Virtually all of this year’s fact checking was focused on the presidential election. So, in selecting our biggest Pinocchios of the year, we spent days going though old columns and reliving an election that seems rather distant now.
In many ways, it was depressing reading. So much of the campaign was fought over trivial or inconsequential issues. For instance, we wrote nearly 20 columns dissecting every possible claim about Mitt Romney’s career at Bain Capital, which came under attack both from his Republican rivals and the Obama campaign.
Romney left himself open to scrutiny because he incorrectly claimed that he helped create more than 100,000 jobs at Bain — he mainly created wealth for his investors — but the attacks often were equally false. A candidate’s experience and background is certainly worthy of debate, but all too often in 2012 it just turned into a game of political gotcha.
In this election, fact checking certainly became part of the conversation, with many additional news organizations joining FactCheck.Org, PolitiFact and The Washington Post in scrutinizing politician’s statements, especially during the debates. Since fact checking is a relatively new genre of journalism, however, it is frequently misunderstood.
Fact checking is a complement, not a replacement, for other reporting. 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.
Some commentators said after the election that fact checkers had failed because politicians kept saying misleading things. That’s ridiculous. Fact checkers are not trying to change the behavior of politicians. We are simply trying to inform voters.
Indeed, after more than 30 years of writing about Washington institutions, we believe there is little difference between Democrats and Republicans in terms of twisting the facts and being misleading when it suits their political purposes. So if a politician believes he or she has a winning argument that moves voters — such as attacks on Romney’s Bain record — then there is little motivation to drop that argument simply because a journalist says it is misleading.
While we deal in the facts, the most difficult — and controversial — part of the job is assigning the number of Pinocchios at the end of the column. We try our best to be consistent, but by its nature the rating is somewhat subjective. It gets especially difficult in the Two- versus Three-Pinocchio realm. We appreciate informed commentary by readers and critics — such as Mark Hemingway in the Weekly Standard and Sean Higgins in the Washington Examiner — who have pointed out our leaps in judgment or inconsistency of standards.
Still, a study by George Mason University’s Center for Media and Public Affairs released in October found that this column split its ratings almost equally between the two parties.
In compiling this list, we primarily focused on claims that had earned Four Pinocchios during the year. To keep it simple, we have shortened the quotes in the headlines. Click on the headlines to read the original column.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made this inflammatory charge, repeatedly, without offering any evidence except for vague references to receiving a phone call from someone who had invested with Bain Capital. At the time, Romney (citing dubious precedent) had only made public two years of tax returns — though he later released a summary prepared by his accountants showing he had paid federal and state taxes in each of the past 20 years. But in any case, Reid was reckless in making such a claim without any evidence to back it up.
This was the key point of a 4-Pinocchio television ad that the Romney campaign aired in Ohio during the waning days of the campaign. As we noted at the time, it was a sign of desperation. The series of statements in the ad individually may have been technically correct, but the overall message of the ad was clearly misleading — designed to piggyback off of a claim by Romney during a speech that Chrysler was moving Ohio factory jobs to China. Even more remarkable, the Romney campaign fiercely defended the ad, even as it came under harsh criticism from, among others, Chrysler.
Romney Chrysler Ad
This line came from an Obama campaign ad that managed to jumble together a series of inaccurate claims about Romney’s business experience. He wasn’t a corporate raider, he did not outsource jobs to China and Mexico and as governor he did not outsource jobs to India. (With the support of liberals and conservatives, he vetoed a bill that would have terminated at state expense a $160,000 phone-service contract. The jobs returned to the United States when the contract ended.) Special mention should also be made of a 29-minute video released by a pro-Newt Gingrich Super PAC, titled “King of Bain,” which also made wildly inaccurate claims about Romney’s business career.
President Obama repeatedly reminded voters that he became president during a grim economic crisis. But he went too far when he claimed that only 10 percent of the federal deficit was due to his own policies. About half of the deficit stemmed from the recession and forecasting errors, but a large chunk (44 percent in 2011) were the result of Obama’s actions. At another point, Obama falsely suggested that the Bush tax cuts led to the Great Recession.
For a business executive, Romney sometimes had trouble with numbers. He claimed that he would create 12 million jobs in his first term, touting an energy plan (3 million), a tax plan (7 million) and cracking down on China (2 million). But these numbers came from studies that often had little to do with Romney’s policies — or had time lines as long as a decade. In other words, the figures bore no relation to reality.
Romney ‘12 million jobs’ ad
This ad by the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA Action featured a steelworker, Joe Soptic, who blamed Romney for the death of his wife after he lost his health insurance when the steel plant closed. But Romney was no longer actively managing Bain when the plant closed — and Soptic’s wife did not die until five years later. She also continued to have health insurance for a number of years after the plant closed. It is also quite likely that Bain’s involvement extended the life of a dying steel plant, in which case Soptic kept his insurance longer than he might have expected.
Priorities USA Action ad
Former senator Rick Santorum (R-Penn.) made this claim during the GOP presidential primaries, spawning huge headlines in the Netherlands. He even claimed that the elderly in the Netherlands wear “do not euthanize me” bracelets. But there was not a shred of evidence to back up his claims. About 2 percent of deaths in Holland are from euthanasia, with virtually no reports of action being taken without the explicit request of the patient.
We recently explained why this claim — a feature of the current “fiscal cliff” debate — is simply historical myth — and a deal that President Ronald Reagan himself misunderstood. (He makes this assertion in his memoir.) The agreement was not 3:1, but more like 1:1. Congress actually delivered on a good hunk of the spending cuts, but the Reagan administration failed to do its part. So this bit of historical fiction should be dropped from the political discourse.
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