Monday, February 22, 2021

PolitiFact's "In Context" deception (Updated)

In (a) perfect world, fact checkers would publish "In Context" features that simply offer surrounding context with objective explanatory notes.

This ain't no perfect world.

The PolitiFact "In Context" articles tend to serve as editorials, just like its fact checks. Two "In Context" articles from the past year (actually one from 2021 and one from 2019) will serve as our illustrative examples.

The Vaccine Supply

President Biden said "It’s one thing to have the vaccine, which we didn’t have when we came into office, but a vaccinator; how do you get the vaccine into someone’s arm?"

Instead of using context to figure out what Mr. Biden meant or perhaps intended to say, PolitiFact offered that he was not saying there was no vaccine when he took office because elsewhere in the speech he said there were 50 million vaccine doses when he took office ("we came into office, there (were) only 50 million doses that were available"):

You can judge his meaning for yourself, but it’s clear to us that Biden didn’t mean there were no vaccines available before he took office.
So Mr. Biden could have meant anything except for there were no vaccines available when he took office? Oh thank you, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checkers!

The fact checkers at CNN at least made a game attempt to make heads or tails out of Mr. Biden's words:

Biden made a series of claims about the Covid-19 vaccine situation upon his January inauguration. He said early at the town hall that when "we came into office, there was only 50 million doses that were available." Moments later, he said, "We got into office and found out the supply -- there was no backlog. I mean, there was nothing in the refrigerator, figuratively and literally speaking, and there were 10 million doses a day that were available." Soon after that, he told Cooper, "But when you and I talked last, we talked about -- it's one thing to have the vaccine, which we didn't have when we came into office, but a vaccinator -- how do you get the vaccine into someone's arm?"

Facts First: Biden got at least one of these statistics wrong -- in a way that made Trump look better, not worse, so Biden's inaccuracy appeared accidental, but we're noting it anyway. A White House official said that Biden's claim about "10 million doses a day" being available when he took office was meant to be a reference to the 10 million doses a week that were being sent to states as of the second week of Biden's term, up from 8.6 million a week when they took over.

CNN's "Facts First" went on to explain that the Trump administration released all vaccine reserves to the states instead of holding back the second doses recommended by the manufacturers. CNN also pointed out that the Biden administration continued that same policy.

The CNN account makes it appear Mr. Biden uttered an incoherent mixture of statistics. PolitiFact didn't even make an attempt in its article to figure out what Biden was talking about. PolitiFact simply discounted the statement Biden made that seemed to contradict his dubious claim about the availability of 50 million vaccine doses when he took office.

PolitiFact's "In Context" article looks like pro-Biden spin next to the CNN account. And we thought of another "In Context" article where PolitiFact used an entirely different approach.

Very Fine People

PolitiFact used Mr. Biden's statement about "50 million doses" to excuse any inaccuracy Biden may have communicated by later saying the vaccine cupboard was bare when he took office.

But PolitiFact's "In Context" article about the circumstances of President Trump's reference to "very fine people," published April 26, 2019, made no similar use of Mr. Trump's same-speech clarification "and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists -- because they should be condemned totally."

With Biden, readers got PolitiFact's assurance that he wasn't saying there were no vaccine doses when he took office, even though he used words to that effect.

With Trump, readers were left with PolitiFact's curiosity as to what the context might show (bold emphasis added):

We wanted to look at Trump’s comments in their original context. Here is a transcript of the questions Trump answered that addressed the Charlottesville controversy in the days after it happened. (His specific remarks about "very fine people, on both sides" come in the final third of the transcript.)

Not only did PolitiFact fail to use the context to defend Trump from the charge that he was calling neo-Nazis "fine people," about a year later (July 27, 2020) PolitiFact made that charge itself, citing its own "In Context" article in support:

• As president in 2017, Trump said there were "very fine people, on both sides," in reference to neo-Nazis and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va.
Making the situation that much more outrageous, PolitiFact declined to correct the latter article when we send a correction request. PolitiFact remained unmoved after we informed the International Fact-Checking Network about its behavior.

