WaPo: ‘Three Pinocchios’ for Carly Fiorina’s Factually Accurate Claim

AP Photo/Richard Shiro
AP Photo/Richard Shiro

On Friday, the Washington Post published a poorly-reasoned fact-check of Carly Fiorina’s claim to have gone from secretary to CEO. The Post awards this claim “Three Pinocchios” despite failing to identify a single false statement made by Fiorina.

The Post offers three examples of Fiorina making this claim, including one she made earlier this week on Jimmy Fallon’s Tonight Show:

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.

The Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee goes on to verify every single part of the statement. So how does she get to “Three Pinocchios,” which, according to the Post’s guidelines, are reserved for “Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions?” Here’s how it’s done:

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.

We’re no longer looking at what Fiorina actually said or the facts, we’re now looking at a narrative Lee claims Fiorina is conjuring. But the facts of Fiorina’s biography suggest no magic is required. The following excerpt comes from the same source on Fiorina’s work history, linked by the Post’s Michelle Ye Hee Lee. It picks up after Fiorina drops out of law school. [emphasis added]

After dropping out, she took a tiny off-campus apartment at Stanford and spent much of her time with Bartlem at Casa Italiana…

Perhaps Fiorina’s first taste of business came when she worked for real estate broker Marcus & Millichap for a few months that year. She was known around the office as “the Stanford student.” Hired as a receptionist, she quickly moved on from answering phones and typing to editing and financial analysis, even reworking marketing packages drafted for $100-million deals–all within three months. The incredulous office manager kept telling cofounder Bill Millichap, “Look what this person is doing,” says Millichap. “She was exceptional even then.”

Let’s review. Fiorina graduates Stanford with a degree in history and philosophy. She attends law school at her father’s behest but drops out after one semester. She gets a small apartment and takes a job as a receptionist. Within months, she is amazing her employers with her capabilities to do much more than type. She later quits this job, gets married and moves to Italy where she teaches English. Eventually, she decides to apply to business school. Her application is late because of Italy’s slow mail system, but she has a two-hour conversation with the dean, impressing him so much that he agrees to recommend her admission.

But this slow, winding course from failed law student to business school grad student is treated as a fait accompli by the Post. [emphasis added]:

She worked briefly as a secretary in between law school and business school, but she always intended to attend graduate school for her career. She moved up through AT&T with her MBA, and was placed on a fast track to senior management after her company sponsored her to attend one of the most elite mid-career fellowships in the world.

Somehow, Fiorina’s intention to one day attend grad school invalidates her actual start in business. I asked the Post’s Glenn Kessler twice if he could explain what this passage means, and he offered no response (though he did respond to other questions). The Post’s conclusion continues with an even more absurd claim. [emphasis added]:

Fiorina uses a familiar, “mailroom to boardroom” trope of upward mobility that the public is familiar with, yet her story is nothing like that.

Actually, her story is exactly like that. She certainly went to a great undergraduate school, but her degree was in history and philosophy. It was only after college that Fiorina discovered her aptitude and interest in business. Her rise from there was certainly helped by her attendance at an Ivy League school, but it did not determine her future success as her failed attempt at law school clearly demonstrates.

In telling her only-in-America story, she conveniently glosses over the only-for-Fiorina opportunities and options beyond what the proverbial mailroom worker has. As such, she earns Three Pinocchios.

If the claim being made is that Fiorina’s rise omits her attendance at excellent schools, well, that’s not true either. Here is one of the three statements the Post claims to be fact-checking. The part in bold appears at the top of the Post’s story, but they omit the line that comes before it:

While she is perhaps best known as the former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Hewlett-Packard Company (HP), what is not as well known is Carly worked her way through undergraduate and graduate school. 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 literally made her education the first line of her campaign bio, but the Post omits this and then claims she’s glossing over her education. What kind of fact-checking is this?

The bottom line is this: Fiorina’s story may not be rags to riches, but then she never said it was. What she said is that she went from being a secretary at a small company, to being a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and from there to being a candidate for president. All of that is true. The Post struggles to reach a negative conclusion by omitting salient facts from the very sources it quotes only partially. Finally, nothing in the Post’s guidelines justifies giving “Three Pinocchios” for a statement that is factually correct. The entire story is a mess, and the Post should correct it.


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