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PolitiFact, Harry Reid’s Pants, and the Limits of Fact-Checking

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J. Scott Applewhite / AP

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid

Fact: I do not know whether Mitt Romney paid federal income  taxes, when, or how much, in any year before 2010, for which he publicly released his tax returns. Fact: You probably do not either, unless you are among the small army of spreadsheet-slinging professionals it must take to shepherd his wealth, or—possibly—if you are Mitt Romney.

Fact: Sen. Harry Reid is also not in a position to know definitively whether and how much tax Romney has paid, though that has not stopped him claiming–and claiming, and re-claiming–that someone in a position to know told him Romney paid no income tax for ten years. And fact: the watchdog fact-checking outlet PolitiFact assigned Reid its dreaded “Pants on Fire” label for said claim, although, fact: PolitiFact does not and cannot know either whether it is true or false.

OK, first, let me deal with what I’m not going to argue in this post: the fairness of Reid’s claim, its plausibility, the seriousness with which anyone should take it without evidence, the political strategy behind it, Romney and Reid’s relative credibility, the fact that Romney could address the question by releasing his tax returns, the political strategy behind this choice, or what all this says about who should be elected President in November. There are many fine places on the Internet to heartily debate these matters. Go to one of them!

What I’m interested in here is that if you call someone a liar, you’ve got to show them lying. It endangers PolitiFact’s hard-earned and important position as referee in the mudslinging contest–a “truth vigilante,” as it were–for it to call someone a liar on the basis of something that may or may not be false. Reid’s charges are unsubstantiated, not backed up and at best hearsay. But his basic charge–that someone told him Romney did not pay taxes–may well be true even if Romney did pay. PolitiFact ruled “Pants on Fire” on the basis that Reid did not prove his charge, meaning that it is now possible to get called a liar by PolitiFact for saying something true.

Now, fact: PolitiFact has defended itself, saying it never used the word “lie.” Rating: True, but! As long as PolitiFact is policing inferences and insinuations, any idiomatic American English speaker should know that there is one act that metaphorically sets one’s trousers ablaze, and if PolitiFact does not know what that is, I question whether America’s kindergartens are doing their job.

That said, I get what PolitiFact is trying to do, and why it needs to try to do it. If big political lies were all easily empirically dispelled, we wouldn’t need PolitiFact at all. Dishonesty is much more flexible than that. Where a baldfaced lie won’t fly, you can spin, shade the truth, insinuate, use logical fallacies, rely on dubious subjective interpretations or make insinuations–”A guy told me this thing, who knows?”–that will later get spread as truth.

Those are as dangerous, if not more so, as blatant falsehoods of fact, and they’re tougher to deal with. The Reid statement is not like the claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, for which there is direct and concrete documentation to cite to the contrary. It’s a formless whisper–I heard it from a guy–and, yeah, it can do all kinds of damage for this kind of thing to go on unchallenged. (And without judging what’s equivalent to what, any Obama supporters defending Reid should at least keep in mind all the things someone has “heard from a guy” about Obama for the last four years.)

So I get why PolitiFact needs to address this stuff too. And why it may seem nitpicky for them to accuse Reid of lying–sorry, setting his pants on fire–when what they really mean is something harder to sum up in a catchphrase: that he’s willfully rumormongering, trying to spread an impression that is at worst completely bogus and at best he has given no evidence for. (Brendan Nyhan at CJR has a good post about why PolitiFact critics should not let Reid off the hook.)

But the whole reason that PolitiFact exists is that words and facts matter. PolitiFact’s job is important because inaccurate-but-catchy language, deployed a certain way and repeated, can create false impressions and misinform people. So it is with “Pants on Fire” here. To an average listener, PolitiFact is not saying that Reid has made a statement he can’t prove. They’re saying that he’s made a statement that is actually false–and thus, they seem to certify that Romney has in fact paid taxes for years in which we don’t know one way or another.

