The Washington Post

Fact-checking Michele Bachmann

Jun 28, 2011

Michele Bachmann received a rating of "two Pinocchios, but that's only because we do not use 1/2 Pinocchios" from Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler after he reviewed her Presidential candidacy announcement speech and the interviews that preceded it. Kessler live chatted with readers about his fact-checking.

Related: Fact-checking Michele Bachmann's announcement speech and Sunday interviews

Welcome to this chat on Michele Bachmann or whatever questions you have for The Fact Checker. Let's get started!

Is your ranking affected by something that is stated incorrectly, possibly because it was a convenient talking point grabbed from some other source as opposed to a knowingly false statement used purposely to deceive? I know you have to impart intent here, but some statements seem so blatantly false, it must be intentional.

The hardest part of the job is assigning the Pinocchios. I admit to some extent it is subjective, but I try to be consistent. I weigh such factors as whether they make a big deal about it, whether they based it on a reliable source, how much they took out of context and so forth. 

Intent is very difficult to determine. But yes, it appears some statements are so extreme that it must have been done deliberately. That certainly gets it into the 4 Pinocchio realm!

Isn't there a difference between a mistake like saying John Wayne was born in Waterloo and saying that CO2 is harmless? Who cares if some advance staffer got it wrong about who was from Waterloo or that she heard John Wayne but not the last name? Why zero in on things like that instead of bigger issues

Good question. I frankly wasn't too bothered by the John Wayne from Waterloo-Winterset mix-up. (I did not "fact check" it.) It is easy to make a mistake like that--it is certainly embarassing--though obviously a politician has to be careful they do not have a pattern of misstatements. Bachmann certainly has to watch that. 

Are you a compulsive fact-checker outside the workplace as well? If so, what happens when you and your Significant Other disagree re some issue of fact? Do you always win?

ha, funny question. My brother claims that this is the perfect job for me because he grew up hearing me say I was always right! 

I do have a good memory for facts and details--don't try to play Trivial Pursuit with me--but my wife and children always check my assertions of "fact" at home. 

First, let me say that I'm a big fan of Fact Checker. It really helps in sorting the wheat from the chaff. I've noticed that Michelle Bachmann is a frequest subject of fact-cheker columns, and if memory serves, she is also a frequest winner of the coveted four Pinoccios. I'm wondering if this is a case of selective memory in my case, or if she really is the master of what Mark Twain called the stretcher. Have you considered a fact-checker scorecard? It could list the people who have been fact-checked, and their records, kind of like in sports: you list the names and how many one, two, three, and four Pinoccios they scored (and also how many times your investigation has shown them to be on the money). Would you consider doing this?

Thanks for the compliment.

We do plan to overhaul the page at some point soon and would like to keep a running score of the presidential candidates. This is an excellent idea, thanks!

Isn't it unfair to other subjects of the Fact Checker when you allow Ms. Bachmann's score to be an average of mis-statements? Some of her statements on their own would qualify as 4s ("Whoppers"), but these are diluted by other, lesser mistatements. Almost everyone else gets fact checked on a single statement, often a single sentence.

I have done averages for other presidential candidates too when they made their announcement speeches. Each of these speeches has a number of assertions, and it seems to make the most sense to check them all in one place.

(She might claim it was unfair of me to fold her interviews in with her speech, since the speech by itself was not so bad in terms of facts.)

Do you hold a public figure to a different standard when fact-checking live responses given to interviewers vs. the statements they make in prepared speeches? One would think it is easier to make a misstatement in the former case. [Submitted by Post staff] 

Yes, a really bad fact in a prepared speech would probably fare worse than something said in an interviews. Context is important. 

If I were claiming Waterloo Iowa as my hometown, I'd know the difference between John Wayne and John Wayne Gacy and who was from Waterloo. You can't blame staff for not knowing something you should know about your hometown.

Here's another perspective re John Wayne. Has she blamed staff? She left when she was 12...maybe this is something she had mixed up from childhood and never thought to doublecheck?

Regarding Bachmann, when can we expect a similar critique of Obama's claims, comments and speeches? Or would that take more newsprint space than you are allowed?

I have done many fact checks of Obama, one of which prompted the White House to issue a response called "Fact Checking The Fact Checker." I try to keep it even between Democrats and Republicans, though all the announcement speeches this month has probably tilted it a bit toward the GOP. It will even out in the end.

Here's a link to the one on Obama that upset the White House:

Isn't Michele Bachmann's claim that she and her husband never received a cent of profits from her father-in-law's farm (when in fact her own financial disclosure forms from her electoral campaigns reveal they've gotten over $250,000) orders of magnitude worse on the Pinocchio scale than gaffes about John Wayne (Gacy) or misplacing "the shot heard round the world" in New Hampshire?

I have not had a chance to personally examine this issue, but yes, one has to keep a sense of proportion about what is a gaffe and what is a deliberate misstatement. 

