Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
|(clipped from PolitiFact.com)|
The fact checkers:
Louis Jacobson: writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton: editor
I designate PolitiFact as the "Word Police" in this item because, as with another recent item, PolitiFact's conclusion ultimately hinges on a single word, and PolitiFact takes inappropriate liberties with the word in question.
The ordinary reader should immediately note the incongruity between "rivals" and "more than." Something that "rivals" another thing can either fall short of or exceed the second thing. There is no logical justification for taking "rivals" by itself to assume that Priebus claimed present unemployment exceeds Great Depression unemployment. At this juncture we must charitably assume that PolitiFact found additional material from RNC Chair Reince Priebus to justify its headline material.
Let's do a ride-along with the Word Police:
Priebus invoked the Great Depression twice during the joint interview with Democratic counterpart, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida.That appears to significantly limit PolitiFact's possibilities when it comes to finding additional material to back up its interpretation of Priebus' statement. But it makes our job easier, anyway.
Word Police (bold emphasis added):
Priebus said, in part, "Look, I'm not defending these guys, but the fact of the matter is, we have big issues here to tackle in this country. We have unemployment that rivals the Great Depression. We have gas prices that are out of this world. We have crushing debt. We know what's happening to this economy. And here's the problem. It's not so much as much as 'the economy, stupid,' as people say, it's 'the policy's stupid' too. And the president's policies in regard to saving this country, getting our economy back on track are not working."One almost wonders why the Word Police don't bust Priebus for "out of this world" gas prices as well as "crushing" debt. The context suggests a string of hyperbolic images.
Word Police (bold emphasis added):
The second instance came when Priebus sought to counter Wasserman Schultz’s defense of President Barack Obama’s economic record.The second reference appears more straightforward and literal, and so any evaluation will rest on the way "rivals" functions as a verb. The identity of "that number" will also figure in, of course.
Addressing host David Gregory, Priebus said, "The chairwoman's living in Fantasyland. We know that the facts are the facts, and we can't get away from that. And Barack Obama is defenseless to the truth on what's going on in the American economy. We have lost as--two and a half million jobs since Barack Obama's been president. And of that two and a half million jobs, almost 45 percent of those people have been out of work for six months. That number, that number rivals the Great Depression."
The Word Police properly separate the two statements for purposes of evaluation:
First, is it fair to say that "we have unemployment that rivals the Great Depression"?Is it fair to rule that the statement has little statistical support without pinning down the definition of "rivals"?
As bad as the unemployment situation is currently -- and it’s unquestionably bad -- there’s little statistical support that it "rivals" the situation that existed during the Great Depression.
"Rivals" when used as a verb has a fairly broad range of meaning.
The use of "rival" in the example sentence is instructive. Cassette playback typically results in a substantial amount of background hiss, among other defects. On the other hand, cassette playback represents very detailed analog sound reproduction that is superior to CD sound in that sense. CD sound consists of selected samples of the analog sound reproduced without extraneous background noise. Comparisons are relative, and this may include rivalry comparisons.compete with, match, equal, oppose, compare with, contend, come up to, emulate, vie with, measure up to, be a match for, bear comparison with, seek to displace Cassettes cannot rival the sound quality of CDs.
Merriam-Webster likewise paints a panoramic view of the breadth of meaning for the verb "rival."
The Word Police, of course, are notorious for ignoring such subtleties of language. With a hat-tip to Humpty Dumpty, "Rivals" will mean what they wish it to mean. Nothing less and nothing more.
Any way you cut it, peak unemployment since the start of the most recent recession, as bad as it has been, remains well under half of the peak it reached during the Great Depression. For more than a decade, annual unemployment never fell below 14.3 percent, or a level about 40 percent higher than the worst of what we’ve seen recently. Any suggestion that the two situations are equivalent requires herculean cherry picking.Likewise, any suggestion that Priebus' use of "rivals" must mean that he was saying the two situations are equivalent requires herculean cherry picking. But that's always been a specialty of the word police.
So Priebus is wrong on the first claim. But what about the second -- that "almost 45 percent of (the unemployed) have been out of work for six months," a number that "rivals the Great Depression"?The Word Police allow that the 45 percent figure is suitably accurate. But they could not locate data that would confirm or falsify the Great Depression comparison, with one exception (bold emphasis added):
The only place we saw this claim made came in a CBS News story from June 5, 2011, which said that "45.1 percent of all unemployed workers in this country have been jobless for more than six months -- a higher percentage than during the Great Depression." When we checked with the CBS reporter, Ben Tracy, he told us that there had been an error in the story due to some garbled relaying of information and that a corrected version of the story had been ordered.Based on the preceding material from the Word Police, it appears the fact checkers thought they were fact checking CBS News rather than Reince Priebus. Priebus gets headline credit for CBS News' error. Perhaps garbled relaying of information was to blame for PolitiFact's mistake. No doubt they'll promptly correct the error and attach an editor's note to the story explaining the correction or clarification:
When we find we've made a mistake, we correct the mistake.Back to the Word Police:
- In the case of a factual error, an editor's note will be added and labeled "CORRECTION" explaining how the article has been changed.
