The reason “fact checking” has become such a joke is the the supposed fact-checkers can’t seem to limit themselves to checking the facts. They also want to check that the facts give the right impression. This is natural for leftist journalists, I suppose, since the actual facts give an impression that they don’t want.
This has led the fact checkers to such absurdities as Politifact grading an objectively true statement — crime is rising — as “pants on fire,” their lowest possible rating. Murders rose by 10.8% in 2015 and other violent crime increased as well, but Politifact said that “crime is rising” is not only false, but actually absurd. Their justification is that, although crime rose in 2015 (and probably 2016), it is to soon to say that the long-term downward trend is over. This true fact gives (what they view as) a false impression, so they call it false.
Another problem with grading impressions rather than the underlying facts, is they aren’t able to do it consistently. When two politicians made essentially the same statement (the official unemployment rate doesn’t capture real unemployment), they graded one of them (the politician they like) “mostly true” and the other one “pants on fire.”
Once you go down that path, you’re not fact-checking any more, you’re just writing an opinion column. And if you want a leftist opinion column, there are much better ones than Politifact, Glenn Kessler, et al. Still, I think there’s room for a misleading fact-check. By “misleading”, I mean one that grades statements according to whether they are literally true, and doesn’t worry about whether they might lead to false impressions.
So let’s go through the first presidential debate and do exactly that. We’ll limit ourselves to determinate claims of fact, not to opinions. (We won’t assess whether Trump has a winning temperament, or whether Mexican industry is the eighth wonder of the world.) I also won’t grade claims made about private or classified conversations, or about their own state of mind, since there’s no way to know. We will still have to make some judgement calls, since some claims are ambiguous. Our rule will be that ambiguities are construed in favor of the speaker (even when I don’t think that’s what he/she really meant). Statements that too ambiguous to construe as concrete claims, I will simply omit.
I’ll put the statement (drawn from the Washington Post’s debate transcript) in bold, and my evaluation in plain typeface.
TRUMP: [China is] devaluing their currency. True. +1 Trump.
TRUMP: So Ford is leaving. You see that, their small car division leaving.Thousands of jobs leaving Michigan, leaving Ohio. This hasn’t happened yet, but Ford has announced it. +1 Trump.
TRUMP: All you have to do is take a look at Carrier air conditioning in Indianapolis. They left — fired 1,400 people. They’re going to Mexico. True. +1 Trump.
CLINTON: We are 5 percent of the world’s population. 4.4% is close enough. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: He started his business with $14 million, borrowed from his father. Actually, it was much more than that. We’ll construe her claim with an implicit “at least”. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: My father was a small-businessman. . . He printed drapery fabrics on long tables. True. +1 Clinton.
TRUMP: I built [my father’s loan] into a company that’s worth many, many billions of dollars. Impossible to determine with the information he has released.
TRUMP: Let me give you the example of Mexico. They have a VAT tax. We’re on a different system. When we sell into Mexico, there’s a tax. When they sell in — automatic, 16 percent, approximately. This much is true. +1 Trump.
TRUMP: When they [Mexico] sell into us, there’s no tax. Although it is true that the US does not have a federal sales tax or VAT, plenty of states have sales taxes. It’s not true there’s no tax when they sell in America. This would have been literally true if he had said there was no Federal tax, but with his phrasing it’s false. -1 Trump.
TRUMP: We owe $20 trillion. The national debt held by the public is $13.6 trillion. But if you include intragovernmental holdings, it’s $19 trillion, which is close enough. According to our rules, we’ll resolve this ambiguity in favor of the speaker. +1 Trump.
CLINTON: Well, let’s stop for a second and remember where we were eight years ago. . . Nine million people — nine million people lost their jobs. False. By September 2008, we had lost 1.7 million jobs. If you include the rest of 2008, you get to 3.6 million. To get close to 9 million, you have to include the first year of the Obama administration in which 5 million jobs were lost. -1 Clinton.
CLINTON: . . . Five million people lost their homes. False. 862 thousand families lost their homes in 2008. To get to 5 million, you have to include five years of the Obama administration. -1 Clinton.
