial uses the example of  a recent case from Arizona where the Court suspended enforcement of a state law that provided extra public financing for candidates who are outspent by an opponent.  Gov. Brewer is facing a primary challenge from rich guy Owen "Buz" Mills.  Brewer leads Mills handily in the polls.  Boo-hoo.

And now another word from a reader (I take this as brilliant sarcasm):
We should immediately pass a law that limits rich people from spending their money. They will be impossible to control.
The third paragraph of the editorial ... well, I was going to summarize it but I will quote it instead since I think it contains a whopper:
The implications are significant for Florida, whose system is similar but not identical to Arizona's. In return for voluntarily accepting spending limits, statewide candidates get state matching money for smaller contributions. They also get a matching dollar for every dollar their opponent spends over the limit. That is the system that enabled the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles to keep his $100 contribution limit in 1994 and still match the spending by unsuccessful Republican challenger Jeb Bush. It is the system that also enabled then-Republican Charlie Crist to get more than $7.4 million in public matching money for smaller contributions for his successful campaign for governor in 2006.
(yellow highlights added)
Whopper:  The $7.4 million figure for Crist is almost certainly inaccurate.  My research indicates that Crist got $3.3 million out of a total of about $7.4 million received by the four major gubernatorial candidates in 2006.  The smallest amount received among those four was $945,000 for a loser in the Democratic primary, Rod Smith.  And the Times' Adam C. Smith reported that Crist raised a record $50 million that year. Florida's public financing system gave him an even greater advantage.  Way to even the playing field, Florida!

The fourth paragraph expands on Florida's system, noting that the Republicans in the state legislature have proposed getting rid of the public financing system.  The editorial also suggests those same Republicans may want to reconsider now that Rick Scott has overtaken the GOP favorite Bill McCollum in the polls.  Boo-hoo again.

Reader comment:
Is it better to foster a class of government teat-suckers who have no connection to the world of real work, and entitle those idiots to lifetimes of seriatim political leadership positions over the rest of us?
The fifth paragraph continues the diatribe against the Supreme Court, claiming the Court "is on a mission to discourage free speech rather than allow it to flourish from many voices."  The paragraph mourns the death of the "Millionaires' Amendment" and the outcome of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case.

Using "allow (speech) to flourish" seems like an odd turn of phrase when we're actually talking about government regulation supposedly increasing free speech.  We have as an unstated assumption that the failure to regulate free speech will result in less free speech.

To repeat the initial point, this election favors outsiders.  People with money are outsiders.  People with very little money are outsiders.  It boils down to the message, not the money.  Chill, Times editors.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Barbara Boxer may be even worse than you think

A few days ago, Ed Morrissey at the Hot Air blog posted a video of Sen. Barbara Boxer claiming that carbon pollution and the associated problem of global warming would be the big national security problem in the near future.

The video:

The Congressional Record version:
"I am going to include for the Record a host of quotes from our national security experts who tell us that carbon pollution leading to climate change will be, over the next 20 years, the leading cause of conflict putting our troops in harm's way. That is why we have so many returning veterans who want us to move forward and address this issue so we can create the new technologies that get us off this foreign oil. Every time we import oil, we hurt ourselves. We have to get off these old energy sources. It is a transition. It is not going to happen overnight. But if we do things such as the Murkowski resolution, we will create chaos. We are going to see jobs lost. We are going to see us continue in an economic situation that has no new paradigm for economic growth, as we have learned from our venture capitalists, as we have learned from analysts, such as Thomas Friedman, who are so clear on this point.

The question before us is this: Will we protect the people we represent from dangerous pollution or will we choose to reject science? Will we choose to ignore the findings of the scientific community, the public health officials, and national security experts?"
Unfortunately, I have not located the documents that Boxer vowed to add to the record.  It will be interesting to see whether she was even in the ballpark with her representation of what security experts are saying.

While searching for the portion of the record that matched Morrissey's video, however, I stumbled over another statement from Boxer that might even better exemplify cluelessness:
"The Murkowski resolution threatens jobs, jobs that we need, that are made in America for America.

Our hearts break every day that we look at what is happening in the Gulf. It seems to me more than ironic that Senator Murkowski is advocating repealing the scientific finding that too much carbon pollution in the air is dangerous, at the same time every American sees graphic evidence on television every single day of the deadly carbon pollution in the Gulf of Mexico.

We see here in the saddest pictures what too much carbon -based pollution does in water, what it does to our shorelines, what it does to our beaches, what it does to our wetlands. I will show a couple of other photographs. They are almost too painful.

But what we do here has consequences. And for someone to come to this floor and say too much carbon is not dangerous, then I am sorry, we are going to have to look at these pictures even though we do not want to. We know the devastation this causes. Our eyes do not deceive us.

This horrific spill in the gulf has disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people employed by fishing industries, tourism industries, recreation industries along the gulf coast. So, yes, this resolution, this Murkowski resolution, is about jobs."
The Murkowshi resolution attempted to restrain the power of the EPA to regulate carbon emissions after the EPA published a finding that carbon dioxide was harmful because of its role as a greenhouse gas.  The Supreme Court ended up backing the EPA.

Boxer hilariously uses the oil spill as an example of the the dangers of limiting the EPA's power to regulate greenhouse gases.  The oil in the gulf is "too much carbon," as she puts it.

It's not even as close as a comparison as apples and oranges.  We might as well let the EPA deal with terrorists and enemy soldiers, since they are carbon-based life forms that may threaten the environment.  For that matter, the EPA might even have the power to thin out the human population ("too much carbon") based on the threat to the environment posed by the growing population.

That's your senator, California.

Grading PolitiFact (Florida): Dan Fanelli's ObamaCare ad

The ad:

(Still not sure why the videos fail to appear on the main page--click the title above or "Read more" below to see it)

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Amy Sherman: writer, researcher
Sergio Bustos:  editor

These two work for the Miami Herald, for what that's worth.


Friday, June 11, 2010

Template update

Props to Blogger for adding some new template designs.  I've been wanting to tweak the appearance of the blog for some time, now.  I think the posts are easier to read now, but I do need to keep fiddling with the color scheme.  There's a fine line between stylish clash and 1960s living room fashion.  At least in my opinion.

Monday, June 07, 2010

St. Petersburg Times subscribes to "divine command" theory for opinion-fact division?

As a footnote to my bash of a Robyn Blumner (St. Petersburg Times) editorial column some days ago, I included a little fact-check item.

Blumner had accused radio personality Neal Boortz of comparing Supreme Court justice appointee Elena Kagan to the cartoon monster "Shrek."

Here's how she did it:
A recent tweet from radio host Neal Boortz asked, "Has anyone seen Mike Myers and your new Supreme in the same room at the same time?" comparing Kagan to Shrek, the cartoon ogre character of which Myers is the voice.
Finding it hard to follow the logic?  Maybe this will help:

(I'm not sure why the video doesn't appear on the main page. It appears if you click "Read more" at the bottom of the post)

If you claim somebody looks like Boris Karloff then you're actually claiming that the person resembles Frankenstein's monster.  Likewise for any example where the actor fails to significantly resemble their character.

Blumner's comment made absolutely no sense, and the comparison was stated as a matter of fact, not as a matter of opinion.  Boortz either did or did not compare Kagan to Shrek.  If opinion entered into it than there is no such thing as a fact divorced from opinion.

Thus began the painful process of holding the Times to account.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

JLTV testing underway

Test vehicles from BAE/Navistar, Lockheed Martin and General Tactical Vehicles have arrived at the Aberdeen testing grounds. has images of vehicles representing each of the competing partnerships.

Grading PolitiFact: Carly Fiorina on Barbara Boxer's national security priorities

I recently finished grading PolitiFact for an entry that granted Chris Matthews "artistic license" for saying that Dick Cheney got a "signing bonus" ("cash check") from Halliburton for running for vice president.  It makes for a powerful contrast in standards.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


Removing any suspense regarding the "Truth-O-Meter" rating given to Carly Fiorina, PolitiFact gives her the "Pants On Fire" rating reserved for "ridiculous" claims.

Can Farley, Jacobson and Adair back it up?
The latest ad from California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina -- who is running in the Republican primary to take on incumbent Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer -- mocks Boxer for saying in 2007 that "one of the very important national security issues frankly is climate change."

After playing a clip of Boxer's statement, Fiorina faces the camera and responds, "Terrorism kills, and Barbara Boxer's worried about the weather."

No one doubts that Boxer made the comment. But we wanted to check the context of Boxer's remark and see if Fiorina was quoting it accurately.
Short of altering the audio (and video) there could be no doubt that Boxer was quoted accurately.  The only question would be whether the quotation was taken out of context.

