Monday, October 31, 2011

November artist: Gretchen Menn

I'll be making an effort to rotate the ReverbNation music gadget on a monthly basis.  I've had the Serial Thrillers in the sidebar for a good long time and hopefully some folks took the time to listen to that excellent band.

As November rolls around, guitarist Gretchen Menn occupies the widget space.  Fans of Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Steve Morse Band, Kansas, Deep Purple) and Eric Johnson should enjoy her music.  Check it out!

PolitiFlub: Bachmann blames Obama for Iraq War?

During an Oct. 28 interview with Wolf Blitzer, Republican presidential candidate Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Min.) attacked President Obama for his failed foreign policy, using the complete withdrawal from Iraq as her concrete example.

Today PolitiFact published a fact check based on the idea that Bachmann pinned the full cost in terms of lives and money on Obama.

PolitiFact reproduces a healthy chunk of the CNN transcript, which includes the following:
BACHMANN: Well, my main challenger right now is Barack Obama. That's who I'm focused on.

His economic policies are a disaster and his foreign policy is even worse. Under Barack Obama's watch, we have expended $805 billion to liberate the people of Iraq and, more importantly, 4,400 American lives.

President Obama just had his hat handed to him by the Iraqis, who have essentially kicked him out and our people out of Iraq while Iran is waiting in the wings. So Iraq is essentially kowtowing to Iran. Iran is seeking to have a nuclear weapon.
It sure looks like Bachmann is blaming the whole cost of the war on Obama, doesn't it?

But Bachmann almost certainly is not making the argument PolitiFact rates "Pants on Fire" on its vaunted-yet-lame Truth-O-Meter.

And here's why:  People speaking on live television often do not deliver well-organized communications, and their words often challenge a would-be transcriptionist in terms of appropriate punctuation.

This is where the interpretive principle of "charitable interpretation" comes in.  Where a statement is ridiculous on its face, the reader/listener ought to consider alternative means of understanding the communication.

It is a stock argument that a hasty withdrawal can turn the expense of war into a waste.  Many conservatives made that argument in defending President Bush's decision to execute the "surge" strategy in Iraq.  And that is the most likely interpretation of Bachmann's words.

But a word of caution, here.  A video or audio version of the exchange between Blitzer and Bachmann ought to make clear whether the alternative suggestion is the obvious solution or not.  Perhaps Bachmann misspoke so badly that it was natural to take her meaning other than the way she intended.

On the other hand, Bachmann did offer a certain amount of clarification later in the interview (this portion also quoted in the PolitiFact story):
What President Obama has failed to do is secure the gains that America paid for with an extremely dear cost -- 4,400 American lives, nearly a trillion dollars in expenditures, and we have nothing to show for it. And we may look at a Maliki government which has admitted they cannot secure the peace.
One may legitimately criticize Bachmann for muddying her talking point (and Herman Cain shares that vulnerability), but where Bachmann's words in context leave this much doubt about her intent it is incumbent on the journalist to obtain clarity.  To his credit, CNN's Wolf Blitzer tried to do that and Bachmann did little to help.  And while that failure on Bachmann's part can add up to another legitimate criticism of her candidacy, it does not excuse third party journalists like those at PolitiFact from their duty to inquire about Bachmann's intent.

PolitiFact's conclusion:
Bachmann’s numbers are essentially on target, but she errs badly in blaming Obama for all $805 billion spent and 4,400 American lives lost in Iraq "on his watch." Most of the money spent and lives lost in Iraq came during George W. Bush’s presidency. The idea that Obama -- who wasn’t even in the Senate until two years into the war -- is responsible for all the costs and casualties in Iraq is ridiculous. We rate her statement Pants on Fire.
Again, Bachmann almost certainly was not saying what PolitiFact took her to say, and the PolitiFact story offers no evidence that PolitiFact attempted to obtain a clarification from the Bachmann campaign.

As a result, this effort from PolitiFact warrants the tag "journalists reporting badly."

Grading PolitiFact: Jeb Hensarling and the ballooning budget

After a blip in Alan Grayson's favor, cherry picking stats is once again a sin over at PolitiFact.

The issue:
(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


CSPAN helped provide context beyond that provided by PolitiFact:

Transcript mine, orange-yellow highlights indicate the portion used in the PolitiFact story and bold emphasis added (note that some subtle differences exist between my transcript and the one PolitiFact used):

Again, when I look at the statutory duty as opposed to the statutory goals of this committee, uh, our duty is to frankly offer recommendations and statutory language to address both the short term and long term imbalance.  With respect to the short term imbalance, um, is it not true that the, um, stimulus bill, um, with interest, amounts to over a trillion dollars of spending which accounts for a large temporary growth in our discretionary budget?

Um, yes, although as you know, congressman, only a part of the Recovery Act was about discretionary spending; there were also increases in mandatory spending and reductions in taxes.  In total we put it a little over $800 billion and including interest I think you're right, about a trillion.  Um, and it did lead to a bulge in discretionary funding and then to uh, um, an attenuated bulge in outlays because not all the money gets spent right away.  

I don't know if you have at your fingertips numbers with respect to agency growth.  I had quoted a few and now that I look down apparently the source is your office so I hope I'm quoting your office correctly ...

Um, I don't have those at hand, Mr. Congressman, but if they're from us you can certainly trust them.

I can trust them (laughs). Well then I trust that when you add in the stimulus the Commerce Department has grown 219 percent from '08 to '10, that with the stimulus EPA has grown 830.8 percent, the Energy Department has grown 170.7 percent with the stimulus, Education has grown 180.6 percent at a time when the economy has actually seen negative economic growth and family paychecks, um, have shrunk.  And unfortunately, again this is not the forum in which to debate the stimulus, but I think it has to be noted when we're talking about areas of the budget where savings could be had; at least the American people certainly deserve the facts.

(conversation shifts to discussion of CBO's alternative scenario and the increase in mandatory spending)

Hensarling identifies short term and long term responsibilities for the committee and uses the stimulus and its effect on agency growth to add concrete detail.  The subsequent discussion of the growth in mandatory spending fits with Hensarling's mention of a long term imbalance.

During an Oct. 26, 2011, hearing of the congressional Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction -- the "supercommittee" that’s charged with making steep cuts in the federal budget -- the co-chairman, Rep. Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, offered budgetary statistics designed to show massive spending increases by federal agencies in recent years.

PolitiFact's summary misses Hensarling's broader point in focusing on agency growth, and PolitiFact's cropping of the exchange between Hensarling and Elmendorf cuts away most of the contextual clues that communicate that broader point.  The only remaining clue is the word "temporary" in the first sentence PolitiFact quotes from Hensarling.
We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
Right.  Sure.

We can already see this fact check veering off track.

When this exchange got picked up in a Fox News Web article, a reader saw it and asked us whether Hensarling’s numbers were accurate. So we took a look.
This paragraph makes it appear that PolitiFact abdicated to a reader how to direct the focus of the fact check.  If the reader wants a focus just on the number and not on the underlying point--the latter supposedly the most important aspect of a numbers claim according to PolitiFact bigwig Bill Adair--then who is PolitiFact to object?

Before moving on, it is worth noting that Fox News did a poor job of presenting Hensarling's statement in context.  The Fox News version makes it appear that Hensarling was focused solely on agency growth and mostly dropped the context of the impact of the stimulus on the near-term budget.

