Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Cover Your Butt Cover Up: PolitiFact's Stealth Edits and Incoherent Defense of Hillary Clinton

PolitiFact's recent treatment of the Hillary Clinton email scandal has been busy and bizarre. PolitiFact issued a "Half True" rating on a Clinton claim, the FBI director poked holes in PolitiFact's story, PolitiFact stood by its "Half True" rating, then hours later reversed itself and issued a new fact check calling Clinton's claim false.


-July 3: A fact check by PolitiFact writer Lauren Carroll rates Clinton's claim that she "never received nor sent any material that was marked classified" on her private email server Half True (original version at the Internet Archive).

-July 5: FBI Director James Comey issues a statement effectively refuting Clinton's claims and exposing her outright falsehoods regarding the email scandal.

-July 5: After Comey's statement, PolitiFact publishes an update by Carroll laying out Comey's evidence and explaining how it undermines Clinton's claims. Despite this, Carroll says there will be no changes and affirms the original "Half True" rating.

-July 6: PolitiFact and Carroll publish an entirely new fact check on the same claim, this time rating Clinton False. PolitiFact archives a version of the "Half True" fact check.

Each iteration of Carroll's reporting has problems, so we'll address them in order:

Original July 3 Half True Fact Check:

Carroll is Clintonian in her defense of Clinton, weaving a web of wordsmithing to determine it's "Half True" Clinton did not send or receive any emails marked as classified. One of the several problems with Carroll's fact check troubles us the most:

Carroll's conclusion ignores Catherine Herridge's report last month that Clinton did in fact send an email marked classified. Carroll also fails to enlighten readers by explaining whether Clinton's emails were marked classified is moot to the overall implications of the scandal.

Carroll goes on to assert that "There is no evidence Clinton knowingly sent or received classified information" (emphasis mine). What Carroll fails to tell PolitiFact readers is that in a widely reported email exchange Clinton herself explicitly instructs an aide to intentionally remove classified markings from information before sending it to her via nonsecure methods. (1)

Apparently for PolitiFact, it's not misleading to intentionally remove classified markings and then say you didn't receive anything marked classified as a defense.

July 5 Update:

After FBI Director James Comey's "wowza" revelations, Carroll writes an update covering Comey's press conference. Like Comey, PolitiFact acknowledges Clinton's deceit. Also like Comey, PolitiFact declines to do anything about it. In light of all the evidence, PolitiFact insists Clinton's claim would remain rated "Half True."

The justification for keeping the "Half True" rating was indefensible if not incoherent (red box added for emphasis):

Again, the evidence available at the time indicated Clinton was lying. But even if we assume Comey released some new bombshell evidence, PolitiFact's excuse doesn't make sense. I pointed out on Twitter that PolitiFact's explanation seems to be that since PolitiFact didn't know Hillary Clinton was lying when she lied, she's telling the truth.


Clinton lied, and after Comey's statement even PolitiFact was forced to acknowledge that Clinton's claim was false, but since PolitiFact didn't have the evidence that Clinton was lying on July 3, it's a "fact" that Clinton's claim was half true. Or something.

There's circumstances where it may be legitimate to base a rating on information available at the time a claim was made, but in this case PolitiFact allows Clinton to benefit from her own deceit. Bryan pointed out in a post criticizing the update just how absurd Carroll's explanation was:
Clinton...had the very best position available to know whether she sent or received emails marked as classified. She had every reason to know the truth back in 2009-2013 as she served as secretary of state...Apparently the only reason PolitiFact gave Clinton credit for a half-truth is because Clinton lied.
Carroll's justification for keeping the rating "Half True" shows just how far PolitiFact will go to avoid giving Clinton an unfavorable rating. For PolitiFact, even acknowledging Clinton lied wasn't enough to give her a "False" rating.

July 6th False Fact Check:

The day after Comey's damaging press conference, PolitiFact scrubs its original "Half True" fact check from its website, and publishes an entirely new fact check on the exact same claim, this time rating it "False."

So what happened between PolitiFact's update and the new "False" rating? (Red box added for emphasis)

PolitiFact's justification for the new rating is at odds with its July 5 update.

Note that "the evidence FBI director James Comey presented" was cited by PolitiFact when they refused to change the Half True rating the day before! Now PolitiFact says it is the sole reason for issuing a "False" rating. Which is it?

That same evidence "was available to Clinton through her own emails" when PolitiFact rated it "Half True" in the first place.

The evidence has been available to Clinton the entire time she's been telling the lie.

