Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Grading PolitiFact: Characterizing Mitt Romney's characterization of Obama

Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations

PolitiFact's attempt to use an "In Context" item to soften the negative effects of President Obama's "you didn't build that" moment didn't work out so well.

More was needed to help the president.

The issue.

(clipped from PolitiFact.com)

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


Watch how many times PolitiFact uses partial quotations to protect its Obama from having his statement taken out of context.  We have two already in the graphic up above ("is the result of government" "hard-working people").

On with the fact check.

PolitiFact tells us that the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign have been wrangling over whether the latter insulted entrepreneurs.  That issue is somewhat settled when entrepreneurs perceive an insult.  Romney wins that point.  PolitiFact wants to let us know that Obama did not mean to insult entrepreneurs.  And maybe attacking Romney in relation to this issue is the ticket.

Romney, in comments at public events and in several ads, has argued that the remarks show a general disdain for business. The Republican National Committee and the National Federation of Independent Business are among the groups have [sic] released their own videos and statements echoing Romney that the president is out of touch.
The above summary is fair but potentially misleading.  We'll watch for those effects as the story progresses.

In one fundraising e-mail [sic], Matt Rhoades, Romney’s campaign manager, decried Obama’s "naïve view that government, and not the hard work, talent, and initiative of people, is the center of society and the economy."
The email from Rhoades helps make it plain that PolitiFact distorts the Romney campaign's argument.  The argument is that Obama credits the government too much, not that he doesn't credit entrepreneurs at all. Yet the latter is what PolitiFact suggests in its graphic.

In another campaign e-mail [sic], Amanda Henneberg, a Romney spokeswoman, said Obama had "denigrated Americans who built their own businesses."
Henneberg's statement dovetails with the Romney campaign message that Obama overemphasizes the role of government, but PolitiFact can potentially make it look like she is saying that Obama gives entrepreneurs no credit.

The issue has become so big that the Obama campaign felt the need to address the issue head-on in a Web video titled "Tampered" that quoted media accounts saying the quote had been taken out of context.
The current size of the issue could mean that the Romney campaign is right that Obama is out of touch.  But it would help Obama if it appeared that people were simply misled by Romney about what Obama said.  PolitiFact did the Obama campaign a favor, by the way, by overlooking for the sake of this story the Obama campaign video suggesting Obama did not say what Romney quotes him to say.

Not only was Obama taken out of context, he didn't even say it in the first place.

Or something like that.

PolitiFact settles on the latest Romney campaign video for purposes of its fact check, focusing in particular on the Romney campaign's preface to the video:
President Obama recently said: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Clearly, this President doesn't understand how our economy works.

Mitt Romney understands that we have to celebrate people who start enterprises and employ other people rather than devalue them. Success is not the result of government, it is the result of hard-working people who take risks, create dreams, and build lives for themselves and for their families.
In this item, we’ll rate the claim that Obama was saying success "is the result of government," not "hard-working people," when he said, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
PolitiFact distorts Romney's claim by taking his comments out of context.  Ironic, no?

PolitiFact tries to set the stage by asserting that Romney's quote of Obama distorts the meaning of Obama's claim.  In effect, PolitiFact suggests this is obvious if one reads Obama's statement in context.  But doesn't the entire context of Obama's statement emphasize the role of the government in business creation at the expense of the entrepreneur?  How does PolitiFact miss the obvious?

We believe, as do our friends at FactCheck.org and the Washington Post Fact Checker, that Romney has seriously distorted Obama’s comments.
PolitiFact is checking this fact by proclaiming it obvious that the context of Obama's statement puts the lie to Romney's claim.  Other fact checkers supposedly agree.  Hopefully one or both of them actually bothered to check some facts.

There's really nothing like that in this fact check.  It consists of PolitiFact insisting that Obama was taken out of context, and Romney's statements taken out of context make up the bulk of the case against Romney.

PolitiFact's conclusion, part one
In speeches and videos, the Romney campaign has repeatedly distorted Obama's words. By plucking two sentences out of context, Romney twists the president's remarks and ignores their real meaning.

The preceding sentences make clear that Obama was talking about the importance of government-provided infrastructure and education to the success of private businesses.
PolitiFact is partly right.  Obama was extolling the importance of the government role in allowing business to prosper.  He did so in the context of beneficiary businesses "giving back" as if it wasn't the taxes of businesses that helped pay for the infrastructure in the first place.  And the words he used diminish the role of individual effort ("Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there").

Why does PolitiFact simply ignore the material in Obama's speech that diminishes the importance of the entrepreneur?

PolitiFact's conclusion, part two:
Romney also conveniently ignores Obama's clear summary of his message, that "the point is ... that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

By leaving out the "individual initiative" reference, Romney and his supporters have misled viewers and given a false impression. For that, we rate the claim False.
Romney ignores Obama's "clear summary" because the summary is ambiguous.  The summary provides no justification for successful businesses "giving back."  That concept comes out as Obama essentially tells entrepreneurs that they were lucky (others worked just as hard) and owe a big honkin' portion of their success to Our Glorious Government.  And the government, Obama says, is ready to take its rightful cut.

By leaving out the reference to increasing taxes on entrepreneurs, PolitiFact has misleads readers and gives a false impression.

PolitiFact creates what Mr. Obama likes to call a "false choice."  It isn't whether the government gets all the credit or the entrepreneur gets all the credit.  It's which one has the lead role in the economy (bold emphasis added):
Matt Rhoades, Romney’s campaign manager, decried Obama’s "naïve view that government, and not the hard work, talent, and initiative of people, is the center of society and the economy."
By neglecting the importance of that context, PolitiFact again misleads readers and gives a false impression.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Bill Adair:  F

Once again, the subject of the fact check was arguably more accurate than his would-be fact checkers.


