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PolitiFact: Where "We Have No Way of Knowing" Turns Into "Mostly False"

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Who fact-checks the fact-checkers?

The Pulitzer Prize-winning analysts of political statements over at PolitiFact -- a project of the St. Petersburg Times -- ran a pretty curious rundown of one of President Obama's statements this week.

The claim: "Some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent." PolitiFact spoke to a tax-policy expert who said he didn't know -- as no available data exists to prove it -- and the so-called fact checkers said just about the same thing.

Ruling: Mostly false.

The Internal Revenue Service releases an annual list of some tax and income statistics of the 400 Americans with the highest incomes that year.

Their specific effective tax rates aren't listed but are grouped into categories -- in 2008, 30 of the 400 top earners had an effective tax rate of 0 to 10 percent.

That's about as close as you'll get to an answer as to whether "some billionaires have a tax rate as low as 1 percent."

That's a concession made by PolitiFact:

So 30 of the top 400 filers paid an effective tax rate of between zero and 10 percent.

How many of those paid 1 percent? We have no way of knowing. If the percentages are distributed roughly equally across the range provided, it would mean three to five tax filers paid an effective tax rate of 1 percent or less. But it could easily be zero filers paying that little. We simply don't know -- and we also have no idea whether these filers are actually billionaires.

That should be the end of it: "We simply don't know."

Nope: "Mostly false."

PolitiFact justifies that by saying if Obama "wasn't able to back it up with hard statistics, he shouldn't have said it." The writer claims PolitiFact was "unable to get any additional backup from the White House for the figure Obama used."

So what the hell is "mostly false" anyway?

"The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression," according to its rating system, which ranges from "true" to "pants on fire."

If we're forced to assign one of PolitiFact's arbitrary rulings, why not "mostly true": "The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context."

Or better yet -- how about a ruling of "we have no way of knowing"?

This is often the case with rulings from PolitiFact -- the facts in the explanation are often pretty good, but how they rate these claims when they aren't "true" or "false" is apparently up to the writers' and editors' discretion.

PolitiFact says it will change its ruling on the matter if someone proves a billionaire lands a 1-percent tax rate. It's plausible that the 1-percent-taxed billionaire exists.

We'll have to say we have no way of knowing whether PolitiFact got it right in its ruling on this one.

So it's "mostly false," right?


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