Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Unreliable PolitiFact

PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan illustrates why we can't have good fact-checking from PolitiFact.

Holan was dispensing her sage advice to debate moderators, suggesting they do not rely on memory for their facts.

It was good advice, but her illustration showcased bad fact-checking:
Moderators who don’t keep research at hand are leaving themselves open to dodged questions and outright bluffing. Check out this exchange between Trump and moderator Becky Quick of CNBC from an October primary debate.

Quick: "You have talked a little bit about Marco Rubio. I think you called him (Facebook founder) Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator, because he was in favor of the H-1B visa."

Trump: "I never said that. I never said that."

Quick: "So this is an erroneous article the whole way around? … My apologies, I'm sorry."

Trump: "Somebody's really doing some bad fact-checking."

Actually, there was no need for Quick to apologize. She was right; Trump was wrong. Trump’s website has a line about Rubio being Zuckerberg’s personal senator. It’s still there.
Quick and Trump were talking past each other, and Trump was more right than Quick. We presume that Holan had time to think about what she was writing, but she still botched the facts.

1) Quick said Trump had talked a little bit about Rubio. If Quick had said Trump's website had used the line about Rubio being Zuckerberg's personal senator, then she would have been right.

2) Trump was reasonable to assume that when Quick said he had "talked" about Rubio that her example would involve something he talked about, not just something written on his campaign website.

3) If Trump did not talk about Rubio being Zuckerberg's personal senator, then Trump was right.

4) If Trump was right, then Holan was wrong to say Trump was wrong.

5) Quick was wrong, so Holan was wrong to say Quick was right.

It isn't good fact-checking to blithely equivocate between a person literally saying something and making that person responsible for something posted on a campaign website.

Holan should apologize.

The "elite" fact checkers stink at fact checking.

Hat tip to PolitiFact for providing us with a steady stream of illustrative material.

A vintage PolitiFact "gotcha" fact check

When was PolitiFact anything other than a horrible, left-leaning fact check organization?

We don't buy it.

Take this example from 2007, which caught our eye while we reviewed PolitiFact's preposterous ruling of "Mostly False" for the idea that France and Germany thought Iraq had WMD.

When Republican Fred Thompson was running for president in 2007, he argued that the "Iraq Study Group" said Iraq was planning to get its nuclear program up and running again despite sanctions.

PolitiFact to the rescue! "False," screamed the trademarked "Truth-O-Meter."

According to PolitiFact, the "Iraq Study Group" (put together by Congress) had made no such finding. So Thompson's claim was false.

Hilariously, unless you were Fred Thompson, PolitiFact bothered to note that the "Iraq Survey Group," the CIA group tasked in Iraq with assessing Iraq's WMD capability, had made a claim that pretty much matched what Thompson said:
So we find Thompson's claim to be False.

It's possible that Thompson was referring to the Iraq Survey Group, a CIA panel that was formed to investigate whether there were weapons of mass destruction or the intent to produce WMDs in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The report found that Saddam did not produce or possess any weapons of mass destruction for more than a decade before the U.S.-led invasion, but that he "aspired to develop a nuclear capability — in an incremental fashion, irrespective of international pressure and the resulting economic risks."

PolitiFact eventually got around to writing up a statement of principles, which it published in February 2011. We would highlight PolitiFact's declaration about "gotcha" journalism.
Is the statement significant? We avoid minor "gotchas"’ on claims that obviously represent a slip of the tongue.
Too late for Fred Thompson, unfortunately. Thompson's stuck with that undeserved "False" on his record. Maybe PolitiFact went with it because it was a major "gotcha"?

This is the type of fact check that signaled early on to us that something was wrong with the new fact checker in town.

The worst part? PolitiFact isn't getting better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Extremely deceptive abortion ad looks "Half True" to PolitiFact

In arguing that PolitiFact displays a liberal bias, we suggest that big mistakes harming conservatives or helping liberals/progressives potentially make a strong argument for PolitiFact's liberal bias. If PolitiFact's biggest blunders harm conservatives or help liberals, it strengthens our case against PolitiFact.

PolitiFact veterans Angie Drobnic Holan and Louis Jacobson, editing and writing for upstart franchise PolitiFact Nevada, give an absolutely sensational example supporting our case.

The political arm of the nation's largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, ran an ad saying Republican candidate Joe Heck voted to "criminalize abortion for rape victims."