The fact checks by Annenberg Fact Check and the Washington Post Fact Checker essentially leap to the same conclusions PolitiFact achieved with its leaps of logic.  But both of the other fact check services did a superior job to PolitiFact in providing context for the issue.

Jeff adds: 
It's worth noting that anytime PolitiFact starts determining whether or not something is "in context", by definition the exercise is one fraught with subjective impressions as opposed to concrete facts. What context is relevant? What objective standard is used to measure what portions should be included, or what element of the speech is unnecessary?

One wonders what exactly Romney could have done to satisfy PolitiFact's  ambiguous contextual standards. As Twitter user @CuffeMeh suggested, should Romney have hired the fast talking Fed Ex guy to repeat Obama's entire speech in a 30 second ad? For my money, Romney's ad didn't change, distort, or flub Obama's context at all. But there it is, right next to a big gimmicky False graphic. Romney's a liar and I'm a dim bulb because I'm not picking up on the subtle nuance of Obama's delicate context.

Another question worth asking is whether and when PolitiFact will rate Obama's ad that says Romney is taking Obama out of context by taking Romney out of context? PolitiFact would have been served well by reading this Conn Carroll piece in the Washington Examiner that shows how the context game is played. PolitiFact could have just as easily conjured up a different angle, and using their own standards for context, could have come up with the same headline Carroll used:
"Obama video deceptively edits Obama speech to make it sound pro-business"
The bottom line is Romney's ad didn't remove or change anything. This isn't a fact check. It's damage control from a partisan media group attempting to sugarcoat Obama's clear, unambiguous message declaring his attitude towards individual achievement.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

counterirritant: "Fail"

Frequent thorn in PolitiFact's side "counterirritant" published another gem last week showing why PolitiFact's credibility has disappeared somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. The issue this time is how PolitiFact deals with a relatively unambiguous statement from Robert Gibbs: "Nobody knows why [Romney] has a corporation in Bermuda, why he failed to disclose that on seven different financial disclosures."

What makes this fact check interesting is both Vanity Fair and the Associated Press already delved into the claim, and reached conflicting rulings. "counterirritant" explains:
This is an excellent opportunity for a real fact check. Two creditable sources reached diametrically opposite conclusions. Whether Romney failed or not hinges on whether the Vanity Fair or AP analysis of disclosure rules is correct. Conducting a fact check that settled the disagreement would be a great way to determine whether or not there was a failure.
 Any guesses on how PolitiFact fared with the challenge?

Head over to "counterirritant" and read the short post yourself to find out. While there are a few mysteries involving this rating, "counterirritant" makes one thing clear:
Until it can be determined whether the absence of [the corporation] on the disclosures was proper or not, Romney’s failure, or lack thereof, is in doubt. PolitiFact’s failure is, however, doubtless.
We'd add that unlike Amelia Earhart's plane, the location of PolitiFact's bias is well known.

Edit 7/30/12: Added word for clarity in penultimate paragraph-Jeff

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Weekly Standard: "PolitiFact Mucks Up the Contraception Debate"

This year has sped by at a breathtaking pace so far, and we've neglected to review some worthy stories about PolitiFact simply because we placed a higher priority on some stories than others.

But it's not too late.

In February, The Weekly Standard's Mark Hemingway weighed in with yet another damning assessment of PolitiFact's talent for fact checking:
Before I explain why PolitiFact is once again being deliberately misleading, grossly incompetent, or some hellbroth of these distinguishing characteristics, you'll have bear with me. Part of the reason PolitiFact gets away with being so shoddy is that it counts on its readers believing that it can be trusted to explain any necessary context to justify its status as judge, jury, and factual executioner.
Obviously the right thing to do now is click the link and read the whole thing for yourself.

For those who don't have the time, I'll sum up:

Hemingway's latest example of PolitiFactian perfidy concerns its use of a Guttmacher Institute publication to support an Obama administration claim that 98 percent of sexually active women use birth control.

The Obama administration was trying to justify its insurance mandate requiring birth control as a basic coverage requiring no copay.

Hemingway noted the Guttmacher Institute's lack of neutrality, a number of the arguments marshaled against its findings and PolitiFact's selective use of the evidence.

At the end of the day, a study drawn from a group of women aged 15-44 does not justify extrapolating the data to the set of all women of any age.  PolitiFact went soft again on an administration claim.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Ohio Watchdog: "PolitiFact slams GOP spokeswoman for ‘literally true’ statement"

Jon Cassidy and Ohio Watchdog give us an 8th installment in its series on PolitiFact Ohio, this time examining PolitiFact's rating of the Ohio Republican Party and spokeswoman Izzy Santa (bold emphasis in the original):
Joe Guillen, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter writing for PolitiFact Ohio, was determined to find fault.

“The claim is literally true because it includes both Brown and his allies,” Guillen wrote, and he should have stopped right there. If it’s literally true, are we supposed to worry it might be figuratively untrue? It’s a number, not a simile.

It turns out that Guillen’s beef is that Santa’s declaration changed the subject.
It turns out that we have to rely on Guillen alone for the context of Santa's remarks.  Guillen insists that the context indicates Santa was talking about "outside money."  Part of Guillen's evidence for the PolitiFact story is Guillen's July 10 story for the Plain Dealer that likewise insists--based on a partial quotation and Guillen's paraphrase--that Santa was talking about "outside money":
Izzy Santa, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Republican Party, said Redfern’s criticisms are not credible because special interest groups supporting Brown “are plotting to spend over $13 million.”
Was Guillen's paraphrase justified?

