PolitiFact’s 77-cent State of the Union fumble

PF National2“Barack Obama, in State of the Union, says women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns …

We rate the claim Mostly True.”

—PolitiFact, from a Jan. 28 fact check of President Obama’s 2014 State of the Union speech

 

Overview

If the presidential State of the Union address is the Super Bowl for fact checkers then PolitiFact fumbled while handling President Obama’s wage gap statistic.

The Facts

PolitiFact accurately reported part of President Obama’s speech touching on wage discrimination:

You know, today, women make up about half our workforce, but they still make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns. That is wrong, and in 2014, it’s an embarrassment.

Women deserve equal pay for equal work.

 

PolitiFact decided the claim referring to the 23-cent disparity had nothing to do with Obama’s subsequent claim that women deserve equal pay for equal work:

Did Obama’s “equal pay for equal work” line suggest that he believes the 77-cent pay differential refers to statistical comparisons of “equal work”? Or was this sentence simply a philosophical statement that was distinct from the statistical claim?

Ultimately, we decided that Obama’s statement that “women deserve equal pay for equal work” was aspirational rather than a part of his statistical claim, so we’re judging him on his claim that women “make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns.”

 

The Washington Post Fact checker, Glenn Kessler, concluded Obama was talking about gender discrimination when he used the 77-cent number:

Since women in general work fewer hours than men in a year, the statistics used by the White House may be less reliable for examining the key focus of legislation pending in Congress — wage discrimination.

 

PolitiFact used Kessler’s fact check as one of its sources.

Analyzing the Rhetoric

PolitiFact and Glenn Kessler cannot both be right.  President Obama either meant his 77-cent statistic to refer to gender discrimination or he did not.

Neither PolitiFact nor Kessler explained the rationale behind their interpretation.  We’ll explain why PolitiFact was wrong and Kessler was right.

A matter of interpretation?

PolitiFact deemed the president’s statement promoting equal pay for equal work “aspirational,” doubtless meaning that it’s a goal the president favors.  We agree that the statement is aspirational, but at the same time Obama’s speech strongly implies that he meant listeners to understand that the 23-cent gap is related to gender discrimination.

We think Kessler found that interpretation so obvious that he felt no need to explain it.

Why did PolitiFact disagree?

It’s not clear why PolitiFact disagreed with Kessler.  PolitiFact claimed Obama’s statement about equal pay for equal work was “aspirational,” but there’s no clear reason why that aspiration lacks an attachment to the ideas the president stated just before.  Let’s review the sequence:

  1. Women, on average, receive 77 cents for every dollar the average man receives in wages
  2. The 23-cent wage gap is wrong and in 2014 it is embarrassing
  3. Women should receive equal pay for equal work

With the first two points Obama identifies a problem and calls it unacceptable.  If he does not mean for the third point to address the problem from the first two points then he is deliberately taking time in his speech to identify a problem that he isn’t addressing.

Does it make sense for Obama to use time in his speech to name a problem without proposing some means of addressing it?  No.  This section makes sense only with the understanding that gender discrimination causes all or most of the wage gap.

We emailed PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson and Angie Drobnic Holan asking for an explanation of their interpretation.  We’ll update our fact check upon receiving a reply.

Charitable interpretation

We strongly advocate granting a charitable interpretation to all, giving statements the plausible understanding that makes the best sense of a claim.  It isn’t plausible for presidential speechwriters to insert a statistic in a major speech if that statistic serves no direct purpose.

In this case, the charitable interpretation puts Obama in a bad light.

Summary

“Barack Obama, in State of the Union, says women make 77 cents for every dollar a man earns …
We rate the claim Mostly True.”

True Statement Medium charitable interpretation icon icon Out of Context red herring

PolitiFact’s ruling unreasonably assumes President Obama used the 77-cents statistic for a reason other than emphasizing a gender-based disparity in wages.  As Glenn Kessler documented, the number probably serves at best as an exaggeration of the effects of gender discrimination.  PolitiFact’s statement is  trivially true:  Yes, Obama cited a real statistic and yes, PolitiFact rated it “Mostly True.”  But PolitiFact claims it tries to understand statements in context.  PolitiFact disregarded obvious textual clues it should have used to fault Obama’s accuracy.

PolitiFact has given “Mostly False” ratings to claims that women receive 77 cents on dollar compared to men doing the same work.  Though that rating is arguably too lenient, using it as a baseline suggests the president’s use of the stat in his State of the Union speech could rightly earn no higher than a “Half True” rating.

PolitiFact’s nonsensical interpretation creates a fallacy of distraction, leading readers to overlook the misleading nature of the president’s claim.

 

References

Beaujon, Andrew. “How PolitiFact Gets Ready for ‘the Super Bowl for Fact-checkers.’Poynter. The Poynter Institute, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

FULL TRANSCRIPT: Obama’s 2014 State of the Union Address.Washington Post. The Washington Post, 30 Jan. 2014. Web. 01 Feb. 2014.

Jacobson, Louis. “Barack Obama, in State of the Union, Says Women Make 77 Cents for Every Dollar a Man Earns.” PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, 29 Jan. 2014. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

Kessler, Glenn. “Fact Checking the 2014 State of the Union Address.” The Washington Post Fact Checker. The Washington Post, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2014.

Jacobson, Louis. “Barack Obama Says That under His Health Care Law, Those Who Have Health Insurance Will Keep It.” PolitiFact. Tampa Bay Times, 28 June 2012. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

An Analysis of the Reasons for the Disparity in Wages Between Men and Women.” Consad.com. CONSAD Research Corporation, 12 Jan. 2009. Web. 03 Feb. 2014.

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