PolitiFact Florida: “Marco Rubio tweets that GOP didn’t support Social Security changes”
Fact checker commits fallacy of equivocation in posting false headline.
Marco Rubio’s tweet from 1:16 p.m. on Dec. 20, 2012:
Report that #GOP insisting on changes to social security as part of #fiscalcliff false.BTW those changes are supported by @barackobama.
PolitiFact reports the text of Rubio’s tweet, followed by its headline paraphrase: “Marco Rubio tweets that GOP didn’t support Social Security changes.” PolitiFact used a similar headline for a print version of the story which appeared on the Tampa Bay Times‘ website on Sunday.
Analyzing the Rhetoric
We’ll examine two main issues in this item. First, did Rubio tweet that the GOP didn’t support changes to Social Security? Second, does PolitiFact Florida’s “Half True” rating fairly address the content of Rubio’s tweet?
GOP against changes to Social Security?
In keeping with the principle of charitable interpretation, we should note that headline material often receives special consideration. A headline like “Hell Freezes Over” is almost certainly likely to have zero theological implications while taking advantage of the fact that the city of Hell, in the state of Michigan, sometimes experiences a winter freeze.
However, there’s no obvious play on words in this bit of reporting. Instead, we get a story headline with hardly any relationship to either the quotation from Rubio or from the PolitiFact story.
Rubio’s statement makes two propositions. One, that Republicans did not insist on changes to Social Security as part of the fiscal cliff deal. Two, that the changes the Republicans did not insist on were changes supported by President Obama. Neither proposition makes an issue of whether Republicans supported the changes, though on its face the tweet implicitly suggests that Republicans proposed, without insisting, that changes to Social Security make up part of the fiscal cliff deal.
PolitiFact’s citations provide ample evidence that many Republicans explicitly opposed making changes to Social Security part of the fiscal cliff deal, and PolitiFact’s own declaration of purpose skirts the issue of GOP support for making changes to Social Security:
We decided to sort out the controversy by investigating Rubio’s claim that the GOP did not insist on changes to Social Security as part of the fiscal cliff, and whether Obama actually supported those changes.
In plain English, PolitiFact declares its purpose to fact check the content of Rubio’s message, leaving unaddressed the issue of GOP support for Social Security changes.
What to make of the headline? The version scheduled for print offers a clue, as it mentions that Republicans did not want changes to Social Security as part of the fiscal cliff deal. But the story never provides evidence that Rubio made a statement to that effect. The fact check, as a result, does not check that point of fact. PolitiFact Florida’s headline is false, as no charitable interpretation makes reasonable sense of it.
Did Republicans demand changes to Social Security as part of the fiscal cliff deal?
Democrats played a little bit of a game with their accounts of the fiscal cliff negotiations. Considering the news accounts together, it is clear that the Republicans did put forward a proposal to change Social Security via a “chained” consumer price index. At issue is whether a proposal that is withdrawn without much of a battle counts as a “demand.” Democrats treated it that way with their public statements, perhaps intending to portray Republicans in an unfavorable light with seniors.
The sticker price on a car sitting in a used auto lot is not really a “demand,” unless maybe the sticker also includes the word “firm.” But in this case we have no firm evidence from any news reports that changes to Social Security were anything other than one version of the offer Republicans made on the fiscal cliff. The firmest statement came, with no first hand substantiation, from The New York Times and reporter Jacob Weisman:
After Republicans demanded that any deal must include a new way of calculating inflation that would mean smaller increases in payments to beneficiaries of programs like Social Security, Democrats halted the negotiations for much of the day.
We did not find the Republican proposal characterized as a “demand” other than by Democrats and Weisman, which suggests that Weisman may have simply incorporated the Democrats’ characterization into his story. Republicans reportedly wondered why Democrats did not respond Saturday night with a counteroffer that excluded chained CPI–a curious position to take if making a deal was dependent on that Social Security reform. The live blog timeline from Business Insider has Republicans taking chained CPI off the table by 4:11 p.m. Sunday.
So what does it mean?
In a perfect world, objective newspaper reports do not present a negotiating point as a make-or-break “demand” without good supporting evidence to back the claim. It’s not a perfect world. We’re relying on the accounts of Democrats and Jacob Weisman of The New York Times. If Weisman had more than the accounts of Democrats to support his reporting then he should have included it in his story.
Using charitable interpretation, we can use “demand” to refer to any negotiating proposal. We should differentiate this meaning from the definition that more closely matches the term “insist,” and given that Rubio used the latter term in his tweet, the charitable interpretation requires at least moderate charity. Rubio denied that Republicans insisted on chained CPI to the point of hinging negotiations on that point. The rapid removal of the “demand” along with the lack of evidence supporting its use as a make-or-break point of negotiation supports Rubio. When Democrat lawmakers called it a “demand,” Rubio used Twitter in an apparent attempt to clarify the press reports.
Moreover, the context supports the interpretation that Rubio never denied that Republicans used “demand” in its softer sense in making chained CPI part of its fiscal cliff proposal to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. If the proposal was never on the table then we can’t make good sense of Rubio saying President Obama supported it. Without the proposal there is no “it” for the president to support.
PolitiFact’s interpretation misleads through a fallacy of equivocation (one of the fallacies of ambiguity) and results in a straw man fallacy, changing Rubio’s argument to one more easily attacked. In effect, PolitiFact takes Rubio’s tweet out of context.
Did President Obama support chained CPI as Rubio mentioned in his tweet?
The short answer is yes. PolitiFact covered this ground adequately. The president was willing to concede on chained CPI in the context of a more comprehensive solution to the fiscal cliff.
PolitiFact faults Rubio for not providing additional context in his tweet. Standard tweets are limited to 140 characters. As a standard consideration of genre, it is unreasonable to fault an author on a minor omission of context when the person is using a format that severely limits the number of characters.
We sent an email message early on Jan. 7 to PolitiFact staffers Aaron Sharockman, Angie Drobnic Holan and Amy Sherman requesting comments regarding the PolitiFact Florida story on Rubio. It is our policy to make on-the-record email correspondence public where the content affects the context of a story.
As of Jan. 7 3:50 p.m. we received no reply. We will update the story if we receive any response.
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Clarification Jan. 8, 2013: Substituted “Tampa Bay Times’” for “newspaper’s” in describing the online appearance of the print version of the story in the “Facts” section.
Correction Jan. 8, 2013: Corrected two references in the “References” section to “The Tampa Times.” The correct name of the newspaper is “The Tampa Bay Times.”