Wednesday, September 28, 2016

PolitiFact's presidential "Pants on Fire" bias

PolitiFact Bias has tracked for years a measure of PolitiFact's bias called the "Pants on Fire" bias. The presidential election gives us a fine opportunity to apply this research approach in a new and timely way.

This measure, based on PolitiFact's data, shows PolitiFact's strong preference for Democrat Hillary Clinton over the Republican candidate Donald Trump. When PolitiFact ruled claims from the candidates as false (either "False" or "Pants on Fire"), Trump was 82 percent more likely than Clinton to receive a "Pants on Fire" rating.

Why does this show a bias at PolitiFact? Because PolitiFact offers no objective means of distinguishing between the two ratings. That suggests the difference between the two ratings is subjective. "Pants on Fire" is an opinion, not a finding of fact.

When journalists call Trump's falsehoods "ridiculous" at a higher rate than Clinton's, with no objective principle guiding their opinions, it serves as an expression of bias.


How does the "Pants on Fire" bias measure work?

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

PolitiFact doubles down on deception

Back in May 2016 we pointed out a particularly deceptive fact check from PolitiFact, calling it "Mostly True" that Donald Trump had hoped for the housing crisis that led to the "Great Recession."

Recycled garbage, courtesy of PolitiFact:

It's no surprise to see PolitiFact's deception recycled, as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton used a similar version of the same line during the first presidential debate, inviting PolitiFact to give her another nearly glowing "Mostly True" rating:
In the opening skirmish of the first presidential debate, Hillary Clinton cast her rival as a man who put his own business interests ahead of the welfare of average Americans."Donald was one of the people who rooted for the housing crisis," Clinton said. "He said back in 2006, ‘Gee, I hope it does collapse because then I can go in and buy some and make some money.’["]
As we explained in our earlier post, Clinton was committing a fallacy of equivocation. The deflation of a housing bubble is not the same thing as a "housing crisis." Clinton erases the distinction between the two to create the appearance Trump hoped for bad times for millions of Americans. Clinton surely knows the difference, so her knowing deception would qualify as a "lie" in the worst sense of the word.

Such a lie PolitiFact rates as "Mostly True." More than once.

Our capture of part of a PolitiFact video shows PolitiFact repeating a similar fallacy of equivocation. What is "the situation"? When Trump was speaking in 2006, "the situation" was the potential for a deflation of the housing bubble. The housing market inflates and deflates in a way parallel to the rise and fall of the stock market. Lower prices attract investors in both cases. But in the video, PolitiFact allows "the situation" to refer to the housing crisis, not the mere deflation of the housing bubble.

What good is a fact checker that cannot sniff out so obvious a lie?

Not much, we would say.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Krugman: PolitiFact "overwhelmingly in the ballpark"

Great news for PolitiFact! Luminous lefty economist Paul Krugman has given PolitiFact his sort-of seal of approval (bold emphasis added):
PolitiFact has examined 258 Trump statements and 255 Clinton statements and classified them on a scale ranging from “True” to “Pants on Fire.” One might quibble with some of the judgments, but they’re overwhelmingly in the ballpark.
 At PolitiFact Bias, we wonder what it means for Krugman to declare that PolitiFact's ratings of Clinton and Trump are overwhelmingly in the ballpark.

Did Krugman double-check all of PolitiFact's research on those 513 fact checks and find the vast majority "in the ballpark"?

We tend to doubt it. Who has time to double-check that many fact checks if it's not a full time job?

Did Krugman simply judge the fact checks were "in the ballpark" based on his own vast store of political knowledge?

That option seems more likely. But isn't that type of judgment particularly prone to confirmation bias?

That's an obvious yes, right?

PolitiFact, of course, bills itself as nonpartisan. But what solid evidence do we have of PolitiFact's nonpartisanship? Is it reassuring, for example, that founding PolitiFact editor Bill Adair declines to reveal his politics while having his picture taken in his office with a life-sized cardboard President Obama looking on from the background?

