Wednesday, August 14, 2019

A PolitiFact gloss on the Michael Brown "murder"

We've been tracking evidence of PolitiFact's look-the-other-way stance on Dem0crats' campaign rhetoric on race. PolitiFact sees no need to issue a "Truth-O-Meter" rating when Democrats call President Trump a racist, for example.

Now, with Democratic presidential candidates like Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren asserting that Michael Brown was murdered, again we see PolitiFact reluctant to apply fact-checking to Democratic Party falsehoods.

Instead of issuing a "Truth-O-Meter" rating for either Democratic Party candidate over their Michael Brown statements, PolitiFact published an absurd PolitiSplainer article.

A Fox News article hits most of the points that we would have emphasized:
The fact-checking website PolitiFact again came under fire for alleged political bias Wednesday after it posted a bizarre article that refused to rule on whether Michael Brown was in fact "murdered" by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo. in 2014, as Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren falsely claimed last week.
Indeed, Fox News emphasizes the key expert opinion from the PolitiFact PolitiSplainer:
Jacobson quoted Jean Brown, a communications professor who focuses on "media representations of African Americans," as saying that the entire question of whether Warren and Harris spread a falsehood was nothing more than an "attempt to shift the debate from a discussion about the killing of black and brown people by police."
The Fox article quotes the Washington Examiner's Alex Griswold asking why the expert opinion from Brown was included in the fact check.

We suggest that the quotation represents the reasoning PolitiFact used in deciding not to issue "Truth-O-Meter" ratings for Harris or Warren.

PolitiFact, per the Joe Biden gaffe, seems interested in truth, not facts.

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Highlights of PolitiFact's Reddit AMA from August 2, 2019

PolitiFact newbie Daniel Funke, former fact check reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network, represented PolitiFact for a Reddit AMA on Aug. 2, 2019.

We always look forward to public Q&A sessions with PolitiFact staff, for it nearly always provides us with material.

Funke stuck with PolitiFact boilerplate material for the most part, even channeling Bill Adair with his answer about PolitiFact's response to critics who suggest PolitiFact is biased.

Funke's chief error, in our view, was his repetition of a false PolitiFact public talking point:
As far as corrections: We're human beings, so we do make mistakes from time to time. That's why we have a corrections process. You can read our full corrections policy, but the bottom line is that we fix the wrong information and note it. If we give a new rating to a fact-check, we archive the old version so people can see exactly what we changed. Everything that gets a correction or an update gets tagged - see all tagged items.
We've pointed out dozens and dozens of mistakes at PolitiFact, and though we've prompted PolitiFact to fix quite a few mistakes the majority of the time PolitiFact ignores the critique and doesn't bother to fix anything. We tried to get PolitiFact Georgia not to interpret "pistol" as a synonym for "handgun" because revolvers count as handguns but do not count as pistols. No go. The mistake remains enshrined in PolitiFact's "database" of facts. And Funke's recent mistake in using a number PolitiFact found wanting as the deficit figure handed off from Bush to Obama still hasn't been fixed. Nor do we expect PolitiFact to break tradition by fixing it.

PolitiFact fixes mistakes if and only if PolitiFact feels like fixing the mistakes.

So Funke is wrong about the bottom line at PolitiFact. The PolitiFact "database" has more than its share of bad information.

As for archiving the old version of a fact check when the rating changes, contrary to what Funke says readers can't necessarily find the archived version. Here's an example from 2017. The new version contains no link to the old version. A reader would have to figure out how PolitiFact structures its URLs to track down the archived version (assuming there is one).

Finally, Funke repeats the falsehood that "Everything that gets a correction or an update gets tagged," complete with a link to the very incomplete list of corrected items. PolitiFact does not use tags on many of its articles, particularly those that do not feature a rating. Corrections on those articles do not get tagged and do not appear on the list of corrections. Moreover, PolitiFact simply neglects to tag corrected fact checks on occasion.

Apparently it's too much to ask that PolitiFact staffers know what they're talking about when they describe PolitiFact's corrections process.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

PolitiFact: The true half of Cokie Roberts' half truth is President Trump's half truth

Pity PolitiFact.