Cassidy apparently has the text of the email Santa sent to reporters (reformatted quotation):
After Redfern’s July 10 press conference, she sent out an email to reporters:
Redfern is the least credible person to be commenting on outside spending when it comes to Ohio’s U.S. Senate race. Sherrod Brown and his special interest allies in Washington are plotting to spend over $13 million, with no end in sight. It’s clear that Brown and his supporters are having to spend this type of money because Brown’s out-of-touch record has exposed him to Ohioans as a 38-year politician and Washington insider who puts politics over people.

If the above represents the full context of Santa's response, then Guillen has misrepresented her.  Santa specifically wrote "Brown and his special interest allies" and Guillen Sentenceshopped that into "special interest groups" minus Brown.  Guillen's paraphrase, in other words, changed Santa's meaning.  And Guillen proceeds to fact check his paraphrase and blame it on Santa.

Guillen probably shouldn't expect more than a lump of coal for Christmas this year.

Rather than interpreting "Sherrod Brown and his special interest allies" contrary to its literal meaning, he should have inquired further as to how Santa justified calling Redfern "the least credible person" to comment on outside spending.

Visit Ohio Watchdog to read the whole of Cassidy's report.

Big Journalism: "Politifact Yet to Report Two Glaring Falsehoods in Obama's Reelection Doc"

From earlier this year (March), Big Journalism's John Nolte took PolitiFact to task for its kindly treatment of the Obama documentary doubling as a campaign ad.

Nolte claimed PolitiFact missed at least two big whoppers in the film.  First, GM's supposed repayment of its bailout loans (PolitiFact later graded that claim "Half True"--see below).  Second, the repeated tale of Obama's mother supposedly denied health insurance coverage.

Politifact took a long hard look at the Obama reelection propaganda film and found it to be … mostly true!

Yep, 3 "mostly true's" to 1 "mostly untrue."

Never saw that coming. 
 Yes, PolitiFact succeeded in giving the documentary a favorable frame.

One of the claims PolitiFact found "Mostly True" was actually very misleading.  It portrayed President Bush as giving the auto companies money with no strings attached while Obama's strong leadership held the companies accountable.  The loans from the Bush administration came with plenty of strings, including the requirement that by March the recipients present the Obama administration with a plan for achieving solvency.

PolitiFact cuts Nolte's number from two to one

To PolitiFact's partial credit, it updated its story with a fact check of the claim that Chrysler and GM repaid their loans.

PolitiFact fails to receive full credit because the applicable standard doesn't pass the sniff test when paired with the standard recently applied to Mitt Romney.  In Romney's case a true statement was called misleading and was ruled "Mostly False."  The film made a partially true statement that was misleading and received a "Half True."

PolitiFact's combination of story selection bias and biased fact checking served President Obama well.

counterirritant: "Holy Misrepresentation, Batman!"

Alternate title:  "The unBainable lightness of Bane"

The intermittent "counterirritant" returns with another critique of PolitiFact, this time skewering Poynter's Pedants for ignoring the context of Rush Limbaugh's comments regarding the Bain-Bane connection Limbaugh mentioned on his radio program.

counterirritant (bold emphasis added):
The transcript PolitiFact used as a source offers more support for the radio host than it does the fact checkers. Only two sentences discuss whether the name Bane was selected because of Romney. The first is a question: “Do you think that it is accidental that the name of the really vicious fire breathing four eyed whatever it is villain in this movie is named Bane?” After asking that question, Limbaugh was interrupted and went off on a tangent. When he returned to the subject, he continued: “So, anyway, this evil villain in the new Batman movie is named Bane.  And there’s now a discussion out there as to whether or not this is purposeful and whether or not it will influence voters.” After noting it, Limbaugh never takes a side in the discussion of purposefulness.
The point is inarguable:  PolitiFact fact checked Limbaugh on a statement he never made, unless one insists without reasonable supporting evidence that his question was rhetorical.  PolitiFact didn't bother making the argument and moreover decided against dealing with this issue through its "In Context" feature.  "In Context" functions for PolitiFact pretty much like a "nothing to see here" tag.

The critique by counterirritant serves as a fine bookend for my "PolitiFlub" critique of the same PolitiFact item.  I took a different tack, showing that even if Limbaugh was making the claim PolitiFact imagined the fact checkers went about their business in entirely the wrong way.

Jeff adds: (07/24/12): Lest there be any confusion about what PolitiFact accused Rush of saying, here's a screenshot of their twitter feed:

Sunday, July 22, 2012

PolitiFact "a distillery for truth"?

How can one blame the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for publishing an editorial that calls PolitiFact "a distillery for truth"?  The AJC, after all, is one of PolitiFact's state affiliates, the home of PolitiFact Georgia.

Blame aside, however, what a load of codswallop.

There’s something about PolitiFact.

Maybe it’s the clarity it forces on public discourse. Perhaps it’s the eye-catching Truth-O-Meter with its brutal simplicity. Or could it be its distaste for nuance in a world grown comfortable with wiggle room?
Anybody else detect a paradox when a device of "brutal simplicity" is said to force clarity on public discourse?

 The "Truth-O-Meter" and its "brutal simplicity" are a maul used to butcher a steer.  Rather than distinct cuts of beef such as sirloin or ribs, one ends up with hamburger blended with all the humblest portions of the unfortunate beast.  Hotdog/hamburger hash, as it were.  PolitiFact provides all the clarity of Soylent Green, and creates its own rambling vistas of wiggle room.

PolitiFact is powerful because it represents the essence of what we do. It is intensely distilled journalism that filters out the good intentions, mendacity and ignorance that lead public officials to fracture the truth occasionally. Like a great scotch, the appeal is in its simplicity. That’s why politicians and power brokers hate it, if “hate” is a strong enough word.
Are we talking about the same PolitiFact?

