Monday, July 9, 2012

The biggest Pinocchios of 2011

at 06:02 AM ET, 12/22/2011

    Fact checkers are under assault!

    Before we present our list of the biggest Pinocchios of the year, we would like to address the torrent of criticism addressed at fact checkers (primarily PolitiFact, and The Fact Checker) in recent weeks. The Weekly Standard last week had a cover story denouncing fact checkers as a liberal plot to control the political discourse. This week, PolitiFact’s decision to award its “Lie of the Year” trophy to Democratic claims that the GOP “killed” Medicare has earned it and its fact checking brethren additional scorn from the left.

    As a writer at Gawker put it: “Politifact is dangerous. Stop reading it. Stop reading the ‘four Pinocchios’ guy too. Stop using some huckster company's stupid little phrases or codes or number systems when it's convenient, and read the actual arguments instead. You're building a monster.”


    My colleague Ezra Klein even opined that “the ‘fact checker’ model is probably unsustainable,” based on the questionable belief that “half of the public leans towards one party and about half of the public leans toward the other” and thus will tune out commentary with which they disagree. That’s a pretty depressing commentary on the state of our politics. Thankfully, it bears little relationship to the reality we experience every day at The Fact Checker.

    Yes, there are always partisans who, day after day, accuse us of either being left-wing hacks or right-wing crazies. But there are also many people who, every day, write notes of thanks--for explaining a difficult subject, opening their eyes to a new idea or providing the facts to a claim that had confused them. Many Americans are asking for more information, not less, and we are happy to help fill the void.

     Some people are always going to be partisan. That fine, but that’s not the role of a reporter. We value the many comments we have received from our readers, the words of encouragement and also the criticism. Every day, we seek to live up to your expectations of a true, impartial seeker of the truth.
    In fact, there is this strange myth out there that fact checkers aspire to be “referees” and strain to achieve a balance between the two parties. Not so. At The Fact Checker, we take a holistic approach to every fact we check. After more than 30 years of writing about Washington institutions, we truly find there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of twisting the facts and being misleading when it suits their political purposes.

     The main difference between the two parties seems to be that the right assumes the media is out to get them (i.e., see The Weekly Standard) and the left seems to take it as a personal affront when you call them out (see the reaction to PolitiFact.) Maybe Democrats really believe that tale about the left-wing media bias? In any case, this month’s ruckus about fact checkers simply affirms what we’ve learned in our long experience in Washington.
     There is one other enduring myth about fact checkers–that they are somehow a replacement for good reporting. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of our role in journalism.

    Fact checking is a complement, not a replacement. Good beat reporters obviously are well placed to analyze issues and spot falsehoods, and that’s an essential part of their jobs. But, especially in a political season, it is difficult to analyze every claim and counterclaim while also writing day-to-day stories about the news. Fact checkers, by contrast, can dig deeply into an issue or even a single statement. We can help explain, at length, how a politician justifies his or her assertion and whether there is much of a factual basis for it.

     In other words, the information we provide adds to the rich menu of choices that readers of The Washington Post find when they come to our Web site, in addition to sustained political coverage, beat reporting and various blogs. Sometimes you may choke on the meal we serve, but each day the food (for thought) will be different.  

    The biggest Pinocchios of 2011

    In compiling this list, we primarily focused on claims that had earned Four Pinocchios during the year. If we have one quibble with PolitiFact’s “Lie of the Year,” it’s that we have trouble selecting one statement as head and shoulders above the others. In fact, during the year, we repeatedly gave Pinocchios to Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) and other Republicans for mischaracterizing their Medicare and budget plans. (See, for example, here and here.) Both sides are adept at playing games with the facts.
    To keep it simple, we have shortened the quotes in the headlines. Click on the headlines to read the original column. Live Q&A at 1 p.m. ET Thursday with Glenn Kessler. Ask a question now.

    ‘Obama apologized for America’
    We first explored this issue in February, when it was emerging as a Republican theme. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has kept saying it, despite our many efforts to call him on it. The simple truth is this: the assertion that Obama repeatedly has apologized for the United States is not borne out by the facts, especially if his full quotes are viewed in context.

    ‘I passed the biggest middle-class tax cut in history’
    President Obama’s effort to pat himself on the back went arwy in September. Even the White House did not try too hard to defend this statement. The president at times got in trouble with overcongratulatory rhetoric--his claim that “Chrysler has repaid every dime and more of what it owes American taxpayers for their support during my presidency” earned him Three Pinocchios--but this comment really took the prize.  

