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Friday, September 14, 2012

The Washington Post Needs Better Fact-Checkers

Following Paul Ryan’s address at the Republican National Convention last month, self-styled “fact-checkers” went nuts, seizing on what they perceived as false and misleading statements in the vice-presidential candidate’s speech. Their critical analyses provided much fodder for Ryan’s detractors, who tried to make him out to be a liar who couldn’t be trusted. Whether or not they were successful is hard to tell, but that’s not the focus of this article.

The Washington Post has had a mixed record this election cycle when it comes to fact-checking. A completely unbiased and disinterested observer with no dog in the fight might fairly conclude they’ve been overly harsh on both the Obama and Romney campaigns. I’ve noticed multiple mistakes in the paper’s sundry “fact checks” conducted this year, but they’ve also done a lot of good work. Of late, however, they seem to be getting sloppy...or lazy...or maybe they're just dropping the mask and letting their bias show. Whichever it is, I’ve decided the time has come to catalogue some of the most egregious malefactions I’ve seen.

Before I commence castigating individual fact-checkers, I should identify who’s who. Glenn Kessler writes the Post’s “Fact Checker” column (the one that uses the "Pinnochio" rating scale). He is assisted in this endeavor by a reporter named Josh Hicks. Post columnist Ezra Klein is the editor of Wonkblog, a blog under the newspaper’s aegis. Suzy Khimm, Sarah Kliff, Dylan Matthews and Brad Plumer are all contributors to Wonkblog.

Now then, a couple weeks ago, I challenged anyone who accused Paul Ryan of lying in his convention speech to identify one actual lie he told. To date, no one has brought such a lie to my attention. (Brief caveat: I don't consider a statement a "lie" if the person making the statement doesn't know/realize it's false at the time.) Somebody referred me to this post on Wonkblog, and while it didn't expose an actual lie in Ryan's speech, I did notice several errors the author, Dylan Matthews, made in his "fact check". For starters, he labelled the claim that "[a] GM plant in Ryan’s district shut down on Obama’s watch" FALSE and attributed the claim to Ryan. The problem is that Paul Ryan made no such claim. Surprisingly, Matthews actually admitted this--sort of--as he quoted what Ryan actually said: 
My home state voted for President Obama. When he talked about change, many people liked the sound of it, especially in Janesville, where we were about to lose a major factory.
A lot of guys I went to high school with worked at that GM plant. Right there at that plant, candidate Obama said: “I believe that if our government is there to support you … this plant will be here for another hundred years.” That’s what he said in 2008.
Well, as it turned out, that plant didn’t last another year. It is locked up and empty to this day.
Now, if you've done your research, then you should know that all of those statements are/were true. Matthews, however, didn't fact-check these statements. Instead, he wrote, "Ryan says that Janesville was 'about to' lose the factory at the time of the election, and Obama failed to prevent this." According to Matthews, this was "false," but Matthews is wrong; the plant was "about to close" when then-Senator Obama came to Janesville and made the remarks Ryan quoted. Notice also that Ryan never said "Obama failed to prevent" the plant's closing, though I suppose one could infer that from what he said, but even if he did, it's true; Obama didn't prevent the plant from shuttering. The issue is not whether he was in a position to save the plant; it's whether the plant closed or not

Matthews also distorted Ryan's claim about the stimulus. Here's what he wrote, exactly as it appears on Wonkblog:
The stimulus was the biggest expenditure in government history – The stimulus, Paul Ryan writes, “cost $831 billion – the largest one-time expenditure ever by our federal government.” This is false any way you cut it. By comparison, the Congressional Research Service estimates (pdf) that World War II cost $4.1 trillion in 2011 dollars. That was the biggest one-time expenditure ever, not the stimulus. Ryan is simply incorrect.
Notice that, again, the "claim" Matthews attributes to Ryan (in bold) differs substantially from what he quoted Ryan as saying. (This odd behavior is not unique to Matthews; see below.) Even aside from this glaring analytical error, however, is his premise that World War II "was the biggest one-time expenditure ever."' The stimulus was one bill that became one law, PL 111-5; it was a "one-time expenditure". By contrast, the $4.1 trillion "cost" of World War II was authorized through multiple appropriations bills, none of which reached anywhere close to $831 billion.