The ad's vagueness misleads its audience in two main ways, suggesting:
  • Rape victims risk criminal charges for seeking an abortion
  • Criminal charges would apply for any abortion sought by a rape victim, regardless of the number of weeks elapsed since the pregnancy started
PolitiFact's research confirmed that the bill Heck voted for would not result in criminal charges for rape victims. The penalties were reserved for abortion providers.

PolitiFact completely overlooked the other main deception. We would call the second deception the main one. PolitiFact mentioned in its fact check that the abortion bill Heck supported would ban abortion after 20 weeks in nearly all cases, including for rape victims. But PolitiFact penalized Planned Parenthood Votes not a bit for allowing the ad's audience to think Heck was criminalizing abortion for all rape victims.

Note the resounding silence in PolitiFact's summary paragraphs, echoing the silence in the rest of its story:
The Planned Parenthood Votes ad said that "Joe Heck voted to criminalize abortion for rape victims."

The group has a point that a bill Heck voted for and co-sponsored would have criminalized medical professionals from performing abortions after 20 weeks for rape victims who are not at risk of death or significant physical health complications due to pregnancy, at least in Washington, D.C. This would have eliminated all legal abortions for women in that category.

However, the ad blurs the issue of whether medical professionals or the women themselves would be at risk of prosecution. Only medical professionals would face legal consequences under the bill, but the ad’s imagery implies otherwise, using only women as visuals. On balance, we rate the ad Half True.
For some reason, it did not seem important to PolitiFact to point out that abortions after 20 weeks occur rarely. A fact check cited the Guttmacher Institute in saying abortions after 20 weeks account for 1.2 percent of all U.S. abortions. Unless we assume that rape victims tend to wait longer for their abortions than other women, the statistic means that the law would affect very few rape victims.

How does this not draw the attention of a fact checker? It's like meeting Cyrano face to face and failing to notice his nose.

We suggest that mistakes like this favoring a cause dear to the political left make a good evidence of PolitiFact's liberal bias. This is the kind of mistake you look for from a fact checker that has a liberal bias.

This is one of many we've found from PolitiFact. But it's an especially obvious one.


We contacted the writer and editor of the fact check to point out the highly misleading part of the ad they had failed to mention. If we receive any response from the PolitiFact team or a change to the fact check we will update this item.

We note that PolitiFact will not erase the evidence of its bias by changing its fact check days after publishing. A writer got the flawed story past a team of editors. Fixing the story will not change that. If PolitiFact fails to change its story and the rating it gave to Planned Parenthood Votes, it will show something worse than unintentional bias: It will show a lack of integrity.

Monday, September 19, 2016

"Mostly False" that France and Germany thought Iraq had WMD? Seriously?

PolitiFact recently weighed in on French and German intelligence about Iraq's WMD programs. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said the French and Germans believed Iraq had WMD.

PolitiFact ruled Wolfowitz's claim "Mostly False."

Some may remember the media routinely reporting that French and German intelligence assessments, along with others, mirrored those of the United States (bold emphasis added):
U.S. government analysts were not alone in these views. In the late spring of 2002 I participated in a Washington meeting about Iraqi WMD. Those present included nearly twenty former inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the force established in 1991 to oversee the elimination of WMD in Iraq. One of the senior people put a question to the group: Did anyone in the room doubt that Iraq was currently operating a secret centrifuge plant? No one did. Three people added that they believed Iraq was also operating a secret calutron plant (a facility for separating uranium isotopes).

Other nations' intelligence services were similarly aligned with U.S. views. Somewhat remarkably, given how adamantly Germany would oppose the war, the German Federal Intelligence Service held the bleakest view of all, arguing that Iraq might be able to build a nuclear weapon within three years. Israel, Russia, Britain, China, and even France held positions similar to that of the United States; France's President Jacques Chirac told Time magazine last February, "There is a problem—the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq. The international community is right ... in having decided Iraq should be disarmed." In sum, no one doubted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Some may remember French President Jacques Chirac, who opposed the invasion, nonetheless admitting the French believed Iraq had WMD:
There is a problem—the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq. The international community is right to be disturbed by this situation, and it's right in having decided Iraq should be disarmed.
Chirac's statement came from early 2003, not long before the invasion started.

But it's a trivial matter for PolitiFact to work its way around these inconvenient facts by making its own one-sided case against Wolfowitz's claim.

Why would PolitiFact take that approach? Incompetence? Bias? A little of both?

