Tuesday, October 30, 2012

PolitiFact consistent on congressional pay raises: prefers Democrats

Monday's ruling by PolitiFact Ohio on a claim from the Josh Mandel senate campaign brought back some memories.

Mandel accused incumbent Sen. Sherrod Brown of voting himself six pay raises.  PolitiFact Ohio was all over it.  PolitiFact Ohio dove into the weeds to discover that since 1989 congressional pay raises occur automatically without a vote.

PolitiFact's Tom Feran:
Because the pay raises are essentially automatic, the only thing Congress can do is vote to stop them. There are roll call votes on whether members of Congress were willing to hear amendments to suspend their pay increases. And it is those procedural votes that the Mandel ad relies on for support.
PolitiFact notes that in two of the six cases Mandel cites, Brown was against the pay raise after he was for it.  I believe that one's called a "reverse Kerry."

PolitiFact Ohio says the point is that members of Congress cannot raise their own pay because the pay raises only take effect when the next Congress takes office.  PolitiFact Ohio rates the Mandel claim "False."

Now, why did this pay raise thing bring back memories?

The Florida Democratic Party tried much the same tactic on Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum.  The FDP said McCollum voted four times to raise his own pay, along with naming the amount of McCollum's congressional pension.  The ruling from PolitiFact Florida?  "True."

Ace PolitiFact journalist Louis Jacobson bought it hook, line and sinker:
Both claims are supported by the evidence, so we're assigning it a rating of True.
There are a few differences between the claims, to be sure, but two things are equally sure:  If the PolitiFact Ohio rating is accurate then the PolitiFact Florida rating is wrong.  And if the PolitiFact Florida rating is accurate then the PolitiFact Ohio rating is wrong.

Welcome to the wonderful world of PolitiFact fact checking.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

PFB Semi-Smackdown: Kossack "Brash Equilibrium"

Ordinarily, we use the "PFB Smackdown" feature to critique liberal criticisms of PolitiFact.  This "Semi-Smackdown" deals with something different, a misrepresentation of this blog along with yet another irresponsible attempt to use the ratings of mainstream fact checkers to draw conclusions about the persons whose statements they rate.

Our pseudonymous subject goes by "Brash Equilibrium."  Brash goes through the trouble of adding Kessler's Pinocchios together with PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" ratings and then calculates confidence intervals for various sets of ratings, based on the apparent assumption that the selection of stories is essentially random.

And there's this (bold emphasis added):
If instead we believed like a moderate conservative that the true comparison was reversed - that is, if we believed that Obiden spewed 17% more malarkey than Rymney - then it suggests that the fact checkers's [sic] average bias is somewhere between 16% and 54% for the Democrats, with a mean estimated bias of 34%.

It seems unrealistic to me that PolitiFact and The Fact Checker are on average that biased against the Republican party, even subconsciously. So while I think it's likely that bias could inflate the difference between the Republicans and Democrats, I find it much less likely that bias has reversed the comparison between the two tickets. Of course, these beliefs are based on hunches. Unlike politifactbias.com's rhetoric and limited quantitative analysis, however, it is based on good estimates of the possible bias, and our uncertainty in it.
It's hard to believe Brash put much time into any investigation of our rhetoric and analysis, considering his estimates ignore one of our favorite pet peeves, selection bias.  It's a waste of time calculating confidence intervals if the data set exhibits a significant degree of selection bias.  Giving our site more than a cursory read should have informed Brash on that point.

Our case against PolitiFact is based on solid survey data showing a left-of-center ideological tendency among journalists, an extensive set of anecdotes showing mistakes that more often unfairly harm conservatives and our own study of PolitiFact's bias based on its ratings.

Our study does not have a significant selection bias problem.

Brash's opinion of PolitiFact Bias consists of an assertion without any apparent basis in fact.

We need more large-scale fact checking institutions that provide categorical rulings like The Fact Checker and PolitiFact. The more fact checker rulings we have access to, the more fact checker rulings we can analyze and combine into some (possibly weighted) average.
How often have we said it?

Lacking a control for selection bias, the aggregated ratings tell us about PolitiFact and The Fact Checker, not about the subjects whose statements they grade.

We need fact checkers who know how to draw the line between fact and opinion.  And critics who know enough to whistle a foul when "fact checkers" cross the line and conflate the two.

Correction Oct 28, 2012, 11:30 a.m.:  The second paragraph was originally published in this post minus its true beginning, "It seems unrealistic to me that." 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

PolitiFact presidential debate irony alert

PolitiFact has for the umpteenth time given a "Pants on Fire" rating for saying that President Obama went on an "apology tour."

The graphic accompanying the rating calls for an irony alert.

