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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FactCheck Mailbag, Week of Feb. 28-March 5

This week, one reader asked if we track which political party “lies” most often, and another defended our efforts to find unbiased sources.

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


Who Tells More ‘Lies’?

I can’t seem to find this on your site: I wonder if anyone has done an informal tally of lies from the two parties? It seems clear to me that the vast majority of the email forward lies that I receive come from the conservatives, and this seems borne out on your site. But I have never seen anything definitive on this. When reading your “Ask FactCheck” pages, I see very few lies coming from the left. In fact, it almost makes you look biased, which I am sure is untrue. Am I missing something? Where are all the left-leaning distorted emails?

In a related question, I have always suspected that the email rants from the right come from some organized right-wing propaganda machine (not just individuals) since there are so many, and they are so similar in tone. Is this just an illusion, or is there something to my suspicions?

Also, how can I convince my conservative friends that you are not biased when they look up your “Ask FactCheck” pages and see them so lopsided?

Bill Briggs
Jupiter, Fla.

FactCheck.org responds: We don’t keep score here. We believe that it would be a poor gauge of anything to simply provide a count of the number of times we have found one side or the other to have made a false or misleading claim. That wouldn’t show which side made the more serious or more flagrant distortions, for one thing. And we know of no scientific way to measure the degree of mendacity in any particular falsehood.

A simple count also would not measure the importance of the subject being misrepresented. Suppose we criticized one candidate for giving a low count of the number of times he or she had been cited for parking violations, and then went after the opponent for repeatedly falsifying the first candidate’s position on taxes, or Social Security? Most voters would probably see the latter as a far more serious matter than fudging on parking tickets. But a simple count would show only a tie, with each candidate telling a single falsehood.

We also generally avoid labeling any false statement as a “lie,” for two reasons. First, we think of a “lie” as a false statement that is made deliberately, and with knowledge that it is false. And since we are not mind-readers, we can’t know for sure whether any particular false claim is a simple mistake, an honestly held delusion, or an outright, deliberate lie. So we avoid speculating. The second reason is that the word “lie” carries a great deal of emotional freight. We think the word “lie” is often used to denigrate the character or motives of the person making the false statement. We think it is our job to point out when a statement is incorrect, incomplete or otherwise misleading, and to provide our readers with reliable, documented facts. We leave judgments about motives and personal character to our readers.

As for your question about viral email messages, what you see on our “Viral Spiral” page and our “Ask FactCheck” archive simply reflects what we are asked by our readers to review. And these false claims have indeed come predominately from the right, at least since 2008. We’re not sure why. One theory is that this tilt simply reflects conservative frustration over President Obama’s election and his subsequent legislative agenda. Earlier, there were similar falsehoods from the left. In fact, our “Ask FactCheck” feature was started in part because of messages sent around by liberals accusing President Bush of secretly scheming to reinstate the draft if he won reelection in 2004. Later, in 2008, a flurry of liberal falsehoods about Sarah Palin flooded our inbox, and we fielded several bogus claims aimed at Sen. John McCain as well. So we have some reason to think that the pattern may reverse itself should a Republican be elected, causing liberals the sort of frustration currently felt by those on the other side. What we can say with certainty is that both liberals and conservatives have been guilty of concocting and forwarding emailed whoppers — and we’ve gone after them no matter which side was responsible.

To your last question, we would say to conservatives and liberals alike that we apply exactly the same standards of accuracy to claims made by each side. Any fair-minded reading of our work should confirm that. And we appeal to both sides — if you think we’ve missed something that is factually wrong, let us know. Just send a message to editor@factcheck.org.  If it’s a claim from a politician or a viral email, we’ll check it out. We love to debunk false claims, and we don’t care which side they come from.



When Readers Disagree

I just read this week’s edition of letters to the editor [“FactCheck Mailbag, Week of Feb. 21-27“], and I don’t agree with the two writers you featured, who don’t agree with your assessment of [“GOP’s ‘Job-Killing’ Whopper, Again,” Feb. 21].

The first said you used the [Obama] administration’s analysis, so I looked up the analysts you used. The Brookings Institution has been called everything from conservative, to centrist, to liberal. I couldn’t find anything on the other consultants you used to indicate they were either paid by the administration, or are known for a political bias. Also, for employees of small businesses, I don’t think using the state insurance exchanges will necessarily be a bad thing. But that may depend on the states, and only time will tell how it will actually work out.

The second letter writer sounds like a newcomer to your site. A regular reader knows that your articles are fact-based, and that you bend over backwards to find unbiased sources of information, rather than rely on “knowing intuitively.”

I love your website and check it all the time. Keep up the good work!

Kathy Lithgow
Grandview Heights, Ohio