CLINTON: . . . And $13 trillion in family wealth was wiped out. True. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: Donald thinks that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. . . TRUMP: I did not. I did not. I do not say that. We can’t know what he thinks, but he did say that. +1 Clinton, -1 Trump.
TRUMP: We invested in a solar company, our country. . . They lost plenty of money on that one. Solyndra cost the government between $535 million and $849 million, which satisfies a reasonable interpretation of “plenty of money.” +1 Trump.
TRUMP: Well, [Bill Clinton] approved NAFTA. . . True. +1 Trump.
CLINTON: [During the Clinton administration] Incomes went up for everybody. True. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: Manufacturing jobs went up also in the 1990s. . . If you construe 1990s to mean the Clinton administration, manufacturing jobs went up slightly. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: When I was secretary of state, we actually increased American exports globally 30 percent. We increased them to China 50 percent. As long as you’re talking about exports, not net exports, this is plausible. (It’s very sensitive to exactly how you measure and I wasn’t able to produce exactly this number.) +1 Clinton.
TRUMP: And now you want to approve Trans-Pacific Partnership. You were totally in favor of it. . . CLINTON: Well, that is just not accurate. I was against it once it was finally negotiated and the terms were laid out. . . TRUMP: You called it the gold standard. CLINTON: No. TRUMP: . . . CLINTON: Well, Donald, I know you live in your own reality, but that is not the facts. The facts are — I did say I hoped it would be a good deal. . . Hillary said “This TPP sets the gold standard in trade agreements to open free, transparent, fair trade, the kind of environment that has the rule of law and a level playing field.” She did not say “hoped”. It is true that the deal wasn’t negotiated at that time, so it’s possible she changed her mind once it was, but we’re not grading their private thoughts. +1 Trump, -1 Clinton.
HOLT: Secretary Clinton, you’re calling for a tax increase on the wealthiest Americans. . . And, Mr. Trump, you’re calling for tax cuts for the wealthy. Obviously true. +1 Holt.
TRUMP: But you will learn more about Donald Trump by going down to the federal elections, where I filed a 104-page essentially financial statement of sorts, the forms that they have. It shows income — in fact, the income — I just looked today — the income is filed at $694 million for this past year, $694 million. TL;DR, but that seems to be in the right ballpark for what the document says. +1 Trump.
TRUMP: I’ve been under audit almost for 15 years. This seems impossible to verify or disprove.
CLINTON: We have been told through investigative reporting that [Trump] owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks. The New York Times did report this. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: We have an architect in the audience who designed one of your clubhouses at one of your golf courses. It’s a beautiful facility. It immediately was put to use. And you wouldn’t pay what the man needed to be paid, what he was charging you to do. . . The architect exists and alleges what she says. It would be better if she said “alleges”, but we’ll call this true. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: You even at one time suggested that you would try to negotiate down the national debt of the United States. TRUMP: Wrong. Wrong. This is muddled. Trump gave an interview in which he sounded like he was suggesting that, but during the same interview he gave a plausible clarification. We’ll resolve the ambiguity in favor of the speaker for both of them. +1 Clinton, +1 Trump.
HOLT: Stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional in New York, because it largely singled out black and Hispanic young men. There’s been a lot of talk about this, but Holt is wrong. The Supreme Court has upheld stop-and-frisk, and district judges don’t overrule the Supreme Court. The ruling in question found that stop-and-frisk as applied by New York at the time was unconstitutional. -1 Holt.
TRUMP: No, you’re wrong. It went before a judge, who was a very against-police judge. It was taken away from her. And our mayor, our new mayor, refused to go forward with the case. They would have won an appeal. If you look at it, throughout the country, there are many places where it’s allowed. It’s true that the case was taken away from the judge; it’s true that the mayor refused to appeal; and it’s true it’s still legal in many places. Whether the judge was “very against-police” and what would have happened on appeal are opinion. +1 Trump.
TRUMP: . . . you have 3,000 shootings in Chicago from January 1st . . . True. +1 Trump.
