Yesterday Senator and 2016 GOP presidential wannabe Ted Cruz called fact-checking a “new species of yellow journalism.” I think I’ll fact-check that. (More)
Nobody likes to be fact-checked. Just last night, Mrs. Squirrel said I didn’t help clean up after dinner. I noted that I did, in fact, wipe my whiskers. That’s why I spent the night on the sofa.
Okay, I’m joking. We couldn’t haul a sofa up into Árbol Squirrel, and a sofa wouldn’t fit in our drey anyway. I didn’t even sleep in the living room. But Mrs. Squirrel’s tail-flicks let me know what she thought of my fact-checking.
So I get that Sen. Cruz was peeved when John Harwood asked this:
You’ve said a few things that don’t necessarily comport with the facts, like, “125,000 I.R.S. agents, send ’em to the border.” They’ve only got 25,000 agents or something like. You’ve talked about the job-killing nature of Obamacare. We’re adding jobs at a very healthy clip right now. Why shouldn’t somebody listen to you and say, “The guy’ll just say anything – doesn’t have to be true”?
But if you’re a candidate responding to a fact-check question, it’s better not to begin with yet another lie:
There is a game that is played by left-wing editorial writers. It’s this new species of yellow journalism called politi-fact.
First, PolitiFact isn’t “a game that is played by left-wing editorial writers.” It’s staffed by reporters and editors of the Tampa Bay Times, and state PolitiFact sites are staffed by partner newspapers. The Times is owned by the Poynter Institute, whose mission is to train journalists to “engage and inform citizens in 21st Century democracies,” making the Times one of our nation’s few remaining independently-owned newspapers. And the good folks at PolitiFact even explain how they choose statements to fact-check and what rules they apply in doing so:
In deciding which statements to check, we ask ourselves these questions:
— Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole.
— Is the statement leaving a particular impression that may be misleading?
— Is the statement significant? We avoid minor “gotchas” on claims that obviously represent a slip of the tongue.
— Is the statement likely to be passed on and repeated by others?
— Would a typical person hear or read the statement and wonder: Is that true?
So if Sen. Cruz wants to say “President Obama is an evil man who wants to ruin America,” that’s an opinion and PolitiFact won’t review it. But when he said this …
You know, in elections that he liked, the president was fond of saying elections have consequences. Well, this last election there was no ambiguity. There were two issues that dominated this last election. Number one, Obamacare. And number two, amnesty. This was a referendum on amnesty. And the American people overwhelmingly said we don’t want Obamacare. It’s a disaster. It’s hurting the American people. And we don’t want amnesty. And I’m sorry to say the president is behaving in an unprecedented way. There is not in recent times any parallel for a president repudiated by the voters standing up and essentially telling the voters go jump in a lake, he’s going to force his powers.
… PolitiFact fact-checked him by looking at the 2014 exit polling. They found midterm voters were almost evenly split on whether the Affordable Care Act “went too far” (49%) or was “about right” or “didn’t go far enough” (totaling 46%). Far from “overwhelmingly said,” the difference was within the exit poll’s margin of error. The same exit poll found that 57% of Americans favored “a path to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants, while only 39% favored deportation. Based on those sources, PolitiFact decided Sen. Cruz’s statement was “False.”
Is that “a new species of yellow journalism,” as Sen. Cruz claimed? Well, let’s see. In volume 6 of his series American Journalism: 1690-1940, historian Frank Luther Mott offered five characteristics of yellow journalism:
- scare headlines in huge print, often of minor news
- lavish use of pictures, or imaginary drawings
- use of faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts
- emphasis on full-color Sunday supplements, usually with comic strips
- dramatic sympathy with the “underdog” against the system.
We could argue whether PolitiFact has “dramatic sympathy with the ‘underdog’ against the system,” but the debate would be irrelevant … because PolitiFact has none of the other four characteristics. In particular, PolitiFact does not rely on “faked interviews, misleading headlines, pseudoscience, and a parade of false learning from so-called experts.” Unlike, say, Sen. Cruz.
Having lied about what fact-checkers do, Sen. Cruz then tried to weasel out of Harwood’s question:
Colloquially I was referring to all the employees as agents.
That particular stat is in a joke I used. So, they’re literally fact-checking a joke. I say that explicitly tongue in cheek.
The second point is more significant. You talked about the job creation that has occurred. The simple reality is millions of Americans are hurting right now under the Obama economy. Yes, some jobs are being created, but not nearly as many have been destroyed. The rich, the top 1% today earn a higher share of our income than any year since 1928.
Let’s unpack that, shall we?
First, the ‘joke’ was that undocumented immigrants would be terrified to find IRS agents waiting at the U.S. border. And no, we can’t fact-check that. But he embedded a testable fact claim in that joke – that there are 110,000 IRS agents – and that claim is false, even if he counts all 90,000 IRS employees as “agents.”
Third, it’s true that the income share of the 1% is higher than at any point since 1928, but that reflects data from 2010 … before the ACA was passed. There is no evidence that the ACA has increased income inequality.
In fact, Sen. Cruz’s entire interview with Harwood is riddled with demonstrably false statements. It’s not “yellow journalism” when reporters demonstrate that. It’s just “journalism.”
I don’t work for PolitiFact – so far as I know they don’t hire squirrels – but if they analyzed his claim that they are “a new species of yellow journalism” … I’m pretty sure they’d rate his claim “Pants On Fire.”
Good day and good nuts