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PolitiFact or PolitiSpin?

The “Pulitzer prize-winning” website PolitiFact made news this weekend by being quoted on several Sunday game quiz news interview shows as the hosts talked with Michelle Bachmann.  The gist of all of these segments was that TPPWWPF had scrutinized for truthfulness statements Bachmann had recently made, and they found she came up wanting more often than not, most of her statements being rated either “Barely True” or receiving the dreaded “Pants on Fire” rating.  The numbers differed among shows, but the reports were that out of twenty-plus statements, she had smoking undies on six or seven of them, with fewer still that were rated simply “True” or “Mostly True.”

Given that Michelle Bachmann is a politician, intelligent, conservative, and female, a combination that “middle-of-the-road” news media like TPPWWPF generally don’t believe exists or should exist, it didn’t surprise me to hear that report, but it did tweak my curiosity.  What were all those lies she was telling, for after all, if she isn’t telling the truth, doesn’t that mean she’s lying?  So I looked up the report on her Face the Nation appearance, followed by a search for some of President Obama’s grades.  Here’s a summary of what I found.

PolitiFact’s even-handedness?  “Barely Discernable.”

What they said about–

–Spending

Bachmann:

I’ll tell you one thing that should be on the table, under Barack Obama the last two years, the number of federal limousines for bureaucrats has increased 73 percent, in two years.

TPPWWPF:

The claim is based on a May 31, 2011, story from iWatchNews.org, a project of the Center for Public Integrity, which ran under the headline, “Limousine liberals? Number of government-owned limos has soared under Obama.”

…The statistic is based on annual fleet reports provided by the U.S. General Services Administration….the GSA itself is not standing behind the numbers. Because of a loose definition of “limousines,” GSA spokeswoman Sara Merriam told iWatch News that GSA “cannot say that its report accurately reflects the number of limousines.”

…Bachmann’s claim that “under Barack Obama the last two years the number of federal limousines for bureaucrats has increased 73 percent,” is based on squishy figures from the GSA (according to the GSA itself). And it’s also impossible to tell from the numbers exactly how many of the new “limousines” were ordered by the Obama administration, and how many were ordered by his predecessor. Given those qualifiers, we rate it Barely True.

So.  Although Bachmann is accurately quoting a figure reported by a respected non-partisan news source which disclosed the basis of its story came in turn from GSA reports, the verdict is Barely True essentially because it wasn’t complete and detailed.  That is, she didn’t quote the whole article, just one fact from it.  I wonder if they were all GM vehicles.

–Energy Policy

Bachmann:

It’s ironic and sad that the president released all of the oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve because the president doesn’t have an energy policy.

TPPWWPF:

(paraphrase)  The official announcement from U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu was that (quote) “the U.S. will release 30 million barrels of oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR). The SPR is currently at a historically high level with 727 million barrels.”

So the release of 30 million barrels accounts for just over 4 percent of the current holdings in the reserve — nowhere near “all” of it.

It’s possible Bachmann meant to say, “the president released oil” or “some oil” from the reserve, in which case she would have been accurate….

…In any event, we give significant weight to the actual words a speaker says — and viewers watching the interview would have been led to believe that Obama had released all the oil in the reserve. We rate Bachmann’s statement False.  [My emphasis added, so you won't forget]

OK.  Because she said “all” rather than “some,” her statement was False. I get that, but the point of her statement wasn’t how much of the oil was released, it was that Obama was using oil from the Strategic Oil Reserve for non-emergency purposes, reducing the available supply, and that “…the president of the United States has failed to give the American people an energy policy. Here’s the good news that a lot of Americans don’t even realize. We are the No. 1 energy resource-rich nation in the world according to the Congressional Research Service. But the president of the United States has unfortunately put American energy resources off limits.”

–Unemployment and Obamacare

Bachmann (via TPPWWPF):

On FTN–

Bachmann said one of the problems with the economy is that business felt there was too much uncertainty to hire. One of the problems, she said, was the health care law that Obama signed into law last year.

“They know that Obamacare is coming down the pike. The Congressional Budget Office estimated Obamacare will cost the economy 800,000 jobs,” she said.

In the second Republican Debate

“The CBO, the Congressional Budget Office has said that Obamacare will kill 800,000 jobs….”

