Monday, June 18, 2018

PolitiFact Wisconsin: The Future is Now!

A May 2, 2018 fact check from PolitiFact Wisconsin uses projected numbers from the 2018-2019 budget year to assess a claim that Wisconsinites are now paying twice as much for debt service on road work as they were paying in 2010-2011 before Republican Scott Walker took over as Wisconsin's governor.


Democratic candidate for governor Kelda Helen Roys and her interviewer used a 22-23 percent figure to represent current spending on road work debt service in Wisconsin.

PolitiFact Wisconsin gave both a pass on their fudging of the facts, but lowered Roys' rating from "True" down to "Mostly True" because the numbers used were mere estimates:
The figure is projected to reach 20.9 percent during the second year of the current two-year state budget Walker signed, which is nearly doubling.

With the caveat that the figure for the current budget is an estimate, we rate Roys’ statement Mostly True.
We think that reasoning would work better as a fact check of Roys' claim if the estimated number represented what Wisconsin is paying now for debt service on its road work. Unless PolitiFact Wisconsin is saying the future is now, the estimate for budget year 2017-2018 would better fit the bill.

PolitiFact Wisconsin reported the 2017-2018 estimate as 20 percent but used the higher figure for the following budget year to judge Roys' accuracy.

And that was just one of three ways PolitiFact Wisconsin massaged the Democrat's statement into a closer semblance of the truth.

What is "Just Basic Road Repair and Maintenance"?

Roys' claimed the debt service was "for just basic road repair and maintenance," which would apparently exclude new construction. PolitiFact tested her claim using the numbers for the transportation-related share of the budget (bold emphasis added):
In analyzing 2017-’19 two-year state budget enacted by Walker and the GOP-controlled Legislature, the bureau provided figures on the total of all transportation debt service as a percentage of gross transportation fund revenue -- in other words, what portion of transportation revenue for road work would be going to paying off debt.
PolitiFact's other truth-massage credited Roys with making clear that the debt service increase she spoke of was the debt service amount as a percentage of total spending on roads. Aside from the fact Roys talked about "just basic road repair and maintenance," she offered listeners no clue that she used the same measure PolitiFact Wisconsin used to fact check her claim.

The clue that likely drove PolitiFact to check the debt service as a percentage of road work expenses came from WisconsinEye senior producer Steve Walters, who conducted the interview of Roys. Walter referred no less than twice to a "22 to 23 percent" figure for debt service during the interview.

Since that number came from Walters, PolitiFact Wisconsin apparently felt no need to fact check its accuracy.

Does Some Road Construction Go Beyond 'Basic'?

We think the phrase "basic road repair and maintenance" may leave some members of the audience with the impression that more involved road work such as replacing bridges would balloon the cost of debt service even higher than described.

We found a page run by the Wisconsin Department of Transportation describing its road projects. Here's the description of one costing $9.6 million:
Description of work: The project consists of a full reconstruction of WIS 55 (Delanglade Street) from I-41 to Lawe Street in the city of Kaukauna. Improvements will include roundabouts at the intersections of I-41 ramps, Maloney/Gertrude, and County OO. New traffic signals will be installed at County J/WIS 55/WIS 96, and bike/pedestrian accommodations will be added throughout the project limits along WIS 55. Other work includes storm sewer, sanitary sewer, water main, sidewalks, retaining walls, street lighting, and incidentals.
It appears to us that PolitiFact Wisconsin simply assumed that all the described work rightly fits under Roys' description.

We're skeptical that such assumptions hold a rightful place among the best practices for fact checkers.

Summary


If we assume that Roys was talking about all expenses attached to road work, and also assume she was talking about the increase in the estimated dollar amount of debt service in raw dollars, her estimate is off by only about 7 percent. In that case, PolitiFact Wisconsin did not really need to use future estimates to justify Roys' statement about how much Wisconsin is spending now. It could have just used the measure Roys' described and rated that against the estimate for this year's spending.