The liberal bloggers at PolitiFact may well see themselves as neutral and objective. If they see themselves that way, they are deluded.

Latest example:


PolitiFact's Aug. 3, 2019 fact check of President Trump finds he correctly said the homicide rate in Baltimore is higher than in some countries with a significant recent history of violence. But it wasn't fair of Trump to compare a city to a country for a variety of reasons, experts said.

So "Half True," PolitiFact said.

The problem?

Here at PolitiFact Bias we apparently remember what PolitiFact has done in the past better than PolitiFact remembers it. We remembered PolitiFact giving (liberal) pundit Cokie Roberts a "Half True" for butchering a comparison of the chance of being murdered in New York City compared to Honduras.




Roberts was way off on her numbers (to the point of being flatly false about them, we would say), but because she was right that the chance of getting murdered is greater in Honduras than in New York City, PolitiFact gave Roberts a "Half True" rating.

We think if Roberts' numbers are wrong (false) and her comparison is "Half True" because it isn't fair to compare a city to a country then Roberts seems to deserve a "Mostly False" rating.

That follows if PolitiFact judges Roberts by the same standard it applies to Mr. Trump.

But who are we kidding?

PolitiFact often fails to apply its standards consistently. Republicans and conservatives tend to receive the unfair harm from that inconsistency. Mr. Trump, thanks in part to his earned reputation for hyperbole and inaccuracy, tends to receive perhaps more unfair harm than anybody else.

It is understandable that fact checkers allow confirmation bias to influence their ratings of Mr. Trump.

It's also fundamentally unfair.

We think fact checkers should do better.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

That Time PolitiFact Used Facebook to Amplify a Misleading Message on Fiscal Responsibility


We wrote about PolitiFact's awful fact check of a tweet that used deficit numbers at the start and end of presidential terms in office to show it's wrong to think that Democrats cause deficits.

PolitiFact's FaceBook page took the misleading nature of that fact check and amplified it to the max with a false headline:


Contrary to the headline, the fact check does not tell how the past five presidents affected the deficit. Instead, the fact check pretends to address the accuracy of a tweet that suggests deficit numbers at the start and end of presidential administrations tell us which party causes deficits. That use of deficit numbers serves as an exceptionally poor metric, a fact PolitiFact barely hints at in giving the tweet a "Mostly True" rating.

The tweet falsely suggests those deficit numbers give us a reliable picture of party fiscal responsibility (and the way presidents affect the deficit), and PolitiFact amplifies those misleading messages.

It's almost like they think that's their job.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

PolitiFact's Inconsistency on True-But-Misleading Factoids

People commonly mislead other people using the truth. Fact checkers have recognized this with various kinds of "True but False" designations. But the fact checkers tend to stink at applying consistent rules to the "True but False" game by creating examples in the "True but False but True" genre.

PolitiFact created a classic in the "True but False" genre for Sarah Palin (John McCain's pick for vice presidential nominee) years ago. Palin made a true statement about how U.S. military spending ranks worldwide as a measure of GDP. PolitiFact researched the ways in which that truth misled people and gave Palin a "Mostly False" rating.

On July 29, 2019, PolitiFact gave a great example of the "True but False but True" genre with a fact check of a tweet by Alex Cole (side note: This one goes on the report card for "Tweets" instead of a report card for "Alex Cole"):


PolitiFact rated Cole's tweet "Mostly True." But the tweet has the same kind of misleading features that led PolitiFact to give Palin a "Mostly False" rating in the example above. PolitiFact docked Palin for daring to compare U.S. defense spending as a percentage of GDP to very small countries as well as those experiencing strife.

But who thinks the deficit at the start and end of an administration serves as a good measure of party fiscal discipline?

Yet that's the argument in Cole's tweet, and it gets a near-total pass from PolitiFact.


And this isn't even one of those situations where PolitiFact focused on the numbers to the exclusion of the underlying argument. PolitiFact amplified Cole's argument by repeating it.

