Thursday, January 19, 2012

Future of Capitalism: "Two More Obama Switcheroos"

I'm a regular reader of Ira Stoll's Future of Capitalism, though it's not where I typically troll for PolitiFact rebukes. So I was surprised last week to catch a brief mention of our factastic friends in the otherwise non-PolitiFact related piece.

At issue is the announcement that the Obama administration seeks to reduce the number of armed services personnel by 490,000 troops over the next decade. Stoll happens to be keeping his own mini-ObamaMeter and points out that this reduction contradicts an Obama campaign promise that he "supports plans to increase the size of the Army by 65,000 troops and the Marines by 27,000 troops."

It takes Stoll a whopping two sentences to expose PolitiFact's sophistry:
The Politifact Web site absurdly rates this as a "promise kept," explaining, "Obama said nothing about keeping the higher levels indefinitely." How cynical can you get?
Not only is it cynical, it's also an example of PolitiFact's alternating standards. Note how PolitiFact dealt with Rand Paul's claim that the "average federal employee makes $120,000 a year. The average private employee makes $60,000 a year." Paul received a False rating because, as PolitiFact explained:

"Most people hearing that would assume he was talking about salary alone, but  he was talking about total compensation, including benefits such as retirement pay and paid holidays."

In Obama's case, PolitiFact gives him a Promise Kept because of the literal (and cynical) interpretation of his words. Paul, on the other hand, is deemed false not because of what he said, but because of what PolitiFact thinks people would assume he meant.

If that's not good enough, check out this recent rating on Mitt Romney's claim that "More Americans have lost their jobs under Barack Obama than any president in modern history..."

Romney’s claim is accurate if you count from every president’s first day in office to his final day -- by those standards, Obama is indeed the only president since World War II to have presided over a net job loss.

Don't worry. Despite finding the literal claim true, PolitiFact invented arbitrary standards to justify finding Romney's claim Mostly False. No "said nothing about" treatment for poor ol' Mitt.

One more?

You can read Bryan's in-depth take down of this rating on Sarah Palin, but I'll give you a hint on how it ends:

Although she's technically correct, the numbers are wildly skewed by tiny, non-industrialized countries. We find her claim Barely True.

The examples are, if I can avoid being taken literally, endless. PolitiFact's vacillating guidelines on when to literally interpret something can provide solid evidence of bias. And, to be fair, PolitiFact doesn't always take Obama literally:

So overall, the poll numbers support Obama’s general point, but they don’t fully justify his claim that "the American people for the most part think it’s a bad idea." Actually, in most of the polls just a plurality says that. On balance, we rate his statement Mostly True.


In case readers infer that the above conflicting standards have been cherry picked, it's important to note that every one of the examples provided, including the Promise Kept cited by Stoll, was written by PolitiFacter Louis Jacobson. So we can rule out different approaches from different authors.

Until PolitiFact develops objective standards and adheres to them, the political bias of the writers and editors will be exposed with each contradictory rating.

Although Future of Capitalism isn't a usual destination for PolitiFact articles, I encourage readers to read the whole thing and enjoy Stoll's brilliant writing.

Bryan adds:

Bill Adair offered this in mid-2011:
"You're right that we have not always been consistent on our ratings for these types of claims. We've developed a new principle that is reflected in the Axelrod ruling and should be our policy from now on. The principle is that statistical claims that include blame or credit like this one will be treated as compound statements, so our rating will reflect 1) the relative accuracy of the numbers and 2) whether the person is truly responsible for the statistic.)"
That's probably good news for "Bush's fault" in the past and bad news for "Obama's fault" moving forward.

Jeff adds: Bryan is correct that PolitiFact has "updated" their principles. But we've shown, repeatedly,  that PolitiFact hasn't changed in practice subsequent to publication of Adair's new and improved standard. And Adair's update still fails to provide a transparent, let alone objective, method to weigh the various components of a compound statement.

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