But a fact checker could easily have justified asking Roys to define what she meant by "basic road repair and maintenance" and then using that definition to grade her accuracy. A better fact check would likely result.

We wonder if Roys would need to join the Republican Party to make that happen.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Different Strokes for Different Quotes: What does "voted for tax cuts" really mean?

"What I find is it's hard for me to take critics seriously when they never say we do anything right. Sometimes we can do things right, and you'll never see it on that site."

-PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan



Sometimes PolitiFact can do things right.

PolitiFact New York did something right recently that deserves mention because it's the correct way to journomalist:





PolitiFact added the Trump camp "did not get back to us with information supporting his claim, so we can't say for sure what he was talking about in his endorsement."

PolitiFact noted that Trump tweeted about the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act "four other times in May" but acknowledged Trump did not reference that law in the tweet it fact checked.

In our view this is the correct approach.

We think a persuasive argument could be made that Trump inaccurately implied Donovan was a Tax Cut and Jobs Act supporter, but that argument belongs on the editorial page, not in a fact check. PolitiFact examined the claim Trump made without inventing assumptions about what he meant or what he was implying. In this case PolitiFact stuck to the facts.

Notwithstanding our longtime opposition to rating facts on a sliding scale, we think PolitiFact did this one right and we're happy to point it out.


The Other Guy

Readers may wonder "How could a fact checker screw this one up?" Donovan had a documented history of voting for tax cuts, and Trump's claim was not only unambiguous but also easy to check.

How could a serious fact checker get this wrong?







When the Washington Post's unabashed Trump basher/unbiased truthsayer tweeted that "fact checkers sometimes disagree" we were curious. PolitiFact rated Trump's tweet as accurate, while Kessler deemed the exact same tweet false. How can that be?

As it turns out the two fact checkers aren't disagreeing at all.

PolitiFact correctly identified the claim Trump made and ruled based on his actual words. Kessler invented a claim and then gave Trump a false rating for his own fantasy. The fact checkers aren't disagreeing because they're not checking the same claim.

Kessler says Trump's claim that Donovan "voted for tax cuts" is false because "Donovan voted against Trump's tax cut three times." For those of you that aren't experts in journalism or logic, voting against the Tax Cut and Jobs Act does not negate the fact that Donovan has previously voted for other tax cuts.

As far as we can tell, Kessler offered no justification for calling Trump's claim false other than Donovan's opposition to the 2017 tax bill.

Kessler's reasoning here is flatly wrong. And if one wanted to treat Kessler with the same painful pedantry as he applies to Trump in his chart, one could note there's no such thing as "Trump's tax cuts" because only Congress can pass tax bills.

Petty word games aside, this "disagreement" among fact checkers affirms that our fact-divining betters are neither scientific agents of truth nor objective determiners of evidence. When a fact checker can substitute a person's actual words for their own interpretation of what that person meant it counts as commentary, not an adjudication of facts.

Kudos to PolitiFact New York for taking the correct approach. Sometimes PolitiFact can do things right.


Monday, June 11, 2018

PolitiFact 2016: Despite No Evidence Supporting Our Conclusion, It's "Half True" Donald Trump Doesn't Believe in Equal Pay for Equal Work


Our part-time effort to hold PolitiFact accountable allows many problems to slip through the cracks. Sometimes our various research projects bring a problematic fact check to our attention.

Case in point:


PolitiFact's Nov. 2, 2016 "fact check" found Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's claim "Half True" despite finding no evidence supporting it other than a fired campaign organizer's complaint of gender discrimination.

We must be exaggerating, right?

We challenge anybody to find concrete evidence of Trump's disbelief in equal pay in PolitiFact's "fact check" apart from the allegation we just described.


In fact, PolitiFact's fact check makes it look like the fact checkers have difficulty distinguishing between the raw pay gap and differences in pay stemming from discrimination. Trump comes across looking like he makes that distinction. PolitiFact comes across looking like it interprets Trump's insistence on that distinction as support for Clinton's claim.