- In the case of clarifications or updates, an editor's note will be added and labeled "UPDATE" explaining how the article has been changed.
At PolitiFact, our policy is that citing a news account does not protect a statement from being ruled False if it turns out that news account is inaccurate.Fortunately for Barbara Boxer, that policy does not stretch to inaccurate information included in reports bearing the stamp of the Congressional Budget Office.
And fortunately for us as well as PolitiFact, CBS News finally got around to updating its story (bold emphasis added):
About 6.2 million Americans, 45.1 percent of all unemployed workers in this country, have been jobless for more than six months - at its highest since the Great Depression.More from the Word Police:
When we contacted the RNC, we were told that the notion that unemployment "rivals the Great Depression" is valid since there are 13.9 million unemployed Americans today, according to BLS, compared to a maximum of 12.8 million unemployed Americans during the Great Depression, specifically in 1933. "‘Rivals’ would be the right characterization," the RNC said in a statement. "Chairman Priebus did not cite the ‘unemployment rate," as PolitiFact did in its query.If the RNC makes that comparison then PolitiFact owes it to its readers to see that argument in the RNC's words, not in the form of a chopped quotation accompanied by PolitiFact's paraphrasing. This is, after all, the fact checking outfit that attributes CBS News' mistake to Priebus.
But we think this is a ridiculous comparison, since the population of the United States was 123 million then, compared to nearly 309 million today.
In an e-mail to PolitiFact, the RNC argued that "today, chronic unemployment of 27 weeks or longer is 45.1 percent. As BLS itself cited the Great Depression in talking about a chronic unemployment rate almost half of what it is today, we think it’s more than fair for Chairman Priebus to make the Great Depression comparison in reference to today’s numbers."On what do the Word Police base their disagreement? An imperial edict from their own mouths? Can we imagine a more brazen attempt to bully the English language? Fear not. They aren't done yet:
We disagree. Just because BLS in 1984 said that the 1981-1982 recession "resulted in levels of long-term unemployment far higher than any experienced since the Great Depression" doesn’t mean that nearly doubling the rate brings it to levels that "rival" the Great Depression.
The fact that the recent recession was the worst since the Great Depression doesn't mean that it "rivals" the Great Depression in severity. The fact is, the RNC can’t point to any statistic that makes its point. Maybe it’s true, but with the disappearance of the erroneous CBS report, there is no evidence for it.The revised CBS News story suggests the 45 percent figure is second only to the Great Depression. Why can't that make the two periods rivals according to the dictionary definition? Isn't the degree to which first place compares to second place a matter of subjective judgment even where we have objective data measurements to work from? At what percentage would prolonged unemployment suddenly turn comparable to Great Depression numbers?
Once again, PolitiFact enmeshes itself in a net of hypocrisy. PolitiFact provides no evidence that Priebus uses "rivals" improperly, and PolitiFact accepts that conclusion despite its supposed burden of proof principle. PolitiFact takes claims lacking proof as false unless those claims are its own.
More broadly, both liberal and conservative economists expressed skepticism about Priebus’ comparison of the recent recession and the Great Depression.The opinions of economists matter, but it's hard to say how the group of experts had the issue framed by PolitiFact and to what degree that may have led toward their conclusions.
Speaking of conclusions, the Word Police act as judge and jury:
So where does this leave us? Today’s jobs picture is the worst it has been in decades, not just measured by unemployment rates but also by duration of unemployment. However, all of the available statistics -- imperfect though they may be -- suggest that today’s numbers aren’t anywhere near high enough to "rival" those that prevailed for more than a decade during the Great Depression. We rate Priebus’ statement False.PolitiFact made its ruling without even attempting to appeal to its burden of proof criterion. Instead, it relied entirely on an assumed fiction regarding the verb "rivals."
The Word Police. They're coming to your town, too. Prepare yourself.
Louis Jacobson: F
Martha Hamilton: F
The reporting from PolitiFact--not that I trust it--suggests a poor job of justification by the RNC. But that serves as no excuse for PolitiFact's failure to pay properly close attention to the word "rivals" and the way Priebus used it.
Terms of indeterminate precision make poor fodder for fact checkers. Pretending otherwise magnifies the problem.
Jacobson and Hamilton fail despite partial forgiveness for the headline gaffe. An uncredited copy editor may have perpetrated that blunder, so the PolitiFact team receives only partial blame in their final grades.
PolitiFact on FaceBook reproduced the misleading headline with nary a blush:
|(clipped from PolitiFact's FaceBook page)|
I tried to help: