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.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

PFB Smackdown: Paul Krugman on PolitiFact and Eric Cantor

On August 4 this past week, PolitiFact rated "Half True" Rep. Eric Cantor's (R-Va.) statement that the nation faced an "ultimate problem" of a "growing deficit."  Liberals apparently think this is the latest evidence that PolitiFact is overcompensating for the dishonesty of Republicans.  As usual, the evidence can't bear the weight of claims like this one from noted partisan hack and Nobel laureate Paul Krugman of The New York Times:
News organizations in general, and PolitiFact in particular, are set up to deal with a world in which both parties generally respect reality, and in which dishonesty and delusion are roughly equally distributed between the parties. Faced with the highly asymmetric reality, they choke — treating mild Democratic exaggerations as if they were equivalent to outright falsehoods on the other side, treating wild misrepresentations on the GOP side as if they were slight misstatements.
Why did PolitiFact rate Cantor's statement "Half True"?  PolitiFact noted that Cantor referred to a growing deficit.  Yet right now the deficit is shrinking, and is expected to continue shrinking for a few more years before it starts heading back up.  Cantor received a "Half True" because the ultimate projected trend is a rising deficit.

Krugman erupted:
[H]ere we have a senior GOP official talking as if we lived in an alternative universe in which deficits are rising, not falling. And PolitiFact declares his statement half true.
Krugman, unsurprisingly, objects to PolitiFact's ruling because, perceived from his Keynesian soapbox, Cantor's rhetoric risks keeping the U.S. from keeping its deficits high enough to keep our economy healthy.

The Keynesian soapbox serves as a poor vantage point for judging either Cantor or PolitiFact.

In context, Cantor obviously was talking about the long view.  It's no secret that over the long term, entitlement spending figures to dominate federal government outlays.

The Congressional Budget Office puts it like this:
The explosive path of federal debt under the extended alternative fiscal scenario underscores the need for major changes in current policies to put the nation on a sustainable fiscal course.
Even Paul Krugman knows that running a deficit adds to the debt.  So there should be no problem at all understanding Cantor's point:
CANTOR: Here is the problem. What we need to have happen is leadership on the part of this president and White House to come to the table finally and say, we're going to fix the underlying problem that's driving our deficit. We know that is the entitlement programs and unfunded liability that they are leaving on this generation and the next.
Got that?  "This generation and the next."  Cantor's talking about the long term budget implications of entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security.  The recent decrease in the deficit has approximately zero to do with that structural deficit problem.  Krugman completely misses it.  PolitiFact mostly misses it.

This case provides no evidence of PolitiFact going easy on a Republican in an effort to appear fair.  It's a case of PolitiFact failing to pay attention to context and treating a Republican too harshly.  PolitiFact's recent ruling on President Obama's claim that the minimum wage is lower today than when President Reagan took office serves as an instructive comparison.  The minimum wage is obviously higher today than in Reagan's time. Do Krugman and Rachel Maddow complain?  Not publicly, so far as we can tell.

Even though Mr. Obama did not suggest adjusting the figure for inflation, we think one rightly interprets his statement taking an inflation adjustment into account.  And Cantor ought to receive similar consideration in the form of paying attention to the context of his statement.

This is not a case of PolitiFact overcompensating to appear fair.  It's another case of PolitiFact allowing its liberal bias to put a thumb on the scale.

Have we mentioned that Paul Krugman is a partisan hack?