Take for example this unsupportive piece of supporting evidence PolitiFact received from the Clinton campaign:
Clinton’s campaign pointed to another August 2015 interview, in which CNN’s Chris Cuomo asked Trump if he would pass equal pay legislation.

Trump said he was looking into it "very strongly."

"One of the problems you have is you get to have an economy where it's no longer free enterprise economy," Trump said.

Trump said he favored the concept, but that it’s "very complicated."

"I feel strongly -- the concept of it, I love," Trump said. "I just don't want it to be a negative, where everybody ends up making the same pay. That's not our system. You know, the world, everybody comes in to get a job, they make -- people aren't the same."
Trump says he favors the concept (PolitiFact's paraphrase) and in Trump's own words he "loves" the concept. Trump cautions that everybody might end up making the same pay. Does that sound like equal pay for equal work? Is all work equal?

If anything, Clinton's evidence against Trump helped undermine its own case.

Making this fact check even more bizarre, PolitiFact's summary fails to reference its best evidence of Trump's disbelief in equal pay--the went-nowhere gender discrimination case:
Our ruling

Clinton said Trump "doesn't believe in equal pay."

Trump’s campaign website does not have a stipulated stance on equal pay for men and women, but his campaign says he supports "equal pay for equal work." Trump has said men and women doing the same job should get the same pay, but it’s hard to determine what’s "the same job," and that if everybody gets equal pay, "you get away from capitalism in a sense."

Trump has also said pay should be based on performance, not gender -- so he does appear to favor uniform payment if performance is alike.

Clinton’s statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context. We rate it Half True.
Put bluntly, PolitiFact put nothing in its summary in support of Clinton's claim.

Noting that "Trump's campaign website does not have a stipulated stance on equal pay for men and women" counts as an argument from silence. Making matters worse for Clinton, the campaign breaks its silence to endorse the concept of equal work for equal pay.

PolitiFact claims it places the burden of proof on the one making the claim, in this case Hillary Clinton. The evidence suggests PolitiFact instead placed the burden of proof on the Trump campaign.

PolitiFact makes a snippet mosaic out of Trump's statements that appear to show that he doesn't believe men and women should make equal pay regardless of whether they do equal work. Is that supposed to serve as evidence Trump does not believe in equal pay for equal work?

In the end, PolitiFact gave Clinton a "Half True" rating despite finding no real evidence in support of her claim and an abundance of evidence contradicting it.


Afters I

The 2016 discrimination complaint from Elizabeth Mae Davidson was never litigated and was dropped earlier this year.

Afters II

PolitiFact's description of the gender wage gap in the Clinton fact check puts it somewhat at odds with some of its own past fact checks. Note this from the Clinton fact check:
We’ve detailed key issues about the gender wage gap in our PolitiFact Sheet, but a consistent argument is that women earn 77 cents on the dollar that men earn.

(...)

The Institute for Policy Women’s Research says discrimination is a big factor for why the gender wage gap still persists. Experts consider "occupational segregation" another reason for the wage gap, which means women more often than men work in jobs that pay low and minimum wages.
If you've got a "big reason" and "another reason" which reason should you expect to have the greatest effect? The "big reason," right? Some of PolitiFact's past fact checks have correctly cast serious doubt on that proposition. PolitiFact's summary article on the gender wage gap  (the same "PolitiFact Sheet" referenced above in the Clinton fact check) features a fine example (bold emphasis added):
THE BIG PICTURE

Just before Obama took office in 2009, the Department of Labor released a study because, as a deputy assistant secretary explained it, "The raw wage gap continues to be used in misleading ways to advance public policy agendas without fully explaining the reasons behind the gap." The study by CONSAD Research Corp. took into account women being more likely to work part-time for lower pay, leave the labor force for children or elder care, and choose work that is "family friendly" with fuller benefit packages over higher pay. The study found that, when factoring in those variables, the gap narrows to between 93 cents and 95 cents on the dollar.
We would remind readers that the CONSAD study is not saying that gender discrimination accounts for 5 to 7 percent of the raw gender wage gap. It estimates that 5 to 7 percent of the gender wage gap is not explained by a combination of women's occupational and family choices. Those aren't the only factors influencing the raw wage gap.

