Tuesday, May 8, 2012

A debunking with bunkum added

Erik Wemple has a short article over at the Washington Post extolling PolitiFacter Louis Jacobson's investigation into an oft-repeated claim (take note of the final line):
Have you ever heard that 85 percent of recent college graduates are moving back home? If so, then perhaps you’ve seen that figure in Time magazine, in CNNMoney.com, in the New York Post, or in an ad from American Crossroads, a group that used the whopping figure in an ad to hammer President Obama.

So if you’ve heard it from all those places, how could this figure on “boomerang” children possibly be anything but stone-cold accurate? Well, perhaps no one ever once lifted a phone receiver, put a question in an e-mail or deployed other research techniques to fact-check it. (PolitiFact gave it a “false.”)
Our purpose here at PFB is to highlight PolitiFact's liberal bias. In this case, Jacobson appears to do a fair job of researching the numbers, and after reading Jacobson's work the 85 percent stat seems completely bogus. This isn't an ideological issue. The statistic is legitimate or it isn't. Partisans can quibble over its significance or causes, but that's irrelevant to its accuracy. Props to Jacobson for the legwork. If the story ended there then PolitiFact rendered a valuable service, period. But like Anthony Weiner on a Twitter binge, PolitiFact never seems to quit until they expose themselves. If the problem still isn't clear, have a look at Jacobson's original piece:
The ad attributes the claim to a Time magazine story dated May 10, 2011. We found the article in question, which was headlined, "Survey: 85% of New College Grads Move Back in with Mom and Dad."

The story begins, "The kids are coming home to roost. Surprise, surprise: Thanks to a high unemployment rate for new grads, many of those with diplomas fresh off the press are making a return to Mom and Dad’s place. In fact, according to a poll conducted by consulting firm Twentysomething Inc., some 85% of graduates will soon remember what Mom’s cooking tastes like."

Since the Time story didn’t give any details on the study or give any indication that a reporter had called the firm -- the same was true for the two other media reports that cited the statistic, the New York Post and CNNMoney.com -- we tried to contact Twentysomething Inc. for additional details on the methodology and date of the survey.
...The statistic has been repeated many times on websites and blogs -- twice in the Huffington Post, for instance, and once in the personal finance blog PT Money. It even was picked up by bloggers both liberal (Democratic Underground) and conservative (Free Republic), each with their own political spin. We did not hear back from the author of the Time magazine article.
 Still looking for the part that shows PolitiFact's liberal bias? Here's the missing piece:

Image from PolitiFact.com

Time, CNN, the Huffington Post, and Democratic Underground were all spared. Sure, the Free Republic and the New York Post went unscathed, but they're not nearly the shiny lure that attracts the liberal fish the way American Crossroads does. More importantly, this rating grants immunity to those most responsible for the bogus statistic: research firm TwentysomethingInc.

Wemple writes "PolitiFact gave it a False" (italics mine) referring to the claim, but that's not all PolitiFact did. PolitiFact put the American Crossroads logo right next to the official Truth-O-Meter with a big red False, implying not that American Crossroads is guilty of shoddy stat research, but is lying. Of the many outlets that used the statistic, it's only American Crossroads who end up with a demerit in their "Report Card" that PolitiFact so likes to peddle as a guide to a person or group's honesty.

If readers get the impression this is nitpicking on my part, it's worth noting that it's not the first time PolitiFact has burdened a conservative with a poor rating for a claim that was widely repeated in the mainstream media. Also keep in mind that in cases like this, the decision to lay blame on a specific source when so many are available is an editorial one. It is our contention that the bias of PolitiFact's editors will harm conservative sources more often than liberal ones.  An objective operation could (should and would) have simply uncovered the source of the bogus statistic, and then provided a list of all the media outlets that repeated it. PolitiFact's bias shows in the selection of just one entity--a conservative one--to shoulder the False rating.

Subtle slights like this, especially added to PolitiFact's many other tricks, allow PolitiFact to use otherwise solid journalism to contort verified facts into liberal propaganda. By all means Jacobson deserves credit for debunking a recurring myth. But as long as PolitiFact conducts itself like a Truth Pimp passing out chits to favored courtesans while branding less fortunate subjects with a scarlet letter F it should be acknowledged for what it is: an editorial page with a left-wing bias.

Update: 5/12/12: Yesterday PolitiFact announced on their Facebook page that NPR would air a segment discussing Jacobson's debunking of the 85% statistic. The comments on PolitiFact's Facebook page rarely disappoint when looking for comical examples of liberal angst and outrage, but there was at least one regarding this article that is worth noting here:

Image from Facebook

As can be expected, PolitiFact's presentation of this bogus statistic with the American Crossroads logo next to the False rating leaves readers with the impression that it was American Crossroads that came up with the figure. Notice too the commenter claims AC "keeps on lying" and "makes a purely false ad" as opposed to repeating statistics without due diligence.

PolitiFact has been doing this long enough to know that this is exactly how their readers will interpret the presentation of the rating. By selecting American Crossroads to bear the weight of the False rating on their own implies an intentional choice by the editors to influence their readers opinion about a conservative PAC. Congrats, PolitiFact. Mission accomplished.

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