I could maybe see the AJC's point if newspaper journalists weren't at least as capable of good intentions, mendacity and ignorance as politicians.

Hold on--there's a nugget amidst the self-congratulatory pablum:
The state has so few powerful Democrats, that PolitiFact Georgia has to look to Democrats from elsewhere to avoid giving the impression that it trains its fire only on Republicans.
AJC editorialist Bert Roughton Jr. just spilled the beans that PolitiFact Georgia engages in the type of compensatory rating that critics have long suspected PolitiFact of doing.  Some PolitiFact operations, such as Ohio's, deny using the technique.  So either somebody's not giving us the facts or else PolitiFact's standards vary.

Like a great scotch.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Washington Post: "Report: Republicans to hammer PolitiFact units on alleged bias"

Eric Wemple's Washington Post blog brings news via the Washington Examiner of a new GOP effort to engage in an aggressive pushback against PolitiFact in various states:
Via the Washington Examiner comes word that Republican operatives across the land will be targeting state PolitiFact operations. The move draws inspiration from the massive document that the Republican Party of Virginia compiled against PolitiFact Virginia earlier this month, a document covered extensively in this space.
Wemple goes on to give helpful hints to the GOP for the sake of its effort, and the hints double as criticisms of the Republican Party of Virginia's attack on PolitiFact Virginia.  Wemple's key points generally agree with what I published here before taking up this post.  Wemple says the claim that the timing of publication for PolitiFact's ratings harms the GOP is weak.  Wemple also tries to downplay the effect of the study's anecdotes by claiming they need to appear in the company of stories PolitiFact skipped that might have proved damaging to Democrats.  Though we think the latter is a good idea, we don't rate its importance as highly as Wemple does.

We disagree strongly with Wemple's conclusion featuring a quotation from PolitiFact's chief windbag, editor Bill Adair:
The Examiner story furnishes a Champagne-popping pretext for PolitiFact. After all, the brand name has now been attacked furiously from the left — see Rachel Maddow — and furiously from the right. Now they can lay claim to centrism. “This is testament to the fact that we have disrupted the status quo,” says PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair. “We’re holding people accountable for their words and they don’t like it.”
PolitiFact can pop all the Champagne it likes and keep right on chanting the claim that criticism from both sides allows it to lay claim to centrism, but that wouldn't make it true.  Shame on Wemple for not vigorously sticking a pin in that radically overblown idea.

The content of the criticism, as Wemple pointed out earlier, makes all the difference.  The criticism from the Left is weaker than that from the Right.  PolitiFact has always done a shoddy job of fact checking.  Rachel Maddow only started noticing when her ox was gored a few times too often.

As for Adair's claim that PolitiFact has "disrupted the status quo," he's finally right about something: Nobody was expecting PolitiFact do this bad a job of fact checking.  It has truly disrupted the status quo, and the politicians don't like it.  They were okay with reasonably competent fact checking from Annenberg, The Washington Post and the Associated Press.

And therein lies Wemple's apparently unasked follow up question for Adair:  "If you have disrupted the status quo, why do you think Annenberg Fact Check and The Washington Post fact checker did not disrupt the status quo?"

C'mon, Wemple.  Let's see you ask it.

The Republican Party of Virginia vs. PolitiFact Virginia

We promised to take a closer look at the Republican Party of Virginia's challenge to PolitiFact Virginia's objectivity.

The document works on some levels and not on others.  The best evidence it contains showing PolitiFact Virginia's lack of objectivity comes from anecdote and circumstantial evidence.

Open Letter

The "open letter" section comes across well, but almost immediately afterward the document suffers from accuracy issues. 

Overall Proportions

The graph of rulings by number and by party is off, as pointed out by the semi-daily clockwork accuracy of Karen Street:  The "False" column for Democrats is too short.  The document uses the correct figure for "False" rulings in determining the proportion of "False" statements attributed to Republicans but incorrectly asserts that PolitiFact "ruled disproportionately against Republicans" in that category.  The 40 percent figure used in the comparison is disproportionately low compared to the 48 percent baseline derived from the listed numbers.

Individual Proportions

The criticism based on the individual breakdown mostly rings true.  Virginia has two Democrats in the U.S. Senate.  How does ex-senator George Allen warrant more fact checks than both combined?  Complaints about the attention on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor don't carry much weight.  Cantor serves as a major voice for congressional Republicans.

The Weekend Dump

While it served as an intriguing idea to criticize PolitiFact Virginia for the timing of its stories, we were instantly skeptical of this claim.  News dumps by the government are fundamentally different from the news reporting cycle, yet the GOP document relies on the comparison.  Here's the problem:  Dumping stories over the weekend can put them in the Sunday newspaper, which is often the most widely read portion of a major newspaper.  No case is made for the significance of a weekend dump for either a daily paper or an Internet news site.  If the Richmond Times-Dispatch literally publishes the most positive Republican stories in its least popular editions then the Virginia GOP may have a legitimate gripe, but that evidence does not appear in this document.

Case Studies 1 & 2

The case studies hit the mark more often than not, pointing out a good number of times where PolitiFact Virginia used stilted reasoning to reach conclusions unfavorable to Republicans.

Comparative Case Study

The argument from the case study makes PolitiFact Virginia's actions look fishy, but it's far from conclusive without better evidence.  It does contribute to the stated aim of the letter, however.  This section is at its best when criticizing individual rulings from PolitiFact Virginia.

Appendix starting on Page 54

From Page 54 through the end of the 86-page document, the Appendix simply gives a rundown of PolitiFact Virginia's ratings without any commentary or criticism.  It's hard to see the point, other than to help produce stories about an 86-page criticism of PolitiFact Virginia.  If that was the case, the mission was accomplished.

