I have, on more than one occasion, argued that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was wrong to say he'd heard from a Bain Capital investor that Mitt Romney hadn't paid income taxes for 10 years. It's just irresponsible to argue this way -- national candidates can't be expected to defend themselves against second-hand innuendo.
But let's also be responsible on how we define our terms. Reid's accusations were unsubstantiated and, to my mind, unfair, but that doesn't speak to their accuracy. Indeed, the underlying veracity remains unclear -- Romney claims to have heard a rumor from an unnamed source. Is the rumor true? Is the "extremely credible" source reliable? We don't know.
Many readers asked us to put Reid's claim to the Truth-O-Meter. We conclude that Reid, despite repeating the claim on at least two occasions, has not produced any solid evidence it is true. [...]
Reid has produced no evidence to back up his claim other than attribution to a shadowy anonymous source. Romney has denied the claim, and tax experts back him up, saying that the nature of Romney's investments in Bain make it highly unlikely he would have been able to avoid paying taxes altogether -- especially for 10 years.
Reid has made an extreme claim with nothing solid to back it up. Pants on Fire!
The problem here is with the underlying task -- fact-checking a rumor based on an anonymous source is, at its root, tricky. That said, unsubstantiated claims and dishonest claims are not necessarily the same thing. There's no proof to back up Reid's argument, but there's also very little evidence that he's actually lying -- the only definitive proof would be disclosure of Romney's tax returns, which the Republican candidate has thus far refused to release.
Is the accusation that Reid never had the conversation he claims to have had with his source? How would Republicans and/or PolitiFact know?
The PolitiFact editors added that Reid "has not proven his allegation." That's correct, but unproven allegations are not by definition untrue allegations. Indeed, there's some irony here -- Reid can't back up his argument, but his critics accusing him of dishonesty can't back up their accusations, either.
Unless PolitiFact has seen Romney's hidden tax returns or has Reid bugged to know what private conversations he's having, the "Pants On Fire" designation seems baseless. The Majority Leader has been careless in his accusations, but his critics are attacking him in the wrong way.
Call him out for recklessness and unfairness, not dishonesty.