As Hensarling stated at the hearing, he was adding together the 2010 authority and the stimulus amount to arrive at his percentage increase. And using that method, the numbers do work out. But is it a fair method to use? We have a few problems with it.
It's also worth noting that Democrat Alan Grayson's claim about wealth inequality faced no similar questions about whether the method was a fair way to measure privation or poor employment.  But what can you do if the reader doesn't ask to have the underlying point checked?

Hensarling combines several years of stimulus spending into a single year, exaggerating the actual amount of budgetary growth between 2008 and 2010.

Lumping all of the budget authority from the stimulus into one year makes the final year of his two-year comparison higher, even if the stimulus money was actually spent over multiple years. This juices the percentage increases he cited at the hearing.
PolitiFact makes a fair point here, despite Hensarling saying that he was adding the stimulus numbers in to obtain the increase.  Even with Hensarling's description the method is misleading, though his underlying argument about the effect of the stimulus remains valid.

Hensarling leaves out that stimulus spending was always supposed to be temporary.

Hensarling is guilty of cherry-picking for another reason: The stimulus was designed to be temporary.
If Hensarling appears to leave out that stimulus spending was temporary, that is only because PolitiFact left out the parts of the context where Hensarling attached his comments about the stimulus to a short term increase in discretionary spending. 

The second criticism from PolitiFact has no merit.  Indeed, PolitiFact quoted Hensarling as saying "temporary growth" in referring to the stimulus bill.

The Commerce Department figures are skewed by a different temporary bump -- from the 2010 Census.
PolitiFact makes another fair point, though again it does not appear to significantly affect Hensarling's underlying message that the stimulus has temporarily added considerably to the budgets of some federal agencies.

PolitiFact prepares to issue its ruling:
We understand the arguments behind Hensarling’s methodological choices, but we still believe the path he chose cherry-picked the highest possible increase that the numbers would allow -- one several times higher than other ways to measure the same figure.
Would that PolitiFact had shared the rationale behind Hensarling's supposed methodological choices.  Readers may continue to wonder whether Hensarling chose the methodology or simply elected to use the statement from the House Budget Committee (to which Hensarling does not belong).  Again, it's hard not to detect an inconsistency between PolitiFact's treatment of Hensarling with its easy acceptance of wealth disparity estimates cited by Democrat Alan Grayson.

He lumped all stimulus spending into a single year, even though the spending was spread over several years. The year he chose to assign the stimulus spending to -- 2010 -- was not even the year the budget authority had been granted. And he obscured the fact that much of the enormous increases he cited stemmed from temporary factors, whether it’s the stimulus or spending on the decennial Census. We rule this claim False.
PolitiFact makes a fair point that Hensarling's numbers maximize the budget increases well into the realm of exaggeration.  PolitiFact is off base in claiming Hensarling obscured the temporary nature of the stimulus spending.  The point about the Commerce Department is fair but relatively minor.

With two out of three points on fairly solid ground, is the rating fair?

I'd say no.  Leaving aside the "True" rating Grayson received for what looked like a classic case of cherry picking, Hensarling has a legitimate message underlying the exaggerated numbers.  This case again fits a pattern that has underlying messages ignored if they help a conservative or ignored/reinterpreted if they harm a liberal.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Jacobson also wrote the Grayson item to which I have referred in this review, so his "F" is richly deserved.  Hamilton flunks for apparently not catching the fact that Hensarling was quite clear that the effects of the stimulus are temporary.


I have concerns about PolitiFact's fact check stemming from the complexity of the written federal budget.  If Hensarling or the House Budget Committee had a justifiable rationale for crunching the numbers as it did, it's hard to see why PolitiFact shouldn't give Hensarling a Boxer Mulligan on this one.

Except that Boxer is a Democrat and Hensarling isn't.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

PolitiFact Virginia: The Good Umpire speaks

PolitiFact Virginia announces its one-year birthday along with a break from the tradition of not publishing a summary of its ratings by party.  With a word about the role of a good umpire (bold emphasis added):
A frequent complaint -- from Democrats and Republicans alike -- is that we’re biased toward the other side. Sometimes, readers ask for a breakdown of our ratings by political party and are surprised to learn that we did not keep count. That’s because we’re focusing on the action in front of us, trying to make our most objective call. A good umpire shouldn’t keep track of the number of close plays at home plate he or she has called in favor of the home team or visitors.
I'll suggest there's a problem here.

What if the record shows the umpire consistently favoring the Yankees?  Does the umpire wish to remain ignorant of what the record shows about his judgments?

The comparison shows PolitiFact Virginia rating more Republican statements than Democrat statements, 79 to 58.  PolitiFact Virginia says that's fair considering the Republicans control the governor's office and the legislature, along with a spirited Republican primary for a Senate seat running against the Democratic former governor of Virginia, Tim Kaine.

There's a ready-made study topic.

Democrats scored slightly higher on a numerical basis (2.78 to 2.66), but the striking thing is PolitiFact's continued failure to note that such numbers mean very little without some control for selection bias.  Trusting editorial selection to pass as a random determinant simply doesn't cut it.

The numbers do contain some potential evidence showing a degree of even handedness at PolitiFact Virginia:  The percentage of "Pants on Fire" ratings is nearly the same for both parties, with the Republicans actually scoring slightly lower by that measure.  I suggest the number of "Pants on Fire" ratings is significant because PolitiFact offers no objective measure for using "Pants on Fire" as opposed to simply "False."

That's not to say that the, uh, Subjectivometer cannot be fooled, of course.  It always matters what particular rulings the editors choose.  In primaries, for example, one can easily rule favorably on a claim by a Republican that makes it look bad for other Republicans.  So conservatives suffer the harm while looking pretty on the "Truth-O-Meter" scale.

Bottom line, the numbers PolitiFact Virginia offers us don't mean much.  We're left to wonder whether the birthday story appears this way if Republicans score a perfect 5.0 on the Truth-O-Meter while Democrats score below a 2, or any result that seems questionable in terms of fairness.  It's hard to see why PolitiFact Virginia publishes the story unless it is designed to make the operation look fair.  The numbers don't say that without a control for selection bias.

Monday, October 24, 2011

PolitiFact and the fact check smear

In 2010, Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact designated the "government takeover of healthcare" line as its "Lie of the Year" award winner for 2009. 

The fact check outfit received considerable push back on the designation, including an editorial in the Wall Street Journal that helped its author win a Pulitzer Prize of his own.

From James Rago's editorial:
Evidently, it doesn't count as a government takeover unless the means of production are confiscated. "The government will not seize control of hospitals or nationalize doctors," the editors write, and while "it's true that the law does significantly increase government regulation of health insurers," they'll still be nominally private too.
In fact—if we may use that term without PolitiFact's seal of approval—at the heart of ObamaCare is a vast expansion of federal control over how U.S. health care is financed, and thus delivered. The regulations that PolitiFact waves off are designed to convert insurers into government contractors in the business of fulfilling political demands, with enormous implications for the future of U.S. medicine. All citizens will be required to pay into this system, regardless of their individual needs or preferences. Sounds like a government takeover to us.
Unfortunately, Rago's assessment of PolitiFact's argument is entirely fair.  PolitiFact argued that without government ownership of the means of production PPACA could not qualify as a government takeover.

This past year when PolitiFact received challenges to its rating of a claim by comedian Jon Stewart, PolitiFact responded with a special story defending its reasoning from the attacks.

