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.And off went Matthews:
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?"
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.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.
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.
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:
"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:"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)
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
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").
Louis Jacobson: F
Morris Kennedy: F
Matthews' nonsensical rant offered grand vistas for fact checking, including Matthews' own description of the reason BP pumped in seawater during its earlier attempts to correct the problems at Deepwater Horizon.
Alright, a lot going on in politics. This BP thing, this is the one-month anniversary, where are we? Who's the lyin' scum, here?
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. But then you find out that a lot of the so-called regulation of this industry is really BP people that have gotten jobs or Halliburton people have gotten jobs with the government to supposedly watch this. I did an investigative piece on the oil industry for the Washington Post 37 years ago and I found out there were 27,000 miles of pipeline in this country they got one federal guy looking out. For this. It's a joke. They do not regulate the oil industry.
Let me ask you something, now. Should, why is Cheney so quiet, now? He was (inaudible) ...
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. Now, here, my brother was a pipeline engineer for 33 years, he called me up the minute this thing hit, and said you know what they're supposed to do when they dig a hole in the ground, under the ocean, under the Gulf of Mexico, pack it with the drilling mud that they made, that they got when they were drilling. Pack it down in there. Dirt's heavier than water, right? It keeps it down. What did this company do? It packed the hole with seawater, to save money. And look what happened. And how what are they gonna do? They announced today that they're gonna pack it with mud. They're gonna now do what they could have done a month ago. Now these are the facts, it's not being done right. It scares the heck out of me. That oil is destroying a good part of our world, down there, in the Gulf of Mexico. You look at the oil ... we just had Ed Markey on tonight, the congressman who's head of the energy committee, they have turned out, it turns out that they're not pumping out 5,000 barrels a day, not gallons, barrels a day, they're pumping out about 40-50,000 barrels a day coming out of that hole, into that gulf and it's under the water and there's big danger here that the government's not telling us the truth about how much is down there. How much is all over the gulf, now. It's going around Florida, it's heading up to, it's headed up to North Carolina, it's gonna be horrendous and I just wonder when we're gonna just blow the whistle--I don't know what you have to do. The president scares me. He been acting a little bit like Vatican observer, here. When is he actually gonna do something? And I worry. I know he doesn't want to take ownership of it. I know the politics, 'cause the minute he says "I'm in charge" then he's blamed. But somebody's gonna have to take charge. It's in our interest, it's not in the oil companies' interest. They're gonna make a lot of money.
Now what do you think of this, uh, Rush Limbaugh saying the environmentalists should clean this up, it's their fault.
Well, he would say that, he's a joke. And, uh, and, uh, and, uh, but Rush Limbaugh is pro-industry, totally pro-business. Never would say--He's never said a word against offshore drilling in his entire life. Look it up. And for him to come out and blame the environmentalists, what a joke. You know, we have a thing on our show, we're waiting for one Republican officeholder in the United States on any issue to announce that they disagree with Rush Limbaugh on anything.
And not one has come forward. Not one has come forward
He's the boss. He's the boss. He tells them what they wanna say. He's the leader of that party right now. And uh, you know he's a smart guy, he's a showman. And, uh, none of these guys want to take him on. We're hoping somebody will have some guts.
Reminds me of something ...