Sunday, July 20, 2014

Debatepolitics.com: A tale of two guarantees?

We've guest-posted one argument against PolitiFact from debatepolitics.org, and now it's time to highlight another. This one comes from "Zyphlin," comparing PolitiFact's rating of Obamacare-related statements from President Obama and Senate Minority Leader Eric Cantor:
Obama states "Here’s a guarantee that I’ve made. If you have insurance that you like, then you will be able to keep that insurance." He's ACTUALLY stating it as a guarantee, and Politifact gives that a "half true" and basically judges it based on their opinion of what Obama really meant.

Cantor states "The people who have health care and like it in this county are not going to be able to keep what they have." He doesn't say the word guarantee, but Politifact[']s opinion is that he is suggesting a guarantee and rate it as "mostly false."
"Zyphlin" goes on to say both Obama and Cantor made false statements.  There we don't agree.

Cantor's statement, made in an interview after the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the ACA's individual mandate, simply meant that Obama's promise was false.

It's important to note the parallel wording.  Cantor borrows Obama's line about people liking their health insurance, then contradicts the president's promise that those people will be able to keep their health care plans.

Obama receives a "Half True" rating.

Cantor gets a "Mostly False" rating.

It's yet another fact-checking travesty wrought by PolitiFact and PolitiFact Virginia.

Tweezers or tongs?

We've noted before PolitiFact's inconsistency in its treatment of compound statements.  It's time to focus on a specific way that inconsistency can influence PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter.

We'll call this problem "tweezers or tongs" and illustrate it with a recent PolitiFact fact check of Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.):
"As a physician for over 30 years, I am well aware of the dangers infectious diseases pose. In fact, infectious diseases remain in the top 10 causes of death in the United States. … Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning."

[...]

The reality is that Ebola has only been found in Africa -- and experts agree that, given how the disease develops, the likelihood of children from Central America bringing it to the U.S. border is almost nonexistent. But most importantly for our fact-check, Gingrey’s office was unable to point to solid evidence that that Ebola has arrived in Western Hemisphere, much less the U.S. border. To the contrary, the CDC and independent epidemiologists say there is zero evidence that these migrants are carrying the virus to the border.

We rate the claim Pants on Fire.
It's tweezers this time.

Gingrey states that disease crossing the border via migration creates a concern.  He mentions reports of swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis crossing the border as examples of concern.  PolitiFact takes its tweezers and picks out "Ebola virus," and drops from consideration the other diseases in Gingrey's compound statement.

Let's review again PolitiFact's guidelines statement of principles:
We sometimes rate compound statements that contain two or more factual assertions. In these cases, we rate the overall accuracy after looking at the individual pieces.
Or sometimes PolitiFact will just settle on rating one piece of the compound statement.  It's up to PolitiFact, based on the whim of the editors.

Burying Gingrey's underlying point

Though we're focused mainly on PolitiFact's inconsistent handling of compound statements, it's hard to ignore another PolitiShenanigan in the Gingrey fact check.  PolitiFact sometimes takes a subject's underlying point into account when making a ruling.  And sometimes not.  In Gingrey's case, PolitiFact buried Gingrey's underlying point:
As a surge of unaccompanied children from Central America was arriving on the United States’ southern border this month, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., expressed concern about the impact they could have on public health.
PolitiFact left out part of the story.  Yes, Gingrey was expressing concern about the potential spread of disease from human migration.  But he wasn't simply airing his concerns to the Centers for Disease Control, to whom he addressed the letter PolitiFact fact checked.  He was asking the CDC to assess the risk:
I request that the CDC take immediate action to assess the public risk posed by the influx of unaccompanied children and their subsequent transfer to different parts of the country.
PolitiFact claims "words matter."  Yet, contrary to PolitiFact's claim, Gingrey did not say migrants may be bringing Ebola virus through the U.S.-Mexico border.  Rather, he said it was troubling to hear reports of diseases, including Ebola virus, coming across the border.

Words matter to PolitiFact, we suppose, since one needs to know exactly how much twisting is needed to arrive at the desired "Truth-O-Meter" rating.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Guest post: PolitiFact and the Washington Redskins

At debatepolitics.com we ran across a criticism of PolitiFact by Grim17.  We obtained permission from JLG, the author, to reproduce the post here (edited for style).

Also see our afterword.

********************************

Politifact recently decided to evaluate and rule on the following story/claim:
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office "received zero complaints" about the Washington Redskins name.
It is the one and only story that PolitiFact has fact checked that evaluates the validity of the "zero complaints" claim and just so there are no misunderstandings, let me make some things clear:

1. Evaluating that claim is legitimate and completely valid.
2. This issue is a political one and their ruling has political implications for those on both sides of the Redskins issue.
3. This review also has the potential to negatively affect the credibility of certain conservative media organizations.

PolitiFact ruled that the claim was "False", but I have concluded that their evaluation displays a clear liberal bias on their part, and does so in several different ways.


