Thursday, October 12, 2017

PolitiFact defends itself for money

PolitiFact has a terrible record when it comes to defending itself from public criticism. So it surprised us to see PolitiFact's Jon Greenberg take to Twitter highlighting an article he wrote defending against criticism he received from Mark Hyman.



The destination article by Greenberg failed to link to the attacking video. So persons wishing to see for themselves would just have to take Greenberg's word or else try to find the video through their own effort.

We found the video with a little effort. We could not find it through the association with Sinclair Broadcasting that Greenberg advertised. We found it by connecting the "Mark Hyman" mentioned in Greenberg's self-defense to BehindtheHeadlines.net.



We found a number of things striking about Greenberg's article.

 Greenberg:
Sinclair, which has faced criticism for a clear conservative point of view, published a video commentary last week saying we fabricated data related to a fact-check we published on Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Cruz claimed, "Two-thirds of the (Sandy disaster relief) bill had nothing to do with Sandy."
First, we were overpoweringly bemused by PolitiFact, which has faced criticism for a clear liberal point of view, mentioning that Sinclair has received criticism for leaning right. If the accusations against Sinclair are worth mentioning, then what of those against PolitiFact?

More importantly, Greenberg made a logical leap with his claim the article says "we fabricated data related to a fact-check we published on Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas." That simply isn't in Hyman's video or the transcript. The closest to that occurs at the end of the video, when Hyman refers to his two other criticisms of PolitiFact:
On our website are two other segments [here, here] that show PolitiFact fabricating info and presenting false claims.
While it is possible to read the statement as a suggestion PolitiFact fabricated information in its fact check of Cruz, it may also be read to simply say the other two segments show PolitiFact fabricating information and(/or) presenting false claims. In his tweet Greenberg was more specific, fabricating the claim that Hyman accused him of making up "numbers."

Back to Greenberg's article:
We found that the bulk of the federal money went to states hit hardest by Sandy.

Sinclair executive Mark Hyman countered, saying that "billions were not for emergency relief. Or for Sandy."
Is this a titanic battle of straw men or what?

Hyman's beef with PolitiFact was its supposed suggestion that virtually all of the Sandy relief bill went to pay for relief from Sandy's impact. The quotation Hyman used occurred in the Washington Post version of the Cruz fact check but not in the one PolitiFact published. But it isn't hard to see the same idea presented in PolitiFact's fact check. If the money went to states hardest hit by Sandy, PolitiFact apparently reasoned, then it was for relief from superstorm Sandy.

That's bad reasoning, and worth exposing.

Is Mark Hyman a "Sinclair executive"? We think Greenberg botched the reporting on this one [Pre-publication update: PolitiFact fixed this after we did some Twitter needling]. Hyman's biography (dated October 2017) says he stepped down from an executive position in 2005 and mentions no resumption of a similar post.


That straw man again

Greenberg:
That could be true, but that isn’t what Cruz claimed. He said the lion’s share of the money had no connection to Sandy.

That’s a bold assertion, and nothing Sinclair presented actually supports it.
We must forgive Jon Greenberg for focusing on Hyman's failure to show Cruz was right. A fact checker cannot be expected to notice that Hyman did not try to defend Cruz and did not mention Cruz in his critique of PolitiFact.

In debate terms, Greenberg conceded that Hyman may have a sound premise.


Pictorial interlude/foreshadowing

How about a different straw man?

Greenberg:
It’s a simple question of math and scale. Sinclair’s report said that $16 billion went to the Housing and Urban Development Department. It then gave two examples of that money going to Chicago (to upgrade sewer and water systems) and Springfield, Mass. (to boost development in tornado-damaged low-income neighborhoods). Together, the two grants add up to $85 million.

Those dollars amount to one half of 1 percent of the money HUD got after the storm.
Greenberg omits that Hyman explicitly said he was merely giving two examples among many. It was disingenuous, and a straw man fallacy, for Greenberg to total the amount from Hyman's two examples and use the total to amplify PolitiFact's point that the bulk of the spending went to disaster relief for damages wrought by Sandy. In a way, Greenberg actually proves Hyman's point after the fact.

A point unresponsive to Hyman's charge

This is what happens with straw man arguments. We see arguments advanced that have nothing to do with what the other person was arguing.

Greenberg:
As we reported, HUD granted $12.8 billion to the places hit hardest by Sandy, namely New Jersey, New York and New York City. That represents about 80 percent of the HUD total, the opposite of Cruz’s claim that two-thirds had nothing to do with Sandy.
As Hyman wasn't defending Cruz, Greenberg wastes his words.

A paragraph hinting at what might have been ...

We nominate this next segment as Greenberg's best paragraph:
There are valid reasons to debate what qualifies as emergency relief and what is non-emergency spending. We noted that distinction in our report, as well as that the Sandy appropriation bill was a leaky bucket. The money, for example, could be spent on disasters in 2011, 2012 and 2013. We also highlighted that it takes years to spend many of those billions of dollars, especially when they go to roads, bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure.
The above is the sensible person's response to Hyman's editorial. Hyman charged that PolitiFact made it look like nearly all the money from the Sandy relief bill went for emergency relief. Greenberg's right that PolitiFact made these points in its fact check. Hyman's case, then, is certainly not a slam-dunk.

