Friday, June 17, 2011

Pressroom Buzz @ Inside Milwaukee: "No Comment"

Jeff tipped me off to a blog post at Inside Milwaukee's "Pressroom Buzz."  At first I thought it was fodder for a PFB Smackdown feature.  But with respect to any kind of credible charge of a bias against the left at PolitiFact Wisconsin there's just no "there" there.

The blog post, by Erik Gunn, discloses the decision of some Democratic Party politicians in Wisconsin to stop cooperating with PolitiFact, a la Cato Institute's Michael F. Cannon.

The decision by the Democrats seems a bit more self-serving and a bit less principled than Cannon's--at least to me. Your mileage may vary:
The party doesn’t intend to enforce a uniform stance against PolitiFact among Democratic candidates, and (Democratic Party of Wisconsin's communications director Graeme) Zielinski says officials also didn’t plan any sort of big campaign to publicize the party’s decision to stop cooperating with the feature’s reporters. “We’re not going to make a big deal of it,” Zielinski says. “We just think there’s no utility in dealing with them anymore.”
To help illustrate the DPW's discontent with PolitiFact Wisconsin, Gunn tosses in a couple of recent complaints about PFW's impartiality.  But they're both duds.

The first is barely long enough to qualify as a blog post.  The criticism amounts to an assertion that a PolitiFact story about a voter ID issue can't be taken seriously, not counting linked material of dubious value.  If the author's serious about being taken seriously then he won't farm out the argument.

The second blog post at least invests a good number of words, but it amounts to a complaint about selection bias.  Selection bias is ubiquitous at PolitiFact.  Lone examples mean nothing or next to nothing. Larger sets of data however, such as the collection we present on this blog, may carry some weight.

Gunn also obtained a pair of recent examples from Zielinski.  Those were marginally more compelling than the blogged complaints:
PolitiFact labeled as “Pants on Fire” the statement by Democratic state Rep. Sandy Pasch – who is challenging Republican Sen. Alberta Darling in a recall election – that Paul Ryan’s plan to change Medicare to a voucher system with a fixed government contribution “would end health care for our seniors.”
 And:
PolitiFact labeled as “Pants on Fire” a Democratic Party assertion that windows at the state Capitol were bolted in response to protests in February, and said that party Chairman Mike Tate didn’t respond to PolitiFact inquiries.
We share some sympathy for any figure who receives a "Pants on Fire" rating from PolitiFact, since the rating by definition cannot be justified objectively.  But for political entities for which I could easily assign a political position the Republicans and conservatives had 12 Pants on Fire ratings compared to 15 for the Democrats and progressives.  The difference, I expect, is borderline for statistical significance.

Granted, in comparison to other PolitiFact operations the Democrats have received harsher grading in Wisconsin. As a result the Wisconsin branch has received the brunt of the "PolitiFact has a right-wing bias" complaints. That doesn't necessarily say anything about an ideological bias at PolitiFact Wisconsin.

Despite the weak examples, Gunn does have some good points to make.  They just don't add up to an argument for an anti-liberal bias.  Rather, they resonate with some of the criticisms of PolitiFact's journalistic model made standard here at PolitiFact Bias.

For example:
PolitiFact’s critics have a point, but it’s a bit more complicated than partisan bias. The larger problem remains in its simplistic rating system and especially the incendiary “Pants on Fire” category, which doesn’t appear to be consistently applied.
It's hard for PolitiFact to apply it consistently when PolitiFact's statement of principles describes the rating category in subjective terms.

Gunn also noted what I've referred to as PolitiFact's snark:
Finally, there’s an air of smugness in the tone of many PolitiFact pieces that condescends not just to the objects of criticism but to readers. I have a hunch that tone alone accounts for some of the hostility toward the operation, from whatever corner.
Where smugness of tone occurs as a result of opinionated language, readers can be forgiven for their impression that the journalists responsible for the story have compromised their objectivity.

While journalists overall have a ideological tilt to the left, of course they are not monolithically liberal.  We at PFB welcome careful criticism of PolitiFact from the left--such little as there is at present--confident in the expectation that when all the facts are in the evidence will show PolitiFact predisposed to favoring the left on balance.  Significantly so.

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