Is PolitiFact lucky or what that its owner, the Poynter Institute, also owns the International Fact-Checking Network?

This is how PolitiFact rolls. PolitiFact uses its "In Context" articles to editorially strengthen or weaken narratives, as it chooses.

It's not all about the facts.


Correction: We left out an "a" in the first sentence and also misstated the timing of the two articles our post talks about. Both errors are fixed using parenthetical comments (like this).

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Republican uses wrong embedded URL, receives "False" rating as a reward

Have we mentioned lately that PolitiFact is biased and leans left? Ready for another example?

Buckle up.


Before looking at anything PolitiFact California had to say about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's claim, we had reason to suspect something weird was going on. We knew the CBO estimated potential job losses in the millions for a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour. And PolitiFact often gives partial credit for a valid underlying point. So a politician can give a figure that's substantially off and still get a rating in the "Mostly False" to "Mostly True" range.

In McCarthy's case, it seems that his office put together a press release and used the wrong URL. The Congressional Budget Office put together a report in 2019 estimating the effects of a minimum wage hike to $15 per hour and its high-end estimate for job losses was 3.7 million.

On the other hand, the CBO recently gave a new assessment of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and revised its job loss estimates down. The high-end estimate dropped to 2.7 million.

Here's the relevant part of the Feb. 9, 2021 press release:

At this critical point, the Democrats’ big, creative response is to raise the federal national wage to $15 an hour — a move the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office previously found could cost nearly 4 million workers their jobs. Plus, these job losses would disproportionately hit already economically disadvantaged populations the most.

The new version of the CBO's report came out on Feb. 8, 2021, the day before McCarthy's office published the press release. It's plausible and perhaps likely the press release was largely composed before the CBO released the new report. The press release cited the known report, and staffers hunted up the embedded URL leading to the brand new report.

Of course we do not know that is what happened. Certainly if McCarthy knew of the new report and its updated estimates and stuck with the old estimates--even while using the qualifier "previously"--that counts as misleading.

But here's the thing: PolitiFact concluded, just as we did, that McCarthy appeared to cite the 2019 report. PolitiFact put that reveal front and center in its "If Your Time Is Short" bullet point summary:

  • McCarthy appears to be citing a Congressional Budget Office analysis from 2019 that said, at the high-end, 3.7 million jobs could be lost from the wage hike.

  • But in his statement, he cited the CBO’s new analysis published this week which found an average estimate of 1.4 million jobs would be lost.

Yes, PolitiFact, McCarthy appears to be citing the 2019 CBO analysis. And, yes, the press release "cited" the 2021 report insofar as it embedded the link to that report instead of the 2019 one.

Therefore, PolitiFact said, McCarthy's claim was "False" notwithstanding his valid point that the CBO gave a high-end estimate for job losses in the millions.

Anyone who thinks that's fair needs to learn more about PolitiFact's inconsistencies on rating numbers claims. McCarthy could easily have received a "Half True" and especially so if he was a Democrat making a claim Democrats would like to be true.

Wisconsin Democrat Steve Bullock said a quarter of gun sales avoid background checks. PolitiFact Wisconsin said his claim was "Mostly False" even though it said the true number was only 13 percent. Going by that number, Bullock exaggerated by at least 53 percent.

For comparison, McCarthy's use of the 2019 CBO figure exaggerated the truth by 37 percent. And PolitiFact ruled McCarthy's claim "False."

It's yet another reminder that PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" ratings are subjective and not ultimately rooted in objective findings.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Story Focus Shenanigans

We've pointed out for years that PolitiFact's story focus often determines the "Truth-O-Meter" rating at the end. Story focus shenanigans never go out of style at PolitiFact.

