When Fact-Checking Fails the Truth

PolitiFact came into existence 13 years ago, with a simple mission: Try to discern the factual basis, or lack thereof, underlying statements and claims from political candidates. Dig through the bullshit, uncover the facts, and determine the truth.

It’s a great idea, but it’s very tricky in practice. It assumes that there is an absolute truth buried under the mountain of political bullshit. But what if there is no such truth? In the political arena, “facts” and “Ideology” are tightly interwoven. For instance, Vermont tends to rank near the bottom of the 50 states, or near the top, depending on what’s being measured. If you tried to determine where Vermont “really” ranks, you’d be dancing into a minefield.

In recent years, VTDigger has been part of the PolitiFact network, generating its own fact-checking pieces in an effort to help voters sort through political statements. Its latest effort, unfortunately, illustrates how PolitiFact-style analysis can lose sight of the truth in its search for “facts.”

In last week’s Digger debate, Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman floated his proposal for a temporary wealth tax aimed at the top five percent of earners — those who reaped the most benefit from the 2017 Trump tax cuts. The revenue would fund one-time investments that, Zuckerman says, would more than pay for themselves in economic growth.

Scott counter-claimed that Zuckerman’s “wealth tax” would reach all the way down to households earning $159,000 or more, which he characterized as “middle class.”

Well, as I pointed out in my debate blog, Vermont’s median income is $60,000, a long way from $!59K. Also, if your definition of the “middle class” reaches all the way up to the 95th percentile, there’s something wrong. Unless you’re saying the “middle class” includes everyone between the fifth percentile and the 95th.

“Think about two teachers, married teachers,” Scott said. But according to a 2019 Digger article, the average teacher salary in Vermont is a touch over $60,000. It’s possible for a teacher to earn $80,000, but it’s very uncommon.

Scott indulged in some misleading rhetoric, in other words. And yet, somehow, Digger concluded that Scott’s argument was “True,” the highest possible rating.

And the headline on the story was the real whopper: “Would Zuckerman’s wealth tax on the top 5% impact the middle class?”

The answer to that question is clearly, unequivocally “No.” And Scott’s claim, as restated in the headline, would properly be evaluated as “False.”

But somewhere between the headline and the conclusion, the question got changed. It no longer referenced “middle class”; it simply asked if the tax would hit households earning $159,000 and above. And on that narrow ground, Digger determined that Scott was right. So he got the coveted “True” designation.

OK, let’s set aside, for now, the issue of whether $159,000 qualifies as middle class. Where did Scott get the figure from?

It was calculated by the Tax Department, based on S.311, a “wealth tax” bill proposed by Sen. Anthony Pollina. That bill would impose a temporary tax on households earning $200,000 or more. Zuckerman and Pollina are close political allies, but do their proposals match up? Digger doesn’t address that question.

Team Zuckerman contends that his tax would hit households earning $294,000 and above, pointing to an analysis by the Legislature’s Joint Fiscal Office based on a study from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. In an interview with Digger, the JFO’s Graham Campbell backed away from that study, saying that the institute’s “percentile breakdowns are likely not as exact as the Tax Department’s.”

And that’s where Digger drew its conclusion. “Not as exact as the Tax Department’s” morphed into “Let’s accept the Tax Department’s numbers and dump all the others.” And by that reasoning, Scott’s claim is “True.”

Ignoring the fact that there are competing sets of numbers. And ignoring the sheer lunacy of characterizing $159,000 as a middle class income.

Fact-checking only works if you’re honest and thorough in your process, and if you are absolutely clear about which facts you’re checking. Digger’s conclusion was drawn on extremely narrow ground. It boiled down the question to whether Scott’s $159,000 was accurate. It made ill-defined judgments about competing claims.

And it slapped a completely misleading headline atop it all. I call it a fact-check FAIL.


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