The "government takeover" controversy has received no parallel treatment by PolitiFact.

Sure, we got the mailbag reaction story with its traditional failure to address criticism.  But the closest thing to a response from PolitiFact was a short story simply acknowledging the fact that the "Lie of the Year" choice had received a good amount of published criticism.

Over time, PolitiFact has gone from acknowledging the controversy to regularly doling out lousy Truth-O-Meter ratings to Republicans who dare to call ObamaCare a "government takeover."
In Christie's case, PolitiFact New Jersey took it a step further.  Acknowledgment of the controversy has morphed into the assertion that the "government takeover" phrase is proved wrong:
By referring to the national reform as "a government takeover of health care," Christie was repeating a claim that’s been debunked numerous times by various news organizations.
Goodbye, controversy!  Down the memory hole with you!

Instead of fact checking, this puts PolitiFact in the role of myth making.  Specifically, promoting as fact the myth that "government takeover" cannot legitimately refer to the government assuming a dominant role over the delivery of health care.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Joe Biden and the Flint crime rate

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
--PolitiFact editor Bill Adair

The issue:
(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Sue Owen:  researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


This PolitiFact item very quickly blew up in their faces.  The story was published at about 6 p.m. on Oct. 20.  The CYA was published at about 2:30 p.m. on Oct. 21, after and the Washington Post published parallel items very critical of Biden.  PolitiFact rated Biden "Mostly True."

First, the context:

(my portion of transcript in italics, portion of transcript used by PolitiFact highlighted in yellow):

If anyone listening doubts whether there is a direct correlation between the reduction of cops and firefighters and the rise in concerns of public safety, they need look no further than your city, Mr. Mayor.  

In 2008--you know, Pat Moynihan said everyone's entitled to their own opinion, they're not entitled to their own facts.  Let's look at the facts.  In 2008 when Flint had 265 sworn officers on their police force, there were 35 murders and 91 rapes in this city.  In 2010, when Flint had only 144 police officers the murder rate climbed to 65 and rapes, just to pick two categories, climbed to 229.  In 2011 you now only have 125 shields.  

God only knows what the numbers will be this year for Flint if we don't rectify it.  And God only knows what the number would have been if we had not been able to get a little bit of help to you.

As we note from the standard Bill Adair epigraph, the most important thing about a numbers claim is the underlying message.  Writer Angie Drobnic Holan apparently has no trouble identifying Biden's underlying message (bold emphasis added):
If Congress doesn’t pass President Barack Obama’s jobs plan, crimes like rape and murder will go up as cops are laid off, says Vice President Joe Biden.

It’s a stark talking point. But Biden hasn’t backed down in the face of challenges during the past week, citing crime statistics and saying, "Look at the facts." In a confrontation with a conservative blogger on Oct. 19, Biden snapped, "Don’t screw around with me."
No doubt the Joe Biden of the good "Truth-O-Meter" rating is very admirable in refusing to back down.  The "conservative blogger" is Jason Mattera, editor of the long-running conservative periodical "Human Events."  You're a blogger, Mattera.  PolitiFact says so.

But back to shooting the bigger fish in this barrel.

We looked at Biden’s crime numbers and turned to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's uniform crime statistics to confirm them. But the federal numbers aren’t the same as the numbers Biden cited. (Several of our readers did the same thing; we received several requests to check Biden’s numbers.)

When we looked at the FBI’s crime statistics, we found that Flint reported 32 murders in 2008 and 53 murders in 2010. Biden said 35 and 65 -- not exactly the same but in the same ballpark.
Drobnic Holan initially emphasizes a fact check of the numbers.  Compared to the FBI numbers, Biden inflated the murder rate for both 2008 and 2010, and his inflated set of numbers in turn inflates the percentage increase by 45 percent (or 27 percentage points, going from 60 percent to 87 percent).  So it's a decent-sized ballpark.

For rapes, though, the numbers seemed seriously off. The FBI showed 103 rapes in 2008 and 92 rapes in 2010 -- a small decline. The numbers Biden cited were 91 rapes in 2008 and 229 in 2010 -- a dramatic increase.
If inflating the percentage increase in murders by 27 percentage points is not a problem for Biden then this at least sounds like a problem.

After going over some other reports on the numbers and a surprising discussion of how not much evidence suggests that Obama's jobs bill would address the number of police officers in Flint, PolitiFact returns to the discrepancy between the numbers:
(W)e found that discrepancies between the FBI and local agencies are not uncommon, and they happen for a number of reasons. Local numbers are usually more current and complete, and local police departments may have crime definitions that are more expansive than those of the FBI.
All this is very nice, but we're talking about the city of Flint, here.  We don't really need current stats for 2008 and 2010 because they're well past.  Perhaps that affects the completeness aspect of crime statistics also; PolitiFact's description is too thin to permit a judgment.  As for "expansive" definitions, well, there's a problem with that.  Biden's number of rapes in 2008 is lower than the number reported in the UCR (FBI) data.  That is a counterintuitive result for a more expansive definition of rape and ought to attract a journalist's attention.

In short, even with these proposed explanations it seems as though something isn't right.

Flint provided us with a statement from Police Chief Alvern Lock when we asked about the differences in the crime statistics, particularly the rape statistics.

"The City of Flint stands behind the crime statistics provided to the Office of The Vice President.  These numbers are an actual portrayal of the level of violent crime in our city and are the same numbers we have provided to our own community. This information is the most accurate data and demonstrates the rise in crime associated with the economic crisis and the reduced staffing levels.

"The discrepancies with the FBI and other sources reveal the differences in how crimes can be counted and categorized, based on different criteria." (Read the entire statement)
This is a city that's submitting clerical errors to the FBI, and we still have the odd problem with the rape statistics.  If the city can provide numbers to Joe Biden then why can't PolitiFact have the same set of numbers?   And maybe the city can include stats for crimes other than the ones Biden may have cherry-picked?  Not that PolitiFact cares about cherry-picked stats, of course.

Bottom line, why are we trusting the local Flint data sight unseen?

PolitiFact caps Biden's reward with a statement from criminologist and Obama campaign donor James Alan Fox of Northeastern University to the effect that Biden makes a legitimate point that "few police can translate to more violent crime" (PolitiFact's phrasing).  Fox affirms that point, by PolitiFact's account, though it's worth noting that on the record Biden asserted a "direct correlation" between crime and the size of a police force.  The change in wording seems strange for a fact check outfit that maintains that "words matter."

The conclusion gives us nothing new other than the "Mostly True" rating.  Biden was supposedly "largely in line" with the UCR murder data for Flint.  His claim about rape apparently did not drag down his rating much even though PolitiFact admittedly could not "fully" explain the discrepancies.  PolitiFact apparently gave Biden credit for the underlying argument that reductions in a police force "could result in increases in violent crime" despite Biden's rhetoric about a "direct correlation."

The grades:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  F
Sue Owen: N/A
Martha Hamilton:  F

This fact check was notable for its reliance on sources apparently predisposed toward the Obama administration and its relatively unquestioning acceptance of information from those sources.  The Washington Post version of this fact check, for comparison, contacted three experts to PolitiFact's one and none of the three had an FEC filing indicating a campaign contribution to Obama.

