Bogus claims that just keep getting repeated — and a further explanation of the Pinocchio scale
By Glenn Kessler,
“You have 219 new regulations coming out, costing over $100 million each.”
— Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), Oct. 27, 2011
As much as we try to expose wrongheaded rhetoric in today’s political debates, some of these “facts” keep popping up. It sometimes really feels like whack-a-mole.
Imagine our surprise on Thursday when we saw that Rep. Paul Ryan made the statement above concerning federal regulations on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.” We thought we had driven a stake through this myth when we gave three Pinocchios to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) in early September for making virtually the same statement.
As we detailed then, there are serious problems with that “219” figure. Many of the regulations had no due date for completion; others had already been completed. The rules are listed as being economically significant if they have “economic impact” of $100 million, which could mean costs, benefits or both. It is incorrect to assume all of the potential regulations have only costs.
Moreover, after our column appeared, the source of the figure — Susan E. Dudley, director of the George Washington University Regulatory Studies Center — decided to do a deeper examination of the data. She found that the number of pending regulations that met the $100 million threshold in the database she examined was actually 158. There were also limitations in the database.
It is also worth noting that Bloomberg News this week reported that “Obama’s White House has approved fewer regulations than his predecessor George W. Bush at this same point in their tenures, and the estimated costs of those rules haven’t reached the annual peak set in fiscal 1992 under Bush’s father.”
Meanwhile, a reader on Wednesday evening sent us a video they had received via email — under the subject heading of “This is SAD and FRIGHTENING”-- that attacked the Obama health-care law. The sender added a note: “Please watch the entire video....This is a MUST! Then send it to everyone you know.”<iframe width=”420” height=”315” src=”http://www.youtube.com/embed/HcBaSP31Be8” frameborder=”0” allowfullscreen></iframe>
As we watched the video, we realized with a chill that this was the same bogus material that had appeared in a viral email that we had debunked back in January. We awarded Four Pinocchios to anyone who passed on the email.
The main problem with the “facts” in the email/video is that it refers to an early version of the bill that was never passed into law. It was also based on a letter written by a county judge in Texas who by his own account is no health care expert. As we noted at the time, “the lesson here is that facts need to come from reputable, credible sources, not an email chain.”
When we checked You Tube, we discovered that this video was posted in August 11, 2009 and now includes an updated note admitting that it is based on an earlier version of the health care law. Yet the video has had 4.5 million views and apparently is still being shipped around the country by email. Please, folks, can we simply push the delete button?
A further explanation about Pinocchio ratings
The hardest part of our job is deciding how many Pinocchios a claim gets — and then dealing with the torrent of email from readers who think we are being either too hard or too soft on the subject. It is admittedly subjective, though we do provide a guide to our rating scale.
Still, we sense that this guide may not tell readers enough about our thought process. So this is an effort to be more transparent about how we reach these decisions.
Over time, we have developed a bit of a matrix to help us sort through the relative scale of a misstatement. For instance:
1. Is this from prepared remarks or just an off the cuff remark? Misstatements in prepared remarks tend to get worse grades.
2. How central is this “fact” to the point the politician was trying to make? If a politician keys his or her speech off this errant fact, he or she is going to get graded more harshly.
3. Did the politician use weasel words to try to disguise the sleight of hand he or she were performing? If we catch the magician’s tricks, there are more Pinocchios.
4. Did the suspect data come from a reputable, neutral source or from a partisan think tank? The politician loses points if they rely on dubious sources.
We tend to give some credit to people who admit they made a mistake, or at least can provide an explanation for their error. We are always willing to listen. There are some politicians with excellent staffs who quickly respond with the facts and tend not to try to spin us. Some politicians have even called us directly to make their case.
In some cases, we have been convinced to reduce the number of Pinocchios or even drop the matter. Even if we don’t change our assessment, a cooperative response certainly helps build credibility for the next time we come calling.
There are other politicians whose staffs refuse to respond to our queries or react with outrage or disdain that we might dare to question their spin. Over time, that becomes tiresome and suggests the politician and their staffs have little interest in the facts. Does that affect their Pinocchio ranking? We hope not, but we’re only human.
Here’s how our matrix came into play in rulings over the past week:
Four Pinocchios for Vice President Biden: We gave Biden Four Pinocchios for his comments that linked fewer cops to more rapes in Flint, Mich. This was a key part of his pitch for the jobs bill, and he said this repeatedly. But the statistics were wrong—which anyone could discover with a few clicks on the computer—and yet his staff pointed the finger at officials in Flint. Finally, while there is some debate about whether more cops reduces crime, the Flint police chief was on record as saying there was no link in his city. That cinched it for us. If the man on the ground thought it was not an issue, why did Biden?
Three Pinocchios for Rick Perry: The Texas governor and GOP presidential hopeful unveiled a plan for a new flat tax this week. The highlight of his speech was Perry pointing to a stack of 72,000 pages of paper and declaring, “That’s what the current tax code looks like.” But it turns out the tax code is really only about 4,000 pages long. While the issue may seem trivial, we gave three Pinocchios because it was a central part of his speech and because the number was so off base from reality.
Two Pinocchios for Biden: The vice president, during a television appearance, doubled the figure for the number of jobs that had been lost before the stimulus bill was passed. That’s a big mistake, but the general thrust of his comment--that Obama took office in the midst of an economic crisis--was correct. In addition, his staff provided a credible explanation of what he meant to say. Moreover, this comment was not part of a speech but was made during an interview conducted while walking in New Hampshire. So that’s why this merited just two Pinocchios.
Two Pinocchios for Mitt Romney: The former Massachusetts governor and GOP presidential hopeful, during a debate, made two problematic claims about illegal immigration in Texas. His staff was able to quickly provide the citations for that data. One figure came from the Department of Homeland Security, but Romney made a leap of logic--that this showed Texas’s in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants was a “magnet”--that was not borne out by the facts. The other statistic came from a study by a think tank opposed to immigration--and which had come under attack for its methodology.
One Pinocchio for David Axelrod: This column looked at a series of statements the Obama political advisor made during a conference call. Most involved slight exaggeration of some form or another, particularly the citation of an economist who is a registered Democrat as “[John] McCain’s economist” in the last election. The Obama campaign staff spent several days responding to emails, trying to make the case for Axelrod’s statements, and in one case helped change our thinking about one statement.
(Yes, that’s three Democratic claims and two Republican claims. Nothing partisan intended; these just happened to be good examples of our thought process in the past two weeks.)
As always, we welcome comments and suggestions from readers about how to improve our analyses and rankings.