Monday, February 27, 2017

Daily Caller: "Politifact Says Trump Is Right, But Rates His Remark ‘Mostly False'"

The Daily Caller notes an item from PolitiFact where President Trump tweeted something PolitiFact found true, after which the fact checkers proceeded to rate the claim "Mostly False."

The Daily Caller's Alex Pfeiffer has the skinny:
The tweet from Trump came after Gateway Pundit reported on the change in the national debt under the two respective presidents and after former Godfather Pizza CEO Herman Cain brought up the figures on Fox News.

Politifact wrote: “The numbers check out. And in fact, the total public debt has dropped another $22 billion since the Gateway Pundit article published, according to data from the U.S. Department of Treasury.”

Despite this, Politifact still gave Trump a rating of “mostly false” and titled its article, “Why Donald Trump’s tweet about national debt decrease in his first month is highly misleading.”
We saw this item and considered writing it up. It seemed to us the type of thing that liberal (or even moderate) readers might excuse, judging that PolitiFact did enough to justify the "Mostly False" rating it gave to Trump's tweet.

The case needs additional information to show that it does not represent a fair fact check.

The definition of "Mostly False"

Did PolitiFact show that Trump's tweet met its definition of "Mostly False"? Here is the definition:
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Trump's tweet did not simply contain "an element of truth." It was true (and misleading). PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" definitions mean little. PolitiFact does not used objective criteria to decide the rating. If objective criteria decided the rating, then PolitiFact's creator would not declare that "Truth-O-Meter" ratings are "entirely subjective."

Sauce for the gander?


If PolitiFact applied its judgments consistently, then the Daily Caller and sites like ours would have little to complain about. But vague definitions that ultimately fail to guide the final rating make it virtually impossible even for well-meaning left-leaning journalists to keep the scales balanced.

Consider an example from the PolitiFact Oregon franchise. PolitiFact Oregon rated Democrat Brad Avakian "Mostly True" for a false statement:
Avakian, citing Census data and echoing claims by Obama and others, said women in Oregon "earn an average of 79 cents for every dollar that men earn for doing the same job." The report he relied on noted that the 79-cent figure applies to full-time, year-round work, although Avakian didn’t include those stipulations.

For starters, the commissioner loses points for cherry-picking the 79-cent figure. Other means of measuring pay gaps between men and women put it considerably less.

The same can be said of the "for doing the same job" piece. As PolitiFact has found previously, the existence of a pay gap doesn’t necessarily mean that all of the gap is caused by individual employer-level discrimination, as Avakian’s claim implies. Some of the gap is at least partially explained by the predominance of women in lower-paying fields, rather than women necessarily being paid less for the same job than men are.

Finally, Avakian used the term "average" when the report he relied on said "median." He could have avoided that by simply saying women "make 79 cents for every dollar a man earns," but since the information he cited contains only median incomes, we find the difference to be inconsequential.

Those caveats aside, he still is well inside the ballpark and the ratio he cited is a credible figure from a credible agency. We rate the claim Mostly True.
That's an inexcusably tilted playing field. If Avakian had described the raw pay gap without saying it compared men and women doing the same job, then his claim would have paralleled Trump's: a true but misleading statement. But Avakian's statement was not true and misleading. It was false and misleading at the same time.

Yet it received a "Mostly True" rating compared to Trump's "Mostly False" rating.

Doesn't fact-checking need better standards than that?



Jeff Adds (1922PST 2/27/17):
We'd love to see PolitiFact reconcile their Mostly False rating of Trump's claim with the rationale behind this gem:



Was there anything misleading about Clinton's statement?
Clinton’s figures check out, and they also mirror the broader results we came up with two years ago. Partisans are free to interpret these findings as they wish, but on the numbers, Clinton’s right. We rate his claim True.
Ha! Silly factseekers. When Trump makes an accurate claim PolitiFact conjures their magical powers of objectivity to decide what is misleading. When lovable ol' Bill makes a claim, heck, PolitiFact is just checkin' the numbers and all you partisans can figure out what it means.

Note that PolitiFact gave Bill Clinton a True rating, which they define as "The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing." Must be nice to be in the club.

We've pointed out how PolitiFact's application of standards is akin to the game of Plinko. With ratings like this it's difficult to view PolitiFact as serious journalists instead of carnival barkers.

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