Tuesday, August 7, 2012

PFB Penpals: What about Harry Reid?

We do occasionally receive missives from our adoring fans.  It seemed a good idea to feature a comment from our Facebook page since it provides a good excuse to review a few things about PolitiFact Bias while also addressing Harry Reid's recent "Pants on Fire" rating.

Sam Rothenberg wrote:
Where's your post on PolitiFact's "liberal bias" in giving Democrat Harry Reid a "pants on fire" for saying that Mitt Romney hasn't paid taxes for at least 10 years?
1)  We won't have a post about a "liberal bias" associated with Reid receiving the lowest possible rating from PolitiFact.  That wouldn't make any sense, for Reid is a liberal.  We think all "Pants on Fire" ratings are unfair since PolitiFact lists only a subjective criterion for applying the ruling.  The current post will offer our assessment of the Reid situation.

2)  PolitiFact Bias does not exist primarily to feature the work of its proprietors.  We try to spotlight the work of others.  Consequently, our response time often has a lag with breaking news, particularly if we find ourselves busy with other things.

What about that "Pants on Fire" for Reid?

Again, we think all "Pants on Fire" ratings are unfair.  The definition PolitiFact offers is subjective, so it makes sense to conclude that all such ratings represent an opinion judgment from PolitiFact.  That said, there's at least one positive aspect to the Reid rating:  PolitiFact has as one of its principles a "burden of proof" criterion that we expected would force a harsh PolitiFact rating if PolitiFact elected to rate Reid's statement.  PolitiFact acted consistently with its principles in rating Reid harshly.

When Democrats made Reid's claim a central issue of the election, it tended to force PolitiFact's hand.

On the downside, PolitiFact often misapplies its burden of proof criterion.  The misapplication does not serve properly as a fact-checking tool.  Rather, it is a helpful principle in argument or debate.  When a party concludes, as PolitiFact does, that a statement is true or false based simply on a lack of evidence, the conclusion represents the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam--the fallacy of argument from ignorance.  When PolitiFact bases a ruling on its burden of proof criterion it is not engaged in fact checking.  It is acting as the self-appointed rhetoric police.

There are times, of course, when one can make a good case for the truth or falsehood of a claim if the lack of evidence concerns something that we reasonably expect to find. 

Did PolitiFact follow that principle?

PolitiFact arguably did follow that principle.

The article cites tax experts who find it very unlikely that Romney could avoid tax liability for 10 straight years.  But all that does is provide a reasonable justification for a "False" rating.  The "Pants on Fire" rating remains subjective.

As of today, Republicans are about 68 percent more likely than Democrats to receive a (subjective) "Pants on Fire" rating from PolitiFact for a false claim since it started in 2007.  Democrats tend not to notice the unfairness as much since it affects Democrats much less frequently.

The bias is anti-Republican.  It just happens that PolitiFact's methods damage members of both parties.


  1. > Democrats tend not to notice the unfairness as much since it affects Democrats much less frequently.

    Yes, because republicans really push the boundaries of truthfulness to maintain a consistent narrative among the far right, the christian right (who have some exercise in believing contradictory points, but demand that everyone else does so too), the fiscal conservatives (who often are social moderates, sometimes progressives), the social conservatives (who are predominantely elderly and women, both not always completely objecting to the idea of socialized medicine) and flat-out libertarians (who get the short end anyway).

    Maybe the party shouldn't try to oblige each and every inconsistency that is based in pure propaganda and speculation and/or is not supported in falsifiable fact, and instead create a narrative based on evidence and good policy.

    That would surely reduce the mind numbing litany of other-worldliness when watching fox.

  2. Salvatore Ilad wrote: "(R)epublicans really push the boundaries of truthfulness to maintain a consistent narrative among the far right, the Christian right"

    What, in your opinion, is an example of Republicans pushing "the boundaries of truthfulness to maintain a consistent narrative"?