We asked Lauren Carroll to explain the discrepancy on Twitter but she ignored us, as usual.

(We asked from my personal Twitter account as Carroll (like PolitiFact editors Angie Holan and Bill Adair) has blocked our PolitiFactBias account.) 

How can PolitiFact reconcile the new False fact check with Carroll's update refusing to change the "Half True" rating from the day before? 

The Cover Up:

The link to Carroll's original July 3rd Half True rating goes here. If you click through, you'll see the story has been replaced by PolitiFact's default Sorry, this page is not found Etch-a-Sketch gag PolitiFact uses when it deletes a story.

Not only is this error page partisan snark directed at Mitt Romney, it also facetiously implies a technical problem as opposed to PolitiFact intentionally deleting an article from the web.

(PolitiFact's original "Half True" rating can be found here. To PolitiFact's credit, the new "False" version of the story does link to an archived (but edited) version of the "Half True" rating.)

But what about Carroll's update from July 5, the one posted after Comey's press conference? Here's the key passage (red box added for emphasis):

Check out how that passage reads now (red box added for emphasis):

It seems that the way to reconcile PolitiFact's "False" rating with Carroll's update affirming the "Half True" rating is to simply delete it from the Web and hope nobody notices.

The change is a complete 180. The first version contradicts the second. It's also incongruous (They're changing the rating to "False," but the investigation undercuts her defense if she makes the claim again?)

There is no editor's note acknowledging the change. There is no update, no notice, no explanation indicating a change has been made.

This is a stealth edit. It deceives their readers. It's unethical journalism.

And PolitiFact does it all the time.

Think Carroll and her editors accidentally forgot to add a note indicating a change? What about the time a disingenuous liberal talking point about the Hobby Lobby decision was scrubbed out of a fact check without notice?

Is it possible the above stealth edit was the result of a misguided intern? The story was written by PolitiFact Deputy Editor Louis Jacobson, and edited by Senior Editor Angie Holan. Those are the two senior most writers at PolitiFact. Holan and Jacobson are the most influential at PolitiFact and one would think should know better. We asked Jacobson about PolitiFact's policy on stealth edits, and also brought this edit to his attention without ever getting a response.

Even minor errors are too much for PolitiFact to admit screwing up:

Sometimes the errors can be inaccurate by orders of magnitude, but no editors note, or even a change in rating is made. Bryan caught an example of this just last month and wrote about it:
A key figure in the story changed from $7.5 billion to $1.7 billion. Koster's exaggeration, by percentage, went from 20 percent to 429 percent. The new version of the story carries no correction notice, and the rating remains "Mostly True."
The reality is that PolitiFact routinely uses deceptive and opaque editing techniques to alter their stories after they've been published. So much so that we created a search tag for it: Now you see it - Now you Don't.

Much of PolitiFact's inconsistency and faulty reasoning can be attributed to their political bias or incompetence. But PolitiFact's routine use of stealth edits is inexcusable and unethical. Any reputable journalist should be embarrassed by such shenanigans, but PolitiFact has a long history of using them while also refusing to own up when they're caught red-handed.

PolitiFact embodies the disingenuousness they make their living accusing others of having. PolitiFact engages in the same type of deceptions it claims to expose.

PolitiFact is a dishonest and untrustworthy actor in the world of journalism. Their work should be recognized as the partisan hackery it is and disavowed as a reputable source.

(1) It's possible there's a procedural argument to be made that, as the result of an executive order, Clinton had the authority to declassify information in very specific and narrow circumstances (including in the above mentioned case.) In any event, Clinton's defense that an email was not marked classified when she was the one directing it's declassification for the express purpose of sending it over nonsecure methods is grossly misleading.


  1. The "bias" claimed in this report revolves around the fact that Politifact did not change its Half-True ruling (on one ruling for HRC) for the email stuff to False once further information arose.

    Politifact explicitly stated that they base their fact checks off of the information known at the time of the assertion; this isn't some horseshit made for Clinton, this is their policy. So no, they aren't going to change the old fact check. Instead they do a new one based off new evidence, which they then ruled her statement (correctly) as False. So what's the problem?

    You complain that they essentially took down the original Half-True and posted a new version with a False...when that's exactly what you asked for to begin with, a correct False fact checkk. It's literally just like any other research that's proven wrong; they don't burn the original, they update it saying "this is out of date, check the modern version", just like Politifact linked if you somehow made it back to the old ruling.