And no investigation of whether Biden cherry-picked Flint?  Seriously?  See the "Afters" section for more on that as well as commentary on PolitiFact's CYA attempt.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Mitt Romney, the NLRB and Boeing

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

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Jon Greenberg:  writer, researcher
Aaron Sharockman:  editor


PolitiFact, it is said, pays close attention to the specific wording of a claim.  We might as well look at the precise wording from Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney before we delve into the nitty gritty of the fact check.

PolitiFact, oddly enough, provided no link to a transcript of the debate.

Romney's claim was part of a reply to fellow candidate Herman Cain (yellow highlights indicate portion used by PolitiFact):
CAIN: Yes. One of my guiding principles has been and will always be, surround yourself with good people. The 999 plan that I have proposed is simple, transparent, efficient, fair, and neutral My question is to Governor Romney. Can you name all 59 points in your 160-page plan, and does it satisfy that criteria of being simple, transparent, efficient, fair, and neutral?



ROMNEY: Herman, I have had the experience in my life of taking on some tough problems. And I must admit that simple answers are always very helpful, but oftentimes inadequate.

And in my view, to get this economy going again, we're going to have to deal with more than just tax policy and just energy policy, even though both of those are part of my plan. 

And the other parts of my plan are these. One is to make sure that we stop the regulatory creep that has occurred in Washington. And all of the Obama regulations, we say no to, we put a halt on them, and reverse all those that cost jobs. 

Number two, we have trade policies that open up new markets to American goods. And I lay out a number of things that I would do in that 59 points to open up more markets to American goods. And, we, of course, stop the cheating that goes on. 

We also have to have the rule of law. By that I mean you can't have the federal government, through its friends at the National Labor Relations Board, saying to a company like Boeing that you can't build a factory in a non-union state. That's simply wrong and violates the principle of the rule of law. 

We also have to have institutions that create human capital. We're a capitalist system. But we don't just believe in physical capital or financial capital, also human capital. We need great schools, great institutions.

Finally, you have got to have a government that does not spend more money than it takes in. Those are the seven major pillars of those 59. 
 Either PolitiFact did not pay particularly close attention to the precise wording of Romney's claim or else something is amiss.  Note that the PolitiFact headline/deck material portray Romney as saying unequivocally that the government told Boeing that it could not build a factory in a non-union state.

In fact, Romney references the Boeing case as a hypothetical ("a company like Boeing"), so his point stands regardless of whether the event occurred or not.  Granted, Romney's point receives its greatest support with a valid concrete example, but for purposes of evaluating PolitiFact we are interested in the specific wording of the claim.

We decided to examine this question: Did the NLRB tell Boeing that it "can’t build a factory in a non-union state."
That's an interesting question, I suppose, but a picture of Romney's face appears near the "Truth-O-Meter" rating.  Wouldn't it be a good idea under those circumstances to rate a statement that Romney made and did not simply imply?

Well we might as well see where the errant path leads us.


About six years ago, Boeing was ramping up to build its newest passenger jet, the 787 Dreamliner. The company explored making all the planes at its factories in Washington state, but in 2009, it decided to start a second, smaller production line in South Carolina. The union plants in Puget Sound would make seven planes a month; the non-union facility in North Charleston, S.C. would produce three a month.

The International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers complained. The NLRB’s general counsel tried to bring the parties together but failed. In April 2011, the general counsel’s office formally issued a complaint on the grounds that Boeing built its factory in South Carolina in order to punish the union.  
Top Boeing officials were quite open about  the connection between the machinists union and the new factory. According to the filing,one executive told a newspaper that "the overriding factor (in transferring the line) was not the business climate. And it was not the wages we’re paying today. It was that we cannot afford to have a work stoppage, you know, every three years."
The first of the above three paragraphs seems accurate on its face, but the second paragraph is loaded.  The union complained.  The NLRB's general counsel tried to bring the parties together?  How?  In what way?  By telling the union its complaint was poorly founded?  By telling Boeing to cave and build the Dreamliner in Washington state?  Something in between?   It matters to Romney's case.

In the third paragraph PolitiFact offers a one-sided account of the situation between Boeing and the union.  The first sentence makes a judgment about statements from "top Boeing officials."  Supposedly they were "quite open about the relationship between the union and the new factory," and our concrete example chops off Boeing's rationale for avoiding a work stoppage (it's also a phantom citation; see "Afters").  Boeing maintains that delivering its product on time plays a key part in global competition.  The union characterizes the move as a punitive action against the union.  The PolitiFact story highlights the union's position and obscures that of the company.

We see that biased presentation continue in the next paragraph from the NLRB:
In the eyes of the general counsel, this was a form of retaliation against the union for having conducted strikes in the past. As such, he argued Boeing violated the National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits employers from interfering with the right of workers to organize and to strike.

The question is: Did Boeing act to get back at the union or did it have other reasons? "The whole thing boils down to motivations," said Nancy Cleeland, a spokesperson for the NLRB. "That’s the reason  to have a hearing. To see what was going on."
Golly.  What possible reason could Boeing have for wanting to avoid a work stoppage other than to punish the union?  It's quite the mystery!  Except that looking at Boeing officials' words in context we see again and again the rationale of remaining competitive in the global market.

Yet we don't see that rationale in this fact check.

Cleeland’s emphasis on a hearing could sound like boring procedure, but it’s actually pivotal.  Since Romney brought up the Boeing dispute to demonstrate his regard for the rule of law, it's worth looking at the legal process here. The NLRB has five board members. So far, they have played no role in this matter at all.
Board members are appointed by the president and heavily reflect President Obama's preferences, but you don't need to be bothered with that while we're fact checking.

The call for a hearing came when the general counsel of the NLRB, who acts independently of the board, filed a complaint because there seemed to be enough evidence to make it stick. Based on such a complaint, this case now sits before an administrative judge who has yet to make a decision. After the judge rules, that ruling will then go to the NLRB to be voted up or down or changed.
Yes, the NLRB's general counsel is independent of the Board, but both are appointed by the president.  Not that you need to know that.  It should be enough to know that the general counsel is independent of the board even if both operate at the behest of President Obama.  Right?

In short, the law provides a process with checks and balances.
How silly.  The NLRB operates under the executive branch.  The board is dominated by the president's appointees.  The general counsel is likewise appointed by the president.  Even the administrative judge is part of the NLRB and as such an extension of the executive branch rather than the judicial branch of government.

If we have checks and balances here, they consist of the Senate's advise and consent power in the Democrat-dominated Senate and the roles of Congress and the judiciary in keeping the executive branch (and with it the NLRB) in line.

Romney’s statement gets way ahead of that process, and it runs into trouble on another front. The complaint against Boeing is not based on the fact that South Carolina is a right-to-work state. We spoke to lawyers who think the complaint is well founded and lawyers who think it is utterly misguided, but they agree on this point.
Again, the PolitiFact evaluation comes across as simply laughable.  The entire process is under the NLRB thus far and thus entirely under the auspices of the Obama administration.  When Obama's general counsel files a complaint it is likely on its face that Obama's board of directors will back it.  But credit PolitiFact writer Jon Greenberg with a valiant effort to make it look like a process fitted with all manner of checks and balances.

Greenberg's attempt to fault Romney's reasoning is similarly lame, even if he can share that blame with his cited experts (like Stanford's William Gould).

Romney doesn't affix any particular importance to the fact that South Carolina is right-to-work state.  He could have said it was a Southern state instead and that would not indicate that South Carolina's position relative to the equator had a role in the Obama administration's decision.  That complaint against Romney is a non-starter.