I'm working on a column for Zebra Fact Check that will expose PolitiFact's fact-checking sins in excruciating detail.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

PolitiFact Virginia vanishes an underlying point

Does PolitiFact have principles?

Apparently none that represent an obstacle to reaching whatever "Truth-O-Meter" rating is desired.

Today's example comes from PolitiFact Virginia's Aug. 15, 2016 fact check of Democratic Vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine. Kaine said former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi couldn't find a place to stay in New York, so Donald Trump let him put a tent on the Trump Estate.

Before we proceed, let us review PolitiFact's definition of its "True" rating on its trademarked "Truth-O-Meter":
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
Kaine said nobody would let Gadhafi stay in New York, then said Trump let Gadhafi set up a tent on his estate. So was Kaine saying Gadhafi stayed at the estate in an elaborate tent?

Isn't that Kaine's implication?

PolitiFact apparently thinks so, otherwise the caption under the "Truth-O-Meter" serves no useful purpose: "Gadhafi a no-show." Isn't it significant that Gadhafi did not end up staying at the estate despite the appearance that's what Kaine implied?

Making PolitiFact Virginia look even more incompetent, the "True" rating overlooks Kaine's primary underlying argument, which PolitiFact understood well enough to use as its lead paragraph:
Tim Kaine says Donald Trump has a fondness for dictators, including the late Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Kaine's evidence that Trump has a fondness for dictators, including Gadhafi, is Trump renting Gadhafi space at the Trump estate--space that Gadhafi apparently did not visit. PolitiFact Virginia, in fact, reported that Gadhafi found a place to stay in New York, even though Kaine said he could not find a place to stay:
Gadhafi ended up staying at Libya’s U.N. mission in midtown Manhattan.
Kaine said Gadhafi could not find a place to stay in New York, implying the Trump estate was the exception. That was false.

Kaine implied Gadhafi stayed at the Trump estate. That was false.

Kaine said Trump allowed Gadhafi to set up a tent at the Trump estate. That was apparently true, but used in a misleading way.

Kaine implied that Trump's arrangement with Gadhafi shows Trump holds an affinity for dictators.

Don't we need stronger evidence than this?

Nah. This is PolitiFact. What Kaine said was "True" and nothing significant was left out.

Perhaps PolitiFact Virginia simply mistakes objectionable fact-checking for objective fact-checking?

Update Sept. 17, 2016: Afters

We're updating this post to add the "tweezers or tongs" tag, with a few words of explanation.

"Tweezers or tongs" denotes stories where PolitiFact has the option of setting a narrow or wide focus on its topic. The nature of the story focus may play a critical role in the final rating. PolitiFact might give a claim a "Mostly False" rating if it contains a "grain of truth." Or, PolitiFact might instead cut the grain of truth like a tiny diamond and present it as a tiny sparkling ring of truth in stories like the one PolitiFact Virginia wrote about Democrat Tim Kaine.

Additional note:  We appreciate the prominent link to the story from Newsbusters, which has its own expanded take. It's worth a read.

Monday, September 12, 2016

PolitiFact looking VOXier every day! (Updated)

Remember how Ezra Klein took his Washington Post Wonkblog act independent, starting the fact-challenged left-wing 'splainer site VOX?

PolitiFact is taking pages from the VOX playbook.

PolitiFact has always had VOX's ability to get things remarkably wrong, so the latest new sign of Voxiness comes from PolitiFact stories that venture into 'splaining instead of fact-checking. The item that especially caught our eye was one saying Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is incorrect for saying the United States should have taken Iraq's oil.

Trump's suggested policy on Iraq's oil is a choice with a moral, right/wrong dimension. As such PolitiFact's condemnation of the proposal amounts to moralizing. And isn't that exactly what we want from fact checkers?

We suspect the real reason PolitiFact is delving into overt PolitiSplaining has to do with its desire to share parts of expert interviews like this one:
"Insofar as Mr. Trump's proposals are coherent enough to be subject to analysis and judgment, they appear to be practically impossible, legally prohibited, and politically imbecilic," said Barnett Rubin, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
PolitiFact didn't say that about Trump! It was the expert! The expert did it! Was PolitiFact supposed to not print such a memorable quotation?

At PolitiFact Bias, we have long charged that PolitiFact's fact-checking routinely crosses the line from objective reporting into the realm of opinion journalism. An interview posted recently at, which owns PolitiFact through the Tampa Bay Times, underscores the accuracy of our assessment. Brad Scribner interviewed Lucas Graves, a recognized expert on fact-checking who did intern stints at PolitiFact and Scribner asked Graves about the relationship between fact-checking and the traditional "opinion page" in newspapers.