In summary, the report scores with the anecdotes and not much else.  The presentation softens the potential impact.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Relevant: Jay Cost with "Bain Capital and Media Bias"

The Weekly Standard's Jay Cost provides a timely reminder of yet another subtle form of media bias:
Most journalists will swear that, despite the fact they vote Democratic, they treat both sides fairly. Indeed, it is a rare event to read a news article that directly attacks the Republican party or one that praises the Democratic party.

But that does not mean media bias does not exist. It does – its exercise is just subtler than this. And the last two weeks have been a great example of how it operates.
Read Cost's entire article for his excellent descriptions of the way the mainstream media can lend aid to its ideological favorites through story selection.

And now let's have a look at the ten most recent stories at PolitiFact:

Main headline today at PolitiFact's main page:  "Checking the facts about Romney and Bain Capital."

(Barack Obama) Says Mitt Romney’s carried interest income was a tax "trick."

(Mary Matalin) Says Debbie Wasserman Schultz "has these offshore accounts" like Mitt Romney.

(Mitt Romney)  "When I was governor, not only did test scores improve – we also narrowed the ach
ievement gap." 

(Barack Obama) Mitt Romney "says the Arizona immigration law should be a model for the nation." 

(Barack ObamaSays Mitt Romney had millions in the Cayman Islands, a tax haven.

(chain email)  The media won’t publish a real photo of Trayvon Martin with tattoos on his face.

(Barack ObamaSays Mitt Romney "had millions in a Swiss bank account."

(Steve Doocy)  "If you make more than $250,000 a year … you only really take home about $125,000."

(Marco Rubio)  The health care law "adds around $800 billion of taxes on the American people. It does not discriminate between rich and poor." 

("Obameter" promise item indicating compromise)

The Obama campaign probably can't complain about having the featured article plus four of the ten featured fact checks surrounding its intended campaign narrative.  See if you can locate the Romney campaign's narrative anywhere on the above list.

Is this typical?

Hopefully this example serves to show PolitiFact at its best in favoring the Obama campaign narrative.  But the chances are that Democrats have the advantage most of the time.

It's the nature of the beast.

Monday, July 16, 2012

PolitiFact exaggerates its reluctance to grade hyperbole

Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations

Sometimes PolitiFact just can't bring itself to rate a statement on its cheesy "Truth-O-Meter."  Last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said of Mitt Romney "He not only couldn’t be confirmed as a Cabinet secretary, he couldn’t be confirmed as a dog catcher, because a dog catcher — you’re at least going to want to look at his income tax returns."

PolitiFact couldn't flip the switch on the "Truth-O-Meter."  Sure, PolitiFact published an article stating that Reid was wrong, but no "Truth-O-Meter" rating came with the story.

So what's going on?

We recognize Reid was using hyperbole, so we won't put his claim to the Truth-O-Meter. But we thought it was worthwhile to examine if many government officials and candidates have to file their tax returns to qualify for their jobs.

Our conclusion: Reid was barking up the wrong tree.
PolitiFact has called three different statements from Republicans "hyperbole" just since January, rating each of them "Pants on Fire."  The case involving Reid stands as the only one where PolitiFact explicitly refrained from grading a hyperbolic statement.

Naturally I was confused upon reading the following from PolitiFact at its Facebook page:
Mark FitzSimmons ‎"We recognize Reid was using hyperbole, so we won't put his claim to the Truth-O-Meter. "

What? Wasn't the first pants on fire Biden referring to Bush as brain-dead? How is that not recognized as hyperbole?

PolitiFact Mark, you have a very good memory! It was after that check (and partly because of that check) that we decided on a policy against it.
It was after the Biden "brain-dead" fact check from 2007 that PolitiFact decided on a policy against grading hyperbole.

Here we are in 2012 and PolitiFact has graded about 20 claims it recognized as hyperbole.  All occurred subsequent to the Biden claim.  The most recent occurred on June 29, 2012.

Now I'm stuck trying to figure out a charitable interpretation for "It was after that check (and partly because of that check) that we decided on a policy against it."

Progress is slow.

The Washington Times: "These three fact-checkers keep candidates in line"

Once one makes it past the glowing title the Washington Times stuck over its too-generous review of the three most significant fact-check operations, there's some good and fresh reporting.  And it touches our weakest-link candidate, PolitiFact:
(M)uch of what the fact-checkers do is inherently judgment calls.

For example, PolitiFact Virginia will grade a politician's words as true on their face, while other times will look for suggestive meanings that they say make factually true statements unfair.
The interpretive bias affecting the story focus is hard to quantify, but finding examples isn't hard.  In June, Mitt Romney claimed that poverty among Hispanics increased under Obama.  PolitiFact decided Romney was blaming Obama and ruled the true statement "Half True."  Also in June, the Obama campaign claimed that Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, outsourced call center jobs to India.  But Romney did not outsource any jobs.  He vetoed a state law that would have prevented companies contracting with the state of Massachusetts from outsourcing jobs.  The PolitiFact rating?  "Half True."  A true statement is half true depending on the focus PolitiFact gives it.  A false statement is half true, likewise depending on the focus.

Similar examples occur often throughout the various PolitiFact operations.

The best part of the Times' story comes from a quoted source:
Ray Allen, a longtime Virginia GOP consultant and adviser to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said the entire process is inherently flawed.

"So much of what is getting fact-checked is opinion and political philosophy," he said. "The fact-checkers are actively intervening in the campaigns. We've seen fact-checkers write things they clearly want to get in TV ads."
Allen's right about the flaws in PolitiFact's process.  It enshrines liberal bias from the start through the end of the process.  The imprecise rating system provides a versatile canvas for expressing political opinions, no less so as PolitiFact's ratings in practice ignore the definitions of the ratings.

