Did Harry Reid lie? Politifact says so.

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Harry Reid has made a lot people mad, justifiably in my opinion, by saying that a Bain Capital investor told him that Romney didn't pay income tax for ten years. Reid has repeated his claim of being told this, and also said that he doesn't know whether or not to believe it.  To be sure, this is below-the-belt innuendo.  Politifact, however, has given Reid's claim its "pants on fire" rating. In Time Entertainment, James Poniewozik argues that in so doing Politfact is damaging its own reputation for probity, because "pants on fire" in the context of truth and falsity can only serve to evoke "Liar, liar, pants on fire!"  And Politifact has no way in the world of knowing whether or not Reid was lying in reporting that someone had told him something potentially damaging to Mitt Romney.  Furthermore, although in its full article Politifact reports accurately that Reid claims only to have been told the damaging story, in its list of pants-on-fire headlines, Politifact writes, next to a captioned thumbnail of Reid, "Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years," nine words in a box that accommodates an entry of twenty-five words in the box above with space to spare. Politifact seems to have forgotten to preface this with "said he has been told." Let's say this unfortunate inaccuracy was just an oversight on the part of Politifact and return to the issue of whether "pants on fire" was justified.

As Poniewozik points out, Politifact has tweeted in its defense that it didn't use the word "liar", but what (tf) can "pants on fire" indicate other than "liar"? When you put yourself in charge of judging truth and falsity, you set yourself a high bar, one which Politifact usually clears admirably, but not this time. Linda Coleman and I once wrote a paper in which we examined the meaning of the word lie (which is probably why Geoff Nunberg set me onto this story). We concluded that there are at least three components of the meaning of lie: falsity, consciousness of this falsity by the speaker, and intent to deceive. By far the most important of these components is the first: falsity. [This is wrong; consciousness of falsity was the strongest factor. See my response to Eva below. PK] I think James Poniewozik is exactly right in taking Politifact to task for calling Reid a liar when it has no way of knowing whether what he said was true or false, however much Politifact may find his saying it — whether true or false — reprehensible.


  1. Sili said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 1:30 pm

    This is hardly the first case of Politifact not understanding the meaning of the words "true", "false" and "fact" as demonstrated at length by Maddow.

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 1:37 pm

    I don't suppose your and Coleman's paper is online anywhere? Or could you give a reference for it?

    [I've put a copy at http://www.icsi.berkeley.edu/~kay/Lie.Coleman&Kay.pdf. PK]

  3. Donald Sepanek said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 1:40 pm

    I would think, though, that the burden of proof would fall on the one making the assertion.

  4. Daniel said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 1:47 pm

    I think Politifact is judging Harry Reid based not on the assertion that he was told this, but under the assumption that he agrees with it and is presenting it as fact even if he expressly denies it.

    The whole basis of so-called fact-checking groups is suspect because almost all of their articles contain similar assumptions. One common example: grading a politician's accusation that his opponent wants to (raise taxes/lower taxes/invade Iran/abandon Israel/whatever) as being false, merely because said opponent denies it. How can the fact checker claim to read the opponent's mind any better than the accuser?

  5. sb said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

    see also this posting at lawyers, guns & money:

  6. Eric said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 2:20 pm

    Absent a contradicting source, there's no way to prove Reid wasn't told what he says he was told. So, truth on that count. Thumbs down to Politifact.

    As far as the claim, the easy out for Politifact is to point out that Romney surely paid sales taxes and other consumption taxes, so the "paid no taxes" (as Reid didn't specify income taxes) claim is false.

  7. Dave K said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

    Daniel, I think that there's a difference between saying "Mitt Romney says he wants to invade Luxembourg", saying "Mitt Romney wants to invade Luxembourg" and saying "If Mitt Romey is elected, he'll invade Luxembourg".
    The first is an outright lie–Mitt Romney never said that. The third is a prediction based on what you know about someone's behavior and expressed thoughts, and is legitimate–it's not intended as a statement of fact.
    The second is an unsupported accusation, and if it's technically not a lie, in politics, it's the moral equivalent of one, and a political fact checker is entitled to condemn it just as strongly and with the same label.

  8. eva said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 3:04 pm

    Regarding the claim of falsity being by far the most important of the three named components; since you have obviously spent more time thinking on this than the 5 min. I just invested, you can probably explain why this is not actually a counter example:
    Say X's sister is tried for murdering her abusive spouse. X is convinced of her guilt, but still decides to give her an alibi. In the course of their testimony X utters 'She never could have hurt him, let alone kill!', although X firmly believes that she did just that. Components two and three fulfilled, yes? Now, turns out the statement was spot on, and X's sister is in fact innocent.
    Was it still a lie? I say yes. Do I just have some non-standard semantics in my lexicon or am I on to something here?