PolitiFact's method allows its fact checkers any number of ways to approach the same claim. A fact checker might focus on what the claimant said was meant. Or the fact checker could focus on how an audience might perceive the claim. One approach might lead to one "Truth-O-Meter" rating and another approach to a different "Truth-O-Meter" rating. There's no good evidence of any objective criteria guiding the process.

That brings us to two timely examples that help illustrate the phenomenon.

"Mostly False" for the Republican

President Biden set policy to allow essential workers who are undocumented to receive coronavirus vaccines. Why is Scalise's statement "Mostly False"? Apparently because American citizens who are not among the first groups eligible for the vaccine are not waiting to get the vaccine:
But, we wondered, does allowing this population access to the vaccine mean they are being invited to step in front of American citizens in the queue?

PolitiFact weasel-words "in the queue" so that Americans in low priority vaccine eligibility groups are not in the queue at all and are thus not skipped over when undocumented immigrants join those in the high priority groups.

You're not waiting for the vaccine if you're not in that narrowly-defined queue. PolitiFact quoted a Scalise spokesperson who explained his meaning. To no avail. Scalise received a "Mostly False" rating even though his statement was literally true taken in context, with "in the queue" encompassing all American citizens awaiting the vaccine.

"Half True" for the Democrat

Hocus-pocus-story-focus.

Pointedly, PolitiFact does not look at all the ways Mr. Biden's claim fails the test of truth. It does mention some of them, but breezes past such technicalities to point out that IF the person making below $15 per hour is the sole breadwinner in a family of four AND/OR lives in an area with high living expenses THEN they would fall below the poverty level.

How many of those earning less than $15 per hour meet those conditions? Well, if that was important then PolitiFact would have given us a number. Obviously it's not important. What we need to know is that under some conditions Biden's statement could be true. Those missing conditions count as missing context and that matches PolitiFact's definition of "Half True"!

Marvel at PolitiFact's rationalization:

A spokesman for Biden said he was referring to a family of four with one full-time income using the federal government’s poverty guideline, an explanation Biden didn’t include in the interview. Using that measurement, that family with a paycheck of $13 an hour would live below the poverty line. At $15 an hour, the same family would clearly be above the poverty line. So Biden was off by about a dollar, using the existing standards.

But experts said wages alone don’t tell the full story about whether a household lives in poverty. Other factors include child care and housing costs, for example, which can vary by geography. Generalizing a "poverty wage" to a specific number ignores the different circumstances that families face. Other experts said the federal definition of a poverty level is out of date and needs changing.

We rate this claim Half True.

You wonder why similar reasoning couldn't justify a "Half True" for Scalise?

Why do you hate science?

How To Tell a Climate Science Denier


Who would believe how often professional fact-checkers fail spot-checks of their accuracy?

On Feb. 9, 2021, PolitiFact's Daniel Funke had his byline appear on a fact check that featured this:

The Epoch Times attributed the tally to John Droz Jr., who it described as a "physicist and environmental advocate in Morehead City, N.C." Droz is a political activist who has denied the science of climate change and advocated against legislation aimed at mitigating sea-level rise.

Funke's fact check looked at a chart Droz created and the Epoch Times used as the foundation for a story about the outcomes of court cases addressing the 2020 presidential election. Funke's implicit ad hominem and genetic fallacies aside, we wondered if Droz was the climate change science denier Funke claims.

Is That True?

PolitiFact says it picks which claim to check partly by simply running across claims that cause one to wonder "Is that true?" That's the method we used for this spot check.
 
We would expect a professional journalist using URL hotlinks in the body of a story to use them to properly back up the claims in the story. So where "has" and "denied" feature those hotlinks in the context of claiming Droz denies climate change science, we expect at least one of them to offer solid evidence of Droz denying climate change science.

