A supposed fact check by PunditFact of conservative radio show host and CNN guest Larry Elder exemplifies the criticism.
Elder mixed it up with Marc Lamont Hill on CNN over Ferguson, Missouri and associated issues. Elder insisted that a focus on supposed racism distracted from more pressing problems.
During the course of the discussion, Elder illustrated the progress of blacks in the United States by saying if American blacks were a country they'd be the 15th wealthiest.
PunditFact decided to rate that claim from Elder (PunditFact also rated a statement from Hill made during the exchange).
PunditFact found experts who faulted Elder on two points.
First, the experts said, Elder used a figure for black income and compared that to GDP figures for a list of nations. That's an apples-to-oranges comparison. PunditFact did a poor job, however, of explaining that differences between the two measures would relatively underestimate the collective economic power of American blacks. Elder, in effect, underestimated the collective economic power of American blacks.
Second, the experts said GDP was a poor measure for the average economic well-being of American blacks.
To which we reply: Who says Elder was trying to offer a measure of the average well-being of American blacks?
PunditFact is allowing the experts to play pundit. PunditFact should restrict its use of expert testimony to subjects where the expert possesses relevant expertise.
Elder has a valid point if he's talking about collective wealth. Black America would rank close to 15th or perhaps higher on an apples-to-apples comparison of collective personal wealth with other nations. PolitiFact normally looks kindly on inaccuracies that weaken the speaker's point. President Obama, for example, received a "Mostly True" for a substantial underestimation of the number of states with miscegenation laws on the books in 1961.
Elder, for his closer estimate, received a "False" rating.
Gobbledegook + PPP=GobbledegookAfter faulting Elder for using an apples-to-oranges comparison in his effort to downplay the importance of racism in America, PunditFact proceeds to use the same apples-to-oranges comparison in per-capita form, with purchasing power parity added, to rate Elder on a claim he didn't make:
We took Clementi's suggestion and divided the most recent estimate of black earned income, $1 trillion, by the Census Bureau estimate of 44.5 million African-Americans. That would create a per capita buying power of around $23,000 a year, which would translate to around 34th around the world on the International Monetary Fund’s list of countries by GDP per capita (between the Bahamas and Malta).PunditFact takes a measure of American blacks' after-tax income and compares it on a per-capita basis to the per-capita GDP of a list of nations, adjusted by purchasing power parity. This move accomplishes two things. First, it ignores Elder's stated argument and replaces it with an argument chosen by PunditFact. Second, it sustains one of the two errors PunditFact charged to Elder. Combining these two mistakes results in a faux trouncing of the straw-man claim PunditFact attributes to Elder.
But $23,000 doesn’t go as far in the United States as, say, in Lithuania. Economists multiply GDP per capita by a conversion factor called purchasing power parity to account for the different values of goods and services in different countries. If you apply these factors, the African-American population’s $23,000 a year ranks 44th (between Portugal and Lithuania).
Racism "not a problem"?
In PunditFact's conclusion we find yet another problem.
Not content to rate its straw man version of Elder's claim "False," PunditFact also tries to create the impression Elder said racism isn't a problem in the United States.
Note PunditFact's conclusion:
Arguing that racism is "not a problem," Elder said that "if black America were a country, it would be the 15th wealthiest in the world."The problem? Elder didn't say racism isn't a problem. He said it isn't "a major problem."
We emailed the writer and editor of the PunditFact story, Derek Tsang and Aaron Sharockman, respectively, asking about the source of the quotation in PunditFact's conclusion. We'll update this item if we receive a reply.
Our view? A fact-checker should not misquote and misrepresent the persons it fact checks.