“Despite all that good news, there’s plenty of horror stories being told. All are untrue, but they’re being told all over America.”
–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), remarks on the floor of the Senate, Feb. 26, 2014
“I can’t say that every one of the Koch brothers’ ads are a lie, but I’ll say this: Mr. President, the vast, vast majority of them are.”
–Reid, a few hours later
By popular demand from readers, we will take a look at these statements by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) He made his comments as part of a harsh attack on the billionaire Koch brothers, who have backed Americans for Prosperity, a political group that has spent $30 million in the past six months, virtually all on ads attacking Democrats who support the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. At one point, he even declared, the brothers had “no conscience” and were “un-American” — political rhetoric that some might argue goes too far, given Reid’s office.
Taken by itself, as a blanket comment that all tales of woe under the new law are false, Reid’s first statement appears ridiculous. But we don’t like to play gotcha here at The Fact Checker. From the context — the focus on the Koch brothers — Reid appeared to be focusing on the tales told in the ads sponsored by AFP.
After an eruption on Twitter and other social media, Reid returned to the floor to amend his statement: “I can’t say that every one of the Koch brothers’ ads are a lie, but I’ll say this: Mr. President, the vast, vast majority of them are.”
“Senator Reid wanted to be accurate so he went back to the floor to correct the record,” said his spokesman Adam Jentleson. “Senator Reid’s argument is with the shadowy, secretive billionaires behind the ads who are spending millions to rig the system to benefit themselves and the corporations they control, not the people in the ads.”
In other words, it appears Reid misspoke the first time, so we will evaluate his second statement. For the record, The Fact Checker awards Pinocchios but shies away from the word “lie” because it is such a harsh, personal judgment. The Pinocchio scale is based on the idea that there are various types of misstatements, some worse than others.
By our count on You Tube, Americans for Prosperity has run about 50 anti-Obamacare ads since July. Many are repetitive or on the same theme, frequently citing PolitiFact’s designation of an Obama statement on the law as “Lie of the Year.” Some of the Obamacare ads even feature actors, not real people, which some people might argue crosses a line.
But many of these ads have never been vetted by fact checkers. However, those that have faced scrutiny generally have not fared well.
The Fact Checker, for instance, has examined five of these ads, and has given four of them Two Pinocchios. However, one received just a single Pinocchio, and we praised it for sticking relatively close to the facts for an attack ad. (Update, March 11: One of the Two Pinocchio ads was downgraded to Three Pinocchios after new information emerged.)
One ad The Fact Checker evaluated starred a women in Michigan named Julie Boonstra. We raised serious questions about her allegations in this ad—as did our colleagues at PolitiFact—and our analysis was cited by Paul Krugman in the New York Times. Reid, in turn, cited Krugman in his floor speech.
PolitiFact, meanwhile, has looked at six of these ads. In two cases, it said it did not have enough facts for its Truth-O-Meter, but otherwise it awarded one “half true,” two “mostly false,” and one “false” for these ads. Our colleagues at FactCheck.org do not use a rating system, but have faulted two of the ads for lacking context or being wrong.
We should note that AFP is very aggressive with its ads. In the past, it has earned Four Pinocchios from The Fact Checker, and more than 80 percent of its PolitiFact ratings have been Pants on Fire, False or Mostly False. (The percentage declines if you include ads that did not yield a rating.) It has never earned a True or Mostly True rating, which for some political organizations might be a badge of honor.
The Pinocchio Test
Reid claimed that a “vast, vast majority” of AFP’s Obamacare ads are lies. Vast majority is an imprecise and hackneyed phrase, but presumably it is above 75 percent. We’re not sure what a “vast, vast majority” would be.
We also are not sure what would qualify as a “lie” though on balance we might reserve that for Four Pinocchio or Pants on Fire and/or False statements. (Others might add “mostly false” and Three Pinocchio statements to the “lie” pile, but personally that seems to go too far.)
But only one of the Obamacare ads vetted by the Fact Checker or PolitiFact achieved such ratings, though all had various problems and statements that went too far. Meanwhile, our colleague Greg Sargent has noted that two recent AFP ads, released after controversial Boonstra ad, appeared to go out of their way not to make statements that could be called into question.
In this case, even Reid’s revised rhetoric went too far. He would have been on safer ground if he dropped the harsh rhetoric and had simply said that many of the ads have serious problems and even rely on actors, not real people.
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