WRAL

The first hyperlink led to the news site WRAL.com dated June 6, 2012 (archived Feb. 10, 2021). The article claims Droz denies climate change science. It does not quote Droz to that effect (bold emphasis added) and offers no relevant examples to illustrate its claim:

On the front lines of the debate is NC-20's science consultant John Droz, a retired realtor and climate change denier who's become something of a cause celebre in conservative circles. 

Promoted by the conservative John Locke Foundation, Droz has given presentations on energy and climate change around the state. He's also a fellow of the conservative American Tradition Institute, along with former Locke Carolina Journal editor Paul Chesser.
Is it proof enough for Funke and PolitiFact that an article hosted at WRAL.com called Droz a climate change denier? Did Funke even notice the update to the article, dated the day after it published (June 7, 2012)?
Update: In response to this post, Mr. Droz contacted us to seek a retraction. He says he is not a climate change denier, and says he has "never claimed to be a climate expert."

WRAL offered no rationale for refusing Droz the requested retraction.

Funke used a news report claiming, without evidence, that Droz was a climate change denier and with an addendum that featured Droz denying he is a climate science denier.

We consider that extraordinarily weak evidence Droz counts as a climate change science denier.

Scientific American

Funke's second hyperlink led to Scientific American, a magazine and website long considered a reputable source.

The title of the Sept. 30, 2013 article said Droz "has notched a remarkable record fighting sea-rise science, coastal development limits and renewable energy plans."

And the evidence of climate science denial?

The strongest evidence in the piece appears to consist of an expert's opinion that Droz's work criticizing scientists may lead to lower trust in scientists who promote various climate change ideas. This:

The efforts of Droz – and those who present similar arguments in a similar fashion, notably Fox News and other conservative media – erode the public trust in scientists, said Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist at a consulting firm in California and an advocate for responsible energy policies.

An outsized voice
It also discredits the notion of global warming, added Nucitelli, who recently co-authored a study looking at the scientific consensus on climate change.

Was Nucitelli turned into a newt or what?

Funke's evidence that Droz counts as a denier of climate change science comes across about as strong as the evidence of witchery from the witch trial in the classic film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." 

That's minus the accused turning out to weigh the same as a duck, of course.

Maybe there's good evidence Droz counts as a climate change science denier. If there is, Funke and PolitiFact should mention the evidence in the fact check.

Otherwise, take out the line accusing Droz of denying climate change science.

Friday, January 29, 2021

PolitiFact miscounts American deaths during WW2?

When a PolitiFact fact check's subject matter involves math, we (figuratively!) smell blood in the water.

This item came from the PolitiFact article "Joe Biden's inaguration in extraordinary times, fact-checked," published Jan. 20, 2021. Notably, PolitiFact has only done one Truth-O-Meter rating on claims from President Joe Biden since mid-December. That's assuming PolitiFact's page showing Biden's fact checks is accurate.

As it turned out, PolitiFact was right that Biden was "close to accurate." But PolitiFact made a significant methodological blunder in reaching its conclusion. The mistake appears right away in PolitiFact's explanation for its judgment:

As Biden was speaking, the Johns Hopkins University coronavirus tracker was reporting 402,269 deaths in the United States. That is just shy of the 405,399 U.S. deaths during World War II, according to the Congressional Research Service. With the seven-day moving average of coronavirus deaths reaching 3,015 on Inauguration Day, the four-year World War II total was due to be matched by the coronavirus either on Jan. 20 or 21, less than a year after the virus reached the United States.

PolitiFact reports incorrectly in the second sentence of the above paragraph. The Congressional Research Service source document does not give a total for all the American lives lost in World War II. It gives a total for the number of military personnel lost during the war (bold emphasis added):

This report provides U.S. war casualty statistics. It includes data tables containing the number of casualties among American military personnel who served in principal wars and combat operations from 1775 to the present. It also includes data on those wounded in action and information such as race and ethnicity, gender, branch of service, and cause of death. The tables are compiled from various Department of Defense (DOD) sources.

