Saturday, January 21, 2012

Commentary: "PolitiFact's Pants on Fire"

Another PolitiFact-cited expert has joined Tom Bruscino in dumping on PolitiFact over a recent fact check on Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

This time it's Ted R. Bromund, writing in Commentary magazine.  Like Bruscino, Bromund pans PolitiFact for using leading questions and for issuing a ruling with which he cannot agree.  But Bromund goes further in noting that PolitiFact performed its fact check based on a straw man version of Romney's point (bold emphasis added):
Jacobson sums up Romney’s contention as being: “The U.S. military has been seriously weakened compared to what it was 50 and 100 years ago.” Since the Truman Doctrine of 1947 is as good a marker as any of the moment when the U.S. assumed the global security responsibilities that formerly belonged to Britain, the fact that our Air Force is smaller and older than it has been at any point since that date might give immediately give cause for concern.

But the obvious point of Romney’s statement was not that the U.S. military of today would lose a war to the U.S. military of 1917 or 1947. It was that the margin of U.S. “military superiority” – i.e., its relative strength versus potential and actual adversaries – is at risk if defense spending declines, as President Obama plans for it to do. The question is not whether the U.S.’s “military posture is in any way similar to that of its predecessors in 1917 or 1947”: it is whether the U.S.’s margin of superiority over other actors, taking contextual factors into account, is better or worse than it was in previous eras.
Bromund weakens his case some with his characterization of PolitiFact's argument in the story.  It seems the argument was more that the current state of the armed forces as described by Romney remains the world's superior military force, though PolitiFact does use some language easily taken to support his interpretation.  But Bromund scores a huge hit in noting that PolitiFact stuffed Romney's argument full of straw.  Just have a look at the manipulated quotation PolitiFact used in its deck material:
The U.S. military is at risk of losing its "military superiority" because "our Navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947." 
PolitiFact uses the above to represent Romney's argument. True, the story goes on to quote Romney accurately, including his argument that cuts in defense spending might lead to the U.S. losing military superiority.  But the story treats Romney's argument in accordance with the inaccurate hybrid quotation/paraphrase:
(A) wide range of experts told us it’s wrong to assume that a decline in the number of ships or aircraft automatically means a weaker military. Quite the contrary: The United States is the world’s unquestioned military leader today, not just because of the number of ships and aircraft in its arsenal but also because each is stocked with top-of-the-line technology and highly trained personnel.

Thanks to the development of everything from nuclear weapons to drones, comparing today’s military to that of 60 to 100 years ago presents an egregious comparison of apples and oranges.
It's remarkable that PolitiFact's summary omits Romney's mention of cuts in defense spending.


PolitiFact has stepped in it again and has again reacted by publishing a pedantic rebuttal along the lines of the one it used in response to criticism of its 2011 Lie of the Year.  The former will receive a review here in due time. (Update 1/22/12 See review here).

Additional reading:

Power Line stays on the story, providing additional valuable material by publishing the text of Bromund's reply to PolitiFact writer Louis Jacobson after Jacobson's initial inquiry about the Romney issue.

Politico took note of the story with a piece by Dylan Byers.  Byers's story drew most of PolitiFact's ire in the rebuttal mentioned above, so reading it provides excellent background material.

The Huffington Post even gets in on the act with solid article.  The story provides the context of Romney's remarks with a partial debate transcript.


Also see the my latest post in the "Piquing PolitiFact" category at Sublime Bloviations, which features the text of an email message I sent to PolitiFact asking for PolitiFact to fact check one of its own claims.



Update (1/22/2012): Added link to Bruscino article, link to PF response review, and minor spelling corrections-Jeff

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