We've been over this before, but here's the condensed version:

  1. PolitiFact arbitrarily dismisses the expert testimony it solicited from Nile Gardiner.
  2. PolitiFact ignores the presence of the basic elements of an apology (expressing regret for actions that offend the other party in an effort to help smooth things over) in favor of focusing on the absence of "I'm sorry."
The ruling makes no sense, but PolitiFact keeps repeating it as though the repetition will make it true.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The burden of the burden of proof

Often we have criticized PolitiFact for employing a potentially fallacious criterion among its principles (emphasis added):
Burden of proof -- People who make factual claims are accountable for their words and should be able to provide evidence to back them up. We will try to verify their statements, but we believe the burden of proof is on the person making the statement.
In practice this often means that if a person makes a statement and has no evidence to back it up, as with Harry Reid claiming that Mitt Romney paid no income taxes for 10 consecutive years by the account of an anonymous friend, then Harry Reid receives a rating along the lines of "Pants on Fire."

While it was extremely unlikely that Romney escaped income taxes for 10 straight years, part of the reasoning PolitiFact used in its judgment comes from the burden of proof fallacy (bold emphasis added):
Burden of Proof is a fallacy in which the burden of proof is placed on the wrong side. Another version occurs when a lack of evidence for side A is taken to be evidence for side B in cases in which the burden of proof actually rests on side B.
Which brings us to PolitiFact's latest bending of its own rules.  In rating a claim by Vice President Joe Biden, PolitiFact removed the burden of proof from Biden and placed it on Biden's target, Mitt Romney:
Biden said that under Romney’s tax plan "the average senior would have to pay $460 a year more in tax for their Social Security."

That figure is just one way to fill in the blanks in Romney’s largely unexplained tax proposal. It’s an average of a hypothetical, and it’s at odds with what Romney has said he’ll do, which is to protect deductions for the middle class and not raise taxes.
When Biden moves to "fill in the blanks" he's making stuff up.  Otherwise there's no blank to fill.  Romney is not obligated to fill in the blanks, yet PolitiFact lets Biden skate essentially because Romney's failure to provide detail supposedly provides some justification for Biden making stuff up.

That's not fact checking, and it does not represent consistent adherence to PolitiFact's statement of principles.  It adds another brick to the edifice indicating a liberal bias at PolitiFact.

Flashback Oct. 2010: "Just the Hacks, Ma'am"

Note:  Jeff D. originally posted this story about PolitiFact's treatment of Obama's campaign contribution policies back in October of 2010 on his personal blog.  With renewed focus on the Obama campaign's handling of credit card donations, we feel a review of PolitiFact's past treatment of the issue has renewed value.  The post was edited for style in this incarnation.

Few media outlets are as disingenuous and misleading as the supposed "fact checking" outfit PolitiFact. Despite making the claim that they "help you find the truth in American politics", the project is simply an extension of the unabashedly left-wing St. Petersburg Times editorial page, and their consistently flawed "Truth-O-Meter" shtick betrays this bias.

This week produced a fine example of the bizarre contortions this "unbiased" outfit will go through to defend Obama. On Tuesday they offered up RNC chairman Michael Steele and his comments regarding disclosure of campaign donors. Specifically, PolitiFact chose to rate Steele's charge of Obama's hypocrisy-
When President, then candidate, Obama was asked to disclose some of his donors because there was suspicion of their being the foreign source of money into his campaign, they refused to do it. So don't give me this high-and-mighty, holier-than-thou attitude about special interests flooding the political marketplace.
With Obama's false narrative about the Chamber of Commerce, and Pelosi's hysterical warnings about plutocracies, Steele's comments were timely and spot on (for a change).

Was Obama asked to disclose donors, and did he refuse? It seems simple enough to verify.

It is a well documented fact that during the 2008 presidential campaign Obama refused to disclose the names of over 2 million donors. These particular donors contributed less than $200 each, and therefore fell below the reporting requirements. While Obama had no legal obligation to disclose them, he was under pressure to do just that. The reason was Obama had reduced the security safeguards on his campaign website that prevent fraudulent or illegal contributions. Obama claimed this was necessary due to the high volume of donations and the fact that the security measures slowed the process down. Fair enough.

Then erratic and abnormal donation patterns began to appear, including odd and un-rounded amounts (e.g. $133.29-suggesting foreign currency conversion), and curiously named donors like John Galt and Nodda Realperson, and of course Adolf Hitler and "Hbkjb,jkbkj".

In allowing donors to evade standard verification procedures, it became easier for people in Gaza, or even passionate supporters in Vermont, to circumvent donor disclosure laws. Basically, a single person using phony names could make multiple donations, with each individual donation under the $200 limit, but totaling tens of thousands of dollars in the aggregate, in order to avoid the reporting threshold.

These types of contribution shenanigans aren't unique to Obama's campaign. They happen to all politicians. What was unusual however was Obama's steadfast refusal to disclose the names of donors so independent journalists could vet the legitimacy of erroneous contributions.

Several groups started asking Obama to disclose the full list of donors in order to investigate these discrepancies. Obama refused.