So about two-thirds of the raw wage gap is explained by the job choices women make, and 7 percent remains unexplained with part of that 7 percent perhaps explained by gender discrimination.

Did PolitiFact not make that clear?

Afters III

In the search from some charitable explanation for PolitiFact's fact-checking, I had to consider the possibility that Clinton's claim is literally correct: Trump does not believe in equal pay if "equal pay" means paying everyone equally regardless of the job or the quality of the work.

Using that interpretation of "equal pay" would make Clinton's claim literally true but at the same time a whopper of deceit. PolitiFact appeared to take Clinton to mean "equal pay for equal work" except possibly when it used Trump's statements in support of Clinton's claim.

If it was PolitiFact's position that Clinton was saying Trump did not believe men and women should earn the same regardless of the job or the work performed then it should have stated so clearly.

Either way, PolitiFact's fact check looks incoherent.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

PolitiFact: Senior White House Officials Exist (Contrary to What Trump Said)

Apparently PolitiFact is beyond understanding why people regard news and fact-checking skeptically.

PolitiFact and The New York Times provided a handy 'Splainer of the problem, if they would only pay attention to themselves.

The New York Times reported that "senior White House official" said Trump's summit with North Korea, which Trump had called off, would be "impossible" to keep on its original date.

The Times used that reporting as part of a story supporting a narrative of administrative infighting within the Trump White House.

Trump went to Twitter in response:
The Failing @nytimes quotes “a senior White House official,” who doesn’t exist, as saying “even if the meeting were reinstated, holding it on June 12 would be impossible, given the lack of time and the amount of planning needed.” WRONG AGAIN! Use real people, not phony sources.
PolitiFact fact checked Trump's claim, noting that even if the Times went too far with its paraphrase that Trump did not complain about that. PolitiFact ruled Trump's claim "Pants on Fire" because the Times' source exists even if the source did not say what the Times claimed.

That's a Crazy Way to Check Facts, PolitiFact

PolitiFact reasoned (!) that if the Times had a source for its article even if the source did not say what the article claimed, then it was ridiculously false to say that the source did not exist.
Trump is wrong that the senior White House official cited by the New York Times "doesn’t exist" and is "phony." In fact, the official in question, Pottinger, gave an authorized background briefing to dozens of reporters in person and via phone.

The New York Times article that Trump criticized may have gone too far by paraphrasing Pottinger as saying that a June 12 summit would be impossible, since Pottinger didn’t use that specific word. However, Pottinger did express a significant degree of skepticism about the prospect of a June 12 summit.

If that was Trump's gripe, it isn't what he said. The White House source did exist. We rate Trump’s statement Pants on Fire.
PolitiFact admitted the Times might have "gone too far" with its paraphrase of the source and despite that rated Trump's claim "Pants on Fire."

But in the real world of political communication, Trump's point was clear: No representative of the White House said the meeting was impossible.

A real fact check of Trump could have noted that Trump said the Times "quoted" its source. The Times paraphrased its source instead of using a quotation, so Trump was wrong about that.

But Trump was right that having the summit on its original date was not deemed impossible. And, taken literally, Trump accurately claimed that the White House source of the "impossible" claim does not exist.

PolitiFact does The New York Times a solid

PolitiFact told its readers it was giving them a "transcript" of the audio journalists produced to support the Times' reporting. But PolitiFact's supposed transcript was missing a key line that helps make the story easier to understand.

We're using the transcript posted by Mollie Z. Hemingway at the Federalist, using bold emphasis for the parts PolitiFact left out. We emphasize that the audio posted at PolitiFact matches the Federalist's version:
REPORTER: Can you clarify that…the President obviously announced in the letter and at the top of the bill signing that the summit is called off. But then, later, he said it’s possible the existing summit could take place, or a summit at a later date. Is he saying that it’s possible that June 12th could still happen?

WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL: That’s…

REPORTER: Or has that ship sailed, right?

WHITE HOUSE OFFICIAL: I think that the main point, I suppose, is that the ball is in North Korea’s court right now. And there’s really not a lot of time. We’ve lost quite a bit of time that we would need in order to, I mean, there’s been an enormous amount of preparation that’s gone on over the past few months at the White House, at State, and with other agencies and so forth. But there’s a certain amount of actual dialogue that needs to take place at the working level with your counterparts to ensure that the agenda is clear in the minds of those two leaders when they sit down to actually meet and talk and negotiate, and hopefully make a deal. And June 12 is in 10 minutes, and it’s going to be, you know. But the President has said that he has — someday, that he looks forward to meeting with Kim.
With the missing part of the transcript, one can see that the unidentified reporter was asking a leading question ("that ship sailed, right?"). The "White House Official" did not affirm the leading question in so many words, but the foregone conclusion appeared in the so-called paraphrase of that official.

That's how the journalistic sausage is made.

And PolitiFact hid that from its readers for some mysterious reason.

That's what we call fact-checking, right?

That, PolitiFact, is why people distrust you and The New York Times. You don't tell the whole story and you don't tell it straight.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

PolitiFact rewrites the Logan Act

We know that PolitiFact is non-partisan because it doesn't make mistakes like this.


A May 22, 2018 PolitiFact article (with no "Truth-O-Meter" rating) by John Kruzel looked at allegations of a secret meeting at a Paris restaurant between former secretary of state John Kerry and Iranian representatives.

PolitiFact judged that no solid evidence supported the allegations. More interestingly, PolitiFact framed its article as a defense of Kerry from charges he violated the Logan Act.

And that's where PolitiFact slipped up. Badly.

PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
Trump and right-wing backers challenged Kerry’s actions as violating the 18th century Logan Act, which prevents U.S. citizens from privately meeting with a foreign government to sway its decisions on matters involving the United States.
PolitiFact implies that because the private restaurant meeting probably didn't take place therefore charges Kerry violated the Logan Act have no basis in fact.

The problem? The Logan Act doesn't forbid U.S. citizens from privately meeting with foreign governments to make policy agreements on behalf of the United States. The Logan act prevents private citizens from conducting U.S. foreign policy on behalf of the United States.

The Logan Act:
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply, himself or his agent, to any foreign government or the agents thereof for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.
Making PolitiFact's fact check even more hilarious (and slanted), the paragraph preceding PolitiFact's erroneous description of the Logan Act describes Kerry meeting with various foreign officials, including an Iranian, regarding the Iran deal (bold emphasis added):
In the weeks before Trump’s May 8 decision to exit the deal and re-impose sanctions on Iran, Kerry had worked frantically behind the scenes to preserve the deal he helped craft in 2015, according to the Boston Globe. Ahead of the U.S. withdrawal, Kerry, who was secretary of state under President Barack Obama, met with Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, courted European officials and made dozens of calls to members of Congress in hopes of salvaging the accord.
PolitiFact's apparent effort to exonerate Kerry with its framing of the story ends up convicting Kerry, with the Logan Act properly understood.

How does a non-partisan fact checker make such a huge mistake?

Don't ask us.


Update May 23, 2018: Updated link to Internet Archive version of the PolitiFact article. The first version of that URL was somehow defective.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

PolitiFact Wisconsin and the Worry-O-Meter

PolitiFact Wisconsin had no representation in our article on the worst 17 PolitiFact fact checks of 2017.

A May 18, 2018 fact check of Republican Leah Vukmir should help ensure PolitiFact Wisconsin makes the list for 2018.


Vukmir, a Republican looking for an opportunity to run against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) in the 2018 election cycle, has used a hyperbolic ad campaign to paint Baldwin as weak on terrorism. Vukmir said Baldwin worried more about the architect of the 9-11 terrorist attacks than confirming Gina Haspel to head the CIA.