Perception

Here is the headline from PolitiFact's front page:



As you see they rate the "received zero complaints" claim as false, and use their subheading to further substantiate that rating by saying "Except for the complaint that started this case" (take note of the subheading, as it will come into play in the future).

People arriving at the PolitiFact website who haven't yet read the actual article, or who choose not to read it, are sent a very clear, cut-and-dry message through that headline. It tells them that both the story and the claim are false and the patent office did in fact receive public complaints about the Redskins name, prior to making their ruling.


Political implications

That headline and subsequent ruling bode well for those on the political left who believe the name is offensive and should be changed, and harms the reputation and credibility of the Washington Times, since they are the ones who broke the story. It also harms the reputation and credibility of the media outlets and conservative pundits who chose to run with the story.


Methodology - Sources used to evaluate the claim

The original story which made headlines on July 1st was titled "Patent office didn’t receive a single public complaint before stripping Redskins trademark" and was published by the conservative-leaning newspaper the Washington Times. You would think that if PolitiFact wanted to fact check the story and the "zero complaints" claim, they would use the original article that was written by the Washington Times to do so... but that isn't what they did.

PolitiFact decided they would fact check the claim by evaluating the opinions written about the story on the Internet by various conservative bloggers, rather than using the actual article written by the newspaper that broke the story in the first place. The reason they chose to evaluate the claim in this way will become clear shortly. 

PolitiFact's ruling and the flaws behind it:

Conservative blog posts smell a scandal in the cancellation of the Washington Redskins trademark, pointing out that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office "received zero complaints" about it before an administrative law court ruled in June.

The case was opened because someone complained -- so that assertion is wrong on its face. But even that aside, the post is misleading in suggesting that public comments are part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office process when they are not.

When people have a problem with patents and trademarks and want them removed, they file formal complaints, prove their standing in the case, pay a fee, and provide evidence to support their case.In other words, they do exactly what the five plaintiffs in this case did here.

We rate the claim False.
So PolitiFact rules the claim that the patent office "received zero complaints" as "False" based on two reasons. That the five Native Americans who filed the legal challenge qualify as a "complaint" and because they claim an opinion posted on the Conservative Tribune blog misled readers by suggesting that public comments are part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office process.

The first reason is flawed because it's public knowledge that five Native Americans filed a formal complaint challenging the renewal of the trademark, which led to the USPTO review in the first place. Plus the blog even linked to the original story, making that perfectly clear. So it's obvious that both the blog and the Washington Times were saying "zero complaints other than the formal complaint that started all of this" because they assumed their readers were fully knowledgeable of the controversy, including the USPTO ruling and the factors that led to it.  This is a case of PolitiFact choosing to omit logic and common sense.

The second reason isn't flawed, it's just flat out incorrect, as well as being totally irrelevant to the validity of the quote. Nowhere in the post made by the Conservative Tribune blog, in the post they quoted from the Weasel Zippers blog, or in the original story from the Washington Times, was it ever implied in any way that "public comments are part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office process". That is a completely false claim by PolitiFact.  But even if bought into their assertion, it would still have nothing to do with whether the "zero complaints" claim was true or not. Their headline and subheading on their front page simply says that the claim that the patent office "received zero complaints" about the Washington Redskins name, is false, and any implications based on that claim are totally irrelevant.


Conclusions:

1. PolitiFact rating that story/claim as "false", is itself false. One of their two conclusion requires a parsing of words that defies logic, is devoid of common sense and ignores the content of the original story, while the other conclusion is a falsehood that is not supported by any of the 3 sources they used to render their ruling.

2. Claiming that "The case was opened because someone complained -- so that assertion is wrong on its face" would not have been possible if they evaluated the original story, because it explained how the five Native Americans were responsible for the trademark being reviewed. It would have made their conclusion an absolute joke. Evaluating the claim through an opinion on a conservative blog however, allowed them to use a technicality to parse words and make that claim, because the blog never mentioned the 5 Native Americans... they only linked to the original story that did mention them.

3. It's obvious that PolitiFact was aware that saying "The case was opened because someone complained -- so that assertion is wrong on its face" was extremely weak, which is why they tried to strengthen it by falsely claiming that the blog article was misleading, when it wasn't.

________________________________________________________________

After reading the PolitiFact article and the 3 stories they used to make their ruling, it's obvious that their ruling was bogus. They took a story that looked bad for the political left that should have been ruled "Mostly true" or "True", and deemed it "False". On their front page, they falsely led their readers into believing that people had in fact complained about the Redskins name, and that the entire story that Washington Times published was a lie, bringing into question the credibility of other conservative media outlets, conservative bloggers and conservative pundits who ran with the story. The "liberal biased" icing on the cake is the fact that PolitiFact chose to evaluate the story through the opinions published by conservative bloggers, rather than just evaluating the original story itself, because that was the only way they could avoid having to rule that the claim and the story were in fact true.

