It’s time for our annual round-up of the biggest Pinocchios of the year.
The 2016 presidential campaign has dominated our coverage of false claims. In particular, businessman Donald Trump — who has soared to the top of the GOP field — kept us busy. In the space of just six months, he earned 11 Four-Pinocchio ratings, far more than any other candidate.
Most politicians drop a claim after it has been fact-checked as false. But Trump is unusual in that he always insists he is right, no matter how little evidence he has for his claim. Frankly, it’s really not interesting to fact check The Donald, as his assertions are so easily debunked. Still, he scores a hat trick on this list.
We also devoted a number of columns this year to exploring the dubious statistics about sex trafficking of children in the United States. It’s a terrible crime, but we are giving a special award for statistical mendacity to the many politicians and organizations who have recited dubious facts about it. To their credit, some have pledged to do better.
In compiling this list, which has no particular order, we primarily focused on claims that had earned Four Pinocchios during the year. We also tried to focus on issues of broad interest. To keep it simple, we have shortened the quotes in the headlines. To read the full column, click on the link embedded in the quote.
Donald Trump falsely and repeatedly asserted that he saw television images of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the collapse of the twin towers after the 9/11 attacks. Despite repeated debunking of this claim, Trump continued to assert he was correct, even though he could produce no evidence except a handful of news stories that made brief mentions of alleged celebrations — which never could be confirmed.
Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, defended her husband’s signing of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act as a defensive action, to prevent a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. But there is little evidence in the public record that was the case, even though Clinton claimed “there was enough political momentum” at the time to amend the constitution. (Clinton later said it only had come up in “private discussions.”)
Donald Trump repeatedly defended this claim, but a range of studies show there is no evidence immigrants commit more crimes than native-born Americans. Moreover, the vast majority of unauthorized immigrants in prison do not belong in the category that fits Trump’s description: aggravated felons, whose crimes include murder, drug trafficking or illegal trafficking of firearms.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) made this claim in June, which indicated 128 school shootings since December 2014. The number came from Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun violence prevention group. But its methodology was deeply flawed, including suicides, accidental discharges and so forth. Official government statistics are much lower, indicating the political peril of relying on advocacy groups.
Donald Trump first said President Obama planned to admit 200,000 Syrian refugees, a figure conjured out of thin air. Then it became 250,000. But the real figure is 10,000. The United States is only planning to admit 180,000 refugees from all countries in the next two years. Trump’s false rhetoric inspired other GOP candidates to offer wildly inflated figures as well.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry for years has said he organized the first Senate hearings on climate change with then-Sens. Al Gore and Tim Wirth. But that was false. Kerry was not at the pivotal 1988 hearing in the Senate — and neither was Gore, who organized the first hearing in the House in 1981. On top of that, Kerry described witnessing events that did not happen.
“The science on climate change is not settled because in 1970s we were worried about ‘global freezing.’”
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) cited the “covers” of Time and Newsweek to claim global freezing had been a serious concern 40 years ago. But these were not cover stories, just isolated examples of speculative journalism. It was never a serious concern; researchers found that peer-reviewed articles on global cooling were in a distinct minority compared to those concerned with global warming.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), pushing for new regulations of loans made by car dealers, cited a figure based on a misleading and dated report from the Center for Responsible Lending, an advocacy group. But then she also wildly mischaracterized the number, as even the advocacy group conceded that the figure includes reasonable compensation owed to car dealers.
Former New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R) asserted that Obama, unlike other Democratic presidents such as Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter or Harry Truman, never said the United States was a great or exceptional country. This was a bizarre claim. We concluded Giuliani must have muted the sound whenever Obama spoke, because there are many examples of Obama saying exactly that.
Long before President Obama killed the Keystone pipeline project, he made a number of dubious claims about it, including that the pipeline would have no benefit for American producers at all. But the crude oil would have traveled to the Gulf Coast, where it would be refined into products such as motor gasoline and diesel fuel; the State Department said odds were low that all would be exported. Also, about 12 percent of the pipeline’s capacity had been set aside for crude from North Dakota and Montana.
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) loved to tell the story of an elderly man sitting in prison for 10 years after being accused of racketeering and organized crime — just for putting dirt on his land. But just about every aspect of Paul’s recounting was inaccurate and misleading. The man, Robert Lucas, was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy and environmental violations for his role in developing 67 mobile home lots inside federally protected wetlands, building on wetlands without approval and knowingly selling land with illegal sewage systems that were likely to fail.
This phrase became a rallying cry for protests after the fatal shooting of a black 18-year-old by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Witness accounts spread after the shooting that Michael Brown had his hands raised in surrender, mouthing the words “Don’t shoot” as his last words before being shot execution-style. Democratic lawmakers raised their hands in solidarity on the House floor. But various investigations concluded this did not happen — and that Wilson acted out of self-defense and was justified in killing Brown.
Special award: Bushels of bogus sex trafficking statistics
No single issue earned more Pinocchios than dubious claims about sex trafficking. There are not 300,000 children at risk for sexual exploitation. There are not 100,000 children in the sex trade. Human trafficking is not a $9.5 billion business in the United States. Girls do not become victims of sex trafficking at an average age of 13 years. The federal government has not arrested hundreds of sex traffickers. These were all false claims made in 2015 by politicians, advocacy groups and government officials.
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