Thursday, December 8, 2011

WaPo Fact Checker: "Revisiting Romney’s ‘deceitful, dishonest’ ad about Obama"

Back in late October, PolitiFact was publicly wringing its hands over a story it published that was out of step with fact checks of the same material by Annenberg Fact Check and the Washington Post's "The Fact Checker" column by Glenn Kessler.

It's hand-wringing time again as Kessler writes about a Mitt Romney ad that PolitiFact found outrageous ("Pants on Fire") while Kessler and the Annenberg folks found the ad more middle-of-the-road misleading:
(T)here are three reasons why we have trouble being outraged.

 First, the ad makes clear that Obama is speaking in 2008.
 Second, Obama’s statement was actually a misleading quote itself.
 Finally, the Romney campaign made it very clear that it had truncated the quote.
Two out of three of Kessler's points appeared in our own analysis of Romney's claim in our review of the PolitiFact fact check.

Though Kessler doesn't mention our central point about the ad, that its point doesn't change significantly regardless of whether the context was included or not, Kessler does note PolitiFact's out-of-step fact check response:
(Fact Checkers can disagree: PolitiFact labeled it “Pants on Fire.” But reached a conclusion similar to ours, saying the health-care line actually posed a “more serious problem.”)
Kessler treats PolitiFact very kindly.  The fact is that PolitiFact failed to make any mention of Kessler's three points.  In baseball terms, they whiffed on all three.

And Annenberg Fact Check?  The quotation issue was a sideshow so far as they were concerned:
What the Obama campaign chose to take issue with was how the then-candidate’s words were edited in a section where he is heard to say, “If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.” Obama was actually quoting his Republican opponent. The full quote is: “Senator McCain’s campaign actually said, and I quote, if we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose.”

Is that “deceitful and dishonest,” as Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt quickly claimed? Or “blatantly dishonest,” as the liberal group ThinkProgress described it? It is possible that a viewer might be misled into thinking that Obama said this about his own campaign in 2011, since the quote comes 23 seconds after a graphic cites Obama’s comments as being uttered in 2008. But we’ll leave that for our readers to determine.
PolitiFact is, uh, bolder than that.  That's why PolitiFact is closer to Media Matters than the other major fact check services.  They have the chutzpah to let their subjective judgments determine the position of the misnamed "Truth-O-Meter" and serve it up to their readers as though it is objective journalism.

Jeff adds: When I first read the original PolitiFact piece I was reminded of a rating they gave former congressman Alan Grayson (D-FL). Grayson ran an ad that referred to his opponent, Daniel Webster, as "Taliban Dan." In the ad, Grayson edited a video of Webster to distort Webster's words into the opposite of what he said. Check out PolitiFact's summary in that ruling (bold emphasis added):
The Grayson ad clearly suggests that Webster thinks wives should submit to their husbands, and the repeated refrain of "Submit to me," is an effort to scare off potential female voters. But the lines in the video are clearly taken out of context thanks to some heavy-handed editing. The actual point of Webster's 2009 speech was that husbands should love their wives.

We rate Grayson's claim False.
Now read PolitiFact's treatment of Romney's ad (emphasis added):
We certainly think it’s fair for Romney to attack Obama for his response to the economy. And the Romney camp can argue that Obama’s situation in 2011 is ironic considering the comments he made in 2008. But those points could have been made without distorting Obama’s words, which have been taken out of context in a ridiculously misleading way. We rate the Romney ad’s portrayal of Obama’s 2008 comments Pants on Fire.
As Bryan noted, including the context wouldn't have changed the point of Romney's ad. Yet in Grayson's ad he not only took Webster out of context, he distorted (removed) Webster's words in order to make it appear Webster said something contrary to what he actually said (to say nothing of associating his opponent with a terrorist group). What exactly is more ridiculous about Romney's editing than Grayson's? What standard is PolitiFact using to make these determinations?

Until PolitiFact comes up with a way to objectively quantify a statements ridiculousness the ratings will continue to be plagued by the editors' personal biases.

Edit 12/11/11 : Added link to the original WaPo article-Jeff

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