The PolitiFact story picks up by drawing attention to three elements of the story.  Oddly enough, none of those elements includes the context of Boxer's statement.

The rest of the PolitiFact entry relates directly to those three elements, however, so it makes sense to list them:
  • How well-accepted is the idea of climate change as a national security threat?
  • Is it fair to say that Boxer's concern about climate change amounts to being "worried about the weather"?
  • By focusing on the threat of climate change, did Boxer somehow ignore the issue of terrorism?
I'll add a question of my own:  Are any of these three points particularly relevant to the truth content of the ad?

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Grading PolitiFact: Chris Matthews and Cheney's signing bonus

Chris Matthews blurted out plenty of interesting things during a May 20 appearance on "The Tonight Show" with host Jay Leno.  And PolitiFact was there.  Sort of.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Morris Kennedy:  editor


Before getting the nod from George W. Bush to join him in the race for the White House, Dick Cheney was CEO of a major American company.  Big companies often end up giving departing CEOs an "exit package" of eye-popping numbers.  Chris Matthews made a big deal of the amount Cheney received from Halliburton back in 2000.  What made this newsworthy?   Here's how PolitiFact tells it:
The oil-services and infrastructure giant Halliburton is a favorite target for critics of former Vice President Dick Cheney, who used to be the company's CEO. During the presidency of George W. Bush, the company's Iraq War-related contracts attracted wide attention. Now, the company's role in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has brought Halliburton back into the headlines.
With Halliburton back in the headlines we must be halfway to Cheney.
During a May 20, 2010, appearance with Jay Leno on the Tonight Show, MSNBC host and political commentator Chris Matthews revived the Cheney-Halliburton connection while discussing the spill.

At one point in the interview, Leno said, "All right, a lot going on in politics with this BP thing. This is the one-month anniversary. Where are we? Who’s the lying scum here?"
And off went Matthews:
Matthews responded, "Yeah, it’s the scariest thing I’ve ever seen, and, you know, I don’t know where to start. I mean, Halliburton. Sound familiar? Cheney. Cheney was head of Halliburton. When he got to be vice president, when he was signed for vice president, the oil company gave him a $34 million signing bonus to become vice president of the United States."
It's the scariest thing Matthews has ever seen.  He can't be talking about the $34 million, can he?  It must be the oil spill.  But when Matthews didn't know where to start on the scariest thing he's ever seen, he started with Cheney's pay, didn't he?  Surely PolitiFact will get to the bottom of this.
We'll grant Matthews some artistic license with his comment. We know he doesn't mean that Cheney literally got a signing bonus for becoming the vice presidential candidate, as a newly signed free agent would in baseball. But we thought it was worth checking whether Cheney did in fact end up with a $34 million payout when he stepped down as CEO to join Bush on the ticket in 2000.
How much artistic license does Matthews get, here?  Matthews has as much right to a charitable interpretation as the next guy.  But how do we go from item #1 of the scariest thing Matthews has ever seen to fact-checking a fairly ordinary CEO exit package?  Unfortunately, PolitiFact doesn't tell.  Wasn't the disconnect obvious between the nature of the claim and the proposed fact check?

Apparently not.  Writer/researcher Louis Jacobson pored over two income/asset statements from Cheney and, after a fashion, confirmed Matthews' $34 million figure.

Jacobson's methods seemed geared toward helping Matthews:
(W)e decided to take the most cautious approach and only use the numbers from the second filing, which covers the whole year.

That still leaves a total of $35.1 million earned from Halliburtion reported on the May 2001 filing. Of that total, just over $800,000 represents salary and bonus, which Cheney would have earned regardless of whether he joined the ticket or not. Many of the other categories were subject to some calculation and/or negotiation, as would happen in the case of any CEO who left a position early, so it seems fair to call the rest of the income he received an exit package.
Sticking with the second filing was a good, cautious move.  But the second sentence of the second paragraph throws caution to the winds.  Is Cheney receiving an exit package for joining the ticket with Bush?  Or an exit package because he was taking an exit (retiring)?  PolitiFact rhetorically mixes the two.

The term "exit package" can fairly encompass benefits such as stock options in which an employee was fully vested at the time of retirement.  But it would not be fair to imply that such fully vested benefits were not earned depending on whether the employee joined a presidential ticket.  A little bit of clarity on that point would have been nice, given that this was supposed to be fact checking.