The total PolitiFact used omits more than 10,000 civilian casualties, including nearly 10,000 from the U.S. civilian merchant marine. We don't see where Biden limited his statement to military personnel.

PolitiFact went on to suggest Biden would be right by extrapolating the numbers forward for a full year since the U.S. started to log covid deaths. But doing that turns Biden's claim into a prediction. PolitiFact supposedly does not fact check predictions. Going on the facts alone, Biden was off by more than 10,000 deaths. PolitiFact made his error appear considerably smaller by using a flawed approach to its fact check.

It's what we call PolitiFact's "Rubberstamps for Democrats" program. We argue that the tendency to award lazy favorable ratings to Democrats (and not Republicans) counts as one evidence of PolitiFact's political bias.

Thursday, January 28, 2021

PolitiFact's Layers of Editors: Biden says he will ensure enough supply to vaccinate 300 Americans by early fall (Updated)

PolitiFact reported President Biden's plans would ensure covid-19 vaccine supplies large enough to vaccinate 300 Americans by early fall.

The Biden administration has envisioned a more prominent federal role, including setting up 100 vaccine centers across the nation by the end of February. Officials say the biggest roadblock is lack of vaccine supply. Biden announced that his administration aims to purchase enough doses to fully vaccinate 300 Americans by the end of the summer or beginning of the fall.

 That's an average of three vaccines per planned vaccine center, by our reckoning.

Of course, PolitiFact pretty obviously omitted the word "million" that belonged between "300" and "Americans." So why do we even bother to mention such a small error? It's not even an example of bias, is it?

There are two related reasons why.

First, because PolitiFact loves to trumpet its rigorous system for reporting accurately. Did you know that PolitiFact's system calls for three editors to review each fact check?

The reporter who researches and writes the fact-check suggests a rating when they turn in the report to an assigning editor. The editor and reporter review the report together, typically making clarifications and adding additional details. They come to agreement on the rating. Then, the assigning editor brings the rated fact-check to two additional editors.

The three editors and reporter then review the fact-check by discussing the following questions.

We hope we're correctly assuming that two editors aside from the assigning editor would not dream of discussing the critical questions without bothering to read the fact check. Under that assumption, three editors and one writer together failed to keep the fact check from including a figure that was off by a factor of one million.

So our first point consists of the observation that PolitiFact's system may allow for considerable error, even obvious error.

So far as we're concerned, that by itself is no big deal. Everybody makes mistakes. So that brings us to our second reason for writing this up.

Thanks to its performance since its inception, we have a very low expectation that PolitiFact will run a correction or update and include this item on its page of "corrections and updates."

That's troublesome.

The best journalists make thorough corrections a priority. Take a gander at the expectation the International Fact-Checking Network lays down for its verified signatory fact-checking organizations:

6.3 Where credible evidence is provided that the applicant has made a mistake worthy of correction, the applicant makes a correction openly and transparently, seeking as far as possible to ensure that users of the original see the correction and the corrected version.
PolitiFact makes many--perhaps most--of its corrections secretly and without transparency.

PolitiFact has a sort of loophole in its corrections policy allowing that lack of transparency. And we've written about it before.

Here's the loophole (bold emphasis from the original):

Typos, grammatical errors, misspellings – We correct typos, grammatical errors, misspellings, transpositions and other small errors without a mark of correction or tag and as soon as they are brought to our attention.

The section on "Typos, grammatical error, misspellings" sneaks in an extra category that PolitiFact feels needs no notice of correction. That is the "other small errors." We think that most likely PolitiFact will treat reporting 300 instead of 300 million as a small error and insert the correction without any notice at all to its readers. Under that scenario, PolitiFact will make no attempt to correct the error openly and transparently, and will likewise make no attempt to bring the corrected number to the attention of those who read the erroneous reporting in the original version.

If PolitiFact surprises us and issues a correction notice, we expect it to follow the form "We reported the wrong number of vaccines Biden promised in the original version of this story." PolitiFact prefers to report vaguely on its mistakes instead of detailing the exact nature of the error as full transparency would demand.