The key to Democrat opposition to the Haspel nomination stemmed from Haspel's involvement in the enhanced interrogation program, which included the technique of waterboarding. The CIA released a disciplinary review saying Haspel had no involvement in the decision to use enhanced interrogation, but that she simply carried out the orders she was issued.

PolitiFact Wisconsin adroitly skipped over all that and took the liberty of re-interpreting Vukmir's claim:
Does U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin have so much more concern for a 9/11 terrorist, compared to the president’s nominee to run the CIA, that she would vote against the nominee?
Vukmir's claim was more simple than PolitiFact Wisconsin's creative paraphrase (source: PolitiFact):
Tammy and her party are more interested, and they’re more worried about, the mastermind of 9/11 -- the individual that plotted and ultimately killed over 3,000 Americans on our soil. And she‘s more worried about those individuals than to support a very strong woman with a track record to be the head of the CIA.
Note that Vukmir did not say anything about what motivated Baldwin to withhold support for Haspel.

We suspect PolitiFact Wisconsin counts as a minority for its inability to figure out Vukmir's message: Opposing Haspel's nomination based merely on her following orders within the CIA hampers the CIA's ability to do its job effectively. Imagine working at the CIA and thinking one must second-guess the orders one receives to have a realistic shot at one day leading the CIA.

PolitiFact Wisconsin's fact check spent not a word on that angle of the story, sticking instead to its own idea that Vukmir must show that Baldwin personally showed significant worry about Khalid Sheik Mohammed in order to earn a rating better than "Pants on Fire."

Farcical Fact-Checking

To fact check what Vukmir actually said, PolitiFact Wisconsin would have needed evidence not only showing Baldwin's level of worry for Mohammed but also her level of worry for Haspel's nomination. Otherwise there's no baseline for determining one is greater than the other.

After all, Vukmir clearly made a claim comparing the two.

And how does one assess levels of worry without asserting an opinion? One might go by what a person said, but that assumes an entirely forthright subject. We don't know the answer. And PolitiFact offered no evidence it has an answer.

PolitiFact's approach was preposterous from the outset. It showed no specific level of worry over Mohammed and no specific level of worry over the Haspel nomination. And yet concluded that one was not lower than the other.

Vukmir's statement was best interpreted as hyperbole expressing the damage to CIA operations stemming from refusing a leadership role to a fully qualified woman for nothing more than following orders associated with the enhanced interrogation program--a program that the CIA described to leading congressional members of both parties without apparent objection at the time.

PolitiFact says it grants license for hyperbole. Exceptions doubtless stem, as we've said before, from Republicans trying to use hyperbole without a license.
• 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.
PolitiFact says it doesn't rate opinions. We suppose PolitiFact is entitled to its own opinion.


After Vukmir made her claim about Baldwin, Baldwin ended up voting in opposition to the Haspel nomination.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Not a Lot of Reader Confusion XI

We say that PolitiFact's graphs and charts, including its PunditFact collections of ratings for news networks, routinely mislead readers. But PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan says there isn't much reader confusion.
 
A comment today at PolitiFact's Facebook page reminds us yet again that PolitiFact's graphs and charts mislead its audience.


The comment referred to PolitiFact Editor Angie Drobnic Holan's Dec. 11, 2015 opinion article in The New York Times. When a reader scoffed at the use of the Times as a reliable reference the person making the comment defended it with this (bold emphasis added):
ALL of the statistics both come from Politifact itself. I use it because it has a very nice graphic that clearly shows that Republicans as a whole are far more full of pony poop than Democrats are.
As we've pointed out repeatedly, PolitiFact has admitted its "Truth-O-Meter" ratings are subjective and that its sampling method makes no attempt to simulate randomness (therefore one may assume the data suffer from selection bias).

Yet another satisfied PolitiFact customer, misled in a way that Holan says doesn't happen a lot.

If it doesn't happen very often then why is it so easy to find examples of it happening, we wonder?

If PolitiFact was concerned about misleading people in this way, then it would attach disclaimers to every one of its graphs to warn against jumping to conclusions the PolitiFact data cannot rightly support.