I believe PolitiFact is trying to do the right thing here. And despite the efforts of partisans to work the refs by complaining about various calls they’ve made in the past, they’re generally doing a hard, important thing well. They often do it better than the rest of the political media, and the political press owes them for doing it.

But if their rating system–designed, ironically, to abet the truth by making it as easy to spread via catchphrase as a lie–is sending false messages, then they need to improve their rating system, to address the irresponsible, the unprovable, the dubious. Otherwise, they’re doing exactly what they were founded to stop: using language to spread false impressions. You can tell them a guy told you that about them.

139 comments
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mdcbwbnj
mdcbwbnj

This article is pointless. I respect politifact far more for taking a stand than I do either political party. This articles author is beating around the bush and avoiding the correct argument here, which is Harry Reid was out of line. Either he has evidence or he does not. He is too powerful of an individual to get into the mud pits and start slinging mud. He should be trying to project a higher sense of responsibility as head of the Senate. This is just pathetic. Both parties are full of crap. Congressional approval is like 10% and they continue to do stuff like this, instead of compromising. Ridiculous. Keep at it politifact, we want facts, not conjecture and he said/she said. Both parties are acting like insipid little children.

mdcbwbnj
mdcbwbnj

They ranked him pants on fire because this kind of mudslinging doesn't belong in politic

Steven Janiszewski
Steven Janiszewski

The big difference between Senator Reid, a Mormon, and Mitt “Cyborg” Romney is that Romney is a puppet of the Mormon Church, and Reid is not. Getting Romney's tax returns may be a job for LulzSec or Anonymous. Romney will not give them up. ... To gain an existential understanding of the cult that produced Mitt "Cyborg" Romney, and to get your socks scared off, read The Assassination of Spiro Agnew, available at:

www.amazon.com/Assassination-S...

Its part Mexican, Mormon Assassin dramatizes the Mormon superiority complex manifesting as racism, sexism, jingoism and an anti-federal government temperament. His research in the new library reveals ominous similarities between Islam and Mormonism. The spiritual power behind the cult, which is not the Holy Ghost, acts out.

“With a clarity of language and vision unsurpassed in contemporary American prose, Steven Janiszewski's Assassination of Spiro Agnew takes us into a U.S. mazed with madness and Mormonism and all things Utah, a U.S. that was then and still is. Do we need a novel, even as brilliant as this one, about a young man on a divine mission to assassinate the Vice President because he is too liberal? Yes, now more than ever. Readers, welcome to a masterpiece.”.

Tom Whalenwww.tomwhalen.com

Read The Assassination of Spiro Agnew.Word has it that David Axelrod enjoyed its post-modern, metafictional style as much as he relished the Mormon experiential data.

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

Alert! Alert!  Paulie has his Pious Pants on today.  See that halo on his head?  Oh, never mind,  that was his cereal bowl.

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

Now that's funny.  Politifact says that Madonna isn't "Like a Virgin".  And Polificat says Elvis isn't the "King of Rock amp; and Roll" because we don't have royalty in America.

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

Here's another cry baby con calling people names like he's 5 years old.  Isn't it 2 weeks past your bed time. sonny?   

rokinsteve
rokinsteve

Next you'll want that crayola picture he drew in the 5th grade.  You are such a cry baby loser this week.  Somebody should change your diapers and wipe your tears. 

Hagar2
Hagar2

Come on. You can't watch Fox news for one day without hearing disinformation gathered directly from the GOP talking points.  You can't listen to quotes from GOP politicians without hearing the same spin on any point. It's their strategy. Remember death panels? The birthers? The swift boaters? They lie all the time and get away with it.

Russell DeMello
Russell DeMello

You're right.  Politi-fact did not prove that Reid was lying yet by giving Reid a "pants on fire" they basically said that Reid is lying.  I do not think that Reid would know if Romney paid taxes for 10 years or not but I do think that there are people who do know the answer to that question and it is within the realm of possibility that one of those people could have told Reid that Romney did not pay taxes.  

ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©
ifthethunderdontgetya™³²®©

@LOLGOP

Politifact gives Marvin Gaye a "Pants on Fire." "NO EVIDENCE he actually heard it through the grapevine."

~

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

I'm still not convinced that Adele set fire to the rain.

6thangle
6thangle

Many lies and rumors we listen but not all of them become sensational. So why this one becomes sensational? The reason is simple even before Reid told that, a good chunk of  people believe there is something fishy about Romney's tax file.  Same is true for Obama's certificates (birth, college, and all sorts!)

MrObvious
MrObvious

a good chunk of people believe there is something fishy about Romney's tax file

Nah, only that it'll show that he can afford to hide it and most of us can't.

Same is true for Obama's certificates (birth, college, and all sorts!)

Not at all; no poll shows a majority people thinking about in regards to any of these items (not outside birthers and righties anyways).

stevenewman
stevenewman

Then again, maybe Marshmallow Mitt didn't pay taxes for only five years.  Who knows?

Benevolent Lawyer
Benevolent Lawyer

I think this discussion is an outrage. Romney is going to be vetting someone for VP and he will be requesting a ton of tax returns. That is prudent, and I expect him to take that key step. However, Romney wants to be elected to the most important political office in the world without showing us more than 2 years of tax returns???

It is ridiculous for ANYONE, Conservative or Liberal to claim this request for Romney to show his taxes is anything but NORMAL. And please do not play the McCain card. they are not comparable. 

McCain is not Romney. McCain has been in public office virtually all of his career, there is little about his finances that remain unknown. 

To make matters worse, Romney is running SOLELY on the basis of his financial acumen, yet when asked for tax returns, even just to share as many as Obama showed, his excuse if that the Democrats will use it to distract and find fault.

Emm.. last time I checked, when running for political office, scrutiny from the other party is an integral part of the process. So this remark from Romney compounds the issue.  He has basically told the country we just have to take him at his word. He filed taxes!!  Why??? When Romney ran in the gubernatorial race in MA, he told us his residence was MA not Utah, and that turned out to be a blatant misrepresentation. So why should we believe him now?? What would be the basis for that blind belief again when we had been misled in the past? 

I do not know the Martian from some planet that told Reid that Romney had not filed taxes for 10-years.  But I bet that Reids's alien--magician--knower of things aka Tax magician Martian is related to the same one that  convinced Romney that his character and financial stewardship are irrelevant.

The Martians apparently told both Reid and Romney many weird stuff. Emm one told Romney that he could bamboozle us again with strong admonitions against those that demand the most rudimentary information, many tax returns, for someone who hopes to lead us.  And as for Reid's alien, all he knows is taxes. He  is the tax master in a colony that only Reid knows. :) Yeah, Reid, sure!

However, the main issue is being missed in the conjecture and posturing. The issue is that  the American public needs to know more about Romney's financial stewardship. His rationale for refusing to share his taxes  remain unacceptable. 

http://blackrepublicanandmywor...

  

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Mr. Poniewozik was very helpful in listing for us what his article was NOT about:

1) the fairness of Mr. Reid’s claim,

2) the plausibility or the seriousness with which anyone should take Mr. Reid's claim without evidence,

3) the political strategy behind this claim,

4) the credibility of Mr. Romney and Mr. Reid,

5) the fact that Mr. Romney could address the question by releasing his tax returns,

6) the political strategy behind this choice,

7) or the impact this story will have on the November election.

What is this article about?  PolitiFact engaging in the same behavior as Mr. Reid: calling someone a liar without any supporting evidence for that claim.