TPPWWPF:

Here’s how the CBO puts it:

“The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the legislation, on net, will reduce the amount of labor used in the economy by a small amount—roughly half a percent—primarily by reducing the amount of labor that workers choose to supply….”

The CBO doesn’t use the 800,000 jobs number in its report; critics of the law have extrapolated that number by calculating what half a percent of the workforce equals.  But CBO director Douglas Elmendorf confirmed that number in testimony before Congress back in February….

Bachmann said the health care law “will kill 800,000 jobs.” We find that’s an exaggeration of what CBO said. There could be the equivalent of 800,000 fewer workers thanks to the federal health care law, according to the CBO, but not because employers wouldn’t hire them.  It’s primarily because workers wouldn’t have to work because the new law expands health care coverage. That means people working most for health insurance would either reduce their hours or leave the job market altogether. There could also be more economic productivity because of the health care law.  Bachmann’s statement leaves out so many qualifiers that it becomes misleading. We rate it Barely True.

So.  Although her statement was based on sworn testimony provided by the CBO director, it’s only Barely True because it doesn’t provide enough disclaimers, qualifiers and weasel-words to satisfy the weasel-word-watchers at TPPWWPF.  I can’t resist pointing out that what they apparently want is for her to speculate on what might happen that could negate her proposition.  There is no recognition that their own argument is that people will quit work because the rest of us will work to pay taxes to buy health insurance for them. How else do they plan to pay for it?  What are the implications of that?

–Drill, Baby, Drill

In the interest of completeness, I include this one from FTN:

TPPWWPF:

Schieffer also asked her about a previous misstatement on oil, that the Obama administration has only issued one new drilling permit in all the time Obama has been in office. We rated that Pants on Fire, the actual number is well over 200….

[At the link]  Perhaps she meant not permits, but exploration plans. The first exploration plan since the oil spill was approved last week.

Perhaps.

But that’s not what she said.

She said: “One. That’s the number of new drilling permits under the Obama administration since they came into office.” It’s not even close, and the claim is ridiculously false. Pants-On-Fire.  [Again, my emphasis added so you won't forget]

Seems like a big discrepancy to me.  Maybe she was just wrong.  Maybe she was talking about something else.  TPPWWPF suggest that possibility, but didn’t get a clarification from Bachmann, they say.

–Unemployment, Stimulus, and ObamaSpeak

One last Bachmann quote:

[From PolitiFact]  In her Tea Party Express-sponsored rebuttal to President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., repeated an oft-used attack on the economic stimulus — that the White House promised it would keep unemployment under 8 percent (and failed).

“Unfortunately, the president’s strategy for recovery was to spend a trillion dollars on a failed stimulus program, fueled by borrowed money,” Bachmann said. “The White House promised us that all the spending would keep unemployment under 8 percent. Not only did that plan fail to deliver, but within three months, the national jobless rate spiked to 9.4 percent. It hasn’t been lower for 20 straight months. While the government grew, we lost more than 2 million jobs.”

TPPWWPF:

The claim that the White House “promised” the stimulus would keep unemployment under 8 percent has been a popular attack line….

…But we could find no instance of anyone in the administration making a public pledge along the lines of  “if we pass the stimulus, we promise unemployment will stay below 8 percent.”

Rather, the claim has its roots in a Jan. 9, 2009, report called “The Job Impact of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan” from Christina Romer….

But what we saw from the administration in January 2009 was a projection, not a promise. And it was a projection that came with heavy disclaimers…..

There’s also a footnote that goes with the chart that states: “Forecasts of the unemployment rate without the recovery plan vary substantially. Some private forecasters anticipate unemployment rates as high as 11% in the absence of action.”

The administration has acknowledged its projections were wrong.

In short, it was an economic projection with warnings of a high margin for error, not a take-it-to-the-bank pledge of an upper limit on unemployment.

So we find Bachmann’s claim Barely True.

So.  Fine.  It wasn’t a promise.  But it was a projection that Congress used to justify a spending bill that added almost a trillion dollars to our deficit in just one year.  Isn’t that a bit more important than parsing the difference between a promise and a projection?  That projection was presented to Congress as, “This is what is going to happen, and if you don’t give us the money, the collapse of the economy will be your fault.  If you appropriate the Stimulus money, unemployment will stay below 8%.”  It was certainly an implied promise.

