The Washington Post’s “Fact Checker” feature has set its sights on Carly Fiorina, and done so in a manner that calls its supposed objectivity into question.
The issue? Fiorina’s life story, and her much-touted rise from an office secretary to CEO of one of the world’s largest companies.
The Post begins by rattling off a series of quotes showing how Fiorina has framed her career:
“I started as a secretary, typing and filing for a nine-person real estate firm. It’s only in this country that you can go from being a secretary to chief executive of the largest tech company in the world, and run for president of the United States. It’s only possible here.”
— Business executive Carly Fiorina (R), interview on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Sept. 21, 2015
“My story, from secretary to CEO, is only possible in this nation, and proves that everyone of us has potential.”
— Fiorina, second GOP debate, Sept. 16, 2015
“A self-made woman, she started her business career as a secretary and went on to become the first, and to date, the only woman to lead a Fortune 20 company.”
— Fiorina’s biography on her 2010 campaign Web site for U.S. Senate seat in California
As even the Post needs to admit, every factual assertion in these quotes is true. Fiorina’s first job really was as a secretary for a real estate firm, and she really did rise to become the only woman CEO of the Fortune 20. (RELATED: Politico Rates Completely True Jeb Bush Statement ‘Mostly False’)
But Post writer Michelle Ye Hee Lee says this statement is worth “Three Pinocchios” on the Post’s zero-to-four scale, suggesting a major degree of dishonesty by Fiorina. Why? Apparently, because Fiorina needed to check her privilege.
“Fiorina’s description of rising ‘from secretary to CEO’ conjures a Horatio Alger-like narrative where a character starts at the lowest ranks of an industry, pulls themselves up by their bootstraps and, against all odds, reaches the top position in the industry,” writes Ye Hee Lee.
Fiorina, she says, didn’t really accomplish this, because her stops on the way to the top included attending Stanford University and earning an MBA at the University of Maryland. She also cites her father’s position as dean of Duke Law School as proof she was more privileged in her upbringing than she credits.
Yet several of those parts of Fiorina’s biography appear to simply burnish her rise to the top.
Attending Stanford would require high-level academics on Fiorina’s part, and her entrance to her MBA program is even more notable. As even the Post says, Fiorina initially wasn’t accepted to Maryland because her application took too long to arrive, but Fiorina personally traveled to meet the dean and impressed him enough to make an exception so she could be admitted.
That kind of initiative certainly seems to reflect “Horatio Alger-like” bootstraps.
Ye Hee Lee also suggests that Fiorina’s rise is discredited by the fact that she was able to take a year off for an elite mid-career fellowship sponsored by AT&T while she worked for the company. But if anything, her ability to obtain such a fellowship reflects the talents that let her rise, as she says, from secretary to CEO.
Ye Hee Lee seems to be penalizing Fiorina for not being promoted directly from secretary to CEO, a path Fiorina has never remotely claimed to follow. Fiorina has also been clear that her jobs as secretary and CEO were at different companies (as the first quote above indicates), yet Ye Hee Lee penalizes her for that anyway, asserting that her “Horatio Alger-like” rise is supposed to be entirely within the same industry, simply because Ye Hee Lee says so.
Did Fiorina’s rise have details she doesn’t always state? Certainly. But the Post’s own description of its rating scale says that Three Pinocchios should be reserved for “significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions.” The Post’s criticism of Fiorina didn’t expose a single factual error on Fiorina’s part, but labeled her a liar anyway.
Ye Hee Lee’s own criticisms of Fiorina seem far more in line with the description for One Pinocchio, which is described as “Some shading of the facts. Selective telling of the truth. Some omissions and exaggerations, but no outright falsehoods.”
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