Worst Fact Check Ever: FactCheck.org fancies itself the authoritative, objective, non-partisan fact-checking site on the web, but, in fact, it needs to be fact checked itself in many cases. The worst example is its fact-checking of the first Obama-McCain debate.
Example 1: Diplomatic talks with adversaries of the US
Obama said McCain adviser Henry Kissinger backs talks with Iran "without preconditions," but McCain disputed that. In fact, Kissinger did recently call for "high level" talks with Iran starting at the secretary of state level and said, "I do not believe that we can make conditions." After the debate the McCain campaign issued a statement quoting Kissinger as saying he didn't favor presidential talks with Iran.
This is a very mealy-mouthed fact check (and the later detailed analysis doesn't get any closer to the truth). In fact, there are at least two other very good fact checks of the debate, ThinkProgress's real-time fact check, and the Washington Post's next-day effort. The continuing "disagreement" between McCain and Obama over this issue stems from McCain's change of the terms of the debate. He is mischaracterizing Obama's original statement, concentrating on the *level* of the talks, whereas Obama is concentrating on whether or not there are preconditions. It is the latter that Obama has consistently criticized the Bush adminstration for using as a way to prevent any diplomatic contact with the US's foreign adversaries. Kissinger is on record as favoring talks without preconditions at the level of Secretary of State. Obama's position is clearly that high-level talks are needed without precondition, not that they must be engaged in by the President. In short, none of the three fact checks quite gets this one right, seems to me.
Example 2: The legendary $42K tax increase
Obama denied voting for a bill that called for increased taxes on "people" making as little as $42,000 a year, as McCain accused him of doing. McCain was right, though only for single taxpayers. A married couple would have had to make $83,000 to be affected by the vote, and anyway no such increase is in Obama's tax plan.
This is so incredibly bad as to be laughable -- even the WaPo gets this one right:
John McCain claimed that Obama voted in the Senate to raise taxes on anyone making more than $42,000 a year. This is misleading on several levels. The vote that McCain is talking about was a non-binding resolution on the budget that envisioned letting the Bush tax cuts to expire, as scheduled, in 2011. But these budget resolutions come up every year, and do not represent a vote for higher taxes in future years. In fact, Obama has said that he will continue the Bush tax cuts for middle and low-income taxpayers. He says that he will cut taxes for all but the wealthiest tax-payers.
The detailed analysis is a great example of "burying the lede:"
The resolution actually would not have altered taxes without additional legislation. It called generally for allowing most of the 2001 and 2003 Bush tax cuts to expire. McCain is referring to the provision that would have allowed the 25 percent tax bracket to return to 28 percent. The tax plan Obama now proposes, however, would not raise the rate on that tax bracket.
In other words, the legislation that Obama voted for wouldn't have raised anyone's taxes, because only *other* legislation could have done that, and secondly, this is not a part of Obama's tax plan. *That* should have been the fact check conclusion at the top of the article, not buried here in the "analysis" section, where it is not even clearly drawn out to show that McCain's use of this old canard is simply another example of McCain's profound dishonesty.
Example 3: McCain's $700 billion in "foreign aid"
McCain repeated his overstated claim that the U.S. pays $700 billion a year for oil to hostile nations. Imports are running at about $536 billion this year, and a third of it comes from Canada, Mexico and the U.K.
This is a truly egregious example, in that the "fact check" accepts the McCain campaign's spin, allowing them to compare apples to oranges, and then does nothing but quibble over whether it's a McIntosh or a Red Delicious being compared to the orange. A real fact check from the WaPo:
When discussuing what ways he would save money in the federal budget, McCain said, "Look, we're sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much." This is a line he used in his campaign acceptance speech, but as a matter of context he was not talking about foreign aid. That only amounts to $39 bllion a year, most of which is economic aid. McCain instead is talking about the amount of money that Americans spend on foreign oil, though some experts think that figure is a bit high. It certainly is not part of the federal budget.
And ThinkProgress's version of the same fact check:
Discussing ways he would save money in the federal budget, McCain said, ?Look, we?re sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don?t like us very much.? But as the Washington Post?s Glenn Kessler points out, McCain is confusing foreign aid with the amount of money that Americans spend on foreign oil. The U.S. spends only $39 bllion a year in foreign aid.
The only justification for FactCheck'org's acceptance of McCain's framing of the issue as oil money is to ignore the context within the debate. From the transcript:
OBAMA: The problem with a spending freeze is you're using a hatchet where you need a scalpel. There are some programs that are very important that are under funded. I went to increase early childhood education and the notion that we should freeze that when there may be, for example, this Medicare subsidy doesn't make sense.
Let me tell you another place to look for some savings. We are currently spending $10 billion a month in Iraq when they have a $79 billion surplus. It seems to me that if we're going to be strong at home as well as strong abroad, that we have to look at bringing that war to a close.