PolitiFact's credibility rests on the plausibility of its claim to nonpartisanship. Krugman endorsements don't help that much. The Krugman endorsement might be expected if PolitiFact leans left, thanks to confirmation bias. We encourage readers to consider what would qualify as good evidence of nonpartisanship and whether PolitiFact delivers the goods.

As for whether PolitiFact is "in the ballpark" with its ratings--that can only come from scientific study designed for that purpose. If Krugman ever produces such a study, we will consider his claims based on the merits.

Until then, pfft. Krugman citing PolitiFact's ratings to bolster a pro-Clinton argument, even to the point of suggesting PolitiFact's ratings will serve as a predictor of the debate results (!) only further discredits Krugman.

Correction Sept. 27, 2016: Added the name of PolitiFact's founding editor, Bill Adair. Adair's name was omitted in the first published version.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Unreliable PolitiFact

PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan illustrates why we can't have good fact-checking from PolitiFact.

Holan was dispensing her sage advice to debate moderators, suggesting they do not rely on memory for their facts.

It was good advice, but her illustration showcased bad fact-checking:
Moderators who don’t keep research at hand are leaving themselves open to dodged questions and outright bluffing. Check out this exchange between Trump and moderator Becky Quick of CNBC from an October primary debate.

Quick: "You have talked a little bit about Marco Rubio. I think you called him (Facebook founder) Mark Zuckerberg’s personal senator, because he was in favor of the H-1B visa."

Trump: "I never said that. I never said that."

Quick: "So this is an erroneous article the whole way around? … My apologies, I'm sorry."

Trump: "Somebody's really doing some bad fact-checking."

Actually, there was no need for Quick to apologize. She was right; Trump was wrong. Trump’s website has a line about Rubio being Zuckerberg’s personal senator. It’s still there.
Quick and Trump were talking past each other, and Trump was more right than Quick. We presume that Holan had time to think about what she was writing, but she still botched the facts.

1) Quick said Trump had talked a little bit about Rubio. If Quick had said Trump's website had used the line about Rubio being Zuckerberg's personal senator, then she would have been right.

2) Trump was reasonable to assume that when Quick said he had "talked" about Rubio that her example would involve something he talked about, not just something written on his campaign website.

3) If Trump did not talk about Rubio being Zuckerberg's personal senator, then Trump was right.

4) If Trump was right, then Holan was wrong to say Trump was wrong.

5) Quick was wrong, so Holan was wrong to say Quick was right.

It isn't good fact-checking to blithely equivocate between a person literally saying something and making that person responsible for something posted on a campaign website.

Holan should apologize.

The "elite" fact checkers stink at fact checking.

Hat tip to PolitiFact for providing us with a steady stream of illustrative material.

A vintage PolitiFact "gotcha" fact check

When was PolitiFact anything other than a horrible, left-leaning fact check organization?

We don't buy it.

Take this example from 2007, which caught our eye while we reviewed PolitiFact's preposterous ruling of "Mostly False" for the idea that France and Germany thought Iraq had WMD.

When Republican Fred Thompson was running for president in 2007, he argued that the "Iraq Study Group" said Iraq was planning to get its nuclear program up and running again despite sanctions.

PolitiFact to the rescue! "False," screamed the trademarked "Truth-O-Meter."

According to PolitiFact, the "Iraq Study Group" (put together by Congress) had made no such finding. So Thompson's claim was false.

Hilariously, unless you were Fred Thompson, PolitiFact bothered to note that the "Iraq Survey Group," the CIA group tasked in Iraq with assessing Iraq's WMD capability, had made a claim that pretty much matched what Thompson said:
So we find Thompson's claim to be False.

It's possible that Thompson was referring to the Iraq Survey Group, a CIA panel that was formed to investigate whether there were weapons of mass destruction or the intent to produce WMDs in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. The report found that Saddam did not produce or possess any weapons of mass destruction for more than a decade before the U.S.-led invasion, but that he "aspired to develop a nuclear capability — in an incremental fashion, irrespective of international pressure and the resulting economic risks."