Matthews also cut out a couple of statements Ryan made--to wit, “The stimulus was a case of political patronage, corporate welfare, and cronyism at their worst,” and ”We got a long, divisive, all-or-nothing attempt to put the federal government in charge of health care.”--that I would call fair characterizations of Obama's policies that others may disagree with and dubbed them "false". He then listed a few claims from Ryan's speech that he called "misleading," but only one of these (that “President Obama has added more debt than any other president before him.”) was truly misleading. (The National Debt has grown by $5.4 trillion under President Obama--a greater increase than other any one president in U.S. history--but Obama is not solely responsible for this.) The other two--about the Simpson-Bowles debt commission report and S & P's downgrade of our credit rating--were true and not even misleading. (Matthews strained credulity by asserting that these statements in Ryan's speech "impl[ied]" things that no reasonable person would have interpreted the congressman as saying.)

You would think a responsible editor would have caught at least one of these slights and rebuked Dylan Matthews for his sloppy work and lack of journalistic integrity, but Klein himself
admitted that, before posting Matthews's piece, he re-read Paul Ryan's speech, "this time with the explicit purpose of finding claims we could add to the 'true' category. And I did find one." One?!? I wasn't sure how Ezra Klein defines the word "true," but then he told us:
I want to stop here and say that even the definition of “true” that we’re using is loose. “Legitimate” might be a better word. The search wasn’t for arguments that were ironclad. It was just for arguments — for claims about Obama’s record — that were based on a reasonable reading of the facts, and that weren’t missing obviously key context.
Yet, in spite of that supposedly lax standard, Klein would have us believe that, after reading Ryan’s speech in an advance text, watching it on television, then reading it over again twice more, he "simply couldn’t find any other major claims or criticisms that were true." (Perhaps he should have told us what he considered "major claims or criticisms," though as we can see from Matthews's post, Ezra seems to have no problem labelling as "false" claims that are plainly true.)

According to his profile on Wonkblog, Dylan Matthews has written for The New Republic, Salon, Slate and The American Prospect, all left-wing rags (except for Slate), so perhaps the blatant mistakes in his Wonkblog post weren't mistakes at all but deliberate attempts to deceive readers. I wanted to know, so I read his post entitled "Fact-checking Bill Clinton on the economy" the following week. I myself noticed no fewer than seven obvious lies Clinton told in his convention speech, as well as other statements I suspected were false but couldn’t be sure of at the time. Yet, Matthews branded only one of the statements he examined from Clinton’s speech “false,” and it wasn’t one of the seven I noted while watching the speech. (Four of those seven, however, had to do with Medicare, and Matthews did acknowledge that this particular post of his didn’t cover the former president’s statements about Medicare; those were dealt with in a separate post, which I also examined.) He actually did address two of the statements I recognized as lies as soon as I heard them, but his "fact check" of the statements left a lot to be desired:

1. “...the Senate Republican leader said, in a remarkable moment of candor, two full years before the election, their number-one priority was not to put America back to work. It was to put the president out of work!” Not only did I know this was false, but Matthews actually used the same thing that proves this statement false to explain why it's "TRUE". Here is the video--which Dylan Matthews embedded in his Wonkblog post--of what Mitch McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, said:

As you can see/hear, Senator McConnell clearly said that "our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term." Now, the difference beween "top" and "number-one" is de minimis, as is the difference between denying President Obama a second term and putting him out of work; I'll not fault the Big Dog for that, but there is a hugely significant difference between one's top priority and top political priority. (If you don't think the Democrats' top political priority this election cycle is to get President Obama re-elected, then you are in such a deep state of oblivion that I don't see any point in continuing.) Furthermore, there's a big difference between saying what something "is" and saying what it "should be". (We know President Clinton has been unsure of the definition of the word "is" in years past; it seems Dylan Matthews was as well.) Even if McConnell thought the GOP's top priority and top political priority were one and the same, that's not what he said. Clinton's statement was false.

