The unfortunate uselessness of fact check articles

I’ve almost written half a dozen times or more how inane your typical “fact check” is.  In theory, this is a very useful journalistic service.  But, in practice the biases that drive so much bad journalism (he said, she said; unwillingness to call a lie a lie; not actually understanding statistics) lead to pretty useless results.  Case in point, Drum nicely deconstructs the inept AP “fact check”  of Obama’s tax proposal:

President Obama has proposed that we enact some version of the “Buffett Rule,” which would ensure that millionaires pay at least the same tax rate as middle class workers. But do millionaires really pay lower rates than truck drivers in the first place? The AP fact checks Obama’s claim and finds it wanting:

On average, the wealthiest people in America pay a lot more taxes than the middle class or the poor, according to private and government data….This year, households making more than $1 million will pay an average of 29.1 percent of their income in federal taxes….In 2009, taxpayers who made $1 million or more paid on average 24.4 percent of their income in federal income taxes, according to the IRS.

Catch the AP’s sleight of hand there?  Drum’s bolding certainly should have helped.  He explains:

Hmmm. There’s an awful lot of averages there. But you need to be pretty careful with that stuff. The average household income in Redmond, Washington, is $66,000, but that doesn’t mean Bill Gates is pinching pennies to save up a down payment for his next car.

The whole piece is pretty ridiculous. Obama’s point isn’t that millionaires pay lower tax rates than truck drivers. It’s that some millionaires pay lower tax rates than truck drivers — and as a simple matter of fairness and equity they shouldn’t. Take a look at the table below,extracted from the Tax Policy Center. It doesn’t just show the tax rates of mere millionaires, it shows the tax rates of the top 400 super-duper millionaires. Back in 1992, only 33 of them paid less than 20% of their income in federal taxes. Today, 289 of them do. That’s just not right.

Exactly.   And by focusing on “average” tax rates, when that was not Obama’s point at all, the AP has done their readers a disservice.  Sadly, this strikes me as quite typical of fact check articles.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State

2 Responses to The unfortunate uselessness of fact check articles

  1. You are very big on citing experts unless of course they disagree with your hard left liberal philosophy.

    We have a repeat of Carter here with Obama and Reagan came in and lowered the tax rates and got America back working again, drove the gas prices down and killed the runaway inflation. But these are facts adn you have as real problem with facts
    John Wilder

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