PolitiFact eventually got around to writing up a statement of principles, which it published in February 2011. We would highlight PolitiFact's declaration about "gotcha" journalism.
Is the statement significant? We avoid minor "gotchas"’ on claims that obviously represent a slip of the tongue.
Too late for Fred Thompson, unfortunately. Thompson's stuck with that undeserved "False" on his record. Maybe PolitiFact went with it because it was a major "gotcha"?

This is the type of fact check that signaled early on to us that something was wrong with the new fact checker in town.

The worst part? PolitiFact isn't getting better.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Extremely deceptive abortion ad looks "Half True" to PolitiFact

In arguing that PolitiFact displays a liberal bias, we suggest that big mistakes harming conservatives or helping liberals/progressives potentially make a strong argument for PolitiFact's liberal bias. If PolitiFact's biggest blunders harm conservatives or help liberals, it strengthens our case against PolitiFact.

PolitiFact veterans Angie Drobnic Holan and Louis Jacobson, editing and writing for upstart franchise PolitiFact Nevada, give an absolutely sensational example supporting our case.

The political arm of the nation's largest abortion provider, Planned Parenthood, ran an ad saying Republican candidate Joe Heck voted to "criminalize abortion for rape victims."

The ad's vagueness misleads its audience in two main ways, suggesting:
  • Rape victims risk criminal charges for seeking an abortion
  • Criminal charges would apply for any abortion sought by a rape victim, regardless of the number of weeks elapsed since the pregnancy started
PolitiFact's research confirmed that the bill Heck voted for would not result in criminal charges for rape victims. The penalties were reserved for abortion providers.

PolitiFact completely overlooked the other main deception. We would call the second deception the main one. PolitiFact mentioned in its fact check that the abortion bill Heck supported would ban abortion after 20 weeks in nearly all cases, including for rape victims. But PolitiFact penalized Planned Parenthood Votes not a bit for allowing the ad's audience to think Heck was criminalizing abortion for all rape victims.

Note the resounding silence in PolitiFact's summary paragraphs, echoing the silence in the rest of its story:
The Planned Parenthood Votes ad said that "Joe Heck voted to criminalize abortion for rape victims."

The group has a point that a bill Heck voted for and co-sponsored would have criminalized medical professionals from performing abortions after 20 weeks for rape victims who are not at risk of death or significant physical health complications due to pregnancy, at least in Washington, D.C. This would have eliminated all legal abortions for women in that category.

However, the ad blurs the issue of whether medical professionals or the women themselves would be at risk of prosecution. Only medical professionals would face legal consequences under the bill, but the ad’s imagery implies otherwise, using only women as visuals. On balance, we rate the ad Half True.
For some reason, it did not seem important to PolitiFact to point out that abortions after 20 weeks occur rarely. A fact check cited the Guttmacher Institute in saying abortions after 20 weeks account for 1.2 percent of all U.S. abortions. Unless we assume that rape victims tend to wait longer for their abortions than other women, the statistic means that the law would affect very few rape victims.

How does this not draw the attention of a fact checker? It's like meeting Cyrano face to face and failing to notice his nose.

We suggest that mistakes like this favoring a cause dear to the political left make a good evidence of PolitiFact's liberal bias. This is the kind of mistake you look for from a fact checker that has a liberal bias.

This is one of many we've found from PolitiFact. But it's an especially obvious one.


We contacted the writer and editor of the fact check to point out the highly misleading part of the ad they had failed to mention. If we receive any response from the PolitiFact team or a change to the fact check we will update this item.

We note that PolitiFact will not erase the evidence of its bias by changing its fact check days after publishing. A writer got the flawed story past a team of editors. Fixing the story will not change that. If PolitiFact fails to change its story and the rating it gave to Planned Parenthood Votes, it will show something worse than unintentional bias: It will show a lack of integrity.