Surely, THAT is worthy of a discussion that is bound to be far more productive than the same tired internet polemics that NEVER change anyone's mind or political position on hot button issues.

stevenewman
stevenewman

Marshmallow Mitt has known since 2006 that he would be running for president.  The fact that he could not get his taxes in order to display to the public says a lot about his arrogance and ability to lead this country.  Now I do not know why he won't disclose his taxes, but I must assume that they contain something more embarrassing than the damage that his credibility is taking at the moment.  I am particularly interested in his 2009 taxes, since that year had a tax amnesty for those returning funds to the US for which they had not paid the appropriate taxes.  It is time for Mitt to put up or shut up.

Gus_Johnson12
Gus_Johnson12

Harry Reid is a demented freak.  His w-2 was requested last tear by an independent group that request from all members of Congress.  Not only did he not oblige but his incestuous sister Nancy did not oblige.  Interesting how a man who built his entire wealth as a politician ($6.5 million) is willing to attack someone who actually worked in the private sector.  You don't have to like Mitt Romney for his success but at least he earned it.  How many inside deals, insider trading opportunities, kickbacks and bribes do you think Harry had to participate in to amass his wealth?  And if you don't like Romney for his Mormonism, keep in mind that Harry reid actually a converted Mormon.  Funny how the Dems and press don't touch that topic.

DAK27
DAK27

So what you're saying is the same as a convicted felon, a drug addict, a drunk, or any number of people you consider "beneath" regular society reports a crime, then that crime didn't actually happen because of the witness?  That's your defense of Mitt?

3xfire3
3xfire3

The facts and truth. The dishonesty of the Left.

Since military personel tend to vote overwilmingly Republicans, the Obama Administration is trying to reduce the number of active duty military who vote.

All the MSM and Liberal spin is not going to help Obama on this disgraceful action.

Power Line

Obama’s anti-military stance in Ohio

Under current Ohio law, the period during which voters can cast their ballot early ends three days before the election. However, the law has an exception for members of the military. They are allowed to vote early right up until election day.

The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee have filed a lawsuit to overturn this law. They argue that it is arbitrary and unconstitutional to afford special consideration, flexibility, and accommodations to military voters to make it easier for them to vote in person.

In court papers, Team Obama repeatedly asserts that there is no good reason to give special flexibility to military voters. Fifteen Ohio military groups have intervened in the lawsuit to defend the Ohio legislature’s decision to give special consideration to military members.

They argue that there are valid reasons for the consideration, such as special logistical challenges faced by military personnel. And they call Obama’s position that military members should not have extra flexibility “offensive.”

Team Romney is attempting to gain political mileage from the Obama campaign’s legal position. However, Obama’s spokesmen, including David Axelrod, defend that position on the grounds that they are not attempting to deny military members the extra three days. Rather, they want to restore prior Ohio law, under which all voters could vote on those days, not just military members. And they complain that the Romney campaign is misrepresenting the Democrats’ position.

But, as noted, Team Obama’s legal position is clear from its court papers — it doesn’t believe that there is anything that justifies giving military members extra flexibility when it comes to voting. Indeed, it finds the contrary, pro-military view so weak as to render unconstitutional the special consideration granted to military members.

Not surprisingly, it is not just Team Romney that takes exception to this position. As noted, 15 Ohio military groups are offended.

Moreover, there was a valid reason for the Ohio legislature to amend the old law that gave everyone the extra days. According to Ohio’s Secretary of State Jon Husted, the old law did not create consistent early voting rights across the state because most local jurisdictions decided to close for the weekend. Husted notes that in the past the Dems did not sue when 6 counties had weekend voting and extended hours while 82 counties did not.

Clearly, then, the Democrats’ concern is not equal access to voting for all Ohio voters. It was only when military members became the beneficiary of extra access that the Democrats found the system arbitrary.

If this opportunistic position ends up injuring Obama’s standing with pro-military voters, he has no valid complaint.

http://www.powerlineblog.com/a...

DAK27
DAK27

I've asked you to provide your source on the "military personnel tend to vote overwhelmingly Republican" and yet you haven't.  Is that because you just think they do with no facts to back up your claim?

me987654
me987654

Wow, speaking of lies you are repeating one right here.  You do realize this has already been debunked repeatedly?