The system almost inevitably results in spin.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

The Washington Post: "PolitiFacters respond to ‘weekend dump’ allegations"

Erik Wemple of the Washingon Post delivers the third in his series following the current dust-up between the Republican Party of Virginia and PolitiFact Virginia.

Wemple, as he promised, visits the GOP's claim that the timing of PolitiFact Virginia stories appears to maximize the impact of negative stories while burying positive ones.

As detailed in Part One of this extensive series, the Republican Party of Virginia is claiming that PolitiFact Virginia, which is run from the offices of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, discriminates against Republican politicians in the most insidious of manners: It times positive fact-checks of Republicans for the weekends, when people aren’t logged on, and “saves” the negative stuff on Republicans for high-traffic mid-week slots. That’s the claim.
Wemple's off the mark.  The document doesn't claim that the stories are deliberately timed.  Rather, it claims that the timing of the stories yields a discriminatory result.  The discrepancy between Wemple's report and the reality of the GOP document is easy to see in the passage Wemple quotes:
Here’s a relevant excerpt from the 86-page slameroo report that the Republican Party of Virginia compiled on PolitiFact Virginia:
PolitiFact Issued Only Two “False” And One “Pants On Fire” Ruling On Republican Statements During The Weekend (Starting After 5 P.M. On Friday), Saving 37 “Mostly False,” “False,” “Pants On Fire,” And “Full Flop” Reports To Be Issued Between Monday And Thursday.

The GOP claim is obviously couched in objective terms and makes no judgments about PolitiFact's intent.  The claim concerns the result, not the intent.

And, of course, the PolitiFact response is a total joke.

Rick Thornton of the Richmond Times-Dispatch says “We typically print in the newspaper PolitiFact rulings on Sunday and Monday . . . . We post our rulings online pretty much as soon as they’re done . . . . A number of our rulings on both sides are on Fridays because they’re being finished up on Friday for Sunday.” 

That doesn't answer anything.

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair, who heads the national operation, says "It’s ridiculous to suggest that any of our PolitiFact sites schedule publication of some items to get smaller audiences."

Adair gravitates directly toward the same straw man that fascinated Wemple.  If the GOP document has the facts right and the good gets the small audience while the bad gets the big audience then the discrimination exists regardless of whether the PolitiFacters possess an awareness of the fact.  And one would think that PolitiFact Virginia would know about the alleged problem from its communications with the RPV.

Neither Thornton nor Adair addresses the charge from the RPV.  And it's a pity that Wemple reported it inaccurately.

Why is this so hard?  If the Sunday paper has more readers than weekday papers then PolitiFact can give an objective response to the charge from the RPV:  Those weekend stories often may have the larger audience.  If that defense isn't accurate then perhaps admit that the RPV has a point but assure everyone that it wasn't on purpose.

Is PolitiFact dissembling for the sake of a CYA strategy?   Yeah, could be.  In any case, the responses from PolitiFact scarcely count as serious.  And we let these people check facts for us?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Big Journalism: "Politispin: 'Fact-Checkers' Mislead on GOP Leaders' Favorable Unemployment Numbers"

Big Journalism's Tony Lee posted an article yesterday that sets the tone with the first line:
The purportedly unbiased Politifact will go to great lengths to help Democrats.
That's old news around here, but like the liberals who endlessly parrot PolitiFact's spin, we appreciate confirmation bias as much as the next guy. 

So what's all the hubbub about? PolitiFact Rhode Island's rating of GOP gubernatorial candidate John Robitaille's claim that "Unemployment rate dropped in every state that elected a Republican gov. in 2010." Robitaille based his claim on a report done by Robert Elliott. Lee critiques PolitiFact's dance moves:
In a remarkable twisting of facts and logic, Politifact concedes Elliott’s two points are true before somehow rendering those points to be “Half True.”
This isn't the first time in recent memory where PolitiFact found ways to determine accurate figures weren't worthy of a True rating. This rating also adds to the list of experts left with a bad taste in their mouth after dealing with PolitiFact:
“That type of spin would be expected of, say, the Democratic Governors Association, but not a supposedly ‘objective’ and ‘nonpartisan’ news organization that claims to be the official arbiter of the truth,” Elliott told Breitbart News. “It is the insidious nature of PolitiFact's bias that makes them so loathsome.”
Elliot's statements by themselves make Lee's article a must-read. But Lee sweetens the pot by highlighting PolitiFact's use of extraneous evidence to cloud the issue they were ostensibly reviewing:
Politifact then goes on to compare the unemployment rates of the states that simply elected a governor who was from a different party from the predecessor’s, which is a completely different analysis than Elliott’s, which is what Politifact was supposed to be “fact checking.”

When doing that analysis resulted in Republican governors still reducing the unemployment rate faster than Democratic governors, Politifact decided to compare the unemployment numbers of the Republican predecessors in states that elected Democrats and Democratic predecessors in states that elected Republicans. Only then -- when not even comparing the current crop of governors or the past two years, which was the basis of Elliott’s analysis -- was Politifact able to find something they could use to say Democrats (predecessors) were slightly better than Republicans (predecessors) at reducing the unemployment rate.
Lee nails the point, and this reminds me of PolitiFact's treatment of Laura Ingraham's claim about RomneyCare's unpopularity with national voters. In that case, PolitiFact based their entire rating on statistics only from Massachusetts when Ingraham was probably talking about all 50 states. It appears that when PolitiFact doesn't like the initial outcome, they find new facts to throw into the mix until they reach their desired outcome.

The most hilarious part of the rating was that PolitiFact not only conceded, but confirmed Elliot's numbers:
Considering the unemployment rate has fallen in 49 states in the last year, that’s stretching the statistic pretty thin.