Monday, September 19, 2016

"Mostly False" that France and Germany thought Iraq had WMD? Seriously?

PolitiFact recently weighed in on French and German intelligence about Iraq's WMD programs. Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz said the French and Germans believed Iraq had WMD.

PolitiFact ruled Wolfowitz's claim "Mostly False."

Some may remember the media routinely reporting that French and German intelligence assessments, along with others, mirrored those of the United States (bold emphasis added):
U.S. government analysts were not alone in these views. In the late spring of 2002 I participated in a Washington meeting about Iraqi WMD. Those present included nearly twenty former inspectors from the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), the force established in 1991 to oversee the elimination of WMD in Iraq. One of the senior people put a question to the group: Did anyone in the room doubt that Iraq was currently operating a secret centrifuge plant? No one did. Three people added that they believed Iraq was also operating a secret calutron plant (a facility for separating uranium isotopes).

Other nations' intelligence services were similarly aligned with U.S. views. Somewhat remarkably, given how adamantly Germany would oppose the war, the German Federal Intelligence Service held the bleakest view of all, arguing that Iraq might be able to build a nuclear weapon within three years. Israel, Russia, Britain, China, and even France held positions similar to that of the United States; France's President Jacques Chirac told Time magazine last February, "There is a problem—the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq. The international community is right ... in having decided Iraq should be disarmed." In sum, no one doubted that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
Some may remember French President Jacques Chirac, who opposed the invasion, nonetheless admitting the French believed Iraq had WMD:
There is a problem—the probable possession of weapons of mass destruction by an uncontrollable country, Iraq. The international community is right to be disturbed by this situation, and it's right in having decided Iraq should be disarmed.
Chirac's statement came from early 2003, not long before the invasion started.

But it's a trivial matter for PolitiFact to work its way around these inconvenient facts by making its own one-sided case against Wolfowitz's claim.

Why would PolitiFact take that approach? Incompetence? Bias? A little of both?

I'm working on a column for Zebra Fact Check that will expose PolitiFact's fact-checking sins in excruciating detail.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

PolitiFact Virginia vanishes an underlying point

Does PolitiFact have principles?

Apparently none that represent an obstacle to reaching whatever "Truth-O-Meter" rating is desired.

Today's example comes from PolitiFact Virginia's Aug. 15, 2016 fact check of Democratic Vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine. Kaine said former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi couldn't find a place to stay in New York, so Donald Trump let him put a tent on the Trump Estate.

Before we proceed, let us review PolitiFact's definition of its "True" rating on its trademarked "Truth-O-Meter":
TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
Kaine said nobody would let Gadhafi stay in New York, then said Trump let Gadhafi set up a tent on his estate. So was Kaine saying Gadhafi stayed at the estate in an elaborate tent?

Isn't that Kaine's implication?

PolitiFact apparently thinks so, otherwise the caption under the "Truth-O-Meter" serves no useful purpose: "Gadhafi a no-show." Isn't it significant that Gadhafi did not end up staying at the estate despite the appearance that's what Kaine implied?

Making PolitiFact Virginia look even more incompetent, the "True" rating overlooks Kaine's primary underlying argument, which PolitiFact understood well enough to use as its lead paragraph:
Tim Kaine says Donald Trump has a fondness for dictators, including the late Libyan leader Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Kaine's evidence that Trump has a fondness for dictators, including Gadhafi, is Trump renting Gadhafi space at the Trump estate--space that Gadhafi apparently did not visit. PolitiFact Virginia, in fact, reported that Gadhafi found a place to stay in New York, even though Kaine said he could not find a place to stay:
Gadhafi ended up staying at Libya’s U.N. mission in midtown Manhattan.
Kaine said Gadhafi could not find a place to stay in New York, implying the Trump estate was the exception. That was false.

Kaine implied Gadhafi stayed at the Trump estate. That was false.

