Friday, January 14, 2011

Internet Scofflaw: "Decision-making, Dithering, and Sitting on Desks"

Internet Scofflaw has an excellent piece detailing PolitiFact's habit of ignoring the common usage of a word or phrase in order to make a rating fit a particular narrative.

In October of 2009 Robert Gibbs and Dick Cheney exchanged barbs over the handling of troop requests, and PolitiFact inevitably came to Gibbs' defense. Internet Scofflaw starts with some background, and explains why Gibbs made a bogus statement in the first place-
Last month, Robert Gibbs fired back at Dick Cheney’s (inarguable) accusation that President Obama is dithering about Afghanistan, saying:

[Gibbs:] "The vice president was for seven years not focused on Afghanistan. Even more curious given the fact that an increase in troops sat on desks in this White House, including the vice president’s, for more than eight months, a resource request filled by President Obama in March."

Obviously Gibbs’s effort to tie in the vice president is rubbish, since the vice president is not in the chain of command. But what about the central accusation that the request sat on President Bush’s desk for more than eight months?
That final question is exactly what PolitiFact decided to rate. Not surprisingly, they rated Gibbs True-
The public doesn't have access to [U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. David] McKiernan's formal request for more troops. But we know that he was talking about it publicly in September 2008, at least 4 1/2 months before the end of Bush's term. And McKiernan told reporters his request went back nearly to the start of his taking over as the top U.S. commander four months before that. That would suggest Gibbs' claim is correct that it had been sitting on desks in the White House for eight months. And so we rule his statement True.
Internet Scofflaw does the legwork PolitiFact fails to do and comes up with a more honest analysis of Gibb's statement-
If “sat on desks” meant the same thing as “was not fully fulfilled”, then Gibbs and the St. Petersburg Times would have a strong case. (Of course, by that definition, Gen. McChrystal’s request will probably be sitting on Obama’s desk forever, since all indications are that it will not be fully granted.) But that’s not what the phrase means. To “sit on a desk” means that no decision was made. That is not at all the case with Gen. McKiernan’s requests for troops.

As ABC News explains, McKiernan made several requests for troops over his months in command, totaling about 30,000 troops. Some of the requests were granted, but most were not, as the Surge in Iraq was making heavy demands. Instead, the Bush administration tried to get NATO to fill the gap. By the fall of 2008 it was clear that NATO was not going to come through, and with the Surge winding down, more US troops were available for Afghanistan and were sent. In March 2009, with Iraq quiet and troops withdrawals underway, the balance was sent by President Obama.

So what you saw from President Bush is the normal process of allocating scarce military resources where they are most needed. In other words, you saw decision-making. In March you saw the same from President Obama. But now, on the other hand, you see Obama unable to make a decision. Dithering.
It's important to note that PolitiFact's close relationship with ABC News didn't begin until 2010. That being said it's interesting that PolitiFact ignored ABC reporter Jake Tapper's conclusion on his blog (made the day prior to PolitiFact's rating)-
So Gibbs’s claim that for “eight months” McKiernan’s request for troops “sat on desks” isn’t accurate.
Internet Scofflaw ends with a question we find ourselves asking all the time-
What use is a fact checker that sides with the administration regardless of the facts?
You can read the full piece here.

Bryan adds:

The Internet Scofflaw assessment largely agrees with one I published at the time.  Please excuse me as I risk upper extremity injury by patting myself on the back.

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