2. “The Recovery Act ... cut taxes for 95% of the American people.” I interpreted this as a reference to the stimulus, and apparently Matthews did, too, so let's just go with that. This statement is also clearly false, as the percentage of Americans who pay federal taxes is far less than 95%, unless you take into account how the people who pay the taxes pass them on to others, but that's so tenuous and not supported by the context. Dylan labelled this statement "TRUE" and offered only this one sentence as support:
The “Make Work Pay” tax credit in the stimulus helped 94.3 percent of Americans.
I clicked on the link because I was willing to spot Slick Willie 0.7% if his claim otherwise held up. Matthews's source for the 94.3% claim was Politifact, which as I've demonstrated ad nauseum has some serious credibility issues. Nevertheless, even if you take them at their word in this instance, the piece Matthews linked to doesn't support his claim, nor does it entirely validate Clinton's. According to Politifact:  
The stimulus included tax cuts for many Americans, including a broad cut known as "Making Work Pay" intended to offset payroll taxes, which are automatically taken out of most workers’ paychecks and are not refundable.

Because of the stimulus, single workers collected a $400 tax credit, and working couples got $800. The credit didn’t come in the form of a check; it worked out so that most workers had about $400 less in federal income taxes withheld from their paychecks.
This raises the issue of what you consider a "tax cut"; most people think of tax cuts as cuts in tax rates, but I think it's fair to interpret Clinton's use of the term "cut taxes" to include reducing the tax burden or simply "reduced taxes". Still, that leaves the issue of the 95(or 94.3)% number. Whence did that come? Says Politifact:

Ahead of the 2008 election, the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center analyzed the effects of Obama’s tax proposals for workers. The center determined about 95 percent -- more precisely, 94.3 percent -- of tax filers would receive a tax cut under Obama's plan based on the tax credit to offset payroll taxes.
That data certainly deserves consideration, but the problem is that neither Politifact nor Dylan Matthews pointed to an analysis of the actual stimulus, so we don't know how many people actually received a credit as a result of the "Make Work Pay" tax credit. Further, concluding that President Clinton's statement was true requires the additional assumption that, by "the American people," he meant "American tax filers" or "taxpayers" or some other term that's not synonymous with "people". (Indeed, Politifact said that "Clinton left out an important qualifier: It’s a tax cut for 95 percent of working families.")

Matthews didn't fact-check the other lie I noticed--that “This Republican narrative, this alternative universe, says that...every one of us in this room who amounts to anything, we’re all completely self-made.” Not only have I never seen/heard any Republican say any such thing; this statement goes way beyond a permissible paraphrasing or reasonable interpretation of anything Repbulicans have actually said. As for
Wonkblog's "fact check" of Clinton's Medicare claims, I think that Sarah Kliff deserves some credit for a basically good job; she caught three of the four lies about Medicare I heard Clinton say and even exposed a couple more. I don't know why she didn't mention the other obvious lie Clinton told on this topic--that Republicans’ plan to block grant Medicaid will “end Medicare as we know it”--but I'll not fault her for that. If this one post is any indication, then Messers. Klein and Matthews can learn a lot from Ms. Kliff about how to do a proper fact check.

Now, then, on to "The Fact Checker" himself, Glenn Kessler.
I've previously faulted Glenn for what I deemed an unfair analysis of Mitt Romney's claims about how many jobs he created through his work at Bain, but I've noticed that he also does some good work, too. Kessler assigns claims that are anything short of true anywhere from one to four pinnochios; four-pinnochio ratings are reserved for what he calls "whoppers". My one big riff on his "fact checking" is that he and Josh Hicks seem to apply their ratings indiscriminately and arbitrarily. I'll give you an example: Remember that awful Priorities USA ad featuring the "steelworker" whose wife "died of cancer"? Well, Kessler analyzed the claims (many of which were downright false) made by the man in the ad, a Mr. Joe Soptic, and appropriately gave the ad "four pinnochios", concluding, "Soptic is welcome to his opinion on possible reasons for his wife’s death, but that does not mean Obama supporters should exploit it. On just every level, this ad stretches the bounds of common sense and decency."