Note PolitiFact's lead:
A viral post portrays Democrats, not Republicans, as the party of fiscal responsibility, with numbers about the deficit under recent presidents to make the case.
PolitiFact sends out the false message that the above argument is "Mostly True."

That's ridiculous. For starters, the deficit is best measured as a percentage of GDP. Also, presidents do not have great control over the rise and fall of deficits. PolitiFact pointed out that second factor but without giving it the weight it should have had in undercutting Cole's argument. After all, the tweet suggests the presidents drove deficit changes without any hint of any other explanation.

Yes, this is the same fact-checking operation that laughably assured us back in November 2018 that "PolitiFact is not biased."

PolitiFact could easily have justified giving Cole the same treatment it gave Palin. But it did not. And this type of scenario plays out repeatedly at PolitiFact, with conservatives getting the cold shoulder from PolitiFact's star chamber.

Whether or not the liberal bloggers at PolitiFact are self-aware to the point of seeing their own bias, it comes out in their work.


Afters

Hilariously, in this article PolitiFact dinged the deficit tweet for using a figure of $1.2 trillion for the end of the George W. Bush presidency:
"(George W.) Bush 43 took it from 0 to 1.2 trillion." This is in the ballpark. Ignoring the fact that he actually started his presidency with a surplus, Bush left office in 2009 with a federal deficit of roughly $1.41 trillion.
Why is it funny?

It's funny because one of the PolitiFact articles cited in this one prefers the $1.2 trillion figure over the $1.4 trillion figure:

The Great Recession hit hard in 2008 and grew worse in 2009. In that period, the unemployment rate doubled from about 5 percent to 10 percent. With Democrats in charge of both houses of Congress and the White House, Washington passed a stimulus package that cost nearly $190 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office. That included over $100 billion in new spending and a somewhat smaller amount in tax cuts, about $79 billion in fiscal year 2009.

George W. Bush was not in office when those measures passed. So a more accurate number for the deficit he passed on might be closer to $1.2 trillion.
But it's just fact-checking, so inaccuracy is okay so long as it's in the service of a desirable narrative.

?

Monday, July 29, 2019

Reporting on the Mueller Report from the Liberal Bubble

PolitiFact's treatment of things Mueller has fit well with its left-leaning reputation.

A PolitiFact fact check from July 24, 2019 serves as our example.


We would first draw the reader's attention to the way PolitiFact altered Rep. Ratcliffe's claim. Ratcliffe  said Mueller did not follow the special counsel rules. Not following rules may take place though omission or by elaborating on what the rules stipulate. But PolitiFact says Ratcliffe claimed Mueller broke the rules.

We think it's fairly clear that elaborating on the rules counts as failing to follow the rules. It's less clear that elaborating on the rules counts as breaking the rules.

So right off the bat, PolitiFact is spinning Ratcliffe's claim into a straw man that is more easily attacked.

Missing the Point?

Rep. Ratcliffe was repeating a point pretty familiar to conservatives, that the Mueller report failed to follow the special prosecutor statute because Mueller punted on deciding whether to recommend prosecution for obstruction of justice. Conservative pundit and legal expert Andrew McCarthy, for example, has written on the topic.

It's hard to see how PolitiFact's fact check addresses a position like McCarthy's.

PolitiFact contacted three legal experts for comment. But only Mark Osler (University of St. Thomas) was quoted on Ratcliffe's key issue:
Federal regulations say, "At the conclusion of the Special Counsel's work, he or she shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel."

"It clearly includes declinations, which is taking no action," Osler said.
We humbly submit to the expert Osler that a declination is not merely a lack of action. Declination, in context, is a decision not to prosecute. An explanation of Special Counsel's decision not to prosecute meets the requirements of the statue. But an unexplained decision not to decide whether to prosecute should not meet the requirements even though it is lack of action.

And, hypothetically, taking no action at all as by not filing the report is taking no action but does not satisfy the statute.

A July 24, 2019 article in Washington Post helps make clear that Mueller pretty much declined to spell out why he declined to recommend prosecution for obstruction of justice:
John Yoo, a former top official in the George W. Bush Justice Department, said he found Mueller’s explanation “rather vague and somewhat mysterious,” and that he may have felt he should defer to the attorney general.

