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Sunday, July 24, 2011

PolitiFact NH a welcome addition to Telegraph but …

Gary Vincent
Reader Advocate

Late in June, The Telegraph introduced “PolitiFact 2012 New Hampshire,” a cooperative effort among The Telegraph, The Valley News – and more recently NHPR – and PolitiFact, a project of the St. Petersburg Times.

The Telegraph called it a “handy new tool” to help separate fact from fiction. Reporters check the claims of political figures and then rate them on a “Truth-O-Meter,” which has a scale of six judgments, ranging from true to false. There is also “Pants on Fire,” which is reserved for what are judged to be the biggest whoppers.

Considering that New Hampshire is going to be overrun with candidates ranging from serious to silly who will pontificate on the issues of the day whenever they can get four voters together to listen, the Truth-O-Meter may need an oil change and tire rotation before primary day arrives.

And while I am of course in favor of separating fact from fiction, I have some reservations about this particular effort, at least in how it has been implemented thus far.

For instance, a recent story rated a statement by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner as “Half True.” The rating was for remarks Geithner made at Dartmouth College on June 24.

The quote was that for people in the top 0.5 percent or 1 percent for income, “your effective tax burden is in the low 20s, the lowest it’s been in decades and decades and decades – lower than somebody who might make substantially less money.”

PolitFact concluded “Geithner was correct when he said the top 1 percent pay rates in the low 20s, a tax burden that is historically low. But he’s wrong that their effective rate is lower than most Americans, including ones who earn substantially less. We rate his statement Half True.”

The full PolitiFact article said: “In his speech, Geithner was referring to income taxes, rather than all taxes that individuals pay.”

That didn’t sound right. Income taxes are applied to earnings classed as wages, salary and tips. But the ultra-wealthy, the top 0.5 percent or 1 percent, make much of their money from capital gains, which are taxed at a lower rate. Geithner surely knows this.

So I tried to find Geithner’s exact words. I could not find a text, because his talk was not a speech, despite the PolitiFact article calling it such. It was a question-and-answer session, with Geithner sitting on stage with a Dartmouth professor. He responded to questions from the professor and then the audience.

But a YouTube video of the session was available, so I watched it. It is clear to me, if not to the PolitiFact writers, that he was talking about total tax burden, not just income taxes.

Watching the video, there is one point where Geithner actually says “your effective tax burden … all in … is in the low 20s.” It was clear to me watching that “all in” meant overall tax burden, but I suppose if there were a transcript, that might somehow be interpreted differently.

So I suspect that if the statement were evaluated on the basis of overall tax burden, not just income taxes, the Truth-O-Meter might have ruled differently.

Also puzzling is the choice of items to subject to the Truth-O-Meter. One article was about a claim by a Rhode Island legislator that seat belts had caused the deaths of 30,000 people. That got a “Pants on Fire” judgment. It probably deserved the rating.

But I couldn’t find anything in the piece that related to New Hampshire. Was it just to illustrate the Truth-O-Meter giving a “Pants on Fire”?

The Truth-O-Meter is presented like a voltmeter, but there’s judgment involved. PolitiFact cites the sources used to check statements. But as in the Geithner case, there’s judgment involved in parsing the statement, too.

For example, the parent PolitiFact awarded “Pants on Fire” to a Democratic ad that claimed, in regard to the House-passed budget proposal, that “Republicans voted to end Medicare.”

Steven Benen of the Washington Monthly, noting “Pants on Fire” implied deliberate dishonesty, disagreed: “PolitiFact fact-checkers would have been happier if the DCCC said Republicans had voted to end Medicare ‘as we know it.’ The qualifier makes it true; the absence of the qualifier, apparently, makes it pants-on-fire false.

“This analysis is deeply flawed. PolitiFact has to know better.

“It seems foolish to have to parse the meaning of the word ‘end,’ but if there’s a program, and it’s replaced with a different program, proponents brought an end to the original program. That’s what the verb means.”

PolitiFact New Hampshire is a worthy effort to hold politicians to standards of honesty. Hyperbole is a political tradition, but that doesn’t mean you should be able to say black is white and get away with it. Still, there are issues when evaluating judgments of the Truth-O-Meter.

Getting facts and applying critical thinking remain the best standards for finding the truth. Fact checkers can help but caveat lector: Let the reader beware.

Gary Vincent spent 21 years in newspapers before leaving for a career in high tech. The longtime Hudson resident isn’t an employee of The Telegraph and is free to act independently. Readers are encouraged to bring any issue to his attention at readeradvocate@nashuatelegraph.com.