And in their defense of Obama, TPPWWPF quoted him as saying,  “Now, every economist who has looked at it has said that the recovery did its job, …So people kind of say, yeah, but unemployment is still at 9.6. Yes, but it’s not 12 or 13, or 15,”  followed closely by their disclaimer,

Obama is correct that many independent economists agree that the stimulus has created more than a million jobs and kept the unemployment rate from going even higher than it has (though in fairness, not every economist agrees with that).

By their own Bachmann rules, his statement is False. He said, “all,” not “some,” and if you’re a conservative woman the two words aren’t synonymous.  Nor should they be for a liberal male.   But TPPWWPF seems to be selective about who must be exactly, absolutely, perfectly correct, and who can skate by on a smile and a chuckle.  It does give Obama a True and truly great campaign slogan, “It Could Have Been Worse.  Let’s Try Again.”

As things have turned out, one could argue reasonably that had nothing been done, the economy would be better today than it now is.

How they evaluate ObamaSpeak.–

–Border Security

There is a feature of TPPWWPF called “Barack Obama’s File,” containing a graph that is linked to statements by Obama, sorted from True to Pants on Fire. Of course, it only rates statements they’ve taken the time to research; of those, only 142 are True or Mostly True, while 163 are Half True down to Pants on Fire.  I’d rather have a President whose statements were more often True than anything and everything else, wouldn’t you?

If you check them out, many, many, many of the less-than-true statements are misquotes of opponents words, intentions, plans, or are other flat-out misleading statements like “The (border) fence is now basically complete,” to which TPPWWPF comments, “Depends on your definition of fence.”  I guess it does.  They say that is a Barely True statement, and they point out that

DHS reports that there is now fencing for 649 of the 652 miles described in the Secure Fence Act of 2006. But the vast majority of the requirement was met with vehicle barriers and single-layer pedestrian fence. The original act specifically called for double-layer fencing, and only 36.3 miles of double-layered fencing currently exist. However, the act was later amended to allow Border Security the discretion to determine which type of fencing was appropriate for different areas.

That is perilously close to False, especially when combined with the outrageous slander by our President that “Maybe they’ll need a moat. Maybe they [Republicans] want alligators in the moat. They’ll never be satisfied.”

–Health Insurance Coverage

What they deem a True statement is

“First, if you are among the hundreds of millions of Americans who already have health insurance through your job, or Medicare, or Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have,” Obama said. “Let me repeat this: Nothing in our plan requires you to change what you have.”

But by the standards they applied to Bachmann, this one is misleading enough to qualify for Barely True.  The plan may not have required health insurance plans to change, but it created an environment where changing plans was inevitable for economic reasons.  They even acknowledge it in their rating statement–

Given what we know about reform, it seems likely that at least some people will have employers who decide to change plans when insurers alter their offerings under the new regulations. This would be most likely for any small businesses that currently offer health insurance. They will be allowed to use a national exchange where insurers compete to offer insurance, and prices are expected to be lower.

Obama’s statement from the speech is more carefully phrased than his earlier statement. In his speech, he said that if you are “already have health insurance through your job, Medicare, Medicaid, or the VA, nothing in this plan will require you or your employer to change the coverage or the doctor you have.” That is true, there is nothing in the plan that proactively forces these kinds of changes, and the bills clearly intend to leave much of the current health care system in place. We rate Obama’s statement True.

Riiiight.  I think they need a new grade, Technically True if you squint, depending on what the meaning of “is” is.

IMHO, the PolitiFact analysts are very much inclined to grade statements to the advantage of liberals and the detriment of conservatives by picking and choosing which cases require words to be taken literally, and which cases allow words to be more broadly interpreted.Thus, “all” means “ALL” for Michelle Bachmann, but it can mean “many” or “most” or “some” when it comes from the mouth of Obama.  Yes, some of her comments are cringe-worthy, but so are some of the President’s comments.  TPPWWPF isn’t Media Matters, but the double standard used in evaluating comments seems evident.

In the end, we can’t trust a newspaper service to grade the truthfulness of politicians for us.  The grades turn on the political bias of the paper, and you can imagine where that is.  We can’t simply believe claims that they’re non-partisan; we must make them prove it by what they write, then do our own evaluation anyway, based on whether what they say makes sense or not.

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