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This Is Why We Can’t Trust Factcheckers, Part Infinity

Vice President Mike Pence says something that is completely true. The Washington Post factcheckers give him three Pinocchios for his troubles.


During a speech at the Tax Foundation last week, Vice President Mike Pence dropped a meaningless but innocuous political talking point about the U.S. economy. “There are more Americans working today than ever before in American history,” he reportedly said.

This statement really irritated one of The Washington Post’s factchecking professionals. “Amazingly,” Nicole Lewis contends, Pence’s statement “met with applause.” Because superficial rah-rah declarations by politicians are typically met with pie charts, I guess. The “economic boast is so mindlessly dumb we can’t believe we have to fact check it,” reads the abstract on the story.

Well, you don’t have to fact-check a claim that is obviously true, even if it is contextually simplistic. Certainly not one that is similar to much of the vacuous boasting every administration engages in when talking about the economy.

The Post even concedes that according to the raw data Pence is correct. Yet the article goes on to explain why Pence should use better metrics like “employment status as a ratio of the population” and talk about labor participation. It’s not a bad point. It still doesn’t make Pence’s statement false. Yet, according to the factcheck, the vice president’s refusal to frame the comment in the way the author deems best earns him three Pinocchios out of four. That, from what I can gather, is a pretty tough grade.

“It is a claim President Barack Obama could have made in 2014, 2015 and 2016 as people regained jobs following the recession,” notes the unbiased factchecker, “but as far as we can tell he did not.” Obama officials have confirmed to The Post that the former president was honest.

Well, since they brought him up: Obama was constantly offering simplistic claims about the state of the economy. Without offering any context, the former president would take credit for authoring the greatest economic recovery in history. While this statement was technically true — certainly undeserving of three Pinocchios — Obama also happened to have prevailed over the worst economic recovery in history, despite the fact that, historically speaking, the worse the recession the stronger the recovery. Not once that I can tell did the former president mention that weak labor force participation rates helped bolster his impressive unemployment numbers.

Would those omissions earn him the sort of condemnation Pence receives in this fact check? Evidence tells us it’s unlikely.

“Pence’s claim that there are more Americans working today than ever before in American history might go down as one of the more ridiculous economic claims made by the administration,” writes The Post. It’s not even the most ridiculous thing claimed this day.  Now, I don’t contend that Pence’s statement is valuable, interesting, or particularly encouraging. It’s as worthless as thousands of other boasts offered by thousands of other politicians regarding their economic achievements going back forever. Any administration that takes credit for creating jobs deserves all the Pinocchios. But not all politicians are subjected to the same standards. It’s improbable that Obama would ever have been factchecked for saying something as insipid as Pence has. These days, in fact, factcheckers have become extraordinarily literal when rationalizing the former president’s failed promises.

All of this is important to note because, no matter how unreliable factcheckers continue to be, countless self-styled lovers of science and fact will send you these kinds of articles and treat them as irrefutable truths. They are not. Quite often, they’re just op-ed columns.