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FactCheck Mailbag, Week of April 27-May 3

This week, readers sent us comments about taxes on home sales, czars and tweeting

In the FactCheck Mailbag, we feature some of the e-mail we receive. Readers can send comments to editor@factcheck.org. Letters may be edited for length.


Tax Dispute

I must disagree with those who took FactCheck to task over the answer about the nonexistent 3.8 percent sales tax on homes [FactCheck Mailbag, Week of April 20-April 26; "A 3.8 Percent Sales Tax On Your Home?, April 22].

Nobody will pay a 3.8 percent sales tax, which was the claim of the e-mail being debunked. First, the tax is only on the profit, not on the sales price. Second, a big chunk of the profit is excluded from tax by the existing rule on selling a primary residence. The effective tax rate (tax divided by sales price) will always be less than 3.8 percent.

The question addressed by FactCheck was whether there is a "3.8 percent tax on profits from selling your home." Since nobody will pay a full 3.8 percent of the profit, FactCheck was right to start the answer with a clear "No." Some of the profit on "your home" is always exempt. Further, the e-mail being debunked referred to "A 3.8% ‘SALES TAX’" (emphasis in original). The e-mail not only implies this is a tax on the full sales price, but it makes that assumption in giving an example of a $15,200 tax on a $400,000 sale. FactCheck clearly showed this example is wrong. The correct amount of tax in this case is zero (assuming a married couple).

Richard M. Mathews
Porter Ranch, Calif.

In your mailbag from April 27 you showcased two readers’ opinions that were critical of your recent reporting on the issue named "A 3.8 Percent ‘Sales Tax’ on Your Home." These two people (Tom Altman from Houston, Texas, and Deanna Converse from Pasadena, Calif.) are grasping at straws to find fault.

The question wasn’t "Will anyone have to pay a sales tax for their home"; it was "Does the new health care law impose a 3.8 percent tax on profits from selling your home?" Notice the word "your" there. If the number of people this tax will affect is small then it’s perfectly logical to answer that question with a "No, unless…". To take Deanna Converse’s own example, if a random person asks you if there is water in their glass without telling you anything about that glass to begin with and you know that only 3% of people have water in their glasses under certain conditions and you answer "No, unless…" then you are being honest.

It’s amazing what people will criticize when they don’t like the facts.

Michael Peters
Raleigh, N.C.

While I agree with other readers that seemingly inconsequential choices in words can dramatically change the message you convey, I find that I disagree with their conclusions. They contend that your analysis showed bias in its choice of words — which it did, but not to the extent that their words would bias the article. In their critiques they insinuated that you should trade one bias for another in the name of neutrality, and not choosing a more carefully worded neutral statement.

The contention is that you should have answered "Yes, but not for most," instead of "No, with very few exceptions." It is true you chose biased words, but they are closer to the truth than those of the critics. The question you were answering was whether the tax would be imposed on the sale of the reader’s home. In the analysis you explain that very few sales would have this tax imposed upon them. Thus, it is far more likely that the answer to the question is "No." To frame your answer positively but make exceptions would imply to the reader that the situation is reversed, or at least it would insinuate that the percentage of sales effected is higher than it truly is.

However, this is a case where both statements display bias. A more neutral phrasing would be, "unlikely" or "possibly, but for only a small percentage of home sales." Phrasing like this conveys to the reader a more accurate summary of the analysis. I hope we can get beyond these hair-splitting issues and focus more on facts.

Dan Bendig
Lincoln Park, N.J.

I think the folks who wrote complaining about your "No" answer about the 3.8 percent tax have a very valid point. I think the root problem is that your answer didn’t make completely clear why it was happening this way, though it was reasonably clear that the people who wrote it understood those reasons. I think your answer should have been, "Yes, but only on profits from home sales that were already being taxed, and then only on people with incomes above $200K." The exemptions you mentioned about home sales are part of existing law (except for the total income part of it, which is applied to all the investment income generally), and I think that you needed to make that clearer. You might also have emphasized more clearly that even for people who do need to pay the tax, e.g. speculators and landlords, the tax is on profits, not the gross as a ‘sales tax’ would ordinarily be. The question part noted the profits part correctly but the sample email certainly did not.

George Heintzelman
East Setauket, N.Y.


