Monday, August 19, 2013

"The Most Notable Example" of PolitiFact's Bumbling Bias

Could the most notable example of PolitiFact Ohio's fact checking prowess be a claim they never actually rated?

We'll get to that, but first we'll point out that we're big fans of Jason Hart, the indefatigable PolitiFact Ohio critic. Hart's latest piece at Media Trackers doesn't disappoint. Hart takes aim at vocal Barack Obama supporter, conservative "wingnut" hater, and unbiased PolitiFact Ohio editor Tom Feran.

Feran recently wrote a piece celebrating three years of PolitiFact Ohio that showed a comical lack of self-awareness. Feran openly admits PolitiFact's selection bias (though he describes their political prejudice as the harmless sounding "curiosity bias"). Hart was there to point it out:
Feran’s curiosity bias, like that of his liberal peers at the Plain Dealer, skews in a predictable direction.
Hart's biggest get was his interview with Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee chairman, Kevin Smith. When presented with Feran's past remarks, Smith responded:
"That Mr. Feran can take ANY political stance and is then allowed to share his ‘objective assessment’ of news on the Politifact website where he passes judgment on the accuracy of news stories, is, at best, irresponsible and unethical journalism.”
We couldn't agree more, and kudos to Hart for interviewing someone with Smith's credibility.

Ultimately, our take on Feran's piece mirrors Hart's, and we consider it recommended reading. But we were surprised to see Hart miss Feran's glaring admission of PolitiFact's dishonesty. See if you can find it (we'll even add some emphasis to make it easier to spot):
Because we can't possibly check all claims, we give priority to the most newsworthy and significant.

The most notable example of the past year came in the closing days of the presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney told a crowd in Defiance that plans were afoot to shift the Jeep jobs in Ohio to China. "I saw a story today that one of the great manufacturers in this state, Jeep — now owned by the Italians — is thinking of moving all production to China," he said.

With our partners at PolitiFact National, we rated the statement Pants on Fire.
It's beyond dispute that Mitt Romney said that exact quote to a crowd in Defiance, Ohio. Also beyond dispute is that PolitiFact claimed it was rating the Romney ad, not the speech in Defiance. How can "the most notable example" of PolitiFact selecting "the most newsworthy" item to check be an item PolitiFact never selected in the first place?

Our longtime readers probably recall that Mitt Romney's Jeep to China claim won PolitiFact's Lie of the Year in 2012, but as we pointed out at the time, PolitiFact rated Romney's campaign ad, not the statement he made in Defiance. It's true that in the Defiance speech, Mitt Romney cited a story, originating with Bloomberg News, that implied Jeep was moving production to facilities in China. That story was later clarified, and by the time Romney ran the commercial that earned the award the claim had been corrected.

Bottom line: The Romney ad that won the Lie of the Year for claiming Jeep was shipping production to China at the cost of American jobs never actually made that claim. PolitiFact acknowledged as much with their bogus headline (notice the carefully placed quotation marks):

You see, there's nothing really "newsworthy" about Mitt Romney accurately quoting a usually reliable media outlet, and then correcting an inaccurate claim as more information becomes available. Furthermore, it's difficult to give the Lie of the Year award to a claim that is unarguably true.

But don't tell that to Tom Feran.

Mark Twain once wrote: "If you tell the truth you don't have to remember anything." If PolitiFact had told the truth about which claim they were rating, Feran might have avoided outing their deceit. Instead, Feran forgot that PolitiFact dishonestly morphed two stories into one and conjured up an entirely fictional claim to rate. Feran laid open an ugly reality that PolitiFact refuses to admit: Romney's Lie of the Year was entirely undeserved because they awarded it to him for something he didn't claim.

Make sure to check out Hart's piece at Media Trackers. There's plenty of good points we didn't mention here.

Bryan adds:

In a more general (and brief) treatment of the Romney ad controversy at Zebra Fact Check, I pointed out that Annenberg Fact Check and the Washington Post Fact Checker also allowed Romney's speech at Defiance to steer the direction of the fact check.
PolitiFact fact checkers misled in their judgments of the ad just as surely as the ad misled viewers in the first place–if not more so.  Romney’s ad, after all, did not make the explicit claim that fact checkers used as their pretext for condemning it.  In comparison, fact checkers deliberately conflated the ad with a speech in which Romney mischaracterized a news article he had seen.   Annenberg Fact Check did it.  The Washington Post Fact Checker did it.  PolitiFact did it.
This does nothing to excuse PolitiFact, of course.  It simply helps show how the mainstream fact checkers approached the story independently(?) with a groupthink streak.

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