  9. Dave K said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 3:30 pm

    Eva, in your example, X's statement 'She never could have hurt him, let alone kill!' is an opinion, not a fact. A witness (with the exception of an expert witness) is only allowed to testify to facts in their personal knowledge. If X had tried to help her sister by saying "The defendant was with me the entire night of her husband's death" when this was not the case, this would meet all three components and be a lie, regardless of whether or not the defendant had actually committed the crime.

  10. Michael Newman said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

    They lost my respect giving the claim that the Ryan budget will end Medicare as we know it the lie of the year on the basis of the fact that the republicans were keeping the name and organizational bureaucracy. They simply try to make sure theyre zapping both sides. Linguisticallly, this points to semantics of fairness versus even handed ness.

  11. Paul Kay said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

    @eva. You are right and I misremembered my own paper! Factual falsity was the weakest factor. Speaker's belief in falsity was the strongest factor of the three. Apologies to all for that! But still, Politifact had no more access to the world of Reid's beliefs than it did to that of his private conversations.

    @sb Thanks. Wish I'd known.

  12. Jeff Carney said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 6:36 pm

    I think Politifact needs to add a new category to their truth meter. I do think Reid needs to be called on this bullshit, but as yet, Politifact does not have an adequate way of naming the sort of bullshit that it is. False, mostly false, and half-true just don't fit.

    But "said he has been told Mitt Romney did not pay taxes for 10 years" would require a "true" label, which obscures the point entirely.

    Someone might have a better suggestion, but my own is for Politifact to add a "Reckless" category.

  13. Jon Lennox said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 7:07 pm

    Dave K.: What about this example, which I think gets to eva's point somewhat better?

    In C. S. Forester's Hornblower in the West Indies, Admiral Hornblower foils a plot to liberate Napoleon from St. Helena by telling the would-be perpetrators that Napoleon has died, swearing on his honor that it's true.

    Now, as far as he knew Napoleon was still alive, so he was prepared to resign his commission for swearing a false oath. But when he returns to port, he finds out that Napoleon really had died.

    So there was consciousness of falsity and intent to deceive, but by happenstance no actual falsity. In my lexicon I'd still call this a "lie", though.

  14. Andy Averill said,

    August 11, 2012 @ 8:16 pm

    This case isn't that complicated. Harry Reid has never said "Romney paid no taxes." What he said was that an investor at Bain Capital told him that Romney paid no taxes. While that is a statement whose truth could in principle be proved or disproved, in fact neither Politifact or anybody else is going to be able to do it, since Reid will certainly not reveal the identity of his source.

    As for whether it's bullshit or not — please. This is an election campaign. Wear your waders when you go out in the field.

  15. Jason said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 6:44 am

    It's a well established principle in libel law that repeating a statement by saying "i heard a rumor that" or "someone told me that" X can be considered a defamatory imputation similar to directly stating X. So let's accept ex concessis politifact's theory that Reid is stating, through innuendo, that Romney hasn't paid any taxes for 10 years.

    It still doesn't warrant a pants on fire rating. The only thing that could settle the issue one way or another is Romney's tax returns for the period, which he has steadfastly refused to release. I would go so far as to say that if Romney paid no more than a negligible amount of taxes Reid's statement would still be true, accepting a certain amount of hyperbole in political discourse.

    The best they can say is "unwarranted assertion", or "unwarranted speculation", but even that I would dispute. This is a man who disclosed he has between 20-100 million dollars parked in his tax-free IRA account, and numerous holdings in tax havens like Switzerland and the Caymen islands. It's clear to any but the most partisan observer that Romney has been an aggressive tax minimizer. Have his taxes literally reached zero? I suspect Romney could refute this "lie" by revealing that his effective rate of taxation has been 1 percent or so on his total income, but I doubt this would be a very politically effective refutation of the Reid charge.

  16. Bruce Rusk said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 8:40 am

    Some languages explicitly tag reported speech, and might tend to retain that tag more than English does. In Japanese, for example, "sou desu" can be used to mark something one has heard but has not, and perhaps could not, directly observe. It would be interesting to compare categories of lying/falsehood among languages for cases like this.

    Also, re: Lies that turn out to be true, cf justified true belief and Gettier problems.

