Saturday, December 15, 2012

Hans Bader: PolitiFact Is The Liar Of The Year

One of the most vocal critics of PolitiFact happens to be one of the best. Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute let loose today on CEI's blog, Open Market. Here's a just a fraction of Bader's thorough dressing-down:
PolitiFact routinely rated claims that were entirety true, indisputable, and not misleading, as “half-true” because they failed to include additional “context,” i.e., liberal spin. For example, Senator “Ted Cruz claims national debt is bigger than the nation’s GDP. Yes, our national debt absolutely, incontrovertibly exceeds the nation’s GDP. But claiming that gets you a ‘Half-True’ because Politifact’s Gardner Selby” thought that saying that was mean-spirited. Similarly, PolitiFact said it was “misleading” and dishonest for a conservative politician to make the true factual observation that Obama “refuses to recognize Jerusalem” as Israel’s capital, even though that fact was concededly true, because the politician did not provide additional context that PolitiFact wanted: namely, that Obama is not the first president to take this position.
Bader reviews several of PolitiFact's most embarrassing displays of ineptitude over the past year, and his article is recommended reading.

We've highlighted Bader's work in the past and we've always been impressed with his critiques. We're flattered to be mentioned in his article with the many other excellent sites. Many thanks!

Friday, December 14, 2012

All is once again right with the world

Recognizing as we do the subjective nature of PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" awards, the annual award itself offers little of interest.

Last year's award was better than most, however, because of the reaction it provoked on the political left.  The left reacted with outrage because, it claimed, the supposed "Lie of the Year"--that Republicans voted to end Medicare--was true.

We sympathized with that complaint.  We agreed that, read charitably, there was a shred of truth in the claim that Republicans wanted to end Medicare.  But we also noted that the complaints from the left were very similar in character to the complaints Republicans have made about PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" ever since the first award.

Every single winning "lie" has contained a substantial nugget of truth:

2009:  "Death panel"--The original remark and most subsequent versions reference the principle expressed by economist Thomas Sowell that the government regulation of health care results in rationing of services--death panel by regulation.

2010:  "Government takeover of healthcare"--The PPACA establishes government rules insurers and many employers must follow in providing healthcare.  The administration is still writing the thousands of pages of regulations that implement the law.

2011:  "Republicans voted to end Medicare."  Democrats defined "Medicare" as a single-payer plan administered by the government.  Providing subsidized care to the elderly by relying on private insurers would end that arrangement and thus "end Medicare."

For 2012 it's hard to come up with a short quotation that encapsulates the supposed lie, since PolitiFact had to infer the inaccuracy in the midst of a series of accurate statements in the Mitt Romney ad that won the award.  Watch PolitiFact staffer Angie Drobnic Holan wrestle with the presentation in the body of her story announcing the award:
PolitiFact has selected Romney's claim that Barack Obama "sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China" at the cost of American jobs as the 2012 Lie of the Year.
Did President Obama's administration broker a deal giving control of Jeep to Fiat, an Italian company?

Yes. In its original story, PolitiFact quibbled over the notion that the company was sold to Fiat since Fiat didn't pay for the company. But I didn't pay for the company, either, yet I didn't end up owning it. Fiat was expected to assume debts and help provide capital to run Chrysler and its affiliates. It was a sale by barter if nothing else.

Are Jeep's Italian owners going to build Jeep vehicles in China?

Yes. The company has stated its intention to build Jeeps in China for the Chinese market, which currently receives over 19,000 vehicles annually shipped fully assembled in the United States by American workers.

Now we're done with with the quotations from the Romney ad, and we're down to PolitiFact's inferences.

Will Fiat's Jeep production lines in China cost American jobs?

Sending Jeep production for China to the Chinese may cost American jobs. It's hard to say how many, because duties on imports would cap Chinese demand for Jeep vehicles. That's one of the advantages of moving production for China to China. But demand in China grew in 2012 so that Jeep delivered over 30,000 Jeeps to China despite the import duty. The labor to produce those vehicles will be lost to the U.S., so it's true that the planned Chinese plant will have a cost in terms of American labor.

The Romney ad was factual, probably more so than any other "Lie of the Year" winner. That's not to say that the ad was without problems. A person could think after seeing the ad that all Jeep production would move to China, just like ads from the Democrats in 2011 could lead voters to believe Republicans were ending anything resembling Medicare, pure and simple.

But here's the thing: So far we don't see liberals complaining that PolitiFact chose the Romney ad as its "Lie of the Year" despite the fact that it's true. Apparently since it's not a claim from Democrats it doesn't matter if the "Lie of the Year" consists of true statements given a inferential twist by the journalistic judges.

But maybe I just need to let a bit more time elapse. I'll wait.

