Thursday, March 31, 2011

Sublime Bloviations: "Grading PolitiFact (Florida): Grover Norquist and half of something"

I try to resist highlighting posts from my second blog here at PolitiFact Bias, but JD's busy and, all humility aside, this item looks like a classic example of the way the leftward tilt of the uniform newsroom culture can stifle the type of thinking needed to do a fair job of fact-checking:
This item immediately caught my attention because of the ambiguity.  What does Grover Norquist's statement mean?  What was the original context?  PolitiFact seemed to figure it out easily and quickly:
"FYI," he wrote. "Withheld union dues fund half of Dem (Democratic) campaigns in Florida."

That's an awfully big number. So, FYI, we decided to check it out.
Is it "an awfully big number"?

On its face, Norquist's statement appears to refer to half the total number of political campaigns of Democrats in Florida.  For some as-yet-unknown reason, PolitiFact takes it to mean that withheld union dues provide half the funding for all Democratic campaigns in Florida.

The difference in those two understandings is very substantial.  Use the wrong understanding and the wrong fact gets checked.
As subsequently noted in the post, PolitiFact evidently gave no consideration at all to a completely justifiable interpretation of Norquist's words.  Under the alternate interpretation, numbers from PolitiFact's key source for its errant fact check show that no less than 46.7 percent of Democratic Party campaigns in Florida received dues via paycheck deductions from public employee unions.  That's a number that reasonably passes for "half" in normal human communications.

This type of anecdote is a stronger evidence of bias than the usual error favoring one party over another, as I went on to explain:
This is yet another flub that is extremely difficult to understand apart from echo-chamber institutional bias at PolitiFact.  Nobody thought the statement might be talking about something other than half of all the funds received by Democratic Party campaigns?

It's kind of hard to believe.

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