“Like everyone else, I have been trying to infer why he did what he did,” Yoo said.

But Mueller offered little elaboration on his reasoning as he was pressed Wednesday by lawmakers in both parties.
Again, the declination description required in the statute concerns the decision not to prosecute, not the decision not to explain the decision not to prosecute. Lack of action is not an explanation.

PolitiFact's Big Whiff

PolitiFact showed the true quality of its fact-checking by apparently knowing nothing about widely-published reasoning like McCarthy's. It's the Bubble!

Check out this faux pas in PolitiFact's summary:
We found no legal scholar who agreed with Ratcliffe.
PolitiFact could not find articles by Andrew McCarthy?

Couldn't find the comments by David Dorsen in this Newsweek article?

Couldn't find this piece by Alan Dershowitz for The Hill?

Trust fact checkers? Why?

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Ocasio-Cortez, PolitiFact and the parking lot

My, how PolitiFact beclowns itself.

A number of media outlets have noted PolitiFact's fact check of the claim Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cried about an empty parking lot. We like the account from Amanda Prestigiacomo at the Daily Wire:
Politifact is at it again! The left-wing fact-checker purporting to be unbiased made a mockery of themselves (again) with their latest rating concerning socialist Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Politifact, creating their best damage control for the freshman congresswoman, rated the claim that Ocasio-Cortez cried in front of an empty parking lot for a photo-op as "false" because it was, in fact, a "road" with some parked cars, not a parking lot, that the elected Democrat cried in front of.
The hilarity of the story took an exponential leap when PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan took to Twitter in defense of PolitiFact:
Holan's defense falls flat because the original story with the "parking lot" language was using humor to make a point. Ocasio-Cortez had nothing to look at that should reasonably produce the emotional response she wore for the camera.There were no children or refugees in view. At most, she would have been able to see signs of the tents set up to house illegal immigrants.

Crying at the sight of distant tents is a little like breaking down upon seeing a hospital. Because of all the suffering that happens in hospitals. But that type of response is uncommon, right?

PolitiFact's reporting leaves doubt as to whether a person at the fence could see tents:
Daniel Borunda, a reporter for the El Paso Times who was at the rally on the same day, told PolitiFact that the tent complex was "visible in the distance several hundred yards away" from the fence.
Certainly PolitiFact's reporting seems intended to produce the impression one could see tents from the entryway fence. But Borunda's quotation is cut off and instead of relying on Borunda we end up relying on PolitiFact for the information. We think it likely PolitiFact fudged the facts.

There's good reason to suspect Borunda did not claim tents were visible from the fence. The Google Maps image, for example, shows great distance and a number of buildings between the entry area and the section of the complex where the tents were set up. Click through to the map and explore for yourself.

There are two buildings that appear round from above to the east of the main ICE building. The tents for the tent city (along with a sloped-roof structure that does not appear in the Google image) occur just south of those buildings in aerial photographs of the time.

It's worth pointing out that photo we just linked shows a line of buildings and a parking lot between the tent city and Ocasio-Cortez's reported location.

This image from later the same year (September 2018) shows the growth of the tent city stretching South and East from its original location--further from Ocasio-Cortez's vantage point and likewise with a view punctuated by intervening buildings and trees. And that was after Ocasio-Cortez made her visit (June 21, 2018).

Did any photographers take pictures of the tent city from outside the fence at Ocasio-Cortez's location? We'd love to see them, if they exist.


Afters

We took our analysis one step further. The images of Ocasio-Cortez, along with PolitiFact's reporting, appear to place her between two sections of wall outside the border compound. A road and a sidewalk run between the sections of wall, and it appears the north wall features a sliding fence/gate that officials may use to block the roadway.

If we're correct about the location, that puts the south part of the wall between Ocasio-Cortez and any view of the tent city.

We put a cluster of red dots where we believe Ocasio-Cortez stood.