Doing the right thing isn't hard: "We reported Biden would acquire vaccines for 300 Americans when we intended to specify 300 million Americans." Nobody would have a real problem with that.

Whatever one thinks about the significance of the error, the PolitiFact method of treating substantive errors the same as it does typos, grammatical errors and misspellings does not scrupulously follow the IFCN's requirement on corrections.

Supposedly the IFCN requires its signatory organizations like PolitiFact to "scrupulously" follow its guidance on corrections. But the truth is the IFCN has turned a blind eye on PolitiFact's correction shenanigans for years. They know about it because I've informed them about it periodically. The IFCN has never directly addressed any of the reports I've sent detailing PolitiFact's failures to follow policy despite showing no clear evidence that the reports have in any way affected PolitiFact's signatory status.

If the complaints carry no validity, the IFCN should transparently declare the how and why of its judgments.

So this isn't evidence of bias. It's evidence that PolitiFact tries to trick its readers into believing it strives to meet the highest journalistic standards. It advertises a system with failsafes that would prevent the type of error it made. PolitiFact and the IFCN assure readers that PolitiFact performs corrections to appropriately high standards.

It's deception.


We'll update this post to report on whatever actions PolitiFact takes to correct its mistake. A sufficiently pathetic response may result in yet another complaint filed with the IFCN.


Update Jan 28, 2021: We sent an email pointing out PolitiFact's error about 1 p.m. When we checked at about 3:30 p.m., the error was fixed. PolitiFact also appended a correction with the milquetoast-style wording we expected. Oddly, neither the correction nor the tag denoting the correction show up for the archived version of the story. Only the corrected wording in the story shows up.

Here's the correction notice:
CORRECTION, Jan. 28: We corrected the number of Americans the Biden administration hopes to fully vaccinate by the end of summer or early fall.
On the plus side, PolitiFact corrected the error, posted a correction notice and even placed the "corrections and updates" tag.

On the negative side, the correction falls well short of full transparency. PolitiFact told readers on what specific topic it erred but not the specific error it made. That style of correction hides from readers the magnitude of the error. And that was probably the plan.

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

PolitiFact writes up Capitol riot, omits mention of John Sullivan

PolitiFact wants you to know right-wing groups were solely responsible for the Capital riot in early 2021--even if it's not necessarily true.

PolitiFact politisplained it in a Jan. 20, 2021 article by Daniel Funke:

Since Jan. 6, we’ve fact-checked several claims that blame antifa, short for anti-facist, for the breach of the U.S. Capitol Building. Republican lawmakers, conservative pundits and social media users have said the loose coalition of communists, socialists and anarchists infiltrated a crowd of Trump supporters to stoke violence.

There is no evidence to support those claims.

PolitiFact plays an interesting game with antifa. On the one hand, it's a "loose coalition of communists, socialists and anarchists" but on the other hand it's just an idea with no structure of membership, so it's next to impossible to identify people as "antifa" even if they are communists, socialists or anarchists.

Funke's article struck us as fascinating for its failure to mention John Sullivan, the left-winger who took video of the rioting and exhorted the rioters with cries such as "We accomplished this s**t. We did this together." (Newsweek)

Sullivan was among those charged in association with the rioting. But he remained unmentioned when Funke gave the rundown of those who were charged:

FBI Assistant Director Steven D'Antuono said during a Jan. 8 press briefing that there was "no indication" that antifa activists were involved in the insurrection. Since then, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia has charged more than 100 people with crimes related to the Capitol riot, many who bragged on social media about taking part, and the FBI has arrested more than 40. Several suspects appear to have connections to militia and far-right groups.

 Guess what? Sullivan was one of those charged (Deseret News, via MSN):

John Earle Sullivan, 25, was charged federally on Wednesday with being on restricted property, civil disorder and “violent entry or disorderly conduct,” according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
These days the media do not associate Sullivan with antifa or Black Lives Matter.

