Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bill Adair: You who criticize us are in an echo chamber chamber chamber chamber

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair served up some delicious irony with his recent defense of PolitiFact's 2011 "Lie of the Year" selection.

That selection was Democrats' claim that Republicans voted to end Medicare.  Liberals and progressives far and wide have condemned the selection, and we at PolitiFact Bias share a degree of sympathy with offended liberals since there is some (not much) truth in the claim.

The deluge of port side criticism has prompted yet another one of PolitiFact's nearly content-free rebuttals under the headline "Fact-checking in the Echo Chamber Nation."

Adair seems blissfully unaware that he's inside the echo chamber.

At a Republican campaign rally a few years ago, I asked one of the attendees how he got his news.

"I listen to Rush and read NewsMax," he said. "And to make sure I'm getting a balanced view, I watch Fox."

My liberal friends get their information from distinctly different sources — Huffington Post, Daily Kos and Rachel Maddow. To make sure they get a balanced view, they click Facebook links — from their liberal friends.
Adair just told us that he's positioned within an echo chamber oriented left.  He hears opinions from the right when he's out reporting. But to hear what the left is saying he can just hang out with his friends.  A truly centrist Bill Adair may be expected to have discussions with a conservative friend to draw from in writing his story.

This is life in our echo chamber nation. We protect ourselves from opinions we don't like and seek reinforcement from like-minded allies.
Bear in mind Adair just finished hinting that his list of friends is predominantly (if not exclusively) liberal.

If Adair isn't in the echo chamber shoulder-to-shoulder with those he criticizes, then it's more akin to a liberal echo chamber duplex with one common living area.

The paradox of the Internet age is that never before have we had access to more ideas and different thoughts. And yet, many of us retreat into comfy parlors where everyone agrees and the other side is always wrong. Each side can manufacture its truths and get the chorus to sing along.

PolitiFact had its latest brush with the Echo Chamber Nation this week. We gave our Lie of the Year to the Democrats' claim that the Republicans "voted to end Medicare." That set off a firestorm in the liberal blogosphere, with many saying that claim was not actually wrong. We've received about 1,500 e-mails about our choice and only a few agreed with us.
Adair borrows a page from President Obama's book of rhetorical tricks.  Sure, "many of us" insist on surrounding ourselves with like-minded opinions.  But Adair's problematic audience response probably comes more from those who expose themselves to contrary opinion yet do not have the ability and/or inclination to sift through the clash of ideas to figure out what's wrong or right from either side.

And blame falls on PolitiFact on this point.  PolitiFact often fails to make a clear case in favor of its decisions, and its 2011 "Lie of the Year" is another good example. Observe Adair's method of treating substantial criticisms in response to the "Lie of the Year" selection:
Some of the response has been substantive and thoughtful. The critics said we ignored the long-term effects of Rep. Paul Ryan's plan and that we were wrong to consider his privatized approach to be Medicare. In their view, that is an end to Medicare.

We've read the critiques and see nothing that changes our findings. We stand by our story and our conclusion that the claim was the most significant falsehood of 2011. We made no judgments on the merits of the Ryan plan; we just said that the characterization by the Democrats was false.
You just can't blame the outraged liberals for finding this type of response unsatisfactory.  Adair appears to admit that they have a point.  And then tells them with no reason why--unless it's sufficient to claim non-specific support from Annenberg Fact Check or the Washington Post fact checker--that there's no reason to change the ruling.  .

We got other silly comments from readers who declared we were "a tool" of the Republicans, Fox News and the Koch brothers. Their reaction is typical these days. To paraphrase George W. Bush, you're either with us, or against us.

In reality, fact-checking is growing and thriving because people who live outside the partisan bubbles want help sorting out the truth. PolitiFact now has nine state sites run by news organizations around the country that employ more than 30 full-time journalists for fact-checking. We've inspired many copycat sites around the nation and roughly a dozen in other countries.
Adair says the extremist reactions are "typical."  And in almost the next breath he claims that fact checking is thriving because of the people living outside the partisan bubbles.  The atypical ones account for PolitiFact's success?   Why, if that's the case, did PolitiFact not receive greater email support for its "Lie of the Year" selection?  Is it that hard for Adair to see the writing on the wall from within his echo chamber?

On the whole, Adair's defense is elitist and defensive. The PolitiFact staff is enlightened, thank you very much.  If you don't like their "Lie of the Year" selection then there are plenty of potential readers who live outside the echo chamber.  And it would be nice if a few of those readers would send in some supportive emails (hint, hint).

It seems Adair doesn't know his audience.


One more area where PolitiFact needs to clean up its act:

Some of our critics wrongly attributed our choice to our readers' poll and said we were swayed by a lobbying campaign by Ryan. But our editors made the choice and the poll was not a factor.
Um--how do we know the poll was not a factor?  Because Adair says so?

Free advice for Adair:  If you want to be able to claim with confidence that the poll plays no role in the editors' selection then keep the editors ignorant of the poll numbers until they're finished making their choice.  And if you do it that way then you can write your defense like this:
Some of our critics wrongly attributed our choice to our readers' poll and said we were swayed by a lobbying campaign by Ryan. But we shield the editors from the poll data to ensure that it will not affect our decision.
Doesn't that sound a lot better?  More convincing?

Jeff adds: For us PolitiFoes, Adair's airing of grievances was a Festivus Miracle. Adair implies (as does the entire premise of the PolitiFact operation) that he is somehow immune from the echo chamber, and if you don't trust him, it's because you're in too deep to notice. You're not objective enough to see the emperor's non-partisan clothes. I also have issues with his you-a-culpa over the examples he provides. His GOP rally attendees and liberal friends are straw men all day long. Whatever the political inclinations of his acquaintances may be they are irrelevant to whether or not PolitiFact gives it to us straight.

It's also interesting to note the tone of the article when compared to the dispassionate text of Adair's response to 2010's Lie of the Year criticism. We've noticed PolitiFact responds much more aggressively to anger from the left than from the right and this article adheres to that theme.

Perhaps the injuries inflicted by friendly fire were deep, but it's doubtful Adair corralled any sheep back into the flock with this ill-advised tantrum.

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