Saturday, June 24, 2017

The collapse of PolitiFact's favorite claim to neutrality

"What's funny is sometimes I'll get an email that'll say 'You guys are so biased.'  But I won't know who we're supposed to be biased in favor of, because we get criticized a lot by both sides."
--Bill Adair, from a 2012 NPR interview

For years, PolitiFact creator Bill Adair has excused PolitiFact from charges of bias by saying it receives criticism from both sides.

The line received such customary use that it found its way into Lucas Graves' account of the rise of the fact-checking movement, "Deciding What's True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism" (numbered citation omitted):
Fact-checkers anticipate political criticism and develop reflexes for trying to defuse it. "We're going to make the best calls we can, in a pretty gutsy form of journalism," Bill Adair told NPR. "And when we do, I think it's natural for people on one side or the other of this very partisan world we live in are going to be unhappy." One strategy is responding only minimally or in carefully chosen venues, and always asserting their balance, often by showing the criticism they receive from the other side of the spectrum. Fact-checkers make this point constantly.
The point of this strategy is obvious. The fact checkers imply that getting criticized from both sides indicates they are neutral--a form of the middle ground fallacy.

But this month Adair, now ensconced in academia at Duke University helping run the Duke Reporters Lab, published research suggesting that the criticism fact checkers receive comes predominantly from conservatives (reviewed here).

Color us shocked?

We find it disingenuous for Adair to use the "we get criticized from both sides" argument to emphasize PolitiFact's neutrality and then fail to question PolitiFact's neutrality after admitting the criticism from both sides is mostly from one side.


  1. I think there is some merit to his claim. We learned from the wiki leaks that Sanders was treated rather unfairly and I think that is something I have noticed in politicfact's articles. I think like most people the editors have bias stances and politicians, which for them happens to be left and Hillary (as far as the last election has shown).

  2. **I think there is some merit to his claim.**

    Disagree. It's a middle-ground fallacy. Any position except for the most extreme position at either end of the spectrum (if there is such a thing) gets criticized from both sides. As such, that defense means nothing. It means something if and only if the substantive criticism is roughly equal from both sides, and we've never had evidence that was the case. The weight of substantive criticism from one side is a decent evidence of ideological bias.

    **Sanders was treated rather unfairly and I think that is something I have noticed in politicfact's articles.**

    We highlighted some of PolitiFact's unfair criticism of Sanders. But having a preference for one of two candidates on the left does not disappear the basic left-leaning bias. It just makes the leftward lean perhaps slightly less acute. Or maybe they just didn't think Bernie could win.