theodore M I R A L D I mpa ... editor, publisher, writer. katherine molé mfa ... art director

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The most popular fact checks of 2013

For the first time, we are presenting a list of our 10 most popular fact checks during the past year. (There’s a tie for 10th place, so it’s really 11.)
Readers will notice that many of the most widely read columns are about President Obama, especially if he earned a poor ruling. Judging from our daily traffic reports, it appears that that right-leaning Web sites and blogs are quicker to circulate such articles than the left-leaning blogosphere.
But perhaps that is just a function of the opposition being more organized in its anger. Although The Washington Post did not have a Fact Checker column during the bulk of the George W. Bush administration, it’s possible the reverse might have been true when Bush was president, given the animus that the left held for the 43rd president.
The two columns tied for 10th place both were “sleepers,” in that readership grew steadily over the course of the year. In both cases, readers found these columns mainly through Google and other search engines, as they were looking for information about the national debt or Obama’s 2006 speech explaining his vote against raising the debt limit.
In compiling this list, we did not include round-ups such as the biggest Pinocchios of the Year, which in just  a few days has become the most widely column of the year. Click on the headline if you want to read the full column.

1: Obama’s pledge that ‘no one will take away’ your health plan

First place goes to our lengthy examination of the president’s memorable pledge that, under the Affordable Care Act, “no one will take away” your health plan. Though the White House has since backed off this claim — made repeatedly by the president during the crafting of the law and in recent months — we concluded that it was worthy of Four Pinocchios because of the frequency with which he made it and because of the impact of regulations crafted by the administration. (This column also topped thebiggest Pinocchios list.)

2: Obama’s claim that he called Benghazi an ‘act of terror’

Obama did refer to an “act of terror” in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack, but in vague terms, wrapped in a patriotic fervor. He never stated that the U.S. ambassador died because of an “act of terror.” Then, over a period of two weeks, given three opportunities in interviews to affirmatively agree that the Benghazi attack was a terrorist attack, the president obfuscated or ducked the question. He earned Four Pinocchios. (Also on biggest Pinocchios list.)

3: Obama’s false claim of Capitol janitors receiving ‘a pay cut’

The president offered an evocative image at a news conference when the sequester struck – janitors sweeping the empty halls of the Capitol, laboring for less pay. But it turned out that he was completely wrong. Janitorial staff did not face a pay cut — and Capitol Hill administrative officials even issued a statement saying the president’s remarks were “not true.” So he earned Four Pinocchios. (Biggest Pinocchios list)

4: Did Obama exempt 1,200 groups, including Congress, from Obamacare?

Here, we took to task Republican claims that the president exempted more than 1,200 groups, including members of Congress, from the health-care law. This was greatly overstated. Though Republicans give the impression that vast segments of politically connected “groups” have been excused from the health-care law, it was really just a one-year waiver intended to make the transition to the new system easier for people with bare-bones insurance. The issue concerning Congress is more complex, but the bottom line is that the administration’s action was intended to reduce an unintended burden, not carve out an exception. The claims earned Three Pinocchios.


5: The White House’s curious silence about Obama’s claim of skeet shooting

This was a very controversial subject for a fact check. Initially, we thought it was curious that the White House would not respond to questions about the president’s statement that he goes skeet shooting “all the time” while at Camp David. We noted that there was no history of Obama ever speaking about this pastime – and that he rarely visits Camp David. We concluded with a “verdict pending” and urged the release of a photograph. Two days later, the White House did release a photograph — and some readers were upset that we did not immediately change our ruling to a Geppetto Checkmark. But in the end we said the issue was settled.

6: Ted Cruz’s claims on Obamacare focus on losers, not winners

We faulted the junior senator from Texas for always focusing on the losers from the law, without acknowledging that there are winners as well. The full impact of the health-care law will not be known for years, and there are bound to be winners and losers in any major change in social policy. By focusing just on the losers, in such stark terms, Cruz undercuts his ability to highlight what he considers the flaws in Obamacare. This column examined a number of his specific claims, finally settling on an overall rating of Two Pinocchios.

7: 4 Pinocchios for a slashing NRA ad on security at Sidwell Friends School

The National Rifle Association, in a tough television ad on gun-control measures and in a longer four-minute video presentation, highlighted what it saw as “elitist” hypocrisy by Obama because his children are “protected by armed guards at their school.” While the law requires the president’s children to have Secret Service protection, the ad clearly referred to armed security guards at Sidwell Friends School. But the guards there do not carry guns, so the ad was based on a false premise, earning it Four Pinocchios. (Biggest Pinocchios list)

8: A bushel of Pinocchios for IRS’s Lois Lerner

This column examined three key statements made in May by Lois G. Lerner, at the time the IRS’s director of the exempt organizations division, concerning the disclosure by the IRS that it had targeted conservative groups seeking tax-exempt status. The statements all fell short in the wake of the facts that later emerged about the controversy, and so she earned Four Pinocchios. In September, Lerner resigned from the IRS after an internal review board determined that she should be removed from the agency for “neglect of duties.”

9: Sarah Palin’s misreading of polling data

If there’s a politician on the right who inspires as much attention  as Obama does on the left, it would be Sarah Palin. (Another Palin fact check is also in the top 20.) She argued that Mitt Romney lost the support of so-called Reagan Democrats in swing states, thus costing him the election, and that Hispanic voters do not favor a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Neither assertion was borne out by the data. Among Hispanics, there is overwhelming support for policies that would provide a path to citizenship. Meanwhile, Obama did more poorly among white working-class voters in 2012 than in 2008, even in key swing states. Palin earned Three Pinocchios.

10: Annotating Obama’s 2006 speech against boosting the debt limit

Earlier this year, we were curious to look back at Obama’s 2006 speech in the Senate and examine the case he made at the time for not supporting a boost in the debt limit. The young senator from Illinois presumably did not want to buck the rest of his party establishment in voting for increasing the debt limit — not when there were just enough Republicans willing to support a president from their own party. But we noted that Obama would be on much more solid ground for arguing for an increase in the debt limit if he had given a speech back in 2006 that sounded more like his news conferences in 2013. He earned a rare upside-down Pinocchio, signifying a major-league flip-flop.

10: Why is the national debt $16 trillion?

At the start of the year, when Congress and the White House were battling over the fiscal cliff and the national debt limit, we offered a refresher course on the source of the nation’s $16 trillion debt. The data show that the growth of the debt in the last three decades has been a bipartisan enterprise, with only Bill Clinton reducing debt as a percentage of the U.S. economy. But even during his presidency, debt owed to Social Security, Medicare and the like kept climbing as a share of the U.S. economy. Indeed, an increasingly large portion of the debt is money that the government owes to itself because of borrowing from large entitlement programs such as Social Security and the Medicare. No Pinocchios were awarded, as this column was intended to explain a complex issue.

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