    The rest of your claimed "bias" are incredibly minor things, like Hobby Lobby "not paying for" vs "not allowing" certain contraception use (literally a three word edit, poor wording on the original's part), some number typos, and while I didn't check their change on the final statement made in it (the edit about 5.x billion to 1.x billion dollars), it's still literally one example at best. You're calling these guys out for terrible journalism like they're Fox or something when they just make the occasional minor mistake and fix it.

    This page literally just feels like someone attempting to play devil's advocate against one of the most objective fact-checking sites available. Poorly done, and I hope anybody who reads this can see the same. Find better evidence if you're going to try to call out bias on a site.

  2. Adam Smoulder, it looks like you either skimmed the article or read it carelessly. There is no complaint about PolitiFact changing the rating, and there's no suggestion that PolitiFact's unethical behavior serves as proof or even evidence of bias.

    It's true, however, that the bias is the best explanation for PolitiFact's initial decision to stick with the "Half True" rating. It was a gross misapplication of PolitiFact's timing principle, as we explained in an earlier post. As Jeff noted, PolitiFact's explanation for not applying the principle (and changing the rating to "False") jibes with the criticism we posted before that change occurred.

    You appear to have missed the main point of Jeff's post. PolitiFact says when it makes a mistake that it fixes the mistake issues a correction notice. But PolitiFact did a 180 degree reversal on its update story between the two versions of its fact check and did not follow its own policy for corrections. PolitiFact fixed the mistake and buried most of the evidence by skipping the correction notice.

    And we get this from an organization that poses as a paragon of journalistic transparency.

    Who owns PolitiFact, Adam Smoulder?

    1. I'm not arguing the point that stealth edits are bad practice - I agree with you in that regard. My points are that:
      1. Fixing minor typos are not sufficient evidence for bias. Though I agree Politifact should more transparently address these, I don't see how what are evidently minor changes due to poor wording or mistyping are justifiable as points towards being "partisan hackery." These parts in the latter section lost my confidence in the arguments of the article a bit because they feel quite nit-picky for the point you're trying to make :/ (albeit still I admit to not checking that money stat you claimed changed, will do so later)
      2. The ultimate rating displayed for what was said is False for Clinton's statement, which is true. I'm still missing why this is problematic. If they broke protocol to reassess a fact-check a day after, shouldn't you be happier that they do not retain the original Half-True and opt for the more accurate False with both checks citing each other? Stealth edits aside for a minute - my point being if they held the original Half-True (due to information at the time) and didn't do a new False check/archive the original, wouldn't that be a much more biased course of action? I agree transparency about the whole thing would've been more proper, but what other final result would've please you as unbiased?

      I apologize as coming off as misreading your words, as I possibly am and feel lime I'm missing your points; I agree that stealth edits are bad practice, but what else are your points towards this bias (if you could reclarify please, sorry for the inconvenience)?

    2. Adam Smoulder, I'm glad we agree that stealth edits count as bad practice.

      Now let's reach agreement on your other points.

      **1. Fixing minor typos are not sufficient evidence for bias.**

      Again, the stealth edits are nowhere stressed in our post as an evidence of bias. It's the bad reasoning that led to PF defending its "Half True" that we count as an evidence of bias. After that it's just bad journalism to cover up that bad move with a stealth edit. The journalists at PolitiFact know better. It's likely that the coverup was deliberate and intended to hide the appearance of bias. That's appalling if true, isn't it?

      **2. The ultimate rating displayed for what was said is False for Clinton's statement, which is true. I'm still missing why this is problematic.**

      We still don't see why you think we find changing the rating problematic (we find the change inconsistent with PF's day-earlier insistence the "Half True" would stand--and who wouldn't agree with that?). Would you mind explaining your view?

      **(if you could reclarify please, sorry for the inconvenience)?**

      A) PF had enough evidence before Comey to rate Clinton "False," particularly if PF used its "burden of proof" criterion consistently. BoP is a bad criterion, but one should not pick by the case when one will apply one's principles. It's not a principle if it only applies sometimes.
      B) PF's attempt to justify its "Half True" rating was nonsensical (and an evidence of bias short of proof).
      C) PF's choice to edit its update article without an explanatory correction notice admitting that they screwed up was inexcusable. It was bad journalism, and it was likely done deliberately to hide PF's stupid move from the day before. If it wasn't done deliberately it speaks to journalistic incompetence at PF instead of ill motive.

      Where do we disagree?

  3. lesson here folks: don't trust PolitiFact as it is biased. It is a major contributor to the Clinton campaign.