That's very charitable; I think a fairer and more honest reaction would be that this man, Joe Soptic, is a horrible person who was trying to deceive people. Regardless, the Priorities USA ad clearly deserved four pinnochios, but according to Kessler, so did the Romney campaign's ad attaking President Obama for his "plan to gut welfare reform." Kessler called this ad "over-the-top", but as Robert Rector, who helped draft the work requirements in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act (a.k.a. Welfare Reform), has explained, "The law has indeed been gutted." The ad does bend the truth by saying that, under President Obama's plan, "you wouldn't have to work and wouldn't have to train for a job. They'd just send you your welfare check...." Reasonable people might interpret that as saying that unemployed people would receive welfare payments without having to work or look for a job, and that's not the case. This ad deserved one or two pinnochios, but none of the statements in it compare to the utter mendacity of the Priorities USA ad. Nevertheless, Kessler apparently thought the two spots were equally dishonest, writing that "the Romney campaign is asserting an extreme interpretation of what might happen under these rules, but it is certainly not based on any specific 'Obama plan.'"

Hmm...a campaign asserting an extreme interpretation of what might happen if their opponent's policy proposals are enacted? That sounds exactly like what the Obama campaign did with this ad: 

This ad is full of lies and deceptions. The voice-over says "chances are, you pay a higher tax rate than [Mitt Romney]," and "Mitt Romney made $20 million in 2010 but paid only 14% in taxes, probably less than you." I'm not sure who this ad is speaking to when it says "you", but "chances are" not good that you pay a lower tax rate than Mitt Romney. First, notice that they're only using one year to reference Romney's effective tax rate. (The candidate reportedly paid 15.4% of his income in federal taxes in 2011.) We don't have data from the I.R.S. for 2010 indicating what percentile a 13.9% tax burden would place Mitt Romney in, but even counting just the people who filed returns, 14% is higher than most Americans' federal tax rate in 2009. As Kessler himself has explained
For all the rhetoric about high taxes in the United States, most Americans pay a relatively small percentage of their income in taxes. Romney had an effective rate of 13.9 percent in 2010 and 15.4 percent in 2011. That gives him a higher rate than 80 percent of taxpayers if only taxes on a tax return are counted and puts him just about in the middle of all taxpayers if payroll taxes paid by employers are included.
So we can agree that, at the very least, the Obama ad contains some shading of the truth. That should earn it at least one Pinnochio, right? Not according to Kessler, who called the commercial "[a] tough new Obama ad that — surprise! — is accurate." That's quite an about-face from the man who less than a month earlier had given the president's campaign team three Pinnochios for tweeting, “FACT: In 2010 and 2011, Romney paid less than 15% in taxes on $42.5 million in income—much less than what many middle-class families pay.” Kessler alluded to that fact check in this analysis but distinguished the two claims, saying "the language in this ad is much more accurate." (More accurate, possibly, but still dishonest.) He also found ways to justify the ad's mendacious assertions that Romney "has a plan that would give millionaires another tax break and raises taxes on middle class families by up to $2,000 a year." (Notice the use of the qualifier "up to"; I could say that Obama has cheated on his wife Michelle up to 100 times, and even if the actual number of such adulterous trysts was zero, I'd technically be telling the truth.) This claim is based on a single study that exemplifies shoddy analysis, but aside from that, the ad misleads people by saying that Romney's plan "would give millionaires another tax break", even though Romney has been quite clear that his plan would not result in a net tax cut for people at the high end of the income spectrum. However, he has proposed lowering the top federal income tax rate to 28% and eliminating or reducing deductions and tax credits. The Tax Foundation piled assumption upon assumption and inference upon inference to reach the conclusion that "a revenue-neutral individual income tax change that incorporates the features Governor Romney has proposed ... would provide large tax cuts to high-income households, and increase the tax burdens on middle- and/or lower-income taxpayers." Also, the Tax Foundation qualified their "study" by acknowledging, "We do not score Governor Romney’s plan directly, as certain components of his plan are not specified in sufficient detail, nor do we make assumptions regarding what those components might be." (emphasis added) So, when the Obama campaign says Governor Romney "has a plan that would give millionaires another tax break and raises taxes on middle class families by up to $2,000 a year," they are simply lying.

