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
|(clipped from PolitiFact.com)|
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.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.
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.
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 2008Of 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.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.
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.
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.
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 StopFraud.gov website, and sent us a long list of other ongoing actions against mortgage fraud, investment fraud, insider trading and other corporate offenses.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.
But the cases have not involved the highly prominent executives Moore described as bringing down the U.S. economy.
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.Not clear what offenses executives could be charged with? Maybe Moore should have considered that before he opened his yap.
For one thing, such cases tend to be difficult, and it's not immediately clear what offenses executives could be charged with.
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 rulingThe 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.
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.
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.
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?