Does Greenberg buy what he's selling?

The third problem with Romney’s statement is that if the general counsel at the NLRB really wanted to block the factory in South Carolina, he could have asked for an injunction, which is allowed under the National Labor Relations Act. He did not. The factory is up and running, and Cleeland, the NLRB spokesperson, says Boeing now can tell the administrative judge that to shut the plant would cause undue economic hardship.
Perhaps the general counsel was concerned that the judicial branch would not back the NLRB.  Best to stick with political pressure based on an in-house effort from the executive branch without risking interference from an independent judiciary.  You don't always get to pick your own judge.  Note the expert job Greenberg does of making it appear that the administrative judge is part of the judicial branch.  You'd think the administrative judge would have had a role in granting the would-be injunction based on Greenberg's writing.  Maybe Greenberg even believes that's the way it works.

Just before PolitiFact's grand conclusion, Greenberg adds a paragraph's worth of balance to the story:
There is of course political context to this story. Organized labor has more pull with Democrats than with Republicans, and the machinists union pressed hard to have its complaint move forward. Semmens with the NRWC said he thinks that pressure lies behind the NLRB action. 
No kidding.

Romney claimed that the NLRB told Boeing that it  "can’t build a factory in a non-union state." This presents a sweeping distortion of the NLRB's actions that is not borne out by the facts.
Compare the above with my parallel version:
PolitiFact claimed that Romney claimed that the NLRB told Boeing that it "can't build a factory in a non-union state."  This represents a sweeping distortion of Romney's words that is not borne out by the facts.
The same type of argument that PolitiFact uses to undermine Romney works to undermine PolitiFact's criticism of Romney.

An office at the NLRB has started a process that could, at the theoretical limit, result in a factory closure, but the NLRB as a whole hasn’t told Boeing anything.
Again, Romney did not say that the NLRB told Boeing anything.  PolitiFact inferred that from Romney's statement and blamed Romney.  Boeing experienced a threat from the executive branch of government to its plans to maintain global competitiveness.  Romney's statement need not mean more than that.
Romney’s statement reflects reality in that a Democratic administration tends to give more weight to union complaints, and unions don’t like to see jobs flow to right-to-work states. But his words go far beyond what the NLRB has actually done.

We rate his statement False.
PolitiFact's words go beyond what Romney actually said.  I say this is journalists reporting badly.

The grades:

Jon Greenberg:  F
Aaron Sharockman:  F

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair has said PolitiFact tries to go beyond the "both sides of the story" approach to fact checking.  Greenberg and Sharockman succeed at avoiding the "both sides of the story" method and then some with this lopsided account of the Boeing labor dispute.  The only thing missing is the rigorous finding of fact that would support PolitiFact's landing on the side of Obama and the union with this fact check.


Here's another good example of PolitiFact's shoddy handling of evidence:
Top Boeing officials were quite open about  the connection between the machinists union and the new factory. According to the filing,one executive told a newspaper that "the overriding factor (in transferring the line) was not the business climate. And it was not the wages we’re paying today. It was that we cannot afford to have a work stoppage, you know, every three years." 
You won't find the quotation in the linked filing.  Go ahead and look.

See?  It's not there.  It's not in the other documents PolitiFact links as sources of the story, either, so far as I can tell.  Judging from the information in the other documents the quotation probably occurs in one of the sources cited in the filing PolitiFact linked.  Linking to a secondary source is not among the best practices for a researcher.  Linking to a secondary source that doesn't even include the material that supposedly came from that source is worse.  Congratulations to PolitiFact.

Second Afters:

One of the more interesting aspects of the labor dispute comes from the union's claim (later picked up by the NLRB's general counsel) that a Boeing official appears on videotape saying that the Dreamliner work was moved to South Carolina because of work stoppages and the like.  Recalling that Boeing asserts the importance of maintaining its ability to compete globally via dependable delivery of its products, you be the judge:

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Florida): Alan Grayson and global wealth inequality

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
--PolitiFact editor Bill Adair

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson: writer, researcher
Aaron Sharockman: editor


We have here another specimen where PolitiFact makes a clear exception to its principle that the most important aspect of claims involving numbers is the underlying message.  There is no attempt in the story to either identify or evaluate the underlying argument of Democrat Alan Grayson.  One could imagine that PolitiFact did not extend the effort because Grayson's point was opinion--that unequal wealth distribution is unfair at least in some sense--but without any explanation to that effect we're left with PolitiFact relaxing its principles without explanation.

Before we start evaluating the Grayson fact check, have a look at how PolitiFact pans Sarah Palin for an accurate report of the U.S. ranking of defense spending as a percentage of the gross domestic product:
"In absolute dollars, we spend almost as much as all other countries combined," (Todd) Harrison said. "So saying we are 25th is a bit misleading and a selective use of facts."

We agree. Although she's technically correct, the numbers are wildly skewed by tiny, non-industrialized countries. We find her claim Barely True. 

The Palin rating adequately demonstrates that PolitiFact will take an underlying message into account for a number ranking claim such as Grayson's, at least on a selective basis.

Grayson, responding to MSNBC host Rachel Maddow's question about why the "Occupy Wall Street" protests resonate with Americans (yellow highlights indicate portion used by PolitiFact):
The second thing is that they`ve created a system that is enormously unequal. And the result of that is people are struggling to find a job to pay their bills, to pay their rent, to pay their credit card bills.  According to Wikipedia, there are only five countries in the entire planet that are more unequal than the United States in the distribution of our wealth. That`s a system that Wall Street created, that Wall Street maintains, and that Wall Street enforces.
PolitiFact puts immediate and exclusive focus on the numbers claim:
We should note here that we’re glad that Grayson cited his sources -- in the midst of a national TV interview no less! -- but we’re also disappointed that his source was Wikipedia, which is open to editing by anyone.

Luckily for Grayson, the Wikipedia page he cited had sourced its numbers to a peer-reviewed paper. The paper was coauthored by four academics, James B. Davies, Susanna Sandstrom, Anthony Shorrocks and Edward N. Wolff and published in The Economic Journal in 2010.

Grayson was correct that the United States had the fifth-highest Gini coefficient for wealth in the world, trailing only Denmark, Namibia, Switzerland and Zimbabwe. In other words, the U.S. distribution of wealth was more unequal than all but four other nations.
If the PolitiFact team had paid closer attention, they would have noticed that the numbers on which Grayson relies were not published in any peer-reviewed journal.  The numbers Grayson used ultimately came from an appendix (Excel file) to a working paper that preceded the version published in The Economic Journal

PolitiFact reports falsely in claiming that PolitiFact sourced its numbers to the linked "a peer-reviewed paper."  Sift through the linked work (see Update below) from now until doomsday and you won't find "Namibia" mentioned at all nor any comprehensive list of Gini coefficients (identified by PolitiFact as the primary statistic used to identify inequality) for all the nations of the earth.

Wikipedia apparently made no secret of the source of the information.  PolitiFact's research simply missed it (click image for enlarged view):

(clipped from
As we continue evaluating PolitiFact's story we'll obtain some potential clues as to why the appendix did not appear with the published version of the paper.

Friday, October 14, 2011

The Axis of Misbehavior

We've certainly come a long way.

Whereas the previous "cowboy" president referred to Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an "axis of evil" the new, civilized president provides a powerful contrast with his choice of words.