MCCAIN: Look, we are sending $700 billion a year overseas to countries that don't like us very much. Some of that money ends up in the hands of terrorist organizations.
The issue is clearly *government* expenditures, but McCain is talking about the total that the US economy spends on foreign oil. This is a completely non sequiture, and rather -like in its ADD switch from the topic of discussion to one of his debate-prepped talking points. FactCheck.org accepts McCain's context switch (and, not suprisingly, McCain uses inaccurate numbers even in his own private context), and ignores the fact that he's making a really stupid claim that sounds to the casual listener as though the US spends $700 billion in governmental expenditures for foreign aid. This is either profoundly dishonest on McCain's part, or just sloppy debating. Either way, no fact checker should be led by the nose this easily.
Amusingly enough, the editors of the article seem surprised at the idea that the context was actually different from what they "fact checked," since they add this parenthetical comment:
(Note: A few of our readers messaged us, after we first noted McCain's mistake, with the thought that he was referring to foreign aid and not to oil. If so he's even farther off than we supposed: The entire budget for the State Department and International Programs works out to just $51.3 million.)
Ya think? Geez. There is no question that in the actual context of the debate (i.e., following Obama's remarks on Federal spending) McCain's switch of subject away from government spending to the whole country's expenditures on foreign oil leads to the implication (intended by McCain or not), that he's talking about government spending on foreign aid.
Example 4: Percentage who get Obama's tax cuts
Obama said 95 percent of "the American people" would see a tax cut under his proposal. The actual figure is 81 percent of households.
This is a case of cherry picking Obama's words. At one point in the debate, what Obama said. From the transcript:
...Now, $18 billion is important; $300 billion is really important.
And in his [McCain's] tax plan, you would have CEOs of Fortune 500 companies getting an average of $700,000 in reduced taxes, while leaving 100 million Americans out.
So my attitude is, we've got to grow the economy from the bottom up. What I've called for is a tax cut for 95 percent of working families, 95 percent.
And that means that the ordinary American out there who's collecting a paycheck every day, they've got a little extra money to be able to buy a computer for their kid, to fill up on this gas that is killing them.
Obama was *very* clear here on who it applied to, not 95% of taxpayers, but 95% of "working families." It's no surprise that this "fact check" is not included in the others, since this is just a made-up error in the FactCheck.org version, which bases its "fact check" on another context, in which Obama said this:
My definition -- here's what I can tell the American people: 95 percent of you will get a tax cut. And if you make less than $250,000, less than a quarter-million dollars a year, then you will not see one dime's worth of tax increase.
Now, to me, the second sentence makes precisely clear what he means, by virtue of citing the cutoff for his tax cuts (i.e., $250K). In the context of the debate, it's even clearer, since it was the question of "who is rich." The "fact check" is only true if you ignore the relationship between the two sentences uttered back-to-back by Obama.
Example 5: McCain's health care "plan"
Obama mischaracterized an aspect of McCain's health care plan, saying "employers" would be taxed on the value of health benefits provided to workers. Employers wouldn't, but the workers would. McCain also would grant workers up to a $5,000 tax credit per family to cover health insurance.
This one is close, in that Obama was a bit elliptical in how he worded it (from the transcript):
Just one last point I want to make, since Senator McCain talked about providing a $5,000 health credit. Now, what he doesn't tell you is that he intends to, for the first time in history, tax health benefits.
So you may end up getting a $5,000 tax credit. Here's the only problem: Your employer now has to pay taxes on the health care that you're getting from your employer. And if you end up losing your health care from your employer, you've got to go out on the open market and try to buy it.
The fact is, employee withholding will have to go up, which means that an employer's payments in taxes to the Federal government will go up. But those taxes will be taken out of the employee's paycheck. The principle behind employee-provided healthcare was that the cost was tax-free, and it allowed the employer to provide non-taxed benefits. If those benefits are taxable, it becomes a good question why the employer should provide them at all, and the assumption among many experts is that employers will simply drop their health plans entirely, leaving the employees to find their own health insurance. So, while it's technically true that the taxes will be paid with a check from your employer, the employer is just passing through money taken out of the employees' paychecks.
I'd score this as another of those fact checks that gets the detail right (McIntosh vs. Red Delicious) and misses the main point. You'll also note that it's not an issue mentioned on either of the other fact checkers, which tells you something about whether or not it was in need of any comment.
The last really annoying thing about this article is that the summary omits a boatload of the detailed fact checks in the analysis section. Why would that be? Well, perhaps it's because in the details, it becomes quite clear that most of the factual errors were by McCain -- by cherry picking which fact checks to put at the head of the article in summary format, they make it look like there was some kind of parity between the two candidates, with both Obama and McCain saying a few things that were inaccurate. But, once again, here we have the media coddling a Republican for lying by putting the truth beneath the fold: McCain lies a lot and Obama only occasionally shades the truth (and usually because he's being elliptical, not because he's misrepresenting basic facts).