Thursday, January 19, 2012

Big Tent: "A PolitiFact Example"

Blogger and PolitiFact-cited expert Tom Bruscino supplies a partial insider's look at the PolitiFact process along with a critique of the finished work of which he was a part in his post "A PolitiFact Example."

PolitiFact writer Louis Jacobson asked Bruscino for his assessment of Mitt Romney's claim that the U.S. Navy is at its smallest since 1947.

Bruscino found Jacobson's questions leading:
Jacobson did a remarkable bit of research in a very short period of time. However, I did think his questions to me were leading. Remember, Mr. Jacobson asked "(2) What context does this ignore (changing/more lethal technology, changed geopolitical needs, etc)?," which both assumes and implies to the interviewees that Romney ignored those specific contexts.
And after registering some surprise at Jacobson's use of apparently non-objective descriptors of Romney, Bruscino demurs from PolitiFact's "Pants on Fire" ruling:
My opinion, for what it is worth, is that since Romney's base statement was factually accurate when it came to most numerical metrics, it would seem that he could be given credit for a half-truth, even if the context complicates the matter.
Do read Bruscino's entire post, which is particularly valuable since it provides yet another look at the style of inquiry used by PolitiFact journalists.  The commentary thread is also well worth reading.

Hat tip to Power Line blog.  Visit Power Line also for a parallel review I'd have been better off copying rather than writing up my own.

Jeff adds: I first saw this rating yesterday, and couldn't help but notice it provided another example of PolitiFact's alternating standards. Check out how PolitiFact presented this article on their Facebook page:

Image from

Notice that Romney is spreading ridiculous falsehoods because he "ignores quantum leaps in technology and training."

Poor Mitt. If only he had made this statement back in 2009 when PolitiFact's standards were much different:

We agree that the two cars are totally different. But Obama was careful in the way he phrased his statement: "The 1908 Model T earned better gas mileage than a typical SUV sold in 2008."  As long as you don't consider any factors other than mileage, he's right. We rate his statement Mostly True.

You see, Obama is rated only for his literal statement, while ignoring quantum leaps in technology that make the Model T "totally different." Romney suffers from additional qualifiers that PolitiFact throws in to the mix.

The similarities between the two ratings don't end there. Here's a bit from the Obama/Model T rating:

So technically Obama is right.

But his implication is that we haven't gotten more fuel efficient in 100 years. And that's a reach.

...Model Ts reached top speeds of only 40 miles an hour. They guzzled motor oil, about a quart a month. The original tops were made of canvas, and they had no heating or cooling systems. They also had none of the safety features of modern cars: no bumpers, no air bags, no seat belts, no antilock breaks [sic].

The cars had large, skinny wheels to more easily clear the obstacles on rocky, rutted roads. Corner them too fast and they could tip over. And if you crashed, the windshield would usually shatter into sharp, jagged pieces that could slice you to ribbons.

"The government would not allow anyone to sell Model Ts today because they're so unsafe," Casey said. "It's a car that no one would use on a regular basis today. It's not a fair comparison."

Here's similar text from the Romney rating:

This is a great example of a politician using more or less accurate statistics to make a meaningless claim. Judging by the numbers alone, Romney was close to accurate.


Thanks to the development of everything from nuclear weapons to drones, comparing today’s military to that of 60 to 100 years ago presents an egregious comparison of apples and oranges. Today’s military and political leaders face real challenges in determining the right mix of assets to deal with current and future threats, but Romney’s glib suggestion that today’s military posture is in any way similar to that of its predecessors in 1917 or 1947 is preposterous.

Obama: Technically correct, as long as you don't consider any other factors, but a reach. Mostly True.

Romney: Close to accurate, meaningless, egregious, glib, preposterous. Pants on Fire.

Bruscino is right to point out the terms used to describe Romney's statement are more appropriate for the editorial page as opposed to an objective determination of facts. And once again, we're left to wonder why different guidelines are used for different people.

Update (1/19/2012 1921 pst) Jeff adds: Speaking of glib and preposterous, this part of the rating just caught my eye:

A wide range of experts told us it’s wrong to assume that a decline in the number of ships or aircraft automatically means a weaker military. Quite the contrary: The United States is the world’s unquestioned military leader today, not just because of the number of ships and aircraft in its arsenal but also because each is stocked with top-of-the-line technology and highly trained personnel.

The first problem is obvious. Romney never claimed that a reduction in the number of ships or aircraft automatically meant a weaker military.  Actually, Romney was citing examples in support of his overall claim (that continued cuts in defense spending will eventually lead to a weaker force). Jacobson's second sentence is a howler. "Quite the contrary" to what? The fact that the U.S. is the world's supreme military force is totally irrelevant to whether or not it's on the path to becoming weaker. If Warren Buffet loses a million dollars on a bad deal, the fact that he's still the richest guy in the room does not negate the fact that he's also a million dollars poorer. And just like Romney claimed in his statement, Buffet simply cannot continue to cut bad deals if he is going to remain the richest guy in the room.

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