Back in May 2015 PolitiFact, specifically PolitiFact Florida, published an amazingly incompetent fact check.
PolitiFact Florida’s fact check looked at whether Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio was right that the United States is not building aircraft, aircraft carriers and submarines. PolitiFact Florida said it found plenty of evidence the United States was building aircraft, aircraft carriers and submarines, rating Rubio’s claim “False”:
Rubio said that the United States “is not building the aircraft, the long-range bombers, the additional aircraft carriers, the nuclear submarines.”
The military has programs in place to build the types of equipment Rubio mentioned, including the largest aircraft procurement ever: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. It will take many years and billions of dollars to complete the procurement, but Rubio’s statement could mislead voters into thinking that the United States has closed up shop in the area of military equipment and isn’t building anything, which isn’t the case.
We rate this claim False.
It is a wrong approach to rate the truth of a statement based on how people might misunderstand the statement. The correct approach to fact-checking looks first at what the claim tries to communicate, then looks secondarily at ways the statement might mislead an audience. Instead of faulting Rubio over one way an audience might misinterpret his words, a fact checker should explain the best way to understand what Rubio was saying.
Note how PolitiFact lops off the end of Rubio’s statement in its summary section: “Rubio said that the United States ‘is not building the aircraft, the long-range bombers, the additional aircraft carriers, the nuclear submarines.'”
Here’s what Rubio said (bold emphasis added):
“…but never in so many places and so many different ways. Iran’s hegemonic ambitions. China’s illegitimate territorial claims. Vladimir Putin’s efforts to relitigate the end of the Cold War. All of these things require strong American leadership, which we cannot exert as long as we eviscerate military spending, which is what we are doing now. We are placing our nation in a dangerous position. Unable not just to respond to the threats of today, but the growing threats of tomorrow. We are the only nation that is not modernizing its nuclear weapons. We are the only nation that is not building the aircraft, the long-range bombers, the additional aircraft carriers, the nuclear submarines we need for our nation’s defense. And we will pay a heavy price for this. Every single time this nation has done this, it has had to come back and reverse it. And it costs more money and it is more dangerous.”
PolitiFact performs its fact check as though Rubio claimed the United States is not building any of the armaments he named.
We find it completely obvious that Rubio was saying the pace of and planning for defense acquisitions falls below what is needed for adequate defense.
What evidence supports our position? Rubio’s own past statements, for starters.
Aircraft and long-range bombers
Rubio speech, Sept. 17, 2014
As we speak, Russia and China are hard at work on fifth generation fighters, which will likely be exported to other countries, while America’s F-35 program – our best shot at maintaining air superiority since the F-22 was canceled – has run into unnecessary setbacks. As it is our only fifth generation fighter in production, this program is too important to abandon.
Our Air Force will also need better ISR capabilities at the theater and strategic levels, a new tanker fleet, and a next generation bomber capable of both conventional and nuclear missions.
Rubio notes the F-35 is “in production” before stating the need for a new bomber.
Rubio speech, Sept 17, 2014
The National Defense Panel was correct to recommend we return to the Gates budget’s plan for 323 ships, or perhaps more if threats in Asia and the Middle East continue to mount. We should also ensure that the carrier fleet remains at 11 and potentially raise it to 12, as well as examine what would be required to forward deploy a second carrier to the Pacific.
Is production keeping pace with the need? Congress says we need 12 aircraft carriers. We will likely have only 11 until 2021.
The USS Gerald Ford, the next US aircraft carrier, is being built to replace the now-retired USS Enterprise, which was deactivated in 2013 after more than 50 years of service. But the Ford’s completion has run into delays in part because of the budget sequestrations enacted by Congress. [Navy Undersecretary Sean] Stackley said the Ford is not expected to join the fleet at full readiness until 2021, which means the Navy will be operating with one less carrier than called for by Congress for the next six years.
The result is that there will be an occasional “carrier gap” for some time—multiple periods when the Navy can only put one carrier strike force to sea. Next year, the Navy will have a period with no carrier coverage anywhere in the Pacific Ocean. Stackley said that operating down one aircraft carrier had required the Navy to extend the deployments of existing carriers to fill the void, but the longer deployments have led to greater maintenance issues and even longer periods in the shipyard after each deployment.
So Rubio sees funding new aircraft carriers as a priority.
Rubio speech, Sept. 17, 2014:
Matters below the ocean’s surface also require our attention. Our submarine fleet is declining while China’s is advancing. We currently have 55 attack submarines, but that could fall as low as 41 by 2030. We need to build at least two Virginia class submarines each year and ensure funding for the Ohio replacement program.
The United States, as PolitiFact notes, is building attack submarines. But Rubio points out that the submarine fleet is likely to shrink unless the nation prioritizes replenishing the fleet. The problem is even more acute for the Ohio-class submarines, the ones capable of launching intercontinental ballistic missiles. Replacing the aging fleet of Ohio-class submarines will likely cost over $100 billion. The high price tag threatens to delay and/or reduce production.
What were the ‘fact checkers’ thinking?
Rubio put himself on the record in 2014 talking about committing to defense spending on aircraft, aircraft carriers and submarines. PolitiFact’s assumption that Rubio was saying the United States was building no aircraft, aircraft carriers or submarines counts as the worst sort of fact checking. PolitiFact ignored Rubio’s past statements on the subject and the contextual clues (“we need for our nation’s defense”) that made his meaning clear.
We charge PolitiFact with giving Rubio an uncharitable interpretation. Such interpretations often accompany “gotcha” journalism.
A number of experts allowed PolitiFact weave threads of their expert testimony into an extraordinarily poor fact check. PolitiFact’s work, despite some good comments from the stable of experts, left readers uninformed or under-informed about the procurement issues facing the U.S. military.
Todd Harrison, Benjamin Friedman and Thomas Donnelly may wish to give more thought to lending their names to journalistic failures like PolitiFact’s fact check of Rubio.
We reached out to defense analyst Zbiegniew Mazurak to see how he would interpret our paraphrase of Rubio’s claim. We also asked Mazurak his view on the adequacy of current U.S. defense procurement. Mazurak seems to have taken Rubio’s comment as PolitiFact did, though his first comment was to ask whether Rubio had actually said it. Find that interview here.