Kessler didn't seem to think so. He wrote that "the Obama ad correctly describes the key findings of a study by a highly credible organization." (I don't disagree with the "key findings" part of that statement, but "highly credible" is his opinion of the Tax Foundation, not an established fact, and to say the ad "correctly" described the study's conclusions is just laughable.) In an untenable act of...I don't even know what to call it...Kessler gave the ad the Fact Checker's first "Geppetto Checkmark" of this election cycle. (According to Kessler, the Geppetto checkmark is reserved for “[s]tatements and claims that contain ‘the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth’.”)

This ad--entitled "Stretch"--may have contained some true statements (such as Barack Obama saying "I'm Barack Obama...."), but it certainly wasn't the whole truth, and it contained a lot more than the truth. Glenn Kessler should be ashamed of himself.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not rebuke Josh Hicks for this atrocious piece he did on some comments Rudy Giuliani made while campaigning for Mitt Romney in Florida. The post actually combined two "fact checks" in one, focusing on two series of statements America's mayor made in the Sunshine State in July. My beef is with Hicks's analysis of the first series, to-wit:  
“Remember Joe the Plumber? Joe the Plumber asked [then-Sen. Barack Obama]: ‘Would you raise taxes even if it didn’t bring any more money to the government? Like the capital gains tax. If you raise the capital gains tax — the government did this once 20 years ago — if you raise the capital gains tax, you actually make less money for the government, because people stop doing investments, or they’ll do investments overseas.’ He [Obama] said, ‘Well I would do it anyway because it’s only fair.’ ”

Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani during a pro-Mitt Romney speech at the Florida GOP headquarters in Tampa, July 26, 2012
Hicks quoted an excerpt from then-Senator Obama’s exchange with Joe the Plumber and declared, “This shows that Obama did indeed talk about tax fairness with Wurzelbacher. But Giuliani suggested that the president was talking about fairness at the expense of greater revenue, which is not the case.” Nowhere in his “Fact Checker” piece did he mention Obama’s statements in a debate with Hillary Clinton in April 2008, in which the candidate said he "would look at raising the capital-gains tax"--even if it resulted in the government taking in less revenue—“for purposes of fairness.” Giuliani said that Obama claimed he was willing to raise the tax even if it cost the government revenue “because it’s only fair.” A permissible paraphrasing? You bet. A propos? Absolutely, but conspicuously absent from an analysis by what purported to be an objective fact-checker.

These are just some of the many, many "fact checks" conducted and published by these individuals on the Washington Post's web site. I've seen other analyses that contained no obvious errors or misstatements, but as you can see, there have been multiple instances--just in the past couple months--of these so-called fact-checkers getting their facts wrong and making overt analytical errors that any competent journalist interested in discerning what's true and what's false should have caught. I suppose it would be crass of me to castigate these men without suggesting I could do a better job, so I'll close with this: if the Washington Post decides to bring in some more diligent fact-checkers, then my services stand at the ready to help them. Until then, we'll just have to see if any of these "fact-checkers" get their act together.