"They used to produce Jeeps in China and they were about to go broke so they had to quit," Clinton said. "You can’t make a Jeep in America and send it to China – it weighs too much, it costs too much to send over there. All they are going to do is reopen their operations there and try to sell Jeeps there too. We’re doing fine here."

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

On PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" selection for 2012

PolitiFact has selected its "Lie of the Year" for 2012.  It's the claim from the Mitt Romney campaign that the administration sold Chrysler to the Italians, Fiat, and that Chrysler would build Jeeps in China.

PolitiFact's Angie Drobnic Holan opens the announcement with a falsehood:
It was a lie told in the critical state of Ohio in the final days of a close campaign -- that Jeep was moving its U.S. production to China. It originated with a conservative blogger, who twisted an accurate news story into a falsehood. Then it picked up steam when the Drudge Report ran with it. Even though Jeep's parent company gave a quick and clear denial, Mitt Romney repeated it and his campaign turned it into a TV ad.
Holan's delivery is sneaky.  The news story about opening a Jeep plant was misconstrued early on.  But by the time the story appeared in the Romney campaign ad, the facts were correct.  PolitiFact today calls that "a grain of truth."  We covered the issue here by highlighting a post from anonymous blogger "counterirritant," and I did an item over at my fact check site as well.

Here's the bottom line:  Fiat plans to start building Jeeps in China.  It doesn't mean Jeep production will cease in the United States, but the Romney ad doesn't claim otherwise.  It does mean that the Chinese will assemble more than 25,000 Jeep vehicles per year (if sales trends do not shockingly reverse) that are currently shipped fully assembled overseas.  That will affect American jobs.

These criticisms of the PolitiFact fact check are not new.  They've appeared across the media from Forbes to the National Legal and Policy Center and many places in between.

How does PolitiFact respond to the criticism?  It ignores it and continues to publish stories that mislead about the Romney ad.

Ironic, isn't it?

Correction 12/13/2012:  Omitted part of the name of the National Legal and Policy Center, omitting the "Legal."  Apologies to the National Legal and Policy Center for the error.

Media Trackers (Florida): "PolitiFact Florida Dishonestly Smears Pam Bondi on Obamacare"

Media Trackers of Florida continues to assail the purulent pronouncements of PolitiFact, this time over PolitiFact Florida's "False" ruling for Attorney General Pam Bondi for a statement regarding ObamaCare's effect on business.

Media Trackers:
The numbers cited by Bondi are verifiable and accurate. The Mercer survey found that 61 percent of employers expect costs to rise as a result of Obamacare. As PolitiFact Florida itself noted, “Bondi is correct on the specific numbers she cited.”

Nevertheless, PolitiFact Florida ruled that Bondi’s statement was “false.” How could this be?
It's a good question.  This case involving Bondi creates such a good example of poor journalism that Media Trackers probably distracts readers from appreciating its problems with an abundance of sensationalistic rhetoric, above quotation excepted.

It's hard to see how PolitiFact justifies the ruling in spite of the descriptions.  Take the conclusion, for example:
We don’t doubt there’s anxiety among some businesses over what’s to come under the health care law, and maybe some are talking about whether they’ll have to raise prices or cut jobs. But Bondi didn’t talk about planning, she talked about what’s occuring right now, and we find no studies already showing the negative effects or evidence that businesses are cutting jobs or raising prices now. We rate Bondi’s statement False.
PedantiFact is more like it. 

We often see PolitiFact applying unnecessarily uncharitable interpretations to politicians' statements, with conservatives receiving the greater harm.  Bondi made two main points, that multiple studies showed damage to businesses from ObamaCare and that businesses were responding by cutting hours or laying off workers.  Bondi did not state that studies showed businesses were cutting hours or laying off workers.  PolitiFact drew that inference and graded Bondi in part on that claim.

Given normal charitable interpretation, Bondi was correct in that Mercer conducted more than one study indicating economic damage to business as reflected in employer expectations.  Bondi was likewise correct, based on anecdotal evidence, that businesses are reacting by cutting hours or laying off workers.  The statement of intent is enough to justify Bondi's use of tense.

Here's an analogy:  Suppose a baseball team ended the previous season without hitting a home run.  At the winter meetings the team acquires renowned sluggers Jeff Smith and Alex Weston.  The GM announces the team is solving its power woes with Smith and Weston.

But wait!  The season hasn't started yet, so the team isn't solving anything yet.  Right, PolitiFact?  Smith and Weston might suffer season-ending injuries on their plane ride to join the team.

This type of language is common in English.  A high school senior in California announces she's going to college at Yale.  So what's she still doing in a California high school?  PolitiFact rates the scholarly senior "False."