TRUMP: . . . you have 4,000 people killed in Chicago by guns, from the beginning of the presidency of Barack Obama . . . I wasn’t able to find gun deaths specifically, but the number of murders is in the right ballpark for that to be plausible. +1 Trump.
CLINTON: Violent crime is one-half of what it was in 1991. Property crime is down 40 percent. True, crime rates peaked in 1991. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: If you’re a young African-American man and you do the same thing as a young white man, you are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted, and incarcerated. I wasn’t able to find a study with precisely this finding (it’s hard to control for “do the same thing”), but with all the studies finding disparities in the criminal justice system, we’ll say this is plausible. +1 Clinton.
TRUMP: In New York City, stop-and-frisk, we had 2,200 murders, and stop-and-frisk brought it down to 500 murders. The cause is opinion (and I don’t agree), but the numbers are accurate. +1 Trump.
CLINTON: Well, it’s also fair to say, if we’re going to talk about mayors, that under the current mayor, crime has continued to drop, including murders. So there is… TRUMP: No, you’re wrong. You’re wrong. CLINTON: No, I’m not. TRUMP: Murders are up. All right. You check it. The year before Bill DeBlasio took office there were 332 murders in New York City. Last year there were 352. That’s not a big increase, but it’s certainly not still falling. -1 Clinton, +1 Trump.
TRUMP (regarding who started birtherism): Sidney Blumenthal works for the campaign and close — very close friend of Secretary Clinton. And her campaign manager, Patti Doyle, went to — during the campaign, her campaign against President Obama, fought very hard. . . And if you look at CNN this past week, Patti Solis Doyle was on Wolf Blitzer saying that this happened. Blumenthal sent McClatchy, highly respected reporter at McClatchy, to Kenya to find out about it. He garbled the heck out of this, but something like this happened. +1 Trump.
TRUMP: When I got involved, I didn’t fail. I got him to give the birth certificate. That much is true. +1 Trump, I guess.
HOLT: The birth certificate was produced in 2011. You’ve continued to tell the story and question the president’s legitimacy in 2012, ’13, ’14, ’15. . . True. +1 Holt.
CLINTON: Donald started his career back in 1973 being sued by the Justice Department for racial discrimination because he would not rent apartments in one of his developments to African-Americans. True, except for it being the start of his career. +1 Clinton.
TRUMP: We settled the suit with zero — with no admission of guilt. True. +1 Trump.
CLINTON: It’s one of the reasons why 50 national security officials who served in Republican information — in administrations . . . have said that Donald is unfit to be the commander- in-chief. It was national security and/or foreign policy officials, but close enough. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: I was involved in a number of efforts to take out Al Qaida leadership when I was secretary of state, including, of course, taking out bin Laden. Yeah, yeah. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: Donald supported the invasion of Iraq. TRUMP: Wrong. The claim that Trump supported the invasion of Iraq hinges on this: “Yeah, I guess . . . sooo.” Listen to the recording to get a sense of how unenthusiastic he was. He did say the words, though. On the other hand, he came out against it before it took place. He was never in a position to cast a vote, which would have made his position clear. There’s enough ambiguity here that we’ll give this one to both of them. +1 Clinton, +1 Trump.
CLINTON: He actually advocated for the actions we took in Libya and urged that Gadhafi be taken out. True. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: George W. Bush made the agreement about when American troops would leave Iraq, not Barack Obama. This is misleading: The way the agreement worked was it needed to be renegotiated periodically. If it was allowed to expire, it contained a clause requiring American withdrawal. But, according to our rules, this is literally true. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: The only way that American troops could have stayed in Iraq is to get an agreement from the then-Iraqi government that would have protected our troops, and the Iraqi government would not give that. This is unknowable because Obama never tried.
TRUMP: I read on the front page of the Wall Street Journal that NATO is opening up a major terror division. True. +1 Trump.
TRUMP: We pay approximately 73 percent of the cost of NATO. True, in the sense of being responsible for 73% of all defense spending by NATO partners. +1 Trump.