We find Robitaille’s claim "is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context," our definition of Half True.
If the unemployment rate fell in 49 states, by definition Robitaille's claim is true. Using PolitiFact's logic, if Robitaille had claimed "The sun rose in every state that elected a GOP governor", he'd only be rated Half-True because he left out important details. It's nonsense. And it's not fact checking.

This is the first time we've noticed Tony Lee, but if this installment at Big Journalism is any indication, we're looking forward to highlighting his work in the future. Head over to Breitbart and read the whole thing. There's plenty more to this smackdown.

Bryan adds:

Matthew Hoy of Hoystory also takes issue with PolitiFact's rating of Robitaille.

One might cut PolitiFact a break for trying to take credit into account for the sake of its ratings if the effort was evenly applied and didn't force PolitiFact to largely ignore the definitions it established for its ratings.

What do I think of PolitiFact's execution?  I'd borrow a line from legendary football coach John McKay:  "I'm in favor of it."

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Washington Post: "Virginia Republican Party to PolitiFact: Don’t bother ringing!"

The Washington Post's reporter/blogger Erik Wemple updates his reporting on PolitiFact Virginia and the critique from the Republican Party of Virginia.

It turns out--no big surprise here--that the relationship broke down between the Virginia GOP and PolitiFact reporters.  The Republican Party of Virginia joins Wisconsin Democrats in giving their state's PolitiFact franchise the silent treatment.

Wemple may have tipped his ideological hand by referring to the GOP's critique as a "screed."  Sure, he can claim he just meant it was a long critique.  But if he does that then it makes his use of the term appear redundant ("enormous screed").  Careful, Mr. Wemple.

State political parties cutting off their cooperation with a fact checker?  Looks like the making of a news story.

The Washington Post: "Virginia Republican Party publishes huge attack paper on PolitiFact"

Erik Wemple and the Washington Post stand as the first mainstream media entities, not counting PolitiFact Virginia itself, to weigh in on the massive pushback PolitiFact Virginia received yesterday from the Republican Party of Virginia:
The Virginia Republican Party has compiled an attack on PolitiFact’s Virginia operation that is virtually unbloggable. An 86-page document with a cover page stating, “TO THE COMMONWEALTH OF VIRGINIA: A COMPREHENSIVE ANALYSIS OF POLITIFACT VIRGINIA’S QUESTIONABLE OBJECTIVITY,” it starts with a two-page memorandum and a three-page table of contents. Even Rachel Maddow has never produced a PolitiFact critique as exquisitely formatted.
Exquisite formatting makes less gratuitous use of capitalization according to our tastes, but we credit Wemple for zeroing in on one of the most intriguing aspects of the ponderous critique:
To narrow the scope of its inquiry, the Erik Wemple Blog will start out by exploring only the most fascinating of the Republican Party’s allegations — namely, that PolitiFact Virginia attempts to bury good ratings about Republicans and tout bad ones.
The Virginia GOP may qualify as the first to notice a bias in the timing of the stories, so that makes it a good angle for Wemple's initial approach.

Journalists are still missing the big story:  No mainstream fact checker receives anywhere near the criticism that PolitiFact receives.  There's a story in there.  And it's an important one.

Big Journalism: "VA GOP Pushes Back Against PolitiFact, Shows Other States the Way"

Big Journalism's John Nolte didn't take long to weigh in on the Republican Party of Virginia's challenge to PolitiFact Virginia's objectivity:
PolitiFact isn't just a national cancer on all of us. This reprehensible outfit also "fact-checks" in a number of individual states, including the crucial swing states of Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, New Hampshire, and Virginia.

Unfortunately, my lack of superpowers makes it impossible for me to monitor the left-wing propaganda PolitiFact is surely spewing in each individual state. Thankfully, though, the Republican Party of Virginia has had enough.
Nolte's spirited rant is worth a full read, but we'll register some qualified disagreements.

If PolitiFact is a cancer it's often benign.  The fact checks are in the ballpark enough so that radical surgery probably doesn't serve as the answer.  And, in fact, the response from the Republican Party of Virginia probably doesn't serve as the model response, largely because it's too late to serve as a timely corrective for any misinformation it detects and because its format discourages people from reading it (PFB will give it a closer look over time).

On the good side, this type of response from the party does a great deal to bring attention to PolitiFact's many issues, which are best highlighted by research like that of Eric Ostermeier and collected evaluations like the recent set from Ohio Watchdog.

It's pretty easy to find good criticism of PolitiFact.  The challenge comes from getting the information in front of the public to increase people's awareness that PolitiFact cannot be trusted in its current form.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Virginia GOP vs. PolitiFact Virginia

The Republican Party of Virginia yesterday published an 86 page criticism of PolitiFact Virginia's objectivity.

We'll have plenty more to say about the specifics as we sift through it all, but here's a small taste of the lengthy document:
We believe the objective evidence assembled here provides ample reason for the public to question PolitiFact Virginia’s objectivity. Based on the compelling data contained herein we believe any Republican official or candidate in Virginia would be justified in publicly indicting PolitiFact Virginia’s pattern of bias, and publicly refusing to participate in or cooperate with their analyses unless and until such time the Richmond Times-Dispatch can substantively and publicly address the underlying concerns about their PolitiFact Virginia team’s lack of objectivity. Each official and candidate can make their own decision on participation with PolitiFact Virginia going forward.
PolitiFact Virginia was not slow to respond, though their response was weak even by PolitiFact standards.

A portion of the rejoinder from PolitiFact Virginia:
On Tuesday, the Republican Party of Virginia sent an "open letter to the commonwealth" accusing PolitiFact Virginia of being biased against the GOP in our rulings.