The fall of the shadows in the photographs of Ocasio-Cortez suggest the pictures were taken in the morning, if we're correct. An image posted at the end of Time Magazine story supports our analysis (showing evidence of the line of trees to the left of the roadway, along with the utility poles). Facing the road leaves the tent city directly to the left of the protesters pictured, behind a wall and out of sight.


Update July 27, 2019: A kind reader pointed out an excess of "not" in the paragraph beginning with "Holan's defense." We took it out. Our thanks to the kind reader.

Friday, July 19, 2019

PolitiFact Wisconsin: "Veteran" and "service member" mean the same thing

A funny thing happened when PolitiFact examined Democratic presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard's claim the Trump administration deports service members.

Instead of ruling on whether the Trump administration was deporting service members, PolitiFact Wisconsin decided to look at whether the Trump administration was deporting non-naturalized service veterans.

Therefore "service members" are the same thing as non-naturalized service veterans?

We wish we were kidding. But read PolitiFact's summary conclusion. PolitiFact equates "service members" with "veterans" as though it's the most natural thing in the world, and doesn't even mention citizenship status:
Our ruling

Gabbard said at the same time Trump talks about supporting veterans, "he is deporting service members who have volunteered to serve this country."

The Trump administration expanded the grounds under which people, including veterans, can be deported, which some blame for more veterans being forced to leave the country. That said, GAO documents make clear the issue existed before Trump took office -- something that wasn’t acknowledged in Gabbard’s claim.

Our definition for Mostly True is "the statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information." That fits here.
PolitiFact does mention citizenship issues in the body of the story. It opens, for example, with a frame emphasizing military service and illegal immigration:
Military matters and illegal immigration.

Both are hot-button issues for voters in the 2020 presidential election, though for different reasons.

U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, a Democratic presidential hopeful and major in the Hawaii Army National Guard, linked them when she spoke July 11, 2019 at the League of United Latin American Citizens convention in Milwaukee.
In the quotation PolitiFact Wisconsin provided, Gabbard did nothing to explicitly link military service with illegal immigration. The journalist (or reader) would have to infer the connection. And PolitiFact Wisconsin failed to link to a transcript of Gabbard's speech, linking us instead to the Journal Sentinel's news report that fails to supply any additional context to Gabbard's remarks.

Intentional Spin?

We see evidence suggesting PolitiFact Wisconsin applied intentional spin in its story to minimize the misleading nature of Gabbard's statement.

In context, Gabbard referred to "lip service" Trump offers to "our veterans, to our troops," but PolitiFact lops off "to our troops" in its headline and deck material. That truncated version of Gabbard's statement makes it appear reasonable to assume Gabbard was talking about veterans and not active service members.

Put simply, PolitiFact manipulated Gabbard's statement to help make it match the interpretation PolitiFact's liberal bloggers gave it in the story. PolitiFact not only chose not to deal with the obvious way Gabbard's statement might mislead people, but also chose not to transparently disclose that decision to its readers.

Principles Forsaken

PolitiFact's statement of principles is a sham. Why? Because PolitiFact applies the principles so haphazardly that we might as well call the result situational ethics. The ideology of the claimant appears to serve as one of the situational conditions driving the decision as to which principle to apply in any given case.

In Gabbard's case, she made a statement that could easily be interpreted in a way that makes it false. And PolitiFact often uses that as the justification for a harsh rating. In its statement of principles PolitiFact says it takes into account whether a statement is literally true (or false). It also says PolitiFact takes into account whether the statement is open to interpretation (bold emphasis added).:
The three editors and reporter then review the fact-check by discussing the following questions.
• Is the statement literally true?
• Is there another way to read the statement? Is the statement open to interpretation?
• Did the speaker provide evidence? Did the speaker prove the statement to be true?
• How have we handled similar statements in the past? What is PolitiFact’s jurisprudence?
PolitiFact effectively discarded two of its principles for the Gabbard fact check.

We say that a fact-checking organization that does not apply its principles consistently cannot receive credit for consistent non-partisanship or fairness.

With PolitiFact, "words matter" sometimes.



Afters

We've always been open to legitimate examples showing PolitiFact's inconsistency causing unfair harm to liberals or Democrats.

The examples remain few, in our experience.