Though there are potential problems even with the fact check as it is, for example counting $7.5 million of "imputed income" as part of a $34 million "payoff" or "payday" as PolitiFact called it, the real problem occurred back when PolitiFact decided to grant artistic license.

On what basis should we grant artistic license?  Precisely where the context calls for artistic license in making the best sense of the commentary.  PolitiFact determined, as though by magic, that Matthews was not talking about a literal signing bonus.  No apparent effort was made to determine the best sense in which to take Matthews' comments.  It was assumed, in the end, that Matthews was simply talking about the amount of Cheney's "exit package."

The context fails to support that interpretation:
"Yeah, it's the scariest thing I've ever seen. And, you know, I don't know where to start, I mean, Halliburton. Sound familiar? Cheney. Cheney was head of Halliburton. When he got to be vice president, when he was signed for vice president, they gave him, the oil company gave him a $34 million signing bonus to become vice president of the United States. (inaudible) Yeah, that's what they gave him. A cash check for 34 million bucks. To become vice president. You think they had an interest in this guy? So the time he's vice president of the United States, he began holding secret meetings with the oil company, press wasn't allowed in, BP, private meetings with BP all along the way, an interesting little deal there going on."
(bold emphasis added, transcript mine)
"A cash check for 34 million bucks."  No problem.  Give Matthews more artistic license.  The problem is that the guy just couldn't keep his mouth shut.  He went on:
Jay Leno:
Let me ask you something, now. Should, why is Cheney so quiet, now? He was (inaudible) ...

Chris Matthews:
Uh-huh! Because he's got a lot to hide. I mean, all the money. I just keep wondering, why would an oil company give a guy 34 million bucks when he becomes the vice president of the United States? Well, one thing might be, you know, good will. So what's good will? Private meetings. We're letting, the energy policy of the previous eight years was written in the back room with Cheney and the oil companies. And that's a fact. They don't have any regulation.
(bold emphasis added)

How do we grant Matthews his due charitable interpretation? The process is fairly simple. We take each sense Matthews might have intended and see what results.

First, let's try the notion that the $34 million was a "exit package" in the normal sense of the term. It was the collected benefits that one carries away when one parts ways with the company.

We immediately run into problems using that interpretation. Matthews can't figure out why Halliburton would give Cheney that kind of money even though CEOs of large corporations often receive amounts that make Cheney's appear modest by comparison:
  • Jan 2000:  Michael Ovits leaves Disney after 14 months with $100 million
  • Feb 2000: Jill Barad leaves Mattel with nearly $50 million
  • Mar 2000: Richard Corpan leaves little old Florida Progress with $15 million
Pity Chris Matthews.  None of the CEOs above were signed on to run as vice president.  Matthews is probably still scratching his head trying to figure out why they got so much money. 

Seriously, taking Matthews to mean that Cheney simply received an exit package of $34 million cannot make good sense of his intent.  That interpretation makes him appear ignorant of the routine nature of valuable exit packages from large companies.

Nor can we make good sense of Matthews' statements by taking him to literally refer to a "signing bonus" like that of a professional athlete.  Such a signing bonus would be both legal and ethical under ordinary circumstances.  And Matthews' plainly has in mind the notion that Cheney's exit package was unethical.  That is illustrated by Matthews' example of the "good will" that Halliburton may have expected in return for that "cash check" of $34 million:  secret meetings and a continued policy of zero government regulation of the oil companies.  Never mind that Matthews' rant makes no sense.

A charitable interpretation that makes nonsense of the communication must be discarded.  Granted, taking Matthews to mean that Halliburton paid Cheney for special consideration should he achieve of the office of vice president also makes his statements a form of nonsense, but at least the nonsense is self-consistent with the general direction and tone of Matthews' comments in their broader context.

PolitiFact failed to make a good-faith effort to determine Matthew's probable intent.  As a result, the fact check focused on an unlikely literal meaning and totally ignored Matthews underlying argument.  That's a perfect recipe for displaying content bias.

PolitiFact gave Matthews the only rating he could not have deserved ("True").

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Morris Kennedy:  F


Friday, June 04, 2010

Music in the sidebar

For a limited time only, help yourself to some music by The Grip Weeds.  They sound like a mashup of the Beatles/Byrds and the Who.  Give 'em a listen.