But let's dwell on the past.

Sullivan's History in the Media

The media have reported that Sullivan organized Insurgence USA. The Insurgence USA website peddles the kind of protest gear the public associates with antifa.

Is Sullivan just a right-wing capitalist trying to take advantage of left-wing rubes? Maybe. Let's look for press reports using "Sullivan" and "Insurgence USA" as our search terms, focusing on 2020 and before.

The Guardian (July 27, 2020)

That same Black Lives Matter protest that inspired Robertson’s fear was originally planned as a pro-police event in downtown Provo. John Sullivan, 26, the founder of Insurgence USA, a group for racial justice and police reform, organized a counter-protest alongside several other organizers. Protesters were to meet at the Provo police station at 6.30pm that night.
Newsweek (July 23, 2020):

John Sullivan, of the Insurgence USA activist group, was armed with a rifle for around two hours during what was promoted online as a "Solo Armed Stance" in protest at the unidentifiable agents who have been seen forcing protesters into unmarked vehicles in Portland, Oregon.

It's entirely worth noting that the left-wing protest community aired concerns about Sullivan in late 2020, as reported by the Daily Dot (links lead to profanity-laced reports). At the same time, the reports acknowledge Sullivan's connection to BLM/antifa activity:

last night he leaked the details of a secret event. luckily spotters OTG were able to shut it down before it started once they began to see an increase in police activity.

The report suggests Sullivan received the details of a secret event involving illegal activity. Without receiving such details, leaking them proves difficult.

"Sullivan denied being affiliated with antifa"

The Daily Dot article also contains an amusing (and common) example of liberal press credulity. It points to a Rolling Stone interview of Sullivan in which he supposedly "denied being affiliated with antifa."

But the supposed denial is a non-denial denial (bold emphasis added):

Sullivan carried a simple setup: a cellphone mounted on an image-stabilizing gimbal. Fitting into the mob, he says, required mirroring its revolutionary sentiments. “I was worried about people recognizing me and thinking that I was Antifa or, like, BLM or whatever,” he says. “The entire time they’re yelling, ‘Fuck Antifa! Fuck, BLM.’ I’m not saying I’m Antifa, by any means. But I definitely believe Black Lives Matter.”

Reported accurately, Sullivan did not deny affiliation with antifa. He denied he was saying he was affiliated with antifa. That's not the same thing. We're in trouble when journalists either can't tell the difference or apply spin to obscure the difference.

And if Sullivan had offered a full-throated denial of an affiliation with antifa, that would still not serve as dispositive evidence that no affiliation existed when he gave the interview. How many members of antifa have been publicly identified based on their own admission?

As things stand, we do not have definitive evidence Sullivan sustained a relationship with the antifa movement. But we do have evidence of at least a temporary connection to a secretive left-wing organization planning illegal activity.

Why is Sullivan entirely missing from Funke's report?

When PolitiFact Reported About Sullivan

We found Sullivan's absence from Funke's report even more strange given that PolitiFact previously did some reporting on Sullivan. The "fact check," by Bill McCarthy, supposedly covered the same subject as Funke's,the allegation that antifa incited the riot:

(C)laims faulting antifa for the violence at the Capitol keep coming. The latest target is Utah’s John Sullivan, the founder of Insurgence USA, an activist group against police brutality.

McCarthy's article published on Jan. 8, 2021. Did Funke somehow not know about it? It's not linked in Funke's story, though he linked other fact checks about the Capitol riot.

On Jan. 15, 2021, PolitiFact updated McCarthy's story noting Sullivan's arrest over his part in the D.C. riot. Did Funke also not know about that?

To be sure, McCarthy's article tries to downplay Sullivan's involvement in the riot, even assuring readers there's no proof he incited the insurgency. That occurs shortly before including quotations of things Sullivan said during the riot, such as "Let's burn this s--- down."