  17. Kylopod said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

    One point that frequently gets overlooked in these discussions is that fact checkers, by definition, are there to judge accuracy, not honesty. Many of the claims flagged by Politifact as false or questionable aren't necessarily lies. A lie is something that the person who speaks it knows to be untrue. But some of Politifact's entries are probably the result of ignorance, not deceit (one example is Herman Cain's statement that the Constitution talks about "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"–a common misconception arising from confusing the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution), while others might be slips of the tongue. Very often it's hard to know for sure if a politician making an inaccurate claim is deliberately lying, doesn't care about the truth, or is simply misinformed. But the job of fact checkers, we would presume, is simply to tell us whether the claim is true or not–that's usually the only thing they can verify with any certainty. Generally speaking, they can't prove whether a politician's whopper was intentional or not, no matter how obvious it may seem from a common sense perspective.

    The problem is that Politifact uses the term "pants on fire," which, as this post correctly notes, is an expression suggesting lying. Similarly, the Washington Post's fact checker Glenn Kessler hands out Pinocchio noses to people who say things he deems to be untrue. It's a cute device, but again, it uses a metaphor for deliberate deception, which may not be the case for everyone who fails to meet his accuracy standards. These fact checkers undermine their credibility by implying they can know what's going on inside a politician's head.

  18. ShadowFox said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 6:01 pm

    PolitiFact and their fraternal twin at WaPo either don't always understand the issues they are rating or they deliberately distort the findings. The latest flap is over the fact that Democrats have been pointing to Romney's 14% tax rate that he paid in 2010–the fact that even Romney himself repeated several times. Based on this rate, they've claimed that this is a lower rate than one paid by most Americans making less money. Although every part of this construct is true–as so acknowledged by PolitiFact–the outfit still rates the statement as half-true, bleating something about payroll taxes (which would have no effect on the approximate Romney rate as it goes from something like 13.7% to 13.9%–the difference that is completely lost if the figure is rounded to 14%, as quoted). It seems these fact-checking outfits have outlived either their independence or their usefulness…

  19. KWillets said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 7:19 pm

    @Bruce Rusk there was a similar case in Korean a while ago; the daughter of Park Chung-hee was quoted as saying "Korea was the second poorest country in the world" (at the time of the PCH coup) in English translation, when she actually used the quotative, more like "said to be second poorest" in the original Korean.

    The ranking was indeed not correct (the original study was just among UN countries), but it was part of the popular perception at the time, so she quoted it. I was surprised to see it translated that way, and it generated some misperceptions of her fact-checking.

  20. David Fried said,

    August 12, 2012 @ 9:50 pm

    There's another possibility that I haven't seen raised anywhere–not that I've been looking that hard, viz., Harry Reid actually knows for a certainty that Romney did not pay income tax for several years, or he would not dare to go out on that particular limb. He knows it from an illegal source–probably from the IRS, whether directly or indirectly. he has therefore foisted the statement on a nonexistent "Bain investor."

    So the statement about the investor was a deliberate lie, intended to cover up the fact that Reid is in possession of confidential tax information. But the information contained in the fictional statement was true.

    And I'm not kidding. If I'm right, if Romney now releases his tax returns his campaign is effectively over. But his continued refusal to do so lends credence to Reid's statement. And I, for one, would never even have imagined this as a possibility if Reid hadn't planted the seed.

  21. KeithB said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 10:35 am

    Jeff Carney:
    How about a "below the belt" rating?

  22. Aaron Binns said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 2:22 pm

    Why not just label Reid's statement as "hearsay"?

  23. Daniel Barkalow said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 4:40 pm

    What (tf) can "pants on fire" indicate other than "liar"? Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab comes to mind. Perhaps they mean this is an incompetent attempted attack which was supposed to be devastating but was actually just embarrassing?

  24. John Bliss said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 7:40 pm

    Come one, what's the big deal. Everyone is playing dirty in this political race, especially the GOP and Tea Party. So what if the Dems resort to tactics used by their opponents?

    Btw, no smoke without fire. Romney not releasing any more tax returns is virtual proof that there is something very rotten hidden in them. The guy is basically confirming the veracity of these social led rumours by refusing to disprove them. Never seen anyone so hapless before.

  25. Jason said,

    August 13, 2012 @ 10:41 pm

    @David Fried

    There's another possibility that I haven't seen raised anywhere–not that I've been looking that hard, viz., Harry Reid actually knows for a certainty that Romney did not pay income tax for several years, or he would not dare to go out on that particular limb. He knows it from an illegal source–probably from the IRS, whether directly or indirectly. he has therefore foisted the statement on a nonexistent "Bain investor."

    I'm imagining a really devious Reid who heard it from an IRS employee who, by sheer coincidence, also happens to have some money invested in a Baen Capital account.

  26. ajay said,

    August 22, 2012 @ 6:29 am

    happens to have some money invested in a Baen Capital account.

    An innovative US fund manager that specialises in laser cannon, space dreadnoughts, killer robots and feisty female mercenaries.

    [(myl) More of a private equity fim, surely.]

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