It’s actually a misnomer to call the opinion page the opinion page. Really it’s the argument page. People are laying out fact-based arguments. We often confuse that sense of opinion with opinion as taste — where there’s no objective way to say which flavor of ice cream is better, but that’s not true of the kinds of points being made on the opinion page. They do involve facts — facts arrayed into arguments — and those arguments require interpretation. But any important or interesting factual question usually requires interpretation.

PolitiFact founder Bill Adair once called fact checking "reported conclusion journalism" and that’s a really good description.

 Find the whole interview at Poynter's website.

Update/Afters Sept. 12, 2016

We quoted PolitiFact's gem of a quotation from expert Barnett Rubin in our post above. It was quite uncomplimentary to Trump, so much so that we felt it reasonable to question Rubin's neutrality on that basis alone.

In our opinion, PolitiFact did Rubin no favors by quoting him.

We looked up Rubin's record on the FEC database. No surprise: He donates to Democrats.

Is it fine that PolitiFact does not inform its readers about stuff like this?

We wouldn't have that big a problem with it if it didn't represent such a marked pattern.

Correction Sept. 13, 2016: Our final mention of Barnett Rubin misspelled his last name as "Rubion." We apologize for the error, which is now corrected. Same day additional correction: The problem was worse than we noticed: We called Barnett Rubin "Barret" Rubin. We treble our apology.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

PolitiFact Florida flip-flops on subjectivity of congressional ineffectiveness

PolitiFact's patina of reliability--perceived mostly by liberals--relies on people not paying close attention.

PolitiFact Florida gives us our latest example of unprincipled fact checking.

The conservative American Future Fund ran an ad attacking Florida Democrat Patrick Murphy, who is running for the senate against incumbent Republican Marco Rubio. The ad said Murphy had been rated one of the nation's least effective congressmen:
In the ad, American Future Fund says, "Patrick Murphy was named one of America's least effective congressmen."
It's completely true that Murphy was named one of America's least effective congressmen. InsideGov produced a set of rankings, and Murphy was rated one of the least effective.


PolitiFact Florida rated the ad's claim "Mostly False" because InsideGov's system for rating effectiveness fails to take enough factors into account:
The main problem with this ranking is it’s based on a single measure: the percentage of bills sponsored by each member over their time in office that went on to pass committee. That’s not a sufficient way to rate the effectiveness of a member of Congress.

Congressional experts have repeatedly told us that there are many other ways to evaluate the effectiveness of a member beyond getting a sponsored bill passed in committee.
 Got it? A reliable measure of congressional effectiveness needs to take more factors into account.

But when PolitiFact Florida decided not to rate Democrat Alan Grayson over a similar claim about Murphy based on the same YouGov ranking during the Democratic primary, the fact checkers had another approach to the issue:
We’re not going to rate Murphy’s effectiveness as a legislator, because that’s a subjective measure.
To be fair to PolitiFact Florida, without doing it any favors, it started its flip-flop during the fact check of Grayson by pointing out that it's not enough to rate effectiveness using one criterion for measurement.

It apparently does not occur to the folks at PolitiFact Florida that if effectiveness is subjective then it doesn't matter how many criteria one uses. One is as good as a billion.

Congressional effectiveness vs. Trump-caused bullying in schools

We can't help but compare PolitiFact Florida's rating of American Future Fund to the "Mostly True" rating PolitiFact gave Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her claim about a "Trump Effect" on our schoolkids.

Both AFF and Clinton credited the claim to a third source (YouGov and "parents and teachers," respectively).

The AFF claim was literally accurate; Clinton's less so (Zebra Fact Check found no anecdote from the source Clinton named to match her claim).

Both claims were credited to dubious sources (AFF's to the simplistic YouGov ratings, Clinton's to a handful of anecdotes--23, estimated--from an unscientific poll of nearly 2,000 teachers).

AFF received a "Mostly False" rating. Clinton received a "Mostly True" rating.

We suggest there is no one set of nonpartisan principles that would allow PolitiFact to justify both ratings. The disparity in these ratings shows unevenly applied principles, or else a lack of principles. The conservative AFF correctly said an untrustworthy source made a certain claim and received a "Mostly False" rating. The liberal candidate semi-correctly said an untrustworthy source made a certain claim and received a "Mostly True" rating.

It doesn't pass the sniff test.