Czar Talk

This is the dumbest article I have ever read by FactCheck ["Blackwell Blasts FactCheck," April 30]. Engaging in a media debate over who has the most czars is nonsensical. Clearly Blackwell and FactCheck are not talking about the same things. Not surprisingly this is partially Glenn Beck’s fault but also FactCheck’s as well as Blackwell’s. Glenn Beck’s arbitrary method of determining what a czar is, a media nickname for administrative official heading a regulatory entity, led FactCheck to find the total number of such officials referred to as Czars in the media for both administrations. Clearly, Beck’s point, and Blackwell’s, was that Obama had more officials placed in charge of a regulatory function and is thus being more wasteful than Bush. FactCheck used Glenn Beck’s illogical method of demonstrating that conclusion and did the same for Bush’s administration. I don’t know why, it continues to show nothing more than the frequency at which the media declares someone a czar, which is useless. Then Blackwell refers to czar as the type of regulatory official Beck was trying to count using nonsensical means, and Jon Stewart, well aware of the pointlessness of FactCheck article, used it to refute Blackwell’s claim that there are more executive appointed regulatory officials under Obama than under Bush.

Firstly, I love FactCheck, they are generally great. Secondly, they shouldn’t have even touched this story, it’s so inconsequential it goes against the mission of FactCheck. Thirdly, Jon Stewart shouldn’t have cited it unless he’s that dense, which is unlikely; he’s clearly a very bright individual. Fourth, Blackwell should have established the criteria he is using to determine what a czar is, then applied it uniformly to administrators in Obama’s administration and Bush’s; he did not so confusion continues. Currently, we do not know who has more of these such appointments, but we do know how often the media referred to a government official as a czar… pointless. I can read this type of factual confusion from editorial pages of local newpapers. FactCheck should be ashamed for responding to this, and inciting it.

Joe Gratta
Boston, Mass.

Thanks for the clarity in "Blackwell Blasts FactCheck"! You are my fact-checking czar.

Cindi Knox
Joliet, Ill.

On the matter of which president, Bush or Obama, had or has more czars, why don’t you compare the number that Bush appointed by executive order and the number that Obama appointed by executive order instead of the flimsy standard (who the media proclaims is a czar) you use? The media cannot be trusted. They aren’t as kind to Republicans and conservatives as they are to liberals and Democrats. You know that. That’s one reason why your organization exists.

Paul Matta
Balmorhea, Texas

FactCheck.org responds: We can’t talk about how many "czars" Obama or Bush appointed without a standard for what a "czar" is. Since there is no such position — it’s a media nickname — we must look at how many officials are so termed in the media. Blackwell did not specify any alternative standard in his article, and there is no official definition for a "czar" within an administration.

Glenn Beck, one of the first and loudest voices decrying the Obama administration’s use of "czars," admitted as much when he compiled his widely cited czar list. Unlike Blackwell, Beck gave a clear standard: officials who had been called "czars" in reputable media sources. We applied the same standard to the Bush administration for our original article.


Unbalanced Tweets

I couldn’t help noticing again that there was an uneven distribution of negative RNC/Conservative vs. DNC/Liberal stories in the Mis-Tweets article ["Mis-Tweets on Twitter," April 28]. Sure, just one story difference, but it remains that 60 percent of your coverage on this blast reflected Republicans and conservatives in a negative light and that’s a FACT! I suspect (and can track since I archive all of them) that percentage isn’t too far off from the Fact Check Republican vs. Democrat negative coverage average. It would be interesting to see that percentage (Republican/Conservative vs. Democrat/Liberal) revealed as a running total with each article or vidcast presented by FactCheck. I doubt one ideology is misleading us a great deal more than the other.

Chip McCoy
Enid, Okla.


Stop Rumors Before They Start

I certainly appreciate all your efforts to identify the myriad of problems in today’s political discourse. Yet despite your efforts, I begin to feel that because the verbal and visual manipulations and misrepresentations are so rampant, you really need to start instructing your readers as to what to look for on their own. Your "UnSpun" book speaks to this, but I think it needs to be regular.

Whatever you do, I still applaud your efforts. Your work makes my job a little easier because a third party thinks the same crazy way I do.

Hal Wicke
New York, N.Y.

FactCheck.org responds: We do have an educational site, FactCheckED.org, where we offer lesson plans for teaching students how to think analytically about the messages they encounter.