     ‘Rape in Flint tripled after the police force was cut’
    Vice President Biden repeatedly spouted off half-baked facts in service of the dubious argument that there was a connection between crime rate and the number of police. He even asserted that rapes and other crime would increase if the GOP did not vote for the president’s jobs bill. But you need to have your facts straight if you are going to make incendiary charges. We investigated and it turned out that incidents of rape in Flint, Mich., actually fell after the number of police was cut.

    ‘Obama thinks Americans are lazy’
     GOP candidates took Obama’s words completely out of context in an effort to earn cheap political points. Sadly, the claim was often repeated in the media before fact checkers pointed out it was false.

    ‘House Republicans will deprive 6 million seniors of their meals’

    House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi made an absurd claim in the heat of the budget debate. First her staff said she meant meals, not seniors—though she said seniors three times—but then it turned out the number was invented out of thin air as well. Moreover, the administration, not Republicans, had already cut 36 million meals. As we put it: “In a city with overheated rhetoric, Pelosi’s statement ranks high on this year’s list of bloviated bluster.”

    ‘Margaret Sanger built 75 percent of her clinics in black communities’
    No matter what you think of the founder of Planned Parenthood—and we learned many people do not like her—there is no truth to this claim by former GOP presidential aspirant Herman Cain. Even today, the percentage of clinics in African-American communities is relatively low.

    ‘I haven’t said anything inaccurate in any of the debates’
     Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), running for president, earned more Four-Pinocchio ratings than any other person. Rather than highlight a particular statement, we decided to honor her dubious achievement with this jaw-dropping comment. The link will take you to a collection of her debate misfires.

    ‘The GOP voted to kill Medicare’
     We stand with our colleagues at Politifact and on this one. As we noted at the time, “there’s certainly a worthwhile debate about whether the Medicare changes proposed by Ryan would help or hurt Medicare, and whether too much of a burden would be shifted to beneficiaries.” But that does not mean “killing” Medicare.
    (Note: Some Democrats have pointed to a Wall Street Journal article as justification for the claim that the GOP would “end” Medicare, but that passage was referring to ending Medicare’s role in directly paying medical bills. The first paragraph of the article said Ryan’s plan would “transform the Medicare health program”--a phrasing that is not in dispute.)

    The Biggest Pinocchio Ads of 2011

    Some of the most misleading claims are made in political advertisements. We can barely keep up with them, but these ads especially stuck with us for their sheer gall.

    AARP’s misleading ad on the budget

    The venerable over-50 organization blew it by suggesting that minor programs that cost peanuts could help balance the budget.
    NRCC’s version of ‘Mediscare’ 

    The National Republican Campaign Committee, reeling from the Democratic success with “Mediscare” ads, decided to fight back with its own misleading version.
    ‘Mitt Romney’s America’

    Priorities USA Action, a pro-Obama group, decided to throw everything but the kitchen sink at Mitt Romney. This ad indicates it will be a rough campaign year, especially because of such mysterious “Super PACs.”

    Crossroads GPS’s anti-Warren ad

    Unfortunately we never found the time to write a column on this ad ( did) but it strikes us as one of the silliest ads of the year. Consumer advocate Elizabeth Warren, who is running for Senate in Massachusetts, as a tool of the big banks? Please.

    About the Fact Checker

    at 06:00 AM ET, 03/01/2011
      “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”
      -- C.P. Scott, editor of the Manchester Guardian, 1921
      About the Fact Checker

      In an award-winning journalism career spanning nearly three decades, Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street. He was The Washington Post’s chief State Department reporter for nine years, traveling around the world with three different Secretaries of State. Before that, he covered tax and budget policy for The Washington Post and also served as the newspaper’s national business editor.

      Kessler has long specialized in digging beyond the conventional wisdom, such as when he earned a “laurel” from the Columbia Journalism Review* for obtaining Federal Aviation Administration records that showed that then President Bill Clinton had not delayed any scheduled flights when he had a controversial haircut on an airport tarmac. Kessler helped pioneer the fact-checking of candidates’ statements during the 1992 and 1996 presidential campaigns, when he was chief political correspondent for Newsday, and continued to do it during the last three presidential campaigns for The Post.

      In 2007, St. Martins Press published Kessler’s widely acclaimed book on Condoleezza Rice, The Confidante. Kessler appears frequently on television and has lectured widely on U.S. foreign policy.

      Our Goal
      This column first appeared during the 2008 campaign and The Washington Post revived it as a permanent feature at the start of 2011.

