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:

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