Friday, July 22, 2016

Why PolitiFact flip-flopped on Clinton

We've dedicated two items to PolitiFact's "Half True" gift to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on her claim she never sent or received classified information via her primate email account.

First we argued that PolitiFact's defense of its "Half True" rating made no sense following FBI Director James Comey's statement on July 5.

PolitiFact, whether influenced by our post or not, apparently agreed and reversed itself the next day while erasing nearly all the evidence of its embarrassing decision from the day before.

We, namely Jeff D, responded to PolitiFact's reversal by documenting the evidence that PolitiFact had continued its habit of changing stories without posting correction notices.

We have addressed what happened. Now we will consider why it happened.

A stupid idea whose time has come

It was just plain stupid of PolitiFact to say that it could not change Clinton's "Half True" rating in view of its policy of doing its ratings according to information available at the time (bold emphasis added):
(After this fact-check published, FBI Director James Comey released details of the Feb's investigation into Hillary Clinton's use of a private email server. This claim will remain rated Half True, because we base our rulings on when a statement was made and on the information available at that time. But the FBI investigation clearly undercuts Clinton’s defense if she makes a similar claim again. You can read more about the findings of the FBI investigation here.)
Applying that policy as PolitiFact did as described above could justify avoiding any number of corrections. Did an article misuse a word? Sure, but we're not going to correct it because we did not know any better at the time.

Yes, it's silly. But it beyond likely that a group of PolitiFact's editors agreed, at least for a time, that it was the right thing to do for this Clinton fact check.

Why the do-over?

PolitiFact reversed itself pretty quickly. But what kind of impetus could reverse the considered wisdom of PolitiFact's elite editorial group?

We'll consider some possibilities:
  • A trusted figure condemned PolitiFact's defense of its "Half True" rating
This option seems the most likely. But PolitiFact's lack of transparency about its reversal leaves us in the dark as to whether anybody inside the organization was independent enough to rock the boat.

Alternatively, the editors at PolitiFact may have felt distress that they were out of step with the Washington Post Fact Checker. The Post promptly changed its rating of Clinton's email claim from two Pinocchios to four. Despite their claims of independence, the mainstream fact checkers can't avoid seeing each others' work and doubtless feel pressure to make similar findings of fact.
  • PolitiFact changed because of our criticisms?
We condemned PolitiFact's reasoning and explained what was wrong with it before PolitiFact executed its reversal. However, it's not typical for PolitiFact to agree with and act on our criticisms.
  • "Lie of the Year" implications
PolitiFact horribly embarrassed itself with the 2014 "Lie of the Year." President Obama's promise that people could keep their insurance plans under his health care reform bill took the award, or at least PolitiFact tried to make it look that way, despite the fact that PolitiFact never rated the claim worse than "Half True."

Clinton's email fib easily qualifies as the early leader in the "Lie of the Year" sweepstakes. It's high-profile. It was deeply investigated by the FBI. It carries yuge implications for the 2016 election.

Did PolitiFact belatedly realize that it might have another Democratic claim rated "Half True" winning the Lie of the Year award? Two words: bad optics.

Conclusion

We don't know for sure why PolitiFact acted the way it did. We can only offer some possibilities. But one thing is certain. PolitiFact has not acted like a fact checker in this. It has acted like it loves its own reputation better than it loves the truth.

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