We can't help but think that if the Democratic managers of the Trump impeachment case had Trump on record telling the D.C. crow "Let's burn this s--- down" it would improve the case for Trump's impeachment. Supposedly Trump incited the Capitol insurrection, requiring his impeachment.

Summary

While there's no unequivocal case, at least for now, that John Sullivan counts as antifa or Black Lives Matter, a competent debunking of antifa/BLM involvement in the Capitol riot should not omit all mention of the strongest evidence of that involvement. 

And PolitiFact may want to look up the definition of "incited." 

It's a bit absurd to claim there's no evidence antifa incited the Capitol riot, quote somebody saying "Let's burn this s--- down" and then take the man at his word that he's not antifa when that wasn't what he said.


Correction Jan. 26, 2021: We misspelled "Capitol" as "Capital"in one of two instances in our summary section. That's fixed with this update.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Why does PolitiFact claim it allows license for hyperbole?

It makes sense for a fact checker to account for figures of speech such as hyperbole. And PolitiFact plainly states in its description of its principles that it allows license for hyperbole (bold emphasis added):

In deciding which statements to check, we consider these questions:

• Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole.

For us, the mystery is why PolitiFact makes this claim and then blatantly fails to honor it.

Today we add another example to the collection.

The $38 Burrito?

Turning Point USA commentator Jordan Rachel tweeted about the $15 minimum wage:


Rachel's tweet fits perfectly the form of hyperbole. She chose an extremely high price for the future burrito and took care to offer no clear sign the statement was intended to be taken literally. One would encourage literal interpretation by plainly stating something like "Increasing the minimum wage to $15 will result in $38 burritos."

PolitiFact's graphic presentation of its fact check misleadingly frames Rachel's statement as exactly the latter type of claim:



PolitiFact unfairly manipulates Rachel's claim. Her claim is an if/then statement emphasizing the truth that the $15 minimum wage increase counts as an inflationary policy.

Rachel gets no credit for that point from PolitiFact. We don't know precisely why she gets no credit for that point, but we can at least say with certainty that PolitiFact claim that it allows license for hyperbole rings false.

Hyperbole is not mere exaggeration

As a figure of speech, hyperbole is not the same thing as mere exaggeration. If it was, then fact checkers shouldn't need to take it into account. They could simply show in factual terms how far off the exaggeration fell from the truth and leave it at that.

Hyperbole counts as common figure of speech. Perhaps the modern journalist simply understands it poorly. In the interest of public education, we recommend to our readers the account of hyperbole at YourDictionary.com:

Hyperbole, from a Greek word meaning “excess,” is a figure of speech that uses extreme exaggeration to make a point or show emphasis. It is the opposite of understatement.

You can find examples of hyperbole in literature and everyday speech. You wouldn’t want to use it in nonfiction works, like reports or research papers, but it’s perfect for creative writing and communication, especially when you want to add color to a character or humor to a story.

We encourage readers to click the link and read through it all.

No Sign PolitiFact Considered the Possibility of Hyperbole

As for the fact checkers at PolitiFact, we see no sign at all they considered interpreting Rachel's statement as hyperbole.

The summary section of the fact check fairly displays the rush to judgment:

Our ruling

Rachel said a $15-an-hour minimum wage would raise the price of a Taco Bell burrito to $38.

This claim is countered by available evidence, including the current burrito prices at Taco Bell locations in cities and counties where a $15 minimum wage is in effect. Four economists characterized the claim as a far-off estimate at odds with economic theory.

We rate Rachel’s statement False.

 Misleading and disgraceful.

We expect a conscientious fact-checking organization to make a plausible attempt to achieve consistency between policy and practice. If the policy is A and the practice is B, change one of them to match the other.

In claiming to allow license for hyperbole and failing to allow license for hyperbole, PolitiFact deceives its readers.