We applaud Media Trackers for highlighting yet another PolitiGaffe fact check.

We do experience concern that some of Media Trackers' assertions are vulnerable to challenge, such as saying PolitiFact did its reporting "dishonestly."  Also saying that PolitiFact smears Republicans while "bolstering" Democrats oversimplifies a complex record of unfairness to both parties that happens to harm Republicans more than it does Democrats.  Toning down the condemnation will allow such reports to reach and influence a wider audience.

Saturday, December 8, 2012 "PolitiFact is biased" is hosting a debate between Roy Latham and "F-16 Fighting Falcon."  The topic?  PolitiFact's liberal bias.  Latham takes the affirmative position arguing that PolitiFact has a liberal bias, and so will bear the principal burden of proof during the argument.

Latham's initial argument owes a great deal to Jon Cassidy's article from earlier this year in Human Events, which at its best resembles the case we make at PFB.  I see Latham's as a strong argument overall with a few potential warts.

I'm actually more interested in how the contrary side will argue its case.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Dustin Siggins: The Most Overlooked 'Lie of the Year"

Persistent PolitiFact critic Dustin Siggins wrote up a piece over at Red Alert Politics asking why the GOP's supposed War on Women was left out of PolitiFact's Lie of the Year contenders. Siggins makes some solid points and it's well worth the read, but his big get was his interview with PolitiFact editor Bill Adair. Adair's response to Siggins was typical, and by typical, I mean comically inconsistent with reality.

Siggins quotes Adair:
"We rate the ‘Lie of the Year’ as the boldest statement or the statement with the biggest reach. Obviously, it’s subjective,” he said. “We didn’t do a fact-check on a statement that there was a War on Women. It was an opinion, and we don’t fact-check opinions. People used it as a sum-up of a variety of aspects of the 2012 campaigns, but it was an overall opinion, not a statement of policy fact.”
Siggins makes the case that the War on Women meme was a policy statement, and points out its wide reaching impact on the election. You should read Siggins argument in his own words and in their entirety. For us though, the rest of Adair's response is a howler.
"It was an opinion, and we don’t fact-check opinions."
This statement is from the same guy that gave Mitt Romney a Pants on Fire rating for saying "We're inches away from no longer having a free economy." (Note: Romney actually earned three Pants on Fire ratings for that same claim, something to keep in mind when PolitiFact pimps out their "report cards") What about Rick Perry's opinion that Barack Obama is a socialist? Bill Adair worked on that one too. Oops! PolitiFact calls both of those statements "hyperbole" (coincidentally, PolitiFact claims to have a policy against rating hyperbole as well). I guess hyperbole doesn't count as opinion.

Unfortunately, Adair doesn't fill us in on the objective metric PolitiFact used when they gave Obama a Half True for his claim that Romney's cuts to education would be "catastrophic." Of course, when Obama claimed that his tax plan only asked millionaires to "pay a little more," PolitiFact "decided that "a little more" is an opinion, not a checkable fact."

"Catastrophic"=Verifable fact. "A little more"=Opinion.

The most hilarious part of this is Adair evades the most obvious problem. The Pants on Fire label itself is entirely subjective. The rating is predicated on a claim being "ridiculous." To this day, Adair has never offered up an objective definition of what makes a claim "ridiculous." So the bottom line is PolitiFact doesn't check opinions, but they do use opinions to assign ratings of fact. (Read Bryan's study on the Pants on Fire/False issue here.)

Adair doesn't clarify the issue by adding yet another version of the Lie of the Year criteria:
"We rate the ‘Lie of the Year’ as the boldest statement or the statement with the biggest reach."
Last year, Angie Drobnic-Holan explained the Lie of the Year was a claim PolitiFact rated "that played the biggest role in the national discourse." Which is it?

Regardless, it's hard to imagine some of PolitiFact's finalists even being in the top 20 claims that fit either definition. In what world does Jack Markels (who?) claim that "Mitt Romney likes to fire people" rank as a "bold" statement that has "the biggest reach," let alone played "the biggest role in the national discourse." Of course, don't waste your time looking for any administration comments on Benghazi in the top ten. The reality is that the finalists for PolitiFact's Lie of the Year exemplifies the problems of PolitiFact's selection bias. I've previously said that I suspect the LOTY is predetermined, and a grab bag of nine ratings is thrown in for looks. The competition PolitiFact selected this year does nothing to change my mind.

Finally, I'll give Adair credit for the most honest thing I've ever heard him say about his body of work thus far:
"Obviously, it’s subjective”
Subjective indeed.

Siggins argues the "War on Women" campaign from the Democrats meets key aspects of Adair's criteria and makes a fine Lie of the Year candidate.  He makes a good argument that's worth reading