Iraq, at least temporarily, no longer gets lumped with Iran and North Korea.  The latter nations drew fire from President Obama as he sanction-rattled over Iran's foiled attempt to assassinate the ambassador from Saudi Arabia on American soil.
There is great similarity between how Iran operates and how North Korea operates -- a willingness on their part to break international rules, to flout international norms, to not live up to their own commitments.  And each time they do that the United States will join with its partners and allies in making sure that they pay a price.
Among our many new options for the Iran-North Korea axis:  
  • The axis of international norm flouters 
  • The axis of failing to live up to their own commitments 
  • The axis of out-of-bounds behavior 
  • The axis of not acceptable behavior

Thursday, October 13, 2011

PolitiFlub: The employee contribution to Social Security

A recent PolitiFact fact check used the employer's share of the OASDI (Social Security) payroll tax to help calculate the effective tax rate on a person earning $50,000 per year.

I opined that PolitiFact's calculation was wrong.  And I pointed out that PolitiFact has exercised the rule inconsistently over time.  PolitiFact Bias team member Jeff Dyberg pointed me toward another recent example of PolitiFact's inconsistency:

(clipped from
Herman Cain says every worker pays a 15.3 percent payroll tax.  PolitiFact finds the statement "Mostly False":
Cain said, "Every worker pays 15.3 percent payroll tax." That's not accurate. Workers only pay half that, with the exception of the self-employed, as we mentioned above.
Yet Cain could have used PolitiFact as his source for the 15.3 percent figure.  It's almost exactly what PolitiFact claimed in its fact check of President Obama (blue highlights added):
Payroll taxes fund Social Security and Medicare. In general, payroll taxes hit lower-to-middle-income taxpayers harder than high-income taxpayers, for two reasons. First, workers with low to moderate incomes are more likely than rich taxpayers to make the bulk of their income from salaries and wages, which are subject to the payroll tax, rather than capital gains or other types of investment income, which are not subject to payroll taxes. For the very rich, that pattern is reversed. Second, Social Security tax is levied only on the first $108,600 of one’s salary, meaning that virtually all of the earnings of someone making $50,000 a year is subject to it. That wouldn’t be the case for someone who’s very rich.

We asked two researchers at the Urban Institute-Brookings Institute Tax Policy Center, Roberton Williams and Rachel Johnson, for their advice on how to factor in payroll taxes. They estimated that combining the workers’ share of the payroll tax with the employer’s share -- the usual practice among economists -- would mean an extra 15 percentage points for our hypothetical middle-class worker, and less than 2 additional percentage points for the high-income taxpayer.
 Rejecting the 15 percent figure harmed Herman Cain's "Truth-O-Meter" rating.  Barack Obama and Warren Buffett received a benefit from PolitiFact's acceptance of a 15 percent figure in calculating a worker's effective tax rate on a $50,000 income.

So it's time for another little tally of how PolitiFact's inconsistency pans out in terms of the partisan divide.

 Barack Obama (story uses 15 percent figure)
 Warren Buffett (story uses 15.3 percent figure)

 Jeff Merkley (story uses 6.2 percent figure)
 Barack Obama (story uses 6.2 percent figure)
 Kendrick Meek (story relies on Tax Policy Center figures)

 Herman Cain (story uses 6.2 percent figure)
 Michele Bachmann (story follows CBO in crediting employer's share of tax to the employee)
 Sheldon Whitehouse (15.3 percent would have aided Whitehouse*)

*It's worth noting that Whitehouse received so much assistance from PolitiFact in justifying his claim (ignoring the effect of corporate taxes on tax burdens) that he hardly needed any help from the employer's share of the payroll tax.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Florida): American Crossroads and the Clinton take on Obama's jobs plan

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

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Aaron Sharockman:  writer, researcher
Amy Hollyfield:  editor


We have here an unusual fact check in that there is no quotation at all from the supposed source of the information, the political action organization American Crossroads.  The fact check concerns accurate quotations of President Bill Clinton and the impression they create as presented in an American Crossroads political ad.

Here's the ad:

Here's the PolitiFact set up:
The ad splices together television news reports highlighting Obama's plan to raise taxes a total of $1.5 trillion over 10 years, then pivots to Clinton. "I personally don't believe we ought to be raising taxes," Clinton says in what appears to be an interview. "It won't solve the problem."

Between the lines "we ought to be raising taxes," and "it won't solve the problem," the ad jumps -- for just a split-second -- to some other image.
It's a 30 second ad, but the PolitiFact description omits a sizable portion in the beginning using President Obama's own words on taxation:  "The last thing you want to do is to raise taxes in the middle of a recession."

The ad does not merely use Clinton's words to oppose Obama's proposed tax increase.  It uses Obama's words toward the same purpose.

The cut-away caught our attention because we've seen instances where politician's words were cut in a way that would create a different impression.

Indeed, after further review, that's what American Crossroads did here.
If PolitiFact is correct that the ad creates a different impression than did Clinton's words in context then we should expect to see PolitiFact identify the proper understanding as well as the false impression along with the supporting rationales for each.
The video of Clinton grabbed by American Crossroads comes from a 25-minute September 2011 interview Clinton did with the conservative news website The interview was set up in New York, where Clinton was holding the 10th annual meeting of his Clinton Global Initiative project.

We found the original video. The two lines quoted by American Crossroads come more than three minutes apart, as Clinton was delivering a meandering answer on how to create jobs and fix the flailing American economy.
PolitiFact is correct that the statements occur more than three minutes apart.  The video confirms it.

When American Crossroads quoted Clinton as saying, "I personally don't believe we ought to be raising taxes," they clipped Clinton's full comments short. Here's the full quote, including what American Crossroads left out:

"I personally don't believe we ought to be raising taxes or cutting spending -- either one -- until we get this economy off the ground. This has been a dead flat economy. And you don't want in something this flat ... if we cut government spending, which I normally would be inclined to do when the deficit's this big, with interest rates near zero you can't get the benefits of it."

So Clinton was as much deriding spending cuts as he was a plan to raise taxes.

PolitiFact is also correct that Clinton disparaged spending cuts as well as tax increases, though it isn't clear why that would have relevance with respect to American Crossroads' use of Clinton's words.  Simply clipping Clinton's words does not misrepresent misuse, or else PolitiFact is acting hypocritically.  Note the ellipsis (...) in middle paragraph above.  In journalistic style an ellipsis indicates missing text


Clinton went on to praise Obama's plan to continue cuts to the payroll tax, saying it's a proven way to help the economy, before spinning off into a discussion of former President Ronald Reagan and former House Speaker Tip O'Neill.
Clinton remained on topic, praising Reagan and O'Neill for disposing of the debt from the savings and loan bailouts which in turn, by Clinton's account, corresponded with a job growth spurt during Reagan's tenure.

Later in the interview the second half of the quote comes up. But again, it's shortened.

"I would pay it," Clinton said, referring to a millionaire's tax (though Clinton said that many wealthy New Yorkers like himself wouldn't be affected because they already pay high state and local income taxes that can then be deducted from your federal tax bill).

"It's okay with me, I'd pay more," he said. "But it won't solve the problem."
We still have no rationale from PolitiFact explaining how American Crossroads took Clinton out of context and/or juxtaposed his statements to alter their meaning.  "It's shortened" doesn't cut it without an explanation as to how the shortened version significantly altered the meaning.

