For an organization whose reason for being is to judge what’s a fact and what’s not, PolitiFact sure has a funny idea of what “true” means.

Or “Barely True,” as it says.

Audit commenter Thimbles points to a PolitiFact piece on Fox Business Network anchor Eric Bolling. Bolling told a whopper on air, and PolitiFact is good to point out where he was wrong. But then it gives him a “Barely True” rating on its Truth-o-meter.

Here’s what Bolling said:

“We got blackboard, here it is, Wisconsin teachers make a salary of $51,000…Benefits $38,000 per year, that comes to a whopping 89,000 bucks, while the rest of us, all workers in the United States, union, non-union, etc., $38,000 is your average salary…there, $10,000 in benefits, a quarter of what you make, that you would make if you were a Wisconsin teacher, to 48 grand, almost half the amount. Yet collective bargaining says that is OK. That’s not anti-free market?”

The whole thing is flat false, but first, I can’t let this pass uncommented, because it’s pure Murdoch/Fox: Here we have a guy who’s a rich TV anchor/commodities trader including himself with “the rest of us, all workers in the United States” to carp about teachers bringing home 700 bucks a week. Dude’s a real man of the people.

Back to the point: Bolling’s numbers aren’t just rounding errors, as PolitiFact’s own reporting shows. They’re so far off that they’re materially misleading. Wisconsin teachers get about $76,000 a year in total compensation, not $89,000. And private-sector workers in Wisconsin make $62,000 a year in total comp, not $48,000, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s analysis of Census and BLS data.

So instead of an 85 percent difference, as Bolling claimed, we have a 23 percent gap.

But there’s more misleading going on here, as PolitiFact also points out. Bolling is comparing apples and oranges. All Wisconsin teachers have four-year degrees and more than half have master’s degrees. By contrast, just 35 percent of private-sector workers in the state have college degrees. Educated people get paid more on average.

How much? We can use EPI’s report to compare apples to apples. It shows that private-sector workers with bachelor’s degree in Wisconsin average $82,000 in total compensation a year. Private sector workers with masters degrees make more than $100,000. Some back-of-the-envelope math shows that for their education levels, Wisconsin’s teachers would make about $92,000 a year in the private sector—or about 21 percent a year more than they make working for the government.

Now, there’s a case to be made about how much teachers get paid per hour or per day. No private sector worker that I know gets three months off a year (though if you notice, three months off is 25 percent of the workyear, which is pretty close to the 21 percent pay gap) [ADDING: I should note that teachers who are dedicated, and I think most are, don’t just sit on their duffs all summer—there’s still a lot of work to be done then]. But that’s not the one Bolling chose to make.

For PolitiFact, the question is basic: Why didn’t it call a clear falsehood “false”? It has the goods here. It shows clearly how wrong this argument was. Then it screws up the verdict.

UPDATE: Rob Farley of PolitiFact and the St. Pete Times says on Twitter that Politifact’s judgment “takes into account that Bolling gave corrected numbers the next night.”

And so it does, saying in the kicker that “We don’t take too much issue with the raw numbers provided by Bolling (the clarified ones).” Bolling, to his credit, had corrected his original numbers with ones closer to reality a day after his report ran.

But I’m not sure that parenthetical in the last paragraph was good enough. I’m sure I’m not the only one who read the piece as PolitiFact taking on the original statement. That’s what the headline says:

In Wisconsin, teachers make $89,000 in salary and benefits, compared to $48,000 for all other workers in the United States.

As well as the subhed:

Fox Business News’ Eric Bolling says Wisconsin teachers get compensated nearly double those in private sector

But PolitiFact’s hedge makes much more sense when talking about the corrected report.


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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.