Kaine said Trump allowed Gadhafi to set up a tent at the Trump estate. That was apparently true, but used in a misleading way.

Kaine implied that Trump's arrangement with Gadhafi shows Trump holds an affinity for dictators.

Don't we need stronger evidence than this?

Nah. This is PolitiFact. What Kaine said was "True" and nothing significant was left out.

Perhaps PolitiFact Virginia simply mistakes objectionable fact-checking for objective fact-checking?

Update Sept. 17, 2016: Afters

We're updating this post to add the "tweezers or tongs" tag, with a few words of explanation.

"Tweezers or tongs" denotes stories where PolitiFact has the option of setting a narrow or wide focus on its topic. The nature of the story focus may play a critical role in the final rating. PolitiFact might give a claim a "Mostly False" rating if it contains a "grain of truth." Or, PolitiFact might instead cut the grain of truth like a tiny diamond and present it as a tiny sparkling ring of truth in stories like the one PolitiFact Virginia wrote about Democrat Tim Kaine.

Additional note:  We appreciate the prominent link to the story from Newsbusters, which has its own expanded take. It's worth a read.

Monday, September 12, 2016

PolitiFact looking VOXier every day! (Updated)

Remember how Ezra Klein took his Washington Post Wonkblog act independent, starting the fact-challenged left-wing 'splainer site VOX?

PolitiFact is taking pages from the VOX playbook.

PolitiFact has always had VOX's ability to get things remarkably wrong, so the latest new sign of Voxiness comes from PolitiFact stories that venture into 'splaining instead of fact-checking. The item that especially caught our eye was one saying Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump is incorrect for saying the United States should have taken Iraq's oil.

Trump's suggested policy on Iraq's oil is a choice with a moral, right/wrong dimension. As such PolitiFact's condemnation of the proposal amounts to moralizing. And isn't that exactly what we want from fact checkers?

We suspect the real reason PolitiFact is delving into overt PolitiSplaining has to do with its desire to share parts of expert interviews like this one:
"Insofar as Mr. Trump's proposals are coherent enough to be subject to analysis and judgment, they appear to be practically impossible, legally prohibited, and politically imbecilic," said Barnett Rubin, associate director of New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
PolitiFact didn't say that about Trump! It was the expert! The expert did it! Was PolitiFact supposed to not print such a memorable quotation?

At PolitiFact Bias, we have long charged that PolitiFact's fact-checking routinely crosses the line from objective reporting into the realm of opinion journalism. An interview posted recently at, which owns PolitiFact through the Tampa Bay Times, underscores the accuracy of our assessment. Brad Scribner interviewed Lucas Graves, a recognized expert on fact-checking who did intern stints at PolitiFact and Scribner asked Graves about the relationship between fact-checking and the traditional "opinion page" in newspapers.

It’s actually a misnomer to call the opinion page the opinion page. Really it’s the argument page. People are laying out fact-based arguments. We often confuse that sense of opinion with opinion as taste — where there’s no objective way to say which flavor of ice cream is better, but that’s not true of the kinds of points being made on the opinion page. They do involve facts — facts arrayed into arguments — and those arguments require interpretation. But any important or interesting factual question usually requires interpretation.

PolitiFact founder Bill Adair once called fact checking "reported conclusion journalism" and that’s a really good description.

 Find the whole interview at Poynter's website.

Update/Afters Sept. 12, 2016

We quoted PolitiFact's gem of a quotation from expert Barnett Rubin in our post above. It was quite uncomplimentary to Trump, so much so that we felt it reasonable to question Rubin's neutrality on that basis alone.

In our opinion, PolitiFact did Rubin no favors by quoting him.

We looked up Rubin's record on the FEC database. No surprise: He donates to Democrats.

Is it fine that PolitiFact does not inform its readers about stuff like this?

We wouldn't have that big a problem with it if it didn't represent such a marked pattern.