After the American Crossroads ad was released, Clinton fired back saying the group wrongly implied his opposition to Obama's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy -- sometimes referred to as the "Buffett Rule" -- as well as Obama's jobs plan.

"The Republican group American Crossroads has used a quote from me in a video opposing President Obama's jobs plan and the 'Buffett Rule,'" he said in the statement provided to POLITICO. "The advertisement implies that I opposed the 'Buffett Rule.' In fact, I support both the American Jobs Act and the 'Buffett Rule.' I believe that it's only fair to ask those of us in high-income groups -- who have received the primary benefits of the last decade's economic growth and the majority of its tax cuts as well -- to contribute to solving our long term debt problem.

"What I did say was that the 'Buffett Rule' cannot solve the problem alone. Reducing the debt requires three things: more economic growth, more spending cuts, and more revenue," he said.
Even if Clinton has a spotless reputation for truth-telling we don't take his explanation uncritically, do we?

In the case of the American Crossroads ad we're concerned with Obama's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy.  That is the focus of the ad.

Clinton says American Crossroads presented him falsely as opposing Obama's jobs plan.  That's a half truth.  The ad does not address any aspect of the jobs plan other than the tax increases.  The ad does not address, for example, the payroll tax decrease that Clinton praised.

Clinton further stated that American Crossroads painted him in opposition to the "Buffett Rule."  Again, that's a half truth.  The ad shows Clinton criticizing the tax increase for not addressing the creation of jobs.  It does not include any mention of Clinton's support for such a tax increase during better economic conditions nor does it try to portray Clinton as opposed to tax increases on the rich regardless of circumstances.

Clinton's statement avoids the points made in the American Crossroads ad.  Does Clinton favor raising taxes on a flat economy and does Obama's "Buffett Rule" proposal raise taxes on a flat economy?  Does the tax increase help address the jobs problem, contrary to what Clinton suggested during his interview?

American Crossroads spokesman Jonathan Collegio defended the ad's quoting of Clinton to PolitiFact Florida, noting that a 30-second ad cannot run two-minute-plus quotes and that the "quotes selected for the ad are the most succinct and relevant clips of Clinton's Newsmax interview, and fairly represent his views."

We see it differently. The ad suggests that Clinton opposes Obama's plan to raise taxes on the wealthy as a means of reducing the deficit. By our review of the interview, Clinton actually appeared to straddle that fence. At one point, he said that he didn't think the country should raise taxes "until we get this economy off the ground." At another point, he said he'd be "okay" with the tax and willing to pay it, though he said in his particular case, he probably won't be affected.

PolitiFact's review of the Clinton interview resulted in a false impression.  Clinton did not straddle the fence, though he was made to appear that way through selective quotation.

Here's an expanded version of the second statement from Clinton, my portion of the transcript in bold, portions used by PolitiFact highlighted in yellow:
What I would like to say both to Speaker Boehner and to the president, "Okay, you've both had your deal.  Go work it out.  Meanwhile focus on putting American back to work now."  Because it just confused Americans.  Americans lost the fact that, whatever you think about this millionaire's surcharge, it--I don't really care because I would pay it but it won't affect me because I already pay the minimum income because I live in New York.  So if you live, anybody that lives in New York, because our state and local taxes are so high and you get to deduct those against your federal taxes, we're already over any threshold anybody can consider.  But, I, you know, it's okay with me, I'd pay more.  But it won't solve the problem.
Clinton's thought, without the digression detailing his opinion of how it affect him, goes like this:  Americans lost the fact that, whatever you think about this millionaire's surcharge, it doesn't solve the problem.

The PolitiFact version turns an irrelevancy into a critical piece of missing information.  Clinton was saying that whether you favor increasing taxes on the rich or not, it doesn't solve the jobs problem. PolitiFact's interpretation contradicts Clinton's intent.

The American Crossroads ad segues from the Clinton quotations to another quotation critical of Obama.  Note the accompanying text in the ad:

"We need jobs not higher taxes."

It falls right into line with Clinton's criticism of Obama's tax hike proposal.  The tax hike does not address the jobs problem.

At the least, American Crossroads is guilty of cherry-picking parts of Clinton's statement to best fit into the narrative of its ad. But we think they go one step further by cutting out critical pieces of evidence -- namely that Clinton said he would be "okay" with higher taxes for the wealthy and that he'd pay additional taxes if he was required to.

Clinton's voice and image were no doubt selected specifically because it'd be a stinging rebuke of Obama's policies -- from a fellow Democrat.

But viewer beware. We rate this claim False.
As explained above, PolitiFact miscategorized the evidence from the context.  Clinton's general support for taxing the rich at higher rates, by his own words, does not mitigate the failure of the tax increases to address the jobs problem, and the latter was the focus of the American Crossroads ad.

With full consideration of the context it's hard to see any significant flaw in the ad's use of the Clinton quotations.  The biggest failing is the juxtaposition of one quotation concerned with the weak economy while the other was focused on jobs.  Given that the two are closely linked a criticism along those lines seems like hairsplitting.

On top of everything else, it's extraordinarily difficult to see how PolitiFact could justify a "False" rating for this item.  As noted, American Crossroads doesn't make any sort of concrete claim.  The ad in question simply quotes President Clinton.  And the quotations are apparently perfectly accurate.  If they were taken entirely out of context to mean the opposite of what Clinton intended then PolitiFact's definitions of "Half True" or "Mostly False" (formerly "Barely True") appear to fit better than the "False" rating:
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

BARELY TRUE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.

FALSE – The statement is not accurate.
The tag "journalists reporting badly" will apply.

The grades:

Aaron Sharockman: F

Amy Hollyfield: F

Monday, October 10, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Michael Moore and the Occupy Wall Street arrests

Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
--Bill Adair, PolitiFact editor

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


PolitiFact, we are told, examines claims in their full context including the comments made before and after.  Plus PolitiFact examines the point the person was trying to make.

Some of us don't believe that PolitiFact applies its principles evenly across the board.

What did Michael Moore say?  What did PolitiFact supposedly examine?  We go first to the rush transcript of the Democracy Now! interview of Michael Moore (yellow highlights added to denote portion used in the PolitiFact story):
AMY GOODMAN: Michael, your comments on Hero Vincent and all that are down there?

MICHAEL MOORE: Well, it’s highly ironic that now over 100 of the protesters have been arrested and not a single banker, a CEO from Wall Street, anyone from corporate America — nobody, not one arrest of any of these people who brought down the economy in 2008. Who created schemes, financial schemes that not only destroyed the economy, but took away the future of this generation, of this young man and his children in the future. They have completely ruined it for people while they have become filthy rich. Not one of them arrested, but 100 of these people who have stood up non-violently against this madness, and they’re arrested? This just boggles the mind. I want to say something, too, because, Amy, you’ve lived here, in this area, in the city for probably most of your life. I have been here for many years. By and large, the New York City cops are actually pretty good as police forces go.

In terms of the interview context, Moore's statement amounts, at least at first blush, to a red herring or a "you, too!" fallacy.  The red herring is a fallacy of distraction, distracting from any wrongdoing by the protesters by shifting the focus to "these people who brought down the economy."  And perhaps Moore attempts to excuse the protestors' actions because of the banking evildoers went unpunished, which would qualify as a version of the "you, too!" fallacy--excusing one set of actions based on the actions of another.

And what of Moore's underlying point?  Is his point best described as one of the aforementioned fallacies or something else?

