Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Reminder: PolitiFact's standards shift

While doing a triple-decker fact check of PolitiFact and the Violence Against Women Act over at Zebra Fact Check, I stumbled over yet another great example of PolitiFact's shifting standards.

Remember how PolitiFact had to rate Mitt Romney "Pants on Fire" for his claim Jeep would build Jeeps in China because the claim supposedly implied Jeep would move all its manufacturing to China?  Of course.  We all remember that one.

But how about 2008, when then-candidate for president Barack Obama said his newly-chosen running mate, Joe Biden, wrote the VAWA and domestic violence went down dramatically.

PolitiFact found that Obama was accurate about the amount of the decrease, but the story expressed doubts about the implied cause.
Okay, so both of Obama's statements are true. Biden wrote an anti-domestic violence law, and domestic violence rates dropped dramatically.

But did one cause the other? Although Obama doesn't say it directly, that's the clear implication in his statement, and that's where things get a bit murkier. As we discussed back in 2007, when Biden was gunning for the top spot on the Democratic ticket, figuring out the reasons for changes in crime statistics can be tricky.  Multiple factors, including economic prosperity and demographic changes, contributed to an overall decline in violent crime throughout the 1990s and into this decade.
Romney, like Obama, made true statements.  PolitiFact in both cases saved its objections for the implied argument.

After finding a shred of evidence that the VAWA helped decrease domestic violence, PolitiFact offered its ruling on Obama's statement:
A study by the University of Arkansas, for instance, concluded in 2000 that the law's increased funding for civil legal assistance for victims contributed to the decline. Though that study also said economic and demographic factors mattered.

Obama never said the law caused all of the decrease, but he implied it, so we will rate this statement Mostly True.
"Pants on Fire" for Romney.  "Mostly True" for Obama.

Totally fair and unbiased.  Or something.

We do find one mitigating factor in PolitiFact's defense.  This story was from 2008, before 2011 when PolitiFact announced that it would provide greater weight for implied claims of responsibility.  Still, an impressive contrast results between the two rulings.  Romney's "Pants on Fire" ruling helped him capture PolitiFact's ultra-subjective "Lie of the Year" award for 2012, while Obama's "Mostly True" simply helped cement the beltway media impression that Democrats are much more truthful than Republicans.  And Obama gets to keep his "Mostly True" rating in his PolitiFact file to this day.

PolitiFact and fact checking.  Meh.

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