... and then back into the weeds of falsehood and obfuscation

Greenberg:
The Sinclair report concluded by saying that PolitiFact "is fabricating info and presenting false claims." That is simply not true. Our reporting is accurate, and we list all of our sources.
Greenberg leaves out the context of Hyman's conclusion, as we pointed out above. As a result, Greenberg leaves his readers the misleading impression that his article refutes Hyman's concluding claim. That claim most obviously refers to two other segments about PolitiFact that Greenberg does not address in his article. On what basis does he call those charges false?

Making matters worse for PolitiFact, Greenberg's article contains inaccurate reporting and fails to list all its sources (documented above).

The Ulterior Motive

Why did PolitiFact defend itself from Hyman's video attack when we've been enthusiastically targeting PolitiFact for years while receiving a fairly dedicated silence in response?

The image we inserted above foreshadowed the answer, specifically the blue hotlink in the middle of Greenberg's article encouraging readers to "STAND UP FOR FACTS AND SUPPORT POLITIFACT!" (all caps in the original)

The link leads to a page where readers can sign up to join PolitiFact's "Truth Squad," which helps financially support PolitiFact.

Greenberg's story is PolitiFact's version of those ubiquitous emails politicians send out to spur their constituents to give them money. My opponent is forming a Super PAC! Send $8 to show you support Candidate X and getting rid of money in politics!

PolitiFact chose the attack from Sinclair because it could attach the attack to a company with deep pockets, scaring its supporters into giving it money.

Check out the email we got from Executive Director Aaron Sharockman:

Friends,
The Sinclair Broadcasting Group, the nation's largest owner of television stations, is attacking PolitiFact for a recent fact-check we published about federal funding related to superstorm Sandy.
Sinclair, which has faced criticism for a clear conservative point of view, published a video commentary last week saying we fabricated data related to a fact-check we published on Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. Cruz claimed, "Two-thirds of the (Sandy disaster relief) bill had nothing to do with Sandy."
We found that the bulk of the federal money went to states hit hardest by Sandy.
Sinclair executive Mark Hyman countered, saying that "billions were not for emergency relief. Or for Sandy."
That could be true, but that isn’t what Cruz claimed. He said the lion’s share of the money had no connection to Sandy.
That’s a bold assertion, and nothing Sinclair presented actually supports it.
Will you help PolitiFact fight for the truth?
It’s a simple question of math and scale. Sinclair’s report said that $16 billion went to the Housing and Urban Development Department. It then gave two examples of that money going to Chicago (to upgrade sewer and water systems) and Springfield, Mass. (to boost development in tornado-damaged low-income neighborhoods). Together, the two grants add up to $85 million.
Those dollars amount to one half of 1 percent of the money HUD got after the storm.
As we reported, HUD granted $12.8 billion to the places hit hardest by Sandy, namely New Jersey, New York and New York City. That represents about 80 percent of the HUD total, the opposite of Cruz’s claim that two-thirds had nothing to do with Sandy.
There are valid reasons to debate what qualifies as emergency relief and what is non-emergency spending. We noted that distinction in our report, as well as that the Sandy appropriation bill was a leaky bucket. The money, for example, could be spent on disasters in 2011, 2012 and 2013. We also highlighted that it takes years to spend many of those billions of dollars, especially when they go to roads, bridges, tunnels and other infrastructure.
The Sinclair report concluded by saying that PolitiFact "is fabricating info and presenting false claims." That is simply not true. Our reporting is accurate, and we list all of our sources.
Whenever we can, we let the numbers do the talking and in the case of Cruz’s statement, the numbers spoke loud and clear. He said two-thirds had nothing to do with Sandy. The dollars show that the bulk of the money went to the places hit hardest by Sandy.
Yours truly,

Aaron Sharockman
Executive Director
Isn't that precious? Sharockman sends out Greenberg's article under his own name! You'd think Sharockman could give Greenberg the credit for writing the thing, right?

Cheap Stunt, Poorly Executed


Anyway, PolitiFact makes it clear that it didn't answer Hyman as part of its supposedly firm commitment to transparency. PolitiFact answered Hyman to propel an appeal for money.

It only compounds our amusement that PolitiFact left out the fact that gives that appeal whatever urgency it might have. Maybe PolitiFact didn't want to credit HBO's John Oliver for it. Who knows? Regardless, Oliver reported  (our link goes via The Hill) that Sinclair Broadcasting Group makes Hyman's commentaries, among others, mandatory showing on local news programs (all or some we do not know). So Hyman's videos have greater reach than the modest Alexa rankings we see for BehindtheHeadlines.net (a little ahead of PFB in the 3.1 millions) would suggest.

All in all, we call this a cheap stunt poorly executed.

Nice work, PolitiFact. It makes a good bookend with your PolitiFact Evangelism and Revival Tour.

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