Correction Sept. 13, 2016: Our final mention of Barnett Rubin misspelled his last name as "Rubion." We apologize for the error, which is now corrected. Same day additional correction: The problem was worse than we noticed: We called Barnett Rubin "Barret" Rubin. We treble our apology.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

PolitiFact Florida flip-flops on subjectivity of congressional ineffectiveness

PolitiFact's patina of reliability--perceived mostly by liberals--relies on people not paying close attention.

PolitiFact Florida gives us our latest example of unprincipled fact checking.

The conservative American Future Fund ran an ad attacking Florida Democrat Patrick Murphy, who is running for the senate against incumbent Republican Marco Rubio. The ad said Murphy had been rated one of the nation's least effective congressmen:
In the ad, American Future Fund says, "Patrick Murphy was named one of America's least effective congressmen."
It's completely true that Murphy was named one of America's least effective congressmen. InsideGov produced a set of rankings, and Murphy was rated one of the least effective.


PolitiFact Florida rated the ad's claim "Mostly False" because InsideGov's system for rating effectiveness fails to take enough factors into account:
The main problem with this ranking is it’s based on a single measure: the percentage of bills sponsored by each member over their time in office that went on to pass committee. That’s not a sufficient way to rate the effectiveness of a member of Congress.

Congressional experts have repeatedly told us that there are many other ways to evaluate the effectiveness of a member beyond getting a sponsored bill passed in committee.
 Got it? A reliable measure of congressional effectiveness needs to take more factors into account.

But when PolitiFact Florida decided not to rate Democrat Alan Grayson over a similar claim about Murphy based on the same YouGov ranking during the Democratic primary, the fact checkers had another approach to the issue:
We’re not going to rate Murphy’s effectiveness as a legislator, because that’s a subjective measure.
To be fair to PolitiFact Florida, without doing it any favors, it started its flip-flop during the fact check of Grayson by pointing out that it's not enough to rate effectiveness using one criterion for measurement.

It apparently does not occur to the folks at PolitiFact Florida that if effectiveness is subjective then it doesn't matter how many criteria one uses. One is as good as a billion.

Congressional effectiveness vs. Trump-caused bullying in schools

We can't help but compare PolitiFact Florida's rating of American Future Fund to the "Mostly True" rating PolitiFact gave Democrat presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for her claim about a "Trump Effect" on our schoolkids.

Both AFF and Clinton credited the claim to a third source (YouGov and "parents and teachers," respectively).

The AFF claim was literally accurate; Clinton's less so (Zebra Fact Check found no anecdote from the source Clinton named to match her claim).

Both claims were credited to dubious sources (AFF's to the simplistic YouGov ratings, Clinton's to a handful of anecdotes--23, estimated--from an unscientific poll of nearly 2,000 teachers).

AFF received a "Mostly False" rating. Clinton received a "Mostly True" rating.

We suggest there is no one set of nonpartisan principles that would allow PolitiFact to justify both ratings. The disparity in these ratings shows unevenly applied principles, or else a lack of principles. The conservative AFF correctly said an untrustworthy source made a certain claim and received a "Mostly False" rating. The liberal candidate semi-correctly said an untrustworthy source made a certain claim and received a "Mostly True" rating.

It doesn't pass the sniff test.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Brilliant: PolitiFact puts "Mostly False" claim in Trump's mouth

PolitiFact claims it takes context into account when it does its fact-checking.

That often is not the case.

Observe this example, from a Sept. 8 fact check of Donald Trump (bold emphasis added):
Donald Trump defended his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin during NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum, claiming he was only returning the favor.

NBC host Matt Lauer listed some of the things Trump and Putin have said about each other, and asked if Trump wants admiration from someone who is at odds with U.S. foreign policy and may be meddling with the election.

"You said, ‘I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, our president is not doing so well. And when referring to a comment that Putin made about you, I think he called you a brilliant leader, you said, ‘It’s always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond,’ " Lauer said. "But do you want to be complimented by that former KBG officer?"

Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?" Trump said, "The fact is, look, it’s not going to get him anywhere. I’m a negotiator."
PolitiFact's opening paragraph mischaracterizes the exchange between Lauer and Trump. Trump was answering NBC host Matt Lauer's suggestion that receiving praise from Putin is a bad thing, not defending his own praise of Putin.

Returning the favor?

Linda Qiu, the PolitiFact writer responsible for the fact check, never provided any evidence that Trump said anything about returning a favor through his compliments of Putin.

Qiu didn't even link to a video or transcript, instead posting text-only references to the Commander-in-Chief event.

Time magazine posted a transcript of the event. We took the time to find where Qiu went wrong (bold emphasis added):
LAUER: Do you think the day that you become president of the United States, he’s going to change his mind on some of these key issues?

TRUMP: Possibly. It’s possible. I don’t know, Matt. It’s possible. And it’s not going to have any impact. If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn’t that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country.

Now, it’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.
If one takes the sentence "If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him" out of context, one might justify saying Trump claimed he complimented Putin only because Putin complimented him. However, given the context, that claim will not hold. Trump goes on to suggest that his praise of Putin is sincere. And, in the greater context, Trump is saying the praise either way is not likely to affect Trump's approach to negotiation ("and it's not going to have any impact").

It is deceptive to describe that exchange by saying Trump was "claiming he was only returning the favor." And that exchange had little to do with the claim PolitiFact was fact-checking.

Who said Putin called Trump "brilliant"?

It was Lauer who put forth the idea that Putin called Trump "brilliant," in the context of Putin praising Trump. Lauer followed up by asking Trump if he was comfortable accepting praise from a bad actor like Putin.

Trump responds by saying, using Lauer's example, that he is fine with accepting compliments from Putin, and that the praise would not affect his negotiating stance.

The nature of the compliment serves a very minor point in this exchange. Trump's point in response to Lauer should have taken precedence, but PolitiFact ignored it, preferring to strain gnats.

The key question is whether Trump is responsible for fact-checking Lauer. If Lauer thinks Putin said Trump was brilliant then it is reasonable for Trump to accept the premise of Lauer's question when he gives his answer.

Ignoring that principle may turn a fact checker into a pedant.

PolitiFact dons a fig leaf by pointing to past cases where Trump said Putin called him a "genius." But other fact checkers addressed those cases months ago. They carry no real relevance in this case, unless they show PolitiFact was eager to pile on.

Summary: two flubs for PolitiFact

PolitiFact misleadingly led its fact check by saying Trump was defending his praise of Putin. PolitiFact built on that error by falsely claiming Trump defended himself by saying he was just returning the favor.

What a great start.

From there, PolitiFact blamed Trump for accepting the premise of Matt Lauer's question. If it's appropriate to place blame for that, Lauer should receive the lion's share. PolitiFact made sure that would not happen, at least in terms of its fact check (whatever happened to PunditFact?).

This is what we've learned to expect from PolitiFact.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

More unprincipled principles from PolitiFact (Updated)

When PolitiFact released its politisplainer video on its fact-checking process, "The PolitiFact Process," we responded with an annotated version of that video. We made one of our key points by contradicting Editor Angie Drobnic Holan's claim that "These ratings are not arbitrary. Each one has a specific definition." We pointed out that PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" definitions are ambiguous, making it impossible for Holan to support her denial that the ratings are arbitrary.

With hardly a week having passed, PolitiFact serves up an example proving our point.

PolitiFact's fact check titled "Hillary Clinton says none of her emails had classification headers," makes a number of its typical mistakes (such as ignoring PolitiFact's "Burden of Proof" principle), but we would draw attention to the conclusion of the piece (bold emphasis added):
Clinton’s carefully worded statement is partially accurate but leaves out important context. For that, we rate her claim Mostly True.
Is the problem obvious?

Let's review PolitiFact's definition of "Mostly True":
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
To us, that does not seem like a perfect match for the "Mostly True" rating Clinton received.