HOLT: Mr. Trump, a lot of these are judgment questions. You had supported the war in Iraq before the invasion. . . TRUMP: I did not support the war in Iraq. [More of the same.] As above, except that Holt is a little more careful (“had supported . . . before the invasion”) than Hillary. +1 Holt, +1 Trump.
CLINTON: You know, NATO as a military alliance has something called Article 5, and basically it says this: An attack on one is an attack on all. And you know the only time it’s ever been invoked? After 9/11, when the 28 nations of NATO said that they would go to Afghanistan with us to fight terrorism, something that they still are doing by our side. True. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: [Trump] said, you know, if [Iran] taunted our sailors, I’d blow them out of the water and start another war. He didn’t say start a war, but if we read that part as her commentary, not as part of the quote, this is true. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: [Trump] has said repeatedly that he didn’t care if other nations got nuclear weapons, Japan, South Korea, even Saudi Arabia. I don’t know about repeatedly, but he has said this. +1 Clinton.
TRUMP: Just to go down the list, we defend Japan, we defend Germany, we defend South Korea, we defend Saudi Arabia, we defend countries. They do not pay us. False. Japan and South Korea pay us. -1 Trump.
TRUMP (regarding the Iran deal): One of the great giveaways of all time, of all time, including $400 million in cash. Nobody’s ever seen that before. That turned out to be wrong. It was actually $1.7 billion in cash. True. +1 Trump.
HOLT: Earlier this month, you said [Hillary] doesn’t have, quote, “a presidential look.” True. +1 Holt.
CLINTON: [Trump] is a man who has called women pigs, slobs and dogs. True. +1 Clinton.
CLINTON: [Trump is] someone who has said pregnancy is an inconvenience to employers. TRUMP: I never said that. He said it. +1 Clinton, -1 Trump.
CLINTON: [Trump said] women don’t deserve equal pay unless they do as good a job as men. TRUMP: I didn’t say that. (I have to interject here: why on earth is this a controversial proposition? Of course people don’t deserve equal pay if they don’t do as good a job!) What Trump said was, “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.” Hillary is committing a logical fallacy, going from “P implies Q” to “not P implies not Q.” -1 Clinton. (I’m not giving +1 Trump, because when you listen, I think he is still replying to Clinton’s previous statement.)
CLINTON: And one of the worst things [Trump] said was about a woman in a beauty contest. He loves beauty contests, supporting them and hanging around them. And he called this woman “Miss Piggy.” Then he called her “Miss Housekeeping,” because she was Latina. . . Her name is Alicia Machado. The Trump camp has tried to rebut this with Machado’s very checkered past (allegations of murder, death threats, links to organized crime), but he did say those things. +1 Clinton.
TRUMP: She spent hundreds of millions of dollars on negative ads on me, many of which are absolutely untrue. It’s certainly true that she’s spent millions on attack ads. Whether they were untrue is beyond the scope of this fact-check. + 1 Trump.
TRUMP: I’m either winning or tied, and I’ve spent practically nothing. True. +1 Trump.
HOLT: One of you will not win this election. Preferably both. +1 Holt.
TRUMP: The other day, we were deporting 800 people. And perhaps they passed the wrong button, they pressed the wrong button, or perhaps worse than that, it was corruption, but these people that we were going to deport for good reason ended up becoming citizens. Ended up becoming citizens. And it was 800. And now it turns out it might be 1,800, and they don’t even know. True. +1 Trump.
Tallying up the score, we have Trump +25/-4, Clinton +25/-5, Holt +5/-1. So all three participants were almost exactly as accurate, when it comes to verifiable claims of fact. This is not to deny that an awful lot of nonsense was peddled on that stage, but when it comes to verifiable claims of fact, both candidates were correct by a ratio of about 5:1 or 6:1.
Is 5:1 or 6:1 good enough? If we look at it as a test of remembering facts, that’s probably a B. On the other hand, if we assume they both have very good memories, and it’s a test of honesty, then 5:1 or 6:1 is terrible.