Tuesday, February 21, 2012

PFB Smackdown: Lawrence O'Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Tommy Christopher

Uh-oh!  Liberals are once again scandalized by a PolitiFact fact check!

MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell appeared in the following political ad:

PolitiFact looked into O'Donnell's claim about critics calling the GI Bill "welfare" and ruled it "Mostly False."   The fact check does have some problems.

PolitiFact went easy on O'Donnell

The fact check contains a huge error.  PolitiFact overlooks the fact that O'Donnell is making an equivocal argument.  O'Donnell stresses that the GI Bill was an education program.  But when PolitiFact pressed MSNBC to support O'Donnell's claim, the latter responded by providing criticisms that almost exclusively aimed at unemployment benefits that were part of the bill.  O'Donnell's argument is a bait-and-switch.

PolitiFact claims to take such abuse of context into account.  Some of the "Truth-O-Meter" grades, in fact, carry clear signs of the perils of making a claim with limited context.

Rachel Maddow

Maddow nearly matches O'Donnell for leaving out the relevant context.  She does mention "tuition and other benefits" near the beginning of her defense of O'Donnell.  But she doesn't explain that the "other benefits" included up to 52 weeks of unemployment benefits.  Maddow's segment is almost as misleading as O'Donnell's ad.

She makes one valid point, however.  PolitiFact quoted a member of the House comparing the benefits to the English "dole" system, and PolitiFact summarized the fact check with the following:
We found no evidence of critics referring to the GI Bill as welfare.
Maddow isn't unreasonable to mock PolitiFact on that point.  But it doesn't mean O'Donnell's ad wasn't highly misleading.

Tommy Christopher

Mediaite's Tommy Christopher essentially rehashes Maddow's argument and adds to it his initial impression of the PolitiFact ruling:
Politifact never bothers to refute [equating "the dole" with "welfare"] in any way (something I didn’t notice on first read; I assumed they were relying on a “to the letter” argument that they never actually made), yet still conclude that O’Donnell’s claim is “Mostly False.”
This point of Christopher's is valid.  Aside from reliance on two history experts, it's hard to figure out the specific justification PolitiFact uses for its ruling apart from the literal absence of the word "welfare" from the criticisms.

Again, that's not enough to take away the deceitful effect of the ad.  Anyone ignorant of the unemployment compensation features in the GI Bill would tend to think that the bill's education features were likened to welfare.

Christopher makes his biggest misstep by weighing in on Maddow's other recent complaint:  the ruling on Marco Rubio's claim that most Americans are conservatives.
If you think she’s overstating things, try to remember that Politifact just got done ruling that the statement that “The majority of Americans are conservatives” is “Mostly True,” while the statement that “The majority of Americans are not conservatives” is absolutely true. Heads, I win. Tails, you lose.
Absolutely true?  Think again.

Marco Rubio's statement was probably "Mostly True" and  Lawrence O'Donnell's was probably "Mostly False" in spite of PolitiFact's difficulties in justifying the rulings either in the original item or subsequently.

There's no evidence of a rightward lean to PolitiFact's rulings in these cases.  They're just poorly executed fact checks that probably have the right results but for the wrong reasons.  We're all for criticizing the poor quality of the fact checks.  But we're not big fans of jumping to conclusions about the truth values of the claims based on reinterpretations of PolitiFact's set of evidences.

PolitiFact misses too much to make that a good idea.

There's one more area where we somewhat agree with Christopher, by the way:
It will be interesting to see what, if any, response Politifact has to Maddow’s obliteration of their ruling, and their reason for existing. Probably something like “We don’t expect all of our readers to agree with us on what words in English mean…”
PolitiFact's attempts to justify its rulings?  That's entertainment!

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