Let's get the PolitiFact take on things:
We read the same sentiment repeated on Twitter from people supporting the Occupy Wall Street movement's protests.

We've noticed news reports before that have noted a general lack of prosecutions. But we wanted to know if Moore and others were right that not a single banker or corporate executive had been arrested. So we decided to check it out.
PolitiFact just explained to its readers why this story was done.  This issue had come to the attention of the PolitiFact staff well before Moore opened his mouth.  Moore's statement on Democracy Now! gave PolitiFact an excuse to do a story the editors wanted to see.  That's selection bias by definition.  And it probably accounts for PolitiFact's failure to take the context or Moore's point into account when it comes time to determine the position of the "Truth-O-Meter" needle:  PolitiFact is not interested in anything other than the literal claim in this case.

To summarize our findings, we found a few prosecutions, but not many. And we wouldn't describe the targets as the people who were responsible for bringing down the economy.
So the claim is "False"?  Moore did appear to emphasize the total lack of prosecutions three different ways during the course of a single sentence:
not a single banker , a CEO from Wall Street, anyone (1) from corporate America — nobody (2), not one (3) arrest of any of these people who brought down the economy in 2008
Of course Moore repeated the charge a couple of sentences later, if anyone's counting.

Alas, if we skip to the end we find PolitiFact awarding Moore a "Mostly True" rating.  So now we get the fun of seeing PolitiFact reconcile Moore's inaccuracy with the favorable "Truth-O-Meter" rating as we move through the body of the story.

If you're looking for arrests and prosecutions against executives associated with the biggest banks, you won't find them. 
Heh.  "If" we're looking for arrests and prosecutions against executives associated with the biggest banks.

Indeed, PolitiFact's language hints at at a couple of unaddressed problem in the story.  Who was responsible for the economic collapse?  And if we can find a responsible group, were their actions illegal?

For purposes of its fact check, PolitiFact appears to accept Moore's premise that some group of corporate executives was responsible for the economic collapse and that their actions were illegal.

And we found no arrests of execs with the firms most widely associated with the financial crisis such as Countrywide, AIG or Lehman Brothers.

The highest-profile convictions we found were from Taylor, Bean & Whitaker, which was a mortgage lending firm based not on Wall Street, but in Ocala, Fla. Its former chairman, Lee B. Farkas, was convicted of directing nearly $3 billion in fraud that put thousands out of work and contributed to the collapse of Colonial Bank.
For review, Moore claimed that nobody from corporate America, Wall Street CEO's and "not a single banker" had been arrested.  The Taylor, Bean & Whitaker case by itself provides a number of arrests contradicting Moore, but PolitiFact blurs Moore's claim, making it appear that the conviction of Farkas almost shouldn't count since he wasn't a Wall Street CEO.

In the wake of the financial crisis, President Obama launched a task force intended to push for appropriate legal action against banking fraud:
The sweep was organized by President Obama’s interagency Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force, which was established to lead an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. Starting on March 1, to date Operation Stolen Dreams has involved 1,215 criminal defendants nationwide, including 485 arrests, who are allegedly responsible for more than $2.3 billion in losses. Additionally, to date the operation has resulted in 191 civil enforcement actions which have resulted in the recovery of more than $147 million.
Agencies such as Countrywide ended up as the focus of federal investigations.

Does Moore want Countrywide execs arrested even if federal investigators do not believe they can successfully prosecute the case?

PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
There have been many other prosecutions of mortgage fraud and insider trading. The U.S. Justice Department pointed us to its website, and sent us a long list of other ongoing actions against mortgage fraud, investment fraud, insider trading and other corporate offenses.

But the cases have not involved the highly prominent executives Moore described as bringing down the U.S. economy.
Seriously?  Moore said nobody from corporate America had been arrested.  Wall Street CEO's were just one group within the broader statement he made.  PolitiFact is spinning on Moore's behalf and ignoring the quotation from Moore used in the story's headline.  If PolitiFact wanted to focus just on Wall Street CEO's then maybe the PolitiFact team should have written something to that effect.  As it stands we have Moore's statement applying to "anyone from corporate America" cozied up next to the "Mostly True" Truth-O-Meter graphic.

Isn't that a bit misleading?

In reviewing the research and talking to experts about why there have not been more prosecutions associated with the financial crisis, we found several reasons.

For one thing, such cases tend to be difficult, and it's not immediately clear what offenses executives could be charged with.
Not clear what offenses executives could be charged with?  Maybe Moore should have considered that before he opened his yap.

Then again, there's no need for Moore to consider it when he can get outfits like PolitiFact to cover for him.

Consider this:  Moore's statement mentioned irony.  In comparison to the arrests of "nonviolent" protesters it is supposedly ironic that authorities failed to arrest figures from corporate America who caused the financial crisis.  Moore's statement assumes we know who caused the financial crisis and strongly suggests that their actions in doing so were criminal actions.  The latter is Moore's real underlying point, and PolitiFact found only weak evidence supporting that point.

Did I mention that Moore's upper-class evildoers are apparently just as nonviolent as the protesters?

Where's the irony, again?

PolitiFact's conclusion (blue highlights added):

Our ruling

Moore said, "Not a single banker, a CEO from Wall Street, anyone from corporate America — nobody, (there was) not one arrest of any of these people who brought down the economy in 2008." Well, there have been a few arrests. Certainly the executives of Taylor, Bean & Whitaker who were arrested would qualify as "corporate America."

But Moore's larger point is correct -- there have been very few arrests among executives of firms the public would associate with causing the financial crisis. Obama implied in his recent remarks that it was because many of their actions weren't criminal.

Whatever the cause, we rate Moore's statement Mostly True.
The spinners at PolitiFact tell their readers that Moore's "larger point"--that not many "executives of firms the public would associate with causing the financial crisis" were arrested--is correct.

Sorry, but that supposed "larger point" does not result in any significant irony when we consider Moore's remarks in context.

This fact check involving Moore provides us yet another example of a public figure saying something kind of close to a fact check PolitiFact wanted to do.  PolitiFact wanted to do a story on the low number of prosecutions stemming from the financial crisis.  So they just interpreted Moore to agree with their preconceived agenda and wrote the story accordingly.

There's good evidence that hundreds of figures from corporate America were arrested based on fraud charges from the time period when the financial meltdown occurred.  Moore claimed no arrests had occurred.  Not one.  His underlying point was that many figures from corporate America had committed illegal acts in bringing on the financial crisis yet had escaped arrest.

An inaccurate claim combined with an extremely dubious and ill-supported underlying argument should not lead to a "Mostly True" rating on the "Truth-O-Meter."  If it does, something's wrong.

The grades:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Agenda journalism results in PolitiFact ignoring its principle of taking context into consideration.


For good measure, here's a reminder of what can happen if you use language similar to Moore's yet PolitiFact minimizes the weight of your underlying point (bold emphasis added):
If Boehner had offered a more measured assessment, he would have had a fair point about the differences between Obama’s fiscal approach and that outlined by the commission. The president certainly could have gone further in embracing the recommendations of the panel he had commissioned. But he did embrace a wide variety of them, so to say bluntly, as Boehner did, that Obama "took exactly none of his own deficit reduction commission’s ideas" is simply not correct. To one degree or another, the commission’s recommendations are sprinkled throughout Obama’s budget proposals, in recognizable -- if not always in identical -- form. So we rate Boehner’s statement False.
The inconsistency is obvious, isn't it?