    The notion scarcely makes sense, as far as I can see. I'd love to see it explained with an example and made noticeably relevant to the post to which you're replying. It basically looks like you're agreeing that Republicans receive unfair treatment but you have a hard time accepting that reality because Republicans supposedly lie more. Yet how do we know that your perception is accurate? Couldn't it be rooted in exactly the same type of bias that ends up in results such as those we're noting from PolitiFact?

  3. Bryan: first, thanks for giving me the benefit of the doubt.

    You want examples, I hope I can give you some that you can accept, as those are the ones that "stuck" with me.

    1.) The "birth certificate" thing. This was/is so outlandish, that it is beyond my comprehension. It's outlandish because implying that someone wasn't born in the US but made it to be a senator and presidential nominee would accuse him not just to be guilty of fraud, imposture and forgery of documents, but would also imply that none of the mechanisms that prevent that had worked and that basically all instruments of the US to protect itself from illegal immigration and *MAJOR* espionage are moot.

    This whole thing was across party lines second to none in it's bizareness and mendacity, so bad in fact, that it's not outrun even by the unscrupulous and unfounded claims of Reid (which I think are a legitimate grief, but again, that *pales* compared to the birther thing, which should never have happened) as to Romneys tax returns.

    Why did the party do that? To appease the far right, no question. But why did the party have to appease them with an insulting and audacious claim that's obviously bogus, but could only have been made due to Obama's name and heritage? We know there are "those" people in the party. But do we have to throw every bit of civilized discourse away just to hit a nerve with them? Surely the party could do better - and more honorably - than that.

    Then there is the Michelle Bachmann/Huma Abedin thing right now, which is not any less insidious and reprehensible, but at least this time, an honorable man within the party spoke out against that.

    2.) Healthcare. Whatever you may think about the ACA, it was the republicans idea first. It is immensely idiotic to turn around on your own idea just because it got implemented by a republican. It shows weakness, and brings you in the position to argue against yourself. Why would you do that? The better narrative would've been to say "Thank you Obama for badly implementing our idea, we're going to fix that now by giving the states more freedom in how they want to implement that"

    3.) The attack spots. The party already won an election with an incredibly bold last-minute campaign once, but that was timed correctly for it to work. The current attack spots quote Obama, but so obviously in a misleading manner - how can you argue against that in the coming weeks? Of course pants are set on fire here.


    The thing is, there is no helping a 2/3:1/3 ratio on politifact if people like Trump and Bachmann can preach their untruthful and mostly derogatory gospel via fox and pressure moderate (and actually intelligent) candidates in the party to renounce their own positions.

    You're saying sites like politifact are biased against the republicans? I'm seeing that republicans bias republicans against republicans, and I don't need politifact to tell me what's what.

  4. Salvatore Ilad asked (regarding challenges to Obama's birth status): "Why did the party do that?"

    It didn't.

    The Republican Party gave no credence to birther claims. A few individuals made statements sympathetic to birthers' objections to certain issues (such as Obama not releasing the document for a long period of time). Sorry, Salvatore, no "there" there.

    "Then there is the Michelle Bachmann/Huma Abedin thing right now, which is not any less insidious and reprehensible, but at least this time, an honorable man within the party spoke out against that."

    Bachmann made an assertion that leapt past the evidence at hand and her own party (not just McCain) called her out on that. But despite Bachmann running out in advance of the evidence her underlying point is a good one. It's worth examining Abedin's role in U.S. foreign policy wrt the Muslim Brotherhood.

    "Whatever you may think about the ACA, it was the republicans idea first."

    Whatever you may think of who came up with the idea, it was a bad idea to do healthcare reform during a recession, especially a reform that increased taxes and increased business uncertainty.

    You're burning your credibility by not focusing on things directly showing Republican lies that contribute to "maintain a consistent narrative." I asked you for one example. When you're asked for one example, give the best one you've got.

    "You're saying sites like politifact are biased against the republicans?"

    We're saying that PolitiFact goes overboard with its liberal bias. We're pretty used to it, so less egregious offenders like FactCheck.org don't ordinarily get this type of pushback.