Liberal bias CONFIRMED
********************************
(end of post by JLG)

Afterword

Another member of the debate.politics community, "Hatuey," challenged Grim17's post, noting that complaints were lodged against the name "Redskins" at a public hearing held by the USPTO.  While that information does have bearing on whether the "zero complaints" claim is literally true, it has no bearing on the quality of PolitiFact's fact check.  PolitiFact does not list the public hearing on its source list, therefore Grim17's central criticism of PolitiFact's method stands. 


Edit 7-20-2014: Added link to PolitiFact/Redskins article to the word "False."- Jeff

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Nothing To See Here: David Alameel edition

We picked up on a rating of a Texas Democrat, David Alameel, that looked a tad harsh at first blush.  PolitiFact Texas rated Alameel "False" for saying he had once lived in "La Colonia" since that claim produced the impression he lived in a colonia--a subdivision often lacking electricity or plumbing.  Alameel's "La Colonia" wasn't nearly that bad.  It just happened to share the name.

We figured where one correctly names a place he used to dwell, there's got to be some truth to it.  PolitiFact Texas didn't see it that way for some reason.

Hold the Presses

We were nearly ready to start on a short article recounting how PolitiFact had unfairly treated Alameel when we reviewed, for context, the speech Alameel was delivering when he uttered the statement PolitiFact examined.

We had to change the main focus of the story to "Nothing to See Here."  Alameel's speech is stuffed full of preposterous partisan claims.  Why did PolitiFact focus on the colonia issue when Alameel offered such a smorgasbord of superior fact-check opportunities?

There's nothing to do but simply recount some of the things Alameel claimed (chronological order, many of them consecutive).

Friday, July 11, 2014

Congressional pay raise update

Thanks to PolitiFact Georgia, we have another piece of evidence that PolitiFact prefers Democrats.

Partisan.
We pointed out in October 2012 that PolitiFact found it true that Rep. Bill McCollum (R-Fla.) had raised his own pay a number of times while in Congress.  In contrast, PolitiFact Ohio found it false that Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) had raised his own pay a number of times while in Congress.  Their circumstances were similar.  The rulings contradict each other.

PolitiFact Georgia sees things mostly PolitiFact Ohio's way.  It's "Mostly False" that Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) raised his own pay.  Hey!  A Republican got the benefit of the doubt this time!  But it's not that simple.  Blame for the "Mostly False" claim goes to Kingston's Republican primary challenger, David Perdue.

So, on essentially the same claim, PolitiFact has put a "False" and a "Mostly False" on Republican report cards, and a "True" on the report card for the Florida Democratic Party (the latter claim was a compound claim where both halves were found true).

If Kingston wins the primary, it will be interesting to see if any Democrats pick up this line of attack.  First, will PolitiFact Georgia notice?  Second, what rating will result?

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Nothing To See Here: Harry Reid and the five white justices

We have a great "Nothing To See Here" item from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  Reid blamed the Supreme Court's majority decision on the Hobby Lobby case on five white men.

Here's the Mediaite version:
Yesterday, Senator Harry Reid spoke out against the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court ruling and ruled against the “five white men” on the Supreme Court who ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby last week.
There's video available at Mediaite.

PolitiFact, of course, needs to consider whether it is fact or opinion that Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Scalia, Alito and Thomas are white.  If it's just Reid's opinion then there's no fact to check.

Some might argue, of course, that Clarence Thomas is objectively black.  And Scalia and Alito are objectively Hispanic.  But at least it's apparent that all are men.  As a result, we can predict that if PolitiFact grades this claim Reid will receive a "Half True" rating or better.  "Mostly True" isn't out of the question, either, since Reid nailed it on the number of men forming the majority opinion:  five. 

Perhaps we shouldn't even rule out a "True" rating.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

'The Tampa Bay Times endorsed Mitt Romney' (Updated)

This week a person argued on PolitiFact's Facebook page to the effect that PolitiFact isn't biased since the Tampa Bay Times endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election.

Of course the person had confused the Tampa Bay Times, which owns and runs PolitiFact, with the more conservative Tampa Tribune.  The Times endorsed Obama in 2012, just as it has endorsed Democratic candidates going back at least to 1948.

We don't think the editorial stance of the Times serves as a particularly good evidence of PolitiFact's liberal bias.  But it's worth burying once and for all the notion that the conservative editorial stance at the Times shows a lack of liberal bias at PolitiFact.

Without further ado, the documented evidence of the Times' support for Democratic presidential candidates going back to Truman:

The Tampa Bay Times (St. Petersburg Times) always endorses Democrats for president


2012:  Obama

Obama for president

2008:  Obama

The Times recommends: Obama for President

The Times doesn't make it easy to research its endorsements, so we have to rely on some secondary sources to round out our list.  Google's News Archive made the process perhaps easier than it's ever been.