What about the definition of "Half True," then?
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
This one is closer, but still not quite a perfect match. Sure, we've got  "partially accurate," "details," and "context" mentioned, but PolitiFact's specific definition mentions "important details or taking things out of context," not the mere absence of "important context."

This 'tweener language underscores a point my co-editor Jeff D. made on Twitter earlier this week:

Fact checks like this one help illustrate Jeff's point: There is no objective difference between "needs additional information" and "leaves out important details."

PolitiFact can take exactly the same story detail and write the conclusion with a "Mostly True" or "Half True" ending.

In this case, it looks like writer Lauren Carroll (bless her heart) may have recommended a "Half True" rating for Clinton before the story went before PolitiFact's exalted "star chamber" (bless its heart) for a final determination of its "Truth-O-Meter" rating. The group of editors may have wanted a softer rating for Clinton, doubtless in devotion to objectivity and non-partisanship, and so decided on the "Mostly True" rating. Then Carroll presumably did an incomplete revision of the concluding paragraph.

We could be wrong in our hypothesis, of course, but there's little doubt the conclusion Carroll attached jibes better with a "Half True" rating than the "Mostly True" rating Clinton gets on her PolitiFact report card (bless its heart).

In the end, we get a timely example supporting our point that Angie Drobnic Holan spoke falsely when she claimed PolitiFact's ratings are not arbitrary.


While it should not surprise us at all if the wrong rating description stays in the story (like it did for PolitiFact fact check of Mitt Romney), it's possible PolitiFact will "fix" this problem by changing the description of the rating to match the definition of "Mostly True."

That change would not truly fix the problem nor blunt our point.


Because unless the facts of the story change no justification exists for changing the rating or its description. Changing the wording of the rating description does not alter the facts of the story.

Correction Sept. 8, 2016 6:30 p.m. EDT:
In the first paragraph of the "Afters" section, changed "Half True" to "Mostly True" to match the intent of the sentence.

Update Sept. 8, 2016 (6:30 p.m. EDT):

Jeff hinted to PolitiFact's Katie Sanders, the editor of the story, that something was amiss:

So far as I can tell, we received no clarification why Clinton's claim received a "Mostly True" rating with the "Half True" definition. We see no other difference in the story, and PolitiFact mentions no other changes in its editor's note.

How did the definition of "Half True" get into a fact check making the finding of "Mostly True"? That's the kind of transparency you don't normally get from PolitiFact.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Video: PolitiFact's story process, annotated

We noticed that PolitiFact produced a video outlining its story process.

We objected to the way PolitiFact fudged the truth in its video, so we uploaded it to our video channel with our comments added.

We invite PolitiFact to fact check our work.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

PolitiFact's lyin' "Corrections and Updates" page

Is PolitiFact a pack of deceivers or just a bunch of incompetents?

We probably shouldn't rule out the "incompetent pack of deceivers" option.

Since back in the day we first put together our "Annotated Principles of PolitiFact" page, we have noted that PolitiFact does a poor job of transparently recording its corrections and updates.

The problem today is worse, if anything.

What do readers expect when look up PolitiFact's page of corrections and updates? It should list PolitiFact's corrections and updates, right? All of them, not just some of them.

Last week we spot-checked PolitiFact, looking for an updated item on a claim by Alan Grayson. The Grayson fact check was not on the list. It still isn't on the list.

Today, we looked for an updated fact check of a Trump claim on this list. The Trump item was published on June 9, 2016 and updated on July 5, 2016.

It's not on the list:

Deceit? Incompetence? Incompetent deceit?

How do we get away with pointing out this problem repeatedly without PolitiFact apparently lifting a finger to fix it?

If you want a comprehensive list of PolitiFact's corrections and updates, chances are you'll need to do a set of customized searches and make up your own spreadsheets. PolitiFact does not appear interested in the kind of transparency that would allow readers to find all of its corrections and updates in one convenient Internet location.