Wednesday, July 6, 2011

When PolitiFact makes a mistake

When we make a mistake, we correct it and note it on the original item.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

This past Sunday, PolitiFact published yet another one of those mailbag stories--the kind where readers claim PolitiFact has made a mistake for thus-and-such a reason, and PolitiFact notes the complaint without comment and then we all move on.

But this latest one had something unusual near the start of the latter third:
(PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair responds: You're right that we have not always been consistent on our ratings for these types of claims. We've developed a new principle that is reflected in the Axelrod ruling and should be our policy from now on. The principle is that statistical claims that include blame or credit like this one will be treated as compound statements, so our rating will reflect 1) the relative accuracy of the numbers and 2) whether the person is truly responsible for the statistic.)
If an admission of the inconsistent application of standards is not an admission of error then what is it?  Yet something tells us that Adair and company will not venture into the PolitiFact archives in an effort to apply this "new principle." 

The supposed "new principle" is actually an old principle inconsistently applied.  Adair himself described it in a story called "Numbers game" back in 2008:
To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
When an ad says "Governor X was in charge while the state lost 10,000 jobs" it is sending the message that the governor was responsible.  It's not rocket science.  But now we get a "new principle."  And you folks who got burned from the failure to apply that principle?  Tough luck, most likely.  It would not look good for PolitiFact to put correction notices on any substantial number of fact check items.  Plus somebody might notice that one party received more harm than the other based on which stories received a correction.

Let's not go there.

In truth, admitting the need for a "new standard" by itself serves as an admission of one of the problems of subjectivity PFB was created to expose. If PolitiFact improves its performance then we accomplish part of our mission. Unfortunately we have little reason to expect any improvement at PolitiFact. After all, the "new standard" is really a restatement of a standard Adair proclaimed in 2008.

While PolitiFact and Adair tease us with the promise of new appropriate rating standards, we get another fact check like this one.  Try to find any mention of the underlying point.

Hurray for the new standard.

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