      We will not be bound by the antics of the presidential campaign season, but will focus on any statements by political figures and government officials--in the United States and abroad--that cry out for fact-checking. It’s a big world out there, and so we will rely on readers to ask questions and point out statements that need to be checked.

      The purpose of this website, and an accompanying column in the Post, is to “truth squad” the statements of political figures regarding issues of great importance, be they national, international or local. As the 2012 presidential election approaches, we will increasingly focus on statements made in the heat of the presidential contest. But we will not be limited to political charges or countercharges. We will seek to explain difficult issues, provide missing context and provide analysis and explanation of various “code words” used by politicians, diplomats and others to obscure or shade the truth.

      The success of this project depends, to a great extent, on the involvement of you--the reader. We will rely on our readers to send us suggestions on topics to fact check and tips on erroneous claims by political candidates, interest groups, and the media. Readers can even vote on what topics they need to have addressed. Once we have posted an item on a subject, we invite your comments and contributions.

      You can follow us on Twitter at GlennKesslerWP or friend us on Facebook. We welcome comments and suggestions via tweets (Include #FactCheckThis in your tweet) or on our Facebook page.
      You can also email us at

      If you have facts or documents that shed more light on the subject under discussion, or if you think we have made a mistake, let us know. We also want to make sure that the authors of questionable claims have ample opportunity to argue their case. We plan to issue our own opinion on factual disputes (see our rules on the “Pincocchio Test” on this web page) but it can be revised and updated when fresh evidence emerges.

      C-Span Interview
      On January 15, 2012, C-Span aired a one-hour interview with Glenn Kessler about the Fact Checker column and his life and career.

      A transcript of the interview is also available.

      A Few Basic Principles
      • · This is a fact-checking operation, not an opinion-checking operation. We are interested only in verifiable facts, though on occasion we may examine the roots of political rhetoric.
      • ·We will focus our attention and resources on the issues that are most important to voters. We cannot nitpick every detail of every speech.
      • ·We will stick to the facts of the issue under examination and are unmoved by ad hominem attacks. The identity or political ties of the person or organization making a charge is irrelevant: all that matters is whether their facts are accurate or inaccurate.
      • ·We will adopt a “reasonable man” standard for reaching conclusions. We do not demand 100 percent proof.
      • ·We will strive to be dispassionate and non-partisan, drawing attention to inaccurate statements on both left and right.
      The Pinocchio Test

      Where possible, we will adopt the following standard in fact-checking the claims of a politician, political candidate, diplomat or interest group.

      One Pinocchio
      Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.

      Two Pinocchio's
      Significant omissions and/or exaggerations. Some factual error may be involved but not necessarily. A politician can create a false, misleading impression by playing with words and using legalistic language that means little to ordinary people.

      Three Pinocchio's
      Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.

      Four Pinocchio's

      The Geppetto Checkmark
      Statements and claims that contain “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” will be recognized with our prized Geppetto checkmark.

      An Upside-Down Pinocchio
      A statement that represents a clear but unacknowledged “flip-flop” from a previously-held position.

      Withholding Judgment
      There will be many occasions when it is impossible to render a snap judgment because the issue is very complex or there are good arguments on both sides. In this case, we will withhold our judgment until we can gather more facts. We will use this website to shed as much light as possible on factual controversies that are not easily resolved.
      All judgments are subject to debate and criticism from our readers and interested parties, and can be revised if fresh evidence emerges. We invite you to join the discussion on these pages and contact the Fact Checker directly with tips, suggestions, and complaints. If you feel that we are being too harsh on one candidate and too soft on another, there is a simple remedy: let us know about misstatements and factual errors we may have overlooked.
      Columbia Journalism Review, May 1993:
      * “LAUREL to New York Newsday, and to staff writer Glenn Kessler, for a record-breaking solo flight. With most of the nation’s news media zooming in on the president’s $ 200 haircut on the Los Angeles Airport runway and roaring about the disruptions his hirsutic hubris caused, Kessler took off in a different direction -- and landed on some hard, concrete facts. His analysis of Federal Aviation Administration records, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, revealed that, contrary to stories of circling planes, jammed-up runways, and inconvenienced passengers (and contrary, too, to the apology the White House felt pressured to make), only one (unscheduled) air taxi reported an actual (two-minute) delay. Unfortunately, most of the nation’s news media, in usual near-perfect formation, found neither time nor space to correct a story that had been wildly off course.”

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