Tuesday, December 9, 2014

PolitiFact's coin flips

We've often highlighted the apparent non-objective standards PolitiFact uses to justify its "Truth-O-Meter" ratings. John Kroll, a former staffer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, PolitiFact's former partner with PolitiFact Ohio, said the choice between one rating and another was often difficult and said the decisions amounted to "coin flips" much of the time.

Heads the liberal wins, tails the Republican loses, at least in the following comparison of PolitiFact's ratings of Stephen Carter (liberal) and Ted Cruz (Republican).

I'll simply reproduce the email PolitiFact Bias editor Jeff D. sent me, reformatted to our standard PFB presentation:
Read the last three paragraphs of each one (emphasis mine):
Carter said that more than 70 percent of American adults have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment. Based on a strictly technical reading of existing laws, the consensus among the legal experts we reached is that the number is reasonable. Way more than a majority of Americans have done something in their lives that runs afoul of some law that includes jail or prison time as a potential punishment.

That said, experts acknowledged that the likelihood of arrest, prosecution or imprisonment is exceedingly low for many of Americans’ "crimes." 

As such, we rate the claim Mostly True.

Cruz said that "Lorne Michaels could be put in jail under this amendment for making fun of any politician."

Most experts we talked to agreed that the proposed amendment’s language left open the door to that possibility. But many of those same experts emphasized that prosecuting, much less imprisoning, a comedian for purely political speech would run counter to centuries of American tradition, and would face many obstacles at a variety of government levels and run headlong into popular sentiment.

In the big picture, Cruz makes a persuasive case that it’s not a good idea to mess with the First Amendment. Still, his SNL scenario is far-fetched. The claim is partially accurate but leaves out important details, so we rate it Half True.

One wonders if PolitiFact sought the consensus of experts while considering whether blacks were convicted at a higher rate than whites in a recent fact check. Rudy Giuliani received a "False" rating since PolitiFact could locate no official statistics backing his claim. Looks like official statistics aren't really needed if experts think a claim seems reasonable.

Jeff Adds: 

Though former Cleveland Plain Dealer (PolitiFact Ohio) editor John Kroll admits PolitiFact's ratings often amount to coin flips, their other journalistic standards are applied with the same consistency. Take for instance their Dec. 2 dodge of the claim Obama's executive order on immigration would create a $3000 incentive to hire undocumented workers:
The claim isn’t so much inaccurate as it is speculative. For that reason, we won’t put this on our Truth-O-Meter.
Was there an unannounced policy change at PolitiFact? Aaron Sharockman was editor on both the Cruz and Carter checks. An unnamed editor signed off on the Incentive claim, adding flip flops to coin flips.

Here's a timeline:
  • On Sept. 11, 2014, there was enough established, tangible evidence for something that may or may not happen in the future to say Ted Cruz' prediction was half wrong
  • On Dec. 2, 2014, PolitiFact suddenly has a policy against checking speculative claims, but felt compelled enough to spend an entire article Voxsplaining their work to readers.
  • On Dec. 8th, 2014, PolitiFact is back in the future-checking business and found enough proof of something that hasn't actually happened yet to definitively determine a liberal's claim is Mostly True.
Remember also that Mitt Romney won the Lie of the Year award for a TV ad that claimed implied Chrysler would be moving Jeep production to China. So in 2012, PolitiFact's most notable falsehood of the year was a campaign ad implying something would happen in the future.

But does Obama's executive order offer a certain economic incentive, as in the Dec. 2 article? Sorry, PolitiFact says it doesn't rate speculative claims.

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