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Politicians use fact checks to validate their own claims

Politicians talk about fact-checking — a lot. But “you don’t have to take my word for it,” as Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington once said, citing a fact check from the Washington Post. In fact, searches in the Congressional Record for 2013 and 2014 found three different senators on four occasions using that same “don’t take my word for it” set-up to discuss a particular fact-checking news story.1 And there were more where those came from.

A review of remarks in the Congressional Record found that 25 Senators — a quarter of the Senate — and 10 members of the House referred to the most prominent national fact-checking sites in speeches and debate at least once during the 113th Congress. The remarks came from both sides of the aisles in both chambers. But two-thirds of the lawmakers who alluded to fact-checkers were Republicans.

And Republicans also referred to fact-checkers more than twice as often as Democrats (57 Republican statements to 26 from Democrats). That was a bit surprising, since other research from the American Press Institute published in March shows that Republican voters have a less favorable attitude toward fact checking than Democrats do.2

Of all 83 statements, only three challenged a fact-checker’s findings. In every other reference, the senators and representatives from both parties cited fact-checkers to reinforce their point or undermine their opponents.

Democrats Republicans House Senate
Mentions 26 57 13 70

Data Source: Congressional Record

American Press Institute

Not all the comments were positive. Even when lawmakers were using fact checks to help make their case, the remarks could be a little grudging.

“Now, I do not always agree with the fact-checkers, who are sometimes wrong,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada — even as he referred directly to rulings by PolitiFact and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker to decry “egregious examples” of erroneous TV ads paid for by groups funded by the Koch brothers.3

Reid’s counterpart, Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was one the most frequent users of fact checks in his statements on the Senate floor (second only to fellow Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming). McConnell referred to fact checks 10 times during the 113th Congress, even while he made clear that he was not always thrilled with the media outlets that published them. Taking aim at Reid for misleading statements about Republican efforts to stall votes on judicial nominations, he twice cited “a fact-checker from a major left-wing paper” — a reference to a story published a few days earlier by the Washington Post.4

Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas made a similar crack about the Washington Post’s reputation among some in his party, while simultaneously using one of its fact checks to make a point about Obama administration statements following the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. “Hardly an unsympathetic newspaper editorially to the administration’s point of view,” Cornyn said of the Post. But Cornyn clearly appreciated its fact-checking anyway. He cited the Post’s Fact Checker in the Senate three times in the two years that were reviewed. 5

The only three lawmakers who questioned the fact checks they cited were each referring to fact checks that questioned statements they had made. “I am having a dispute with PolitiFact right now, but I stand by my assertion,” Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island once told his Senate colleagues, after the site’s partners at the Providence Journal questioned the Democrat’s claim about rising ocean temperatures. Whitehouse earned a “half true” with that statement, but he still cited PolitiFact six other times over the course of the 113th Congress. 6

Another lawmaker who took issue with a fact check was Republican Rep. Louie Gohmert. But the Texas congressman apparently challenged the wrong fact-checker, saying that PolitiFact “took a shot at me” for a statement he’d made about the Affordable Care Act’s impact on people whose incomes were just above the poverty line. Gohmert likely was referring to an item published the previous month by FactCheck.org, not PolitiFact.7 Despite all that, a few months later Gohmert eagerly touted PolitiFact’s 2013 “Lie of the Year” — President Obama’s promise that anyone who liked their health care coverage would be able to keep it after the Affordable Care Act was enacted. But the congressman did so with an extra jab at the fact-checkers for not having called the president on his statement earlier than they did. “Even PolitiFact had to finally get around to being factual,” he said.8

Politicians seem to have a hard time resisting some of the most contentious fact-checking terms, such as “Lie of the Year,” at least based on the the number of references in Congress to those sometimes controversial rating systems. “The instantaneous reaction of fact-checkers was four Pinocchios, Pants on Fire, complete untruth,” Rep. Carl Levin said in one such statement. Levin was specifically referring back to a claim about welfare from Republican Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. But the Michigan Democrat’s use of the fact-checking terminology was typical.9

References to the Washington Post’s Pinocchio scale and PolitiFact’s Pants on Fire and Lie of the Year turned up in two-thirds of the fact-checking mentions found in the Congressional Record for 2013-14 (56 out of 83 statements). That includes five Pants on Fire, 19 Lies of the Year and 31 Pinocchios. Some came from repeated references to the same 2013 Lie of the Year that Rep. Gohmert referred to.10

Republicans talked about that designation so often that some of them eventually just referred to the Lie of the Year without specifying which fact-checker made that ruling, or even that a news organization had done so. Republican Leader McConnell, for instance, sometimes referred simply to “a promise that was voted the Lie of the Year in 2013” or a claim “that turned out to be the Lie of the Year.”11

A few Democrats harkened back to PolitiFact’s 2010 Lie of the Year, which focused on Republican claims that the health care law enacted that year would be “a government takeover of health care.”

Overall, Democrats used all of the most contentious fact-checking terms far less often than their Republicans colleagues, accounting for 15 of the of the 56 statements that referred to Pants on Fire, Lies of the Year or Pinocchios. But they were hardly immune from their rhetorical appeal. Democratic Rep. John Yarmuth, a former weekly newspaper publisher and columnist from Louisville, provided an example in a statement deriding the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, a decision that removed most legal restrictions on campaign spending by independent political groups and other organizations.

“If the Washington Post Fact Checker actually had to present real Pinocchios for all of the dishonest ads made possible by Citizens United,” Yarmouth said, “Geppetto would be the busiest man in America.”12

As it turns out, the fact-checkers could spend a lot of time reviewing TV ads just for references to their own work.

  1. Patty Murray, D-Wash., on 3/20/13 and 3/21/13; John Hoeven, R-N.D., on 7/31/13; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., on 7/14/14. All three were referring to items by the Washington Post Fact Checker.
  2. Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, Estimating Fact-checking’s Effects: Evidence from a long-term experiment during campaign 2014 (American Press Institute, 2015)
  3. Congressional Record, Feb. 26, 2014
  4. Congressional Record, May 13, 2014
  5. Congressional Record, May 14, 2013; May 15, 2013; July 9, 2013
  6. Congressional Record, May 8, 2013; C. Eugene Emery Jr., “U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse: Narragansett Bay in R.I. has gotten 4 degrees warmer since the 1960s,” PolitiFact Rhode Island, April 28, 2013
  7. Congressional Record, Sept. 27, 2013; Eugene Kiely, “Louie Gohmert’s Health Care Hooey,” FactCheck.org, Aug. 14, 2013
  8. Congressional Record, Dec. 12, 2013
  9. Congressional Record, March 13, 2013
  10. Angie Drobnic Holan, “Lie of the Year: ‘If you like your health care plan, you can keep it’,” PolitiFact.com, Dec. 12, 2013
  11. Congressional Record, Feb. 25, 2014; April 30, 2014
  12. Congressional Record, Sept. 10, 2014

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