Friday, January 27, 2012

Liberals late to the party on PolitiFact

As expected, PolitiFact's 2011 "Lie of the Year" selection did a good bit of damage to PolitiFact's reputation on the left.  President Obama's 2012 State of the Union speech produced a claim that again has some liberals crying foul.  The Daily Kos and the Huffington Post both published entries condemning PolitiFact's "Half True" ruling on Obama's claim