The Republican National Committee went as far as filing a complaint with the FEC over the irregularities claiming Obama was accepting foreign cash. The Center For Responsive Politics asked Obama twice to disclose the names of "bundler" donors.

When the supposedly tech savvy Obama campaign finally responded with the ridiculous claim that compiling the list of names would be too technologically difficult, left-leaning Slate.com asked "So how come we were able to do it in a couple hours?"   Slate also noted:
Politically, there would be several advantages in releasing the names. Obama has campaigned on a platform of making government more transparent...
Ultimately the Obama campaign refused to disclose the names of over 2 million donors representing roughly $400 million in donations. In response to Obama's recent misleading attacks against the disclosure policies of Republican PAC's, the Wall Street Journal pointed out the hypocrisy in an editorial:
Mr. Axelrod told CNN the White House "believes deeply in disclosure"...But it wasn't always the case. During 2008, the Obama campaign didn't show any interest in going beyond the letter of the law in disclosing its donors to the general public. Despite public pleas from campaign-finance reform groups such as Common Cause and Democracy 21, Team Obama refused to...release names of donors who gave less than $200, even though such donors supplied about half of the $800 million the Obama campaign raised.
The bottom line is Obama accepted donations from contributors who were likely foreign nationals and he refused to publicly disclose the names. With all of this evidence it wasn't hard for PolitiFact to rate Michael Steele's claim......False?????

 PolitiFact tries to frame the "facts":
Despite the context of the conversation, Steele was not contending that the Obama campaign was asked to disclose donors to independent groups funding attack ads. That's a somewhat new phenomenon this election cycle. Trade groups and other 501 (c) groups were always allowed to keep donors anonymous. But the Supreme Court's Citizen United case upped the stakes with a ruling that allows corporations to contribute unlimited amounts to independent efforts to support or oppose a candidate.
What the what?!

PolitiFact correctly notes that Steele didn't imply that Obama refused to disclose donors of independent PAC groups. So why bring it up except to confuse the issue? And speaking of confusing the issue, what exactly does the Citizens United case have to do with Obama's 2008 campaign? Well, nothing except to throw the controversial ruling into the mix to get the base all fired up and attempt to connect two things that are otherwise unconnected. In this case it's diversionary and misleading.

Steele's statement begins and ends with calling Obama a hypocrite because in 2008 he refused to disclose his donors, and now Obama's complaining about right wing groups failing to disclose donors. All they need to determine is whether or not Obama refused to name names of donors. But if PolitiFact did that they'd have to call Obama a hypocrite.

Surprisingly, Politifact had the balls to cite Opensecrets.org to "prove" Obama's innocence while also taking a thinly veiled swipe at John McCain-
In fact, an analysis of campaign contributions by the Center for Responsive Politics found that the Obama campaign scored slightly higher than McCain's when it came to full disclosure of donors. The center found the Obama campaign fully disclosed 90 percent of the donations to the campaign, as opposed to 87 percent for the McCain campaign..
Those numbers are accurate. But what the unbiased, non-partisan, help you sort out the truth, fact checkers at PolitiFact fail to tell you is that those numbers don't include donor's who contributed under $200, which is the exact group of donors Steele was talking about. Oh, what Politifact also fails to mention in their snub was that unlike Obama, John McCain did release the names of donors who contributed less than $200. Why was this fact left out of the article?

What other gems did PolitiFact come up with?
We think Steele's comment is misleading in the context of responding to Democrats' complaints about tens of millions of dollars anonymously making their way into this election via independent groups like Crosssroads GPS. Steele's comments aren't directly related to that issue.
Huh? The argument is about transparency. How is it not a relevant criticism? And even if it was irrelevant, that doesn't make it false.
Again, it's not that the Obama campaign was asked for names of foreign donors and refused.
Well, except for the fact that that is exactly what happened.

 And finally they offer up their conclusion:
There was no issue of the Obama campaign willfully refusing to disclose the names of foreign donors.
Yes. There was. For PolitiFact to ignore the mountain of evidence that supports Steele's claim can only be a deliberate evasion of reality. PolitiFact's disingenuous "fact checking" can only be considered ideological cheerleading, and yet another example of media bias.

This latest disservice to facts is not new for PolitiFact. Bryan White over at Sublime Bloviations has been documenting their flawed and misleading ratings for a long time. His site is an invaluable source for exposing the misleading conclusions and flexible standards PolitiFact employs in their farcical "truth seeking" project.

Politics is full of misleading statements and outright lies. A truly unbiased source providing actual facts would be a welcome addition to political discourse.

But PolitiFact is not unbiased. They are simply a liberal opinion site riddled with inaccuracies, rhetoric, and ideology.

Falsely claiming to be objective purveyors of truth is wholly offensive, and PolitiFact should be exposed for the left wing ideologues they are.

Edit 10/09/12-Removed broken embed to video of Steele/MSNBC interview. It can still be found here. -Jeff

Edit 3/9/13-Removed link from words "
warnings about plutocracies" for dubious source. - Jeff