Bachmann used a USA today study to bash the size of the federal government. Since looking at the USA today article,  I wonder two things... First, this report shows mostly pay raises under Bush, not Obama, and Obama "lowered" the standard pay raise. Is Bachmann ignoring this fact? Second, the study would have been more accurate if it showed total percentage of increase and not attention grabbing lines. "When the recession started, the Transportation Department had only one person earning a salary of $170,000 or more. Eighteen months later, 1,690 employees had salaries above $170,000." It is entirely possible that these 1690 employees mad 169,900 in 2007 and 170100 in 2009, so the imcrease in minimal.

Good for you to check the facts on this. I looked up that same article today when she made this point again today. She certainly does not provide the right context. For those who have not read the USA Today story, here are the reasons they give for the increase:

Key reasons for the boom in six-figure salaries:

• Pay hikes. Then-president Bush recommended — and Congress approved — across-the-board raises of 3% in January 2008 and 3.9% in January 2009. President Obama has recommended 2% pay raises in January 2010, the smallest since 1975. Most federal workers also get longevity pay hikes — called steps — that average 1.5% per year.

•New pay system. Congress created a new National Security Pay Scale for the Defense Department to reward merit, in addition to the across-the-board increases. The merit raises, which started in January 2008, were larger than expected and rewarded high-ranking employees. In October, Congress voted to end the new pay scale by 2012.

• Paycaps eased. Many top civil servants are prohibited from making more than an agency's leader. But if Congress lifts the boss' salary, others get raises, too. When the Federal Aviation Administration chief's salary rose, nearly 1,700 employees' had their salaries lifted above $170,000, too.


It makes it seem less nefarious, right?

Glenn, thanks for taking time to chat. I can only imagine the hard work it takes to do these columns, and would like to think most Post readers share my appreciation of them (even though many of the online comments are sharply critical). BUT (you knew that was coming, didn't you?...:-) I wince whenever you attempt to apply the same analytical rigor to opinions as to statistical claims. Your treatment of Austin Goolsbee's recent statement is a classic case: Both the economists you acknowledge as the pre-eminent experts in the field, and whose research you cite, agree that Goolsbee was right. Yet because two economists who worked for the previous administration say he's wrong, you call it a draw. Why in the world did you give the two sets of opinions equal weight and call it a draw instead of giving Goolsbee a Gepetto or at least a partial thumbs-up? I'd like to suggest that you resist the temptation to tackle quasi-theological claims or at least explain better why you succumb. Surely there's no shortage of outright lies, distortions, etc. to expose. You render a vital public service when you stick to those.

Thanks for the note.

I sat on that one for more than a week.  I would say the score was more like 1 yes, 1 "defensible," 2 no. And the two no's, while working for a different administration, are highly qualified economists.  Part of the problem, for me, at least, was that the current baseline showed a 20 percent shift. But another baseline showed little change. So I was hoping for some clarification from the experts but did not get it.

There are times when I would simply dump a column like that. (I spent a week checking a quote from a politician that I thought was wrong but ultimately decided it wasn't wrong but wasn't right either.) But I thought it was an interesting issue to raise, and worthy to share with readers in any case. 

Do you believe that the media on the whole uses gaffes by conservatives, especially female conservatives (Palin, Bachmann) as proof that they are stupid and/or ignornant,while brushing off gaffes by Democrats (Schumer on the three branches of government being the House, the Senate and the White House, Obama on 57 states, etc.) as simple misstatements by men whose intelligence is beyond doubt?

Gee, I would hope not!  57 states struck me as something said when tired, and I did not check the Waterloo-John Wayne mistake by Bachmann because it did not seem important. I try to check facts that shed light on important issues. (I would argue Paul Revere was important because if you don't know American history, that says something. Some readers, however, thought I bent over backwards to give palin the benefit of the doubt.)

In response to Chris Wallace's "flake" question to Michele Bachmann, Greta Van Susteren (among others) has raised the issue of sexism -- asking "Is this how Chris Wallace would ask the same question of a man?" The implication is that TV hosts don't ask similar questions (in a similar manner) of men. What are the facts? Have you looked into whether that is true?

I certainly thought that was the case, though I have not  checked it. I can't imagine he would have said that to someone like Newt Gingrich, who has certainly said some flaky things in recent weeks. 

What ever happened to the Admin spending 200mil a day in India according to Mrs. Bachmann? Where did she get that number?

She got that from a thinly sourced newspaper article in India. debunked completely. 

Is there a quality rating for the evangelical school where Bachmann got her law degree? Has someone checked with Wm & Mary about her grad degree?

There is some stuff running around on the Internet saying William & Mary only gives this degree to foreign students. That's the case today, but W&M did have this program for Americans when she received the degree. Not sure about her law school's quality rating. 

Thanks for all of the good questions, got to get back to work checking facts!

In This Chat
Glenn Kessler
Glenn Kessler is an acclaimed diplomatic correspondent for The Washington Post and has been recipient of numerous awards, including two shared Pulitzer Prizes. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he has reported from dozens of countries and also has covered the White House and Congress. Kessler is the author of The Confidante: Condoleezza Rice and the Creation of the Bush Legacy. He is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and lives in McLean, Virginia.
Recent Chats
  • Next: