Monday, February 10, 2020

Nothing To See Here: Stephanopoulos Interviews Joe Biden

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden appeared on "This Week" with interviewer George Stephanopoulos on Feb. 9, 2020.

Biden made a number of questionable claims during the interview, particularly where he claimed President Donald Trump has never condemned white supremacy (Washington Examiner).

Biden also said the 2009 stimulus bill passed by Democrats and the Obama administration had no waste or fraud to it.

For our money, a left-leaning operation like PoliitFact is likely to ignore Biden's claims on "This Week" in favor of getting to the bottom of whether Biden was quoting actor John Wayne when he ("jokingly") called a woman a "lying dog-faced pony soldier."

I guess we'll see!

Sunday, February 9, 2020

PolitiFact's charity for the Democrats

PolitiFact is partial to Democrats.

Back in 2018 we published a post that lists the main points in our argument that PolitiFact leans left. But today's example doesn't quite fit any of the items on that list, so we're adding to it:

PolitiFact's treatment of ambiguity leans left

When politicians make statements that may mean more than one thing, PolitiFact tends to see the ambiguity in favor of Democrats and against Republicans.

That's the nature of this example, updating an observation from my old blog Sublime Bloviations back in 2011.

When politician say "taxes" and does not describe in context what taxes are they talking about, what do they mean?

PolitiFact decided the Republican, Michele Bachmann, was talking about all taxes.

PolitiFact decided the Democrat, Marcia Fudge, was talking about income taxes.

Based on the differing interpretations, Bachmann got a "False" rating from PolitiFact while Fudge received a "True" rating.

That brings us to the 2020 election campaign and PolitiFact's not-really-a-fact-check article "Fact-checking the Democratic claim that Amazon doesn't pay taxes."

The article isn't a fact check as such because PolitiFact skipped out on giving "Truth-O-Meter" ratings to Andrew Yang and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Both could easily have scored Bachmannesque "False" ratings.

Yang and Warren both said about the same thing, that Amazon paid no taxes.

Various news agencies have reported that Amazon paid no federal corporate income taxes in 2017 and 2018. But news reports have also made clear that Amazon paid taxes other than federal corporate income taxes.

Of course neither Yang nor Warren will receive the "False" rating PolitiFact bestowed on Bachmann for a comparable error. PolitiFact treated both their statements as though they restricted their claims to federal corporate income tax.

Is it true that despite making billions of dollars, Amazon pays zero dollars in federal income tax?

Short answer: Amazon’s tax returns are private, so we don’t know for sure what Amazon pays in federal taxes. But Amazon’s estimates on its annual 10-K filings with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission are the closest information we have on this matter. They show mixed results for the past three years: no federal income tax payments for 2017 and 2018, but yes on payments for 2019.

That's the type of impartiality a Democrat can usually expect from PolitiFact. They do not need to specify what kind of taxes they are talking about. PolitiFact will interpret their statements charitably. 


It's worth noting that PolitiFact admitted not knowing whether Amazon paid federal income taxes in 2017 and 2018 ("we don’t know for sure what Amazon pays in federal taxes"). And PolitiFact suspends its "burden of proof" criterion yet again for Democrats.

Feb. 10, 2020: Edited to remove a few characters of feline keyboard interference.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

PolitiFact updates its website, makes "Corrections and Updates" even harder to find (Updated: Fixed!)

Over the years we've enjoyed poking fun at PolitiFact's haphazard observance of its policy on corrections. Aside from simply not doing quite a few needed corrections, PolitiFact does things like:
  • Correcting stories without a correction notice
  • Not tagging stories with "Corrections and Updates" as promised in its statement of principles
We've also needled PolitiFact over the way it hides its supposedly transparent page of corrected or updated claims. Looking up "corrections and updates" along with "PolitiFact" using a search engine would allow readers to easily find the page, but finding that page from PolitiFact's home page was so hilariously complicated that we posted instructions on how to do it.

Now in February 2020 PolitiFact has revamped its website and at long last fixed the problem succeeded in making the problem even worse.

Hopefully the worsening of the situation is only temporary, but PolitiFact's history marinates that hope in thick, gooey skepticism.

Our Feb. 1, 2020 survey of the PolitiFact website makes the "Corrections and Updates" page look like an orphan.

We tried to help. Seriously.

When I (Bryan) heard on Twitter that PolitiFact was updating its website, I tweeted out a reminder for PolitiFact to make its "Corrections and Updates" page more available to readers:

Instead of fixing it, the "Corrections and Updates" page is one of the very few (this is the only other one we found) that did not experience a facelift in keeping with the new look of the website.

For our money, the redesign looks pretty bad on the big screen. And it's not much better on mobile.

But one thing we did like, though perhaps that means it won't last.

What We Liked

In addition to PolitiFact's dodgy behavior on corrections, we've endlessly criticized PolitiFact for publishing sciencey-looking graphs of aggregated "Truth-O-Meter" ratings with no regular disclaimer attached. The ratings are subjective and PolitiFact does not attempt to choose a scientifically representative sample of claims. So the graphs are nonsense in terms of representing a politician's overall reliability.

PolitiFact still isn't attaching any disclaimer, but the new design largely neuters the visual impact of its graphs.

Let's look at Donald Trump's PolitiFact "scorecard" before and after the update.


That has some visual impact. The graph groups the bars closely, emphasizing the visual difference between, say, 5 percent and 35 percent.


What a difference! Thirty-four percent looks visually smaller on the new graph than 5 percent looked on the old graph. Sure, there's an attempt to spice it up by adding colors, but the short graph scale and thin lines suck away almost all of the impact.

Do we think PolitiFact did this intentionally so that the graphs would do less to mislead readers? No, unless it's part of an effort to farm out the deception.* But if it stands, it doesn't really matter if it's an accident or a mistake. PolitiFact will probably deceive fewer of its readers as a result.

One Other Positive!

PolitiFact has always offered the total number of each rating for individual politicians. But now it is publishing the totals for PolitiFact as a whole, as well as the states.

That makes doing certain types of research on PolitiFact's numbers easier. Though researchers will still need to realize that the subjectivity of the ratings means they tell researchers about PolitiFact, not so much about the politicians making the claims.

It's a very simple matter now to document how many more ratings Donald Trump has received than did Barack Obama, and in a shorter span of time as candidate/president.

*The downside? Those who are motivated to use PolitiFact "data" to prove Republicans are liars and whatnot will have less work to do in collecting the numbers. People irresponsibly publishing such nonsense may end up misleading more people in spite of the positives we noted.


Centered text? Seriously?

Updated Feb. 3, 2020 with edits thought already complete: strikethrough and URL linking earlier PFB post about finding PolitiFact's "Corrections and updates" page.

Update Feb 4, 2020: Whether it was the plan all along or whether in response to our cajoling, PolitiFact has added "Corrections and Updates" to its menu, under the heading "About Us."  That fixes one of our major complaints about PolitiFact. Now will PolitiFact add corrected "articles" to its list of corrected stories?

Sunday, January 26, 2020

PolitiFact tweets out gender pay gap blunder

So long as Democratic Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders doesn't tangle with Joe Biden, he can probably count on getting a break from the left-leaning "non-partisan fact checkers" (liberal bloggers) at PolitiFact.

Another case in point, this time from PolitiFact's Twitter account:

PolitiFact mismatched the fact check of Democrat Bobby Scott with the Sanders claim. Though PolitiFact is inconsistent, it usually rates claims like Sanders' "Mostly False."

In rating Scott's claim, PolitiFact Virginia took pains to detect nuance (bold emphasis added):
The statistics are across-the-board comparisons for all jobs lumped together and do not specifically compare men and women performing the same jobs. Many people, citing the statistic, wrongly use it as an apples-to-apples comparison of pay for equal work.

Scott’s statement, however, is nuanced. He says women get 80 percent pay for doing "similar" jobs as white men, which is different than saying the "same" job as men.
In spite of that, PolitiFact's tweet suggests Sanders' statement about women receiving 79 cents on the dollar for the same work is "Mostly True."

And after PolitiFact Virginia did all that work to argue "similar" means something different than "the same" (baloney, we say), PolitiFact's tweet tries to send PolitiFact Virginia's message using the word "equivalent."

That sure clears things up (Merriam-Webster).

Definition of equivalent

1 : equal in force, amount, or value also : equal in area or volume but not superposable a square equivalent to a triangle

2a : like in signification or import

b : having logical equivalence equivalent statements

3 : corresponding or virtually identical especially in effect or function

4 obsolete : equal in might or authority

5 : having the same chemical combining capacity equivalent quantities of two elements

6a : having the same solution set equivalent equations

b : capable of being placed in one-to-one correspondence equivalent sets

c : related by an equivalence relation

Why couldn't PolitiFact just take the straightforward route and present one of its old ratings directly parallel to the claim it attributed to Sanders?

Perhaps we'll never know. But it was probably bias.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

We republished this item because we neglected to give it a title when it was first published.

Forgetting the title results in a cumbersome URL making it a good idea to republish it.

So that's what we did. Find the post here.

Friday, January 17, 2020

Fact checkers decide not to check facts in fact check of Bernie Sanders

As a near-perfect follow up to our post about progressives ragging on PolitiFact over its centrist bias, we present this Jan. 15, 2020 PolitiFact fact check of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders:

Sanders said his plan would "end" $100 billion in health care industry profits, and PolitiFact plants a "True" Truth-O-Meter graphic just to the right of that claim.

But there's no fact check here of whether Sanders' plan would end $100 billion in profits. Instead the fact check looks at whether the health care industry makes $100 billion in profits (bold emphasis added):
The Sanders campaign shared its math, and it’s comprehensive.

The $100 billion total comes from adding the 2018 net revenues -- as disclosed by the companies -- for 10 pharmaceutical companies and 10 companies that work in health insurance.

We redid the numbers. Sanders is correct: The total net revenues, or profits, these companies posted in 2018 comes to just more than $100 billion - $100.96 billion, in fact. We also spoke to three independent health economists, who all told us that the math checks out.

There are a couple of wrinkles to consider. Some of the companies included -- Johnson & Johnson, for instance -- do more than just health care. Those other services likely affect their bottom lines.

But more importantly, $100 billion is likely an underestimate, experts told us.
It looks to us like PolitiFact meticulously double-checked equations that did not adequately address the issue of health care profits.

On the one hand "We redid the numbers. Sanders is correct." But on the other hand "$100 billion is likely an underestimate."

The fact checkers are telling us Sanders was accurate but probably wrong.

But we've only covered a premise of Sanders' claim. The meat of the claim stems from Sanders saying he will "end" those profits.

Did Sanders mean he would cut $100 billion in profit or simply reduce profits by some unspecified amount? We don't see how a serious fact-check effort can proceed without somehow addressing that question.

PolitiFact proceeds to try to prove us wrong (bold emphasis added):
Sanders suggested that Medicare for All would "end" the $100 billion per year profits reaped by the health care industry.

The proposal would certainly give Washington the power to do that.

"If you had Medicare for All, you have a single payer that would be paying lower prices," Meara said.

That means lower prices and profits for pharmaceuticals, lower margins for insurers and lower prices for hospitals and health systems.

That could bring tradeoffs: for instance, fewer people choosing to practice medicine. But, Meara noted, the number supports Sanders’ larger thesis. "There’s room to pay less."
Though PolitiFact showed no inclination to pin down Sanders' meaning, the expert PolitiFact cited (professor of health economics Ellen Meara) translates Sanders' point as "There's room to pay less."

Do the fact checkers care how much less? Is PolitiFact actually fact-checking whether Sanders' plan would lower profit margins and it doesn't matter by how much?

Side note: PolitiFact's expert donates politically to Democrats. PolitiFact doesn't think you need to know that. PolitiFact is also supposedly a champion of transparency.

Where's the Fact Check?

PolitiFact does not know how much, if at all, the Sanders plan would cut profit margins.

PolitiFact does not specify how it interprets Sanders' claim of bringing an "end" to $100 billion in profits (the cited expert expects a lower profit margin but offers no estimate).

The bulk of the fact check is a journalistic hole. It fails to offer any kind of serious estimate of how much the Sanders' plan might trim profits. If the plan trims profits down to $75 billion, presumably PolitiFact would count that as ending $100 billion in profits.

Using that slippery understanding, quite a few outcomes could count as ending $100 billion in profits. But how many prospective voters think Sanders is promising to save consumers that $100 billion?


That's no "centrist bias." That's doing Sanders a huge favor. It's liberal bias, the prevalent species at PolitiFact.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Progressives accusing PolitiFact of "centrist bias"

Left-leaning The Week has put out a couple of articles recently accusing PolitiFact of a "centrist bias."

Here's one of the accusations:
Is Joe Biden, contrary to his centrist reputation, a tax-and-spend liberal? That was the argument made by Politifact's Amy Sherman, defending him against accusations from the Bernie Sanders camp that in 2018, "Biden lauded Paul Ryan for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare." Not so, says Politifact: "The Sanders campaign plucked out part of what Biden said but omitted the full context of his comments. We rate this statement False."

Unfortunately, it's a tendentious argument that totally misreads Biden's politics and history. He did indeed call for cuts to Social Security and Medicare in a 2018 speech at the Brookings Institution — part of a decades-long career of hawking pointless austerity. Yet, just like they did with Medicare-for-all, fact checkers are bending the truth to advance an ideological centrist agenda.
The argument, unlike many from-the-left criticisms of PolitiFact, isn't frivolous. We noted during the 2016 election that PolitiFact seemed tougher on Sanders than on his opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton. It makes sense that wherever PolitiFact's ideology falls on the political continuum those to either side may experience a resulting bias.

And, in fact, that's our purpose in highlighting the accusation. A charge of centrist bias proves consistent with the charge of liberal bias. The Week is saying PolitiFact is biased toward political positions to its left and right. The Week just doesn't bother to highlight any of the "centrist" bias that harms conservatives.

We do that.

Plus we highlight good examples of PolitiFact's anti-progressive bias under the "Left Jab" tag.

Note: The "bending the truth" example from The Week doesn't wash.

Monday, January 13, 2020

Busted: PolitiFact catches Nikki Haley using hyperbole without a license

Some things never change.

Among those things, apparently, is PolitiFact's tradition of taking Republican hyperbole literally.

Case in point:

The hyperbole should have been easy to spot based on the context.

Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley appeared on Fox News' "Hannity" show with host Sean Hannity.

Transcript ours (starting at about 2:12):

Do you agree with, uh, listen I've always liked General Petraeus. He's a great, great general, hero, patriot in this country. He said it's impossible to overstate the importance of this particular action. It's more significant than the killing of bin Laden, even the death of al Baghdadi. And he said Soleimani was the architect, operational commander of the Iranian effort to solidify control of the so-called Shia Crescent stretching from Iran to Iraq through Syria and southern Lebanon. I think that's the reason why Jordanians, Egyptians and Saudis are now working with the Israelis, which I don't think anybody saw coming.

Well, and I'll tell you this: You don't see anyone standing up for Iran. You're not hearing any of the Gulf members, you're not hearing China, you're not hearing Russia. The only ones mourning the loss of Soleimani are our Democrat leadership. And our Democrat presidential candidates. No one else in the world, because they knew that this man had evil veins. They knew what he was capable of and they saw the destruction and, and the lives lost (based?) from his hand. And so--

What a dumb (?). We've been hearing "Oh, he's evil, he's a murderer he killed Americans and he, this is the No. 1 state sponsor of terror and they're fighting all these proxy wars but we don't want to make 'em mad." That's what it sounds like to me.

You know, and you go tell that to the 608 American families who lost a loved one. Go tell that to the military members who lost a limb. This was something that needed to be done and should be celebrated. And I'll tell you right now, partisan politics should stop when it comes to foreign policy. This is about America united. We need to be completely behind the president, what he did, because every one of those countries are watching our news media right now seeing what everyone's saying. And this is a moment of strength for the United States. It's a moment of strength from President Trump.
Haley's "mourning" comment comes after her emphasis Iran received no support ("You don't see anyone standing up for Iran") regarding the killing of Soleimani. So it makes very good sense to take "mourning" as a hyperbolic amplification of that point.

Hannity's response to Haley's comment came in the same vein, in fact mocking Democrats who acknowledged Soleimani got what he deserved while questioning the wisdom of the move.

PolitiFact could legitimately check to see if world leaders offered statements much in the same vein leading Democrats offered. Instead of doing that, PolitiFact used a wooden-literal interpretation of Haley's remarks as a basis for its fact check.

How do mistakes like this (and these) make it past PolitiFact's exalted "Star Chamber" of experienced fact check editors?

Could be bias.