Why don't you move on to Romney's bald faced lies about welfare regulations

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

Quite a polemic.  

Unfortunately, NONE of it has any bearing on the discussion relating to Mr. Poniewozik's article, which is about PoliFact, NOT Mr. Obama or "the Left."

Also, you might want to take a hint from the Bard: "Brevity is the soul of wit."

bobell
bobell

There's also the minor problem that the characterization of the Democratic  position in the Ohio lawsuit is -- shall we say? -- less than accurate.  If they won everything they're asking for, it would not deprive a single Ohioan in the military of the right to vote, including early voting.

Hey, PolitiFact -- looking for a lie?  I've got one for you.

paulejb
paulejb

DAK27,

"Who says he is hiding anything?"

-----------------------------------------------

So, where did all those millions come from?

  

"Oddly enough, Harry Reid won’t release his own tax returns"

http://hotair.com/headlines/ar... 

What is Harry hiding?

DAK27
DAK27

Maybe Reid is hiding that he made his millions gambling... or selling drugs... or any number of things.  The point is, Reid is not required to show his taxes, he IS NOT running for President.  Romney is and history says he should release more than 1 year of taxes.  I am not saying Mitt has anything to hide... but it does look strange that he is the first one in how many election cycles NOT to release several years worth?

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

What does any of this have to do with THIS article?  

Your comments are about Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney, and Mr. Reid.  This article is not about any of these gentlemen.  As the author said, "There are many fine places on the Internet to heartily debate these matters. Go to one of them!"

MrObvious
MrObvious

Oddly enough he's not running for president. Not that the logical disconnect would bother someone as brainy as paulejb.

paulejb
paulejb

DAK27,

"Again, why is Obama the FIRST US President being asked to show his college papers?"

------------------------------------------

It is his record. Is he ashamed of it? What is so terrible that it must be kept under lock and key. It certainly can't be just a failing grade in PE.

me987654
me987654

Yes, I'm sure he's embarrassed that he was the editor of the Harvard Law Review... LMAO

DAK27
DAK27

But why are people so gung ho about see them and not Romney's?  Not Bush's?  Not Clinton's?  Doesn't matter if Obama wants to hide them so there must be something bad in there.  The same could be said about Mitt's taxes, his time at Baine, his time at the Olympics, as Governor....  It's his record, why is he ashamed of it?

drorbenami
drorbenami

if romney did not pay taxes, but it was perfectly legal, then what difference does it make?

the only true issue is whether romney did something illegal and harry reid did not say that.....

Paul Dirks
Paul Dirks

if romney did not pay taxes, but it was perfectly legal, then what difference does it make?

The ability of wealthy people to avoid taxes, first by not drawing salaries but getting compensated in shares, then by shifting money to offshore holdings and by undervaluing holdings when contributing them to an IRA in order to skirt contribution limits: these examples and more are built into our laws deliberately in order to benefit people like Mr. Romney. 

This is actually the number one issue of the campaign. It's a telling coincidence that Mitt Romney is the poster child for tax avoidance, but he's just one small piece of the problem.

drorbenami
drorbenami

possibly so, but tax avoidance is an issue only if it is done illegally (i.e. falsifying deductions)

what does reid want romney to do, pay taxes he is not legally required to pay?

the issue has to be future tax reform, not past tax compliance, unless it was illegal non compliance

Godzilla1960
Godzilla1960

It makes absolutely no difference to the point Mr. Poniewozik is making in his article, which is that PolitiFact is doing exactly what Mr. Reid did: calling someone a liar without any evidence to support the statement.

You did read the article, didn't you?

drorbenami
drorbenami

yes i did and reid did not call romney a liar, he implied that romney was a hypocrite.....

regardless, if the focus of the article is politi fact then it shows just how mis guided americans are....instead of discussing the issues, now Time is discussing the critics of a critic of the candidate