We disagree.
That's the gist of it, and the evidence supporting PolitiFact's disagreement is marginally greater than what occurs in the above quotation.  It doesn't begin to answer all the points in the GOP critique.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Ohio Watchdog: the "PolitiFact or Fiction" series

The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity is onto PolitiFact, in the form of Watchdog Ohio and its seven-part (so far?) series "PolitiFact or Fiction."

Each of the seven parts reviews a questionable ruling by PolitiFact Ohio, with the focus falling on the U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Josh Mandel.

Part 1

The opening salvo by Jon Cassidy blasts PolitiFact Ohio for rating two nearly identical claims from Mandel differently.  One version received a "Half True" while the other garnered a "Mostly True."  Cassidy argues that both versions were true and explains the flaw in the reasoning PolitiFact used to justify its "Half True" rating in one case.

Part 2

This installment, again by Cassidy, criticizes PolitiFact's use of softball ratings in the context of its candidate report cards. The report cards graphically total PolitiFact's ratings for a given candidate and PolitiFact encourages readers to compare the report cards when deciding for whom to vote.

Here’s Democrat Brown’s claim, which got a rating of “true”:
Rooting for the Red Sox is like rooting for the drug companies. I mean it’s like they have so much money, they buy championships against the working-class, middle-America Cleveland Indians. It’s just the way you are.
Yes, it's questionable whether Brown's statement is even worthy of a fact check.  Cassidy goes further, showing that PolitiFact's rating doesn't make any sense given Brown's failure to draw an apt analogy:
Brown didn’t pick a dominant pharmaceutical company for his comparison. He picked all pharmaceutical companies, as though we should root against an entire industry because of its size.

Part 3

With the third installment Cassidy absolutely clobbers PolitiFact for a botched rating of Brown's claim regarding average student loan debt for Ohio graduates.  PolitiFact originally gave Brown a "True" rating but changed it to "Half True" after readers pointed out problems with the rating.  Brown claimed the average graduate owed about $27,000 on student loans but in fact that number only applies to students who had taken out student loans.  Cassidy did the calculations including the students without student loans:
Since 32 percent of Ohio graduates have no student debt at all, Brown overstated the average debt by half.
And that warrants a "Half True" on PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter."  Supposedly.

Part 4

As with Part 3, Part 4 hits PolitiFact Ohio for choosing a softball issue on which to grade Brown while also giving him an inflated grade.  Cassidy points out how PolitiFact's use of equivocal language gets Brown off the hook for using a very misleading statistic.  Brown ends up with a "Mostly True" from PolitiFact.

Part 5

The fifth installment adds another example in kind with the previous two.

PolitiFact uses equivocal language--well beyond using mere charitable interpretation--to help defend another of Brown's dubious claims.

“You’d think it would be as easy as comparing the value of goods and services exported from the United States with those imported from other countries,” [PolitiFact Ohio's Stephen] Koff writes.

Note to Koff: it’s exactly that easy.
 Cassidy could have shown PolitiFact's spin more graphically than he did.

For January through September 2010, the most recent measurement available, the trade balance was a negative $379.1 billion. Assuming the monthly trends hold through December, this year’s annual trade deficit should reach $500 billion.

Divide that by the days of the year and you’d have a daily trade deficit of $1.37 billion a day. That’s 32 percent lower than Brown’s claim of $2 billion a day.
The accurate figure should always serve as the baseline.  PolitiFact uses Brown's number as the baseline instead, finding the real figure lower by 32 percent.  A 32 percent error doesn't sound so bad.  Use $1.37 billion as the baseline and it turns out that Brown's number represents an inflation of 46 percent.  In PolitiFact terms, that's "Mostly True."  PolitiFact tried to justify the rating based on higher trade deficits from prior to 2009.

Cassidy's right again that Brown benefited from grade inflation.

Part 6

With Part 6, Cassidy offers an example of PolitiFact Ohio nitpicking Mandel down to "Mostly True" for a plainly true statement.

Mandel claimed his election to the office of state treasurer came from a constituency where Democrats outnumber Republicans  2 to 1.  People would understand that to mean a count of voter registration records.

PolitiFact justified its ruling according to an expert's claim that voter registration numbers aren't "the best litmus test."  But think how much more context was missing from Sherrod Brown's statement in Part 5.  There's no comparison.

Part 7

In Part 7 Cassidy switches gears and defends one of Brown's statements from the truth-torturers at PolitiFact, but uses the minor slight as a contrast to yet another example of grade inflation.

When Brown said “we buy 35 percent of all Chinese exports” and the actual number turned out to be 25 percent, they gave him a “half-true.”

We’re not sure which half. If you take out the middle four words, “we buy… Chinese imports” is true. You can argue Brown’s claim is close enough, or that it’s way off the mark, but whatever you call it, it isn’t half-true.
Looking at the original story we find PolitiFact again favoring Brown by using the errant figure as the baseline for comparison:
But while PolitiFact Ohio isn’t looking to play Gotcha!, a key tenet is that words matter. In this case, Brown’s number is nearly 30 percent greater than the correct figure.
Yes, words matter.  PolitiFact uses words that suggest the accurate figure was used as the baseline.  But the math tells a different story.  The 10 percentage point difference between 25 percent and 35 percent is nearly 30 percent of Brown's incorrect figure--the wrong one to use as the baseline.  In fact, Brown's number is 40 percent greater than the correct figure.


Overall, Cassidy did a fine job of assembling a set of PolitiFact Ohio's miscues and explaining where the ratings went wrong.  When PolitiFact botches the math on percentages, as we point out, it helps out Sherrod Brown all the more.

We appreciate Ohio Watchdog's contribution toward holding PolitiFact to account.