  1. Hi again RWG. Thanks for the response. That actually wasn't my post in the Patrick's speech entry (for some reason my aol name (mch87) won't show up on your comment section so that random set of letters shows up). However, I appreciate when anyone's speech is held to high standards, no matter which convention they happened to be speaking at. So, as having not seen his speech, I enjoyed reading your article on Patrick.
    Just want to make a point that to an average voter watching a speech, implication is still an important point. I don't want to comment on everything you have up on this article (and your research is impressive by the way). I just want to comment on how what's not said is just as meaningful as what is said in any speech. For example, both the Simpson-Bowles and GM plant sections of the speech to me were just dishonest. Not lies in the outright sense of the term, but if taken on good faith from someone who does not do as much research as you or I, definitely misleading. How would criticizing Obama's failure to act on an agreement not even made since Ryan himself voted against it help his position? How does even mentioning a plant closed before Obama was sworn in serve Ryan's point? Only by leaving out key details that lessen or completely eliminate their effect. Now I'll give you that if Obama made statements to bring the plant back if possible and it still was only on "standby" then the plant argument could be a statement on the lack of forward movement, or getting things back to normal, during the administration's first term. But all Ryan had to do was say that.
    Matthews article highlights these issues if maybe with a different classification of "false" to yours - and admittedly to mine, to be honest. I suppose when I linked it, it was more to point the issues out rather than lawyer the definition of "lie," but there you go. However, tell me the seven claims of falsehoods by Bill Clinton you've found don't occasionally follow the same strain of logic as Matthews and I'll be slightly surprised.

    1. Here’s the list I made while watching Clinton’s speech:

      1. “...the Senate Republican leader said, in a remarkable moment of candor, two full years before the election, their number-one priority was not to put America back to work. It was to put the president out of work!”
      2. “This Republican narrative, this alternative universe, says that...every one of us in this room who amounts to anything, we’re all completely self-made.” (Not true; I haven’t seen/heard any Republican say any such thing.)
      3. “The Recovery Act saved or created millions of jobs and cut ... taxes for 95% of the American people.”
      4. President Obama “used the savings” from his Medicare cuts “to add eight years to the life of the Medicare trust fund so it is solvent ‘til 2024!”
      5. Mitt Romney “wants to go back to the old system, which means ... we’ll reduce the life of the Medicare trust fund by eight full years.”
      6. If Romney is elected, and “if he does what he promised to do, [then] Medicare will now go broke in 2016.”
      7. Republicans’ plan to block grant Medicaid will “end Medicare as we know it.” (See any of the following:

      Nos. 1, 3, 4, 5 and 6 were addressed by either Matthews or Kliff; I added explanations as to why 2 and 7 are false. There may be others that I missed; I only watched the entire speech once, then went back and re-watched these parts to make sure I quoted him correctly. As you can see, the list is limited to objectively verifiable facts; no “lies of omission” or “implied” dishonesty. I’ll grant you that 6 & 7 are “predictions” that technically can’t be classified as “true” or “false”...yet, but there’s no reason to believe these predictions will come true. I think your comment and my post illustrate the folly of trying to use a strict true/false dichotomy (or, in Matthews’s case, true/false/misleading) when doing a “fact check”, and I do believe that one can be dishonest or deceptive without lying. However, I do not think either of the statements in Ryan’s speech that you mentioned was dishonest. I don’t think it was dishonest of him to criticize Obama for taking no action on Simpson-Bowles; Ryan stated in his speech that Republicans put out their own alternative deficit-reduction proposals, so it was unnecessary to mention that he voted against Simpson-Bowles. (Why would someone proffer an alternative to a plan he supports?) As for the GM plant, when I watched the speech live, I thought he was either making a point about how foolish Obama was to make promises he couldn’t deliver on or that he cynically (and successfully) tried to dupe people into believing that he could help them through the power of government. Whichever was the case, the story about the GM plant was a good example, and all the additional information about the plant doesn’t make it any less apt.

      If I do catch a prominent Republican lying in a policy speech, then I assure you I’ll be on them like white on rice. I cannot abide mendacity within my own camp.

      Thanks for your insightful comment. Don’t be stranger!