Our recent fact check on Carly Fiorina’s claim that she went “from secretary to CEO” generated heavy criticism from readers. The fact check was either a thoughtful analysis or shoddy hit piece — which is not an uncommon range of responses to our fact checks. But the brunt of reaction came from readers in the latter camp.
The majority of readers who responded via e-mail, social media and article comments particularly objected to the Three Pinocchio rating. They said her claim was factual — at most worth Two Pinocchios — because the two pieces of fact (that she did work as a secretary, that she did become a CEO) were, indeed, accurate. Here is a sample of such reader e-mails:
“It didn’t seem like three Pinocchios. Maybe in the range of 1-2 Pinocchios. Closer to 1.”
“I am a Republican, but do not intend to vote for Carly Fiorina in the primary season. … I am absolutely shocked by the Three Pinocchios given in this fact checking article. The text of the article seems to validate fully Ms. Fiorina’s claims to have gone from a secretary to the CEO of one of the largest technology companies in the world. In fact, one of the quotes specifically references the fact that Ms. Fiorina was a secretary at a real estate firm and not at HP. Her secretarial job was done post her undergraduate degree and was not done as part time work through college, etc.”
“I am a liberal Democrat. But, the ones deserving the Pinocchios are you and the editors who let this get published. There is no lying in what Ms. Fiorina states. You even admit she did work as a secretary and became a CEO. She campaigned for office in California and now for the presidency and she speaks in biographical shorthand. Most listeners understand this. They don’t want a litany of ‘then I went and worked for blank, and then I went to law school, and then to Italy and then etc., etc.’ To slam her for speaking in shortcuts is pretty low.”
John Sexton of Breitbart said the column was “poorly reasoned.” Our old colleague Howard Kurtz slammed us on Fox News. Radio host Hugh Hewitt called it “journalistic malpractice.” Fiorina disputed the analysis in television interviews.
Some readers also faulted us for conjuring a Horatio Alger-like narrative that they said was never suggested by Fiorina.
While criticism is par for the course, it is rare — and disturbing — to have such a significant disconnect between our rating and the vast majority of readers’ responses. We value transparency and reader feedback, so we decided to explain the process of reaching our rating.
We examined the claim and the message it represents to the average voter — not based on two separate pieces of fact. In this case, Fiorina presents her “secretary to CEO” story as a uniquely American one, emblematic of the American dream, and leaves the impression that she worked her way up to the latter from the bottom rungs of an industry.
We compiled Fiorina’s educational and career biography from various sources and interviews. In reporting, we found opportunities and options that were unique to Fiorina, not necessarily uniquely American. For example, even though she missed her application deadline to business school, she referenced her Stanford background to make a case for the dean to make an exception by accepting her. Her father was the dean of Duke Law School when she applied to Stanford, which means she would have gotten most of her tuition covered.
As for the “secretary” job, she held it briefly at a real estate broker’s office, where she was known as “the Stanford student,” before quickly being offered more substantial work. She then got married and went to teach English in Italy, before returning to the United States to get her business degree.
Michelle Ye Hee Lee, who wrote the fact check, initially submitted it with a Two Pinocchio rating. Glenn Kessler, who edited the fact check, found the analysis similar to other cases where politicians used words that, while on the face accurate, gave a misleading picture. After additional reporting by Lee and Kessler, and some additional debate about whether this was a Two or Three, we decided it merited a Three.
The tipping point, for us, was the realization that most of her Stanford tuition likely was paid for (her bio says “she worked her way” though undergraduate and graduate school; her book says she “needed to pay for my room and board”) because of her father’s employment at Duke University. We also were swayed by the fact that the Stanford degree opened doors for her at the real estate broker where she worked briefly as a receptionist and helped get her in the door at business school even though the application deadline had passed.
Pinocchio ratings inherently are subjective, and we often find it difficult to reach a decision. (We frequently second-guess ourselves in the morning.) Our One Pinocchio rating may be another reader’s Three Pinocchio rating, and vice versa. So we aim for consistency in how we apply ratings. It is especially difficult to decide between a Two or a Three, since a Three is a tipping point that indicates a claim is mostly false as opposed to being half-true.
In this case, the fact check appeared similar to another Three Pinocchio rating, which we gave President Obama in 2012 for a campaign video narrated by Tom Hanks, concerning his mother’s fight with an insurance company. The sequence of comments in this video suggested this scenario: Obama’s mother had cancer. An insurance company would not cover her because it considered her cancer as a pre-existing condition. She died of something preventable.
Separately, the three facts were accurate. But we examined the message it sent to viewers: That Obama’s mother was denied health-insurance coverage, which drained her resources, and she could have lived longer with better coverage. But there was much more to the story than that (you can read the details in the article). The overall impression was misleading, and thus worthy of Three Pinocchios. (As we recall, many Democrats angrily condemned that rating as well.)
In our minds, the Fiorina case was similar. The “secretary to CEO” line is a central part of her campaign; it even merited its own Web site. She frequently pitched it as an “only-in-America” story. Yet her career really started after she earned her business degree and began working at AT&T as a sales representative. (Some readers, such as John Sexton of Breitbart, pointed to a line in a biography that “perhaps Fiorina’s first taste of business came when she worked for real estate broker Marcus & Millichap for a few months that year” as a sign that the secretary’s job is really the start of her career. But even if one accepts that, it does not mitigate the other advantages she had.)
At this point, we do not see a reason to change the rating. We are comfortable with the analytic process we used to reach the final result. We can certainly see the case for Two Pinocchios or even One, but believe that would not have been consistent with the way we had applied the Three Pinocchio rating in the past. If Obama got Three, then the thinking was that Fiorina deserved Three as well.
No rating is set in stone, and many readers have asked us to revise the rating. We generally revise ratings if we receive new information that changes our understanding of the facts. In this case, there is no new information — except maybe for the fact that many readers believe our reasoning is idiotic. But, as noted above, the rating appears consistent with how we have applied it previously. Thus, lacking additional information, we will retain the rating. We realize that will be disappointing to many who have complained.
We do regret using the word “bogus” in the headline. That word should be reserved for Four Pinocchio rulings, and thus it has been removed. (This was Kessler’s mistake.)
Not everyone agrees with us on The Pinocchio Test or the rating, and readers can always reach their own conclusions based on the information we present in The Facts. We strive to be transparent about how we reach the rating, consistent in how we apply them, and fair in our work — and we appreciate the thoughtful criticism and response from readers who believe we are not living up to that standard.
Please keep reading. Maybe one day we will get it right.
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