Monday, April 25, 2011

Politi-facting PolitiFact

After a rather pointed conversation with a PolitiFact reporter on April 14th, I wrote this blog in advance of an expected “false” rating from PolitiFact, but didn’t publish this in advance of their opinion piece. Here’s what I originally wrote with some new information added at the end.

Two months ago (fact check that) I wrote a blog called “Scott Walker’s Top Ten Lies”. I laid out a number of the lies and misinformation that Governor Walker had put out during the introduction and debate about the budget repair bill.

In point number 9, I explained that Walker is blaming state workers for the fiscal crisis, when in reality the amount of money raised in the repair bill from increased contributions to healthcare and pensions was less than 1/10th of one percent of the state budget. That amount, therefore, did not drive any alleged problem.

However, in leading up to that, I made mention that total salary and compensation amounted to about 8.5 % of the total budget. While the total salary and compensation figure is closer to 17.7% of the total budget, I was referring to a memo from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau that excluded two agencies – Corrections and the UW System – due to their unique nature. The balance of state agencies totals 8.5%.

Here’s why. The Department of Corrections has been hands off in every budget as you don’t really have that much flexibility in reducing staff numbers. But the real thrust of excluding them is that during the furlough process, we didn’t have great savings here because we still had to staff Corrections 24/7 causing a situation where when a furloughed shift was off, often immediately following an OVERTIME shift was created to keep staffing. And, the UW System has a large number of partially and fully FEDERALLY funded positions, thus furlough and other savings would be largely non-existent due to the funding sources of those positions (they aren’t STATE dollars). Thus, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau, the remaining totaled 8.5 percent. I didn’t make up the number, it came from them.

But that figure is interchangeable to the point I made – that the salary and benefit total “saved” is less than 1/10th of 1 percent of the budget repair bill. That is a fact, from the budget repair document itself (current budget is $65,775,284,400 according to Table 1 of Appropriations and Authorizations page of the Legislative Fiscal Bureau budget summary of Act 28 – the budget. The “savings” from having employees pay in for their health insurance and pensions in the budget repair bill for the current budget is $29,800.00. Do the math, its actually less than 1/20th of one percent).

Should have I been more clear with the 17.7%? In retrospect yes, as I should have written one more paragraph as I did above explaining why I used the remaining 8.5%. But that doesn’t change the point I was making at all.

Regardless which number you use, the just-under $30 million savings is under 1/10th of one percent of the budget EXACTLY as stated in my blog. That would be called a FACT, everywhere but PolitiFact.

However, with all the lies from the Republicans, the staff at Polifact apparently needed to address Walker staff concerns and rate a Democrat with a False rating despite that it was not the point of my blog.

I told the reporter just this via phone and email. Here is what sent to the reporter:

Dear Tom,

Thanks for our conversation today. I appreciate being able to explain my point in the two-month old blog you are referencing.

As I stated, I expect that you will focus on All Ten of the Top Ten Lies of Scott Walker. At minimum, I hope you will reference the point of item number nine – that Walker’s blaming the budgetary problems on the benefits paid to state workers is completely false. The total saved in the budget repair bill discussed is less than $30 million according to the bill itself, well under the 1/10th of one percent of the total budget referenced in my blog. I have provided that documentation to you, though it is public record as well.

Let me also note that there has been no PolitiFact evaluation yet on Governor Walker’s lie about the cut spending in the proposed budget; since then it has been shown the budget has an increase of $609.5 million.

I’m sure there are plenty of others. I know your hands are full. If you need any additional information, please feel free to contact me.

Mark Pocan

As a journalism major, I appreciate the profession and also the responsibilities of that profession. I didn’t post this ahead of time because I think it would be wrong to scoop a journalist who called me about a story.

Here’s the problem with PolitiFact. The point I was making was clear – you can’t blame state employees for budgetary problems as the amount being asked for in healthcare and pension contributions was much, much smaller than the scope of the alleged problem. It was less than 1/10th of one percent to be exact.

To ignore my point – much less the other nine points in my blog – is not good or fair journalism. (I guess the fact that they didn’t challenge any of the actual ten points means they agree Walker really lied. Too bad they had to dig that deep to find something to criticize.)

I’m disappointed, but more importantly, I wanted to share just how the Polifacts process works – or better said – doesn’t work at times.

I would expect better, and I hope that’s what we all get in the future.


Added as of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel publishing: Wow, I guess I am even more amazed/offended at two additional points.

1) The reporter, Tom Kertscher, lied. There is no sugar coating it. If you read the blog above, I clearly responded via email the same day (3:47 pm in fact) with the documents making my point. I will try calling him today to see if he merely lied or “didn’t get” it, but luckily I saved it in my sent file and cc’d a fellow journalist of his. Why he needed to lie to make his point makes me wonder if all the others that supposedly don’t respond to PolitiFact – both Democrats and Republicans – actually replied, but he didn’t share the truth with us.

2) Here is what he wrote in Sunday’s paper:

The Madison Democrat, a 13-year lawmaker, had this to say about what he labeled lie No. 9:

"Walker has said that our budget problems are largely due to employee wages. Not even close, Governor. Total salaries and compensation in the last budget were 8.5 percent of the entire state budget."

Here is what I wrote in the blog post (go ahead and check it):

9) Walker has said that our budget problems are largely due to employee wages. Not even close, Governor. Total salaries and compensation in the last budget were 8.5%* of the entire state budget. Even with the changes being made to paying more for health insurance and pensions, the total is less than 1/10th of one percent. Our real problem is the same as every state – revenues in sales tax and income tax are down due to unemployment. Luckily, unless Walker really blows it, he inherited a lower unemployment rate and a better tax collection rebound than most states in the nation. (underlining added) (Also, another paragraph explained the 8.5%* number, which included the 17.7% number)

The point of item #9 was that the approx. $30 million “saved” was a very insignificant amount in the totality of the budget, thus not driving the need for a budget repair. He intentionally left that part out, despite our telephone conversation where I emphatically explained this over and over. That was the first sign that this was a rigged process. His intentional non-inclusion can only be seen as deceitful at best.

Look, I don’t know how big this is in the grand scheme of the world. I just know that I have seen numerous times PolitiFact misrepresent or miscall items on both Republicans and Democrats in their quest to win the Pulitzer. If you don’t have enough real stuff to print daily, go every other day. Don’t just make things up. My guess is if they keep this up, they may instead be nominated for the Burlington Liar’s Club Award.

I’ll say it again. I would expect better, and I hope that’s what we all get in the future.


  1. Here is the problem. Republicans lie more than Democrats. But PolitiFact simply can't say that - they wouldn't look fair.

  2. Well and thoroughly explained. Another example of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. I don't know if it would do any good, but journalists should have to take a Hippocratic-type oath.

  3. Thoroughly and well explained. Another case of not letting the facts get in the way of a good story. Unfortunate that the reporter doesn't take the name of the column seriously. I don't know that it would make a difference, but journalists should have to take a Hippocratic-type oath.

  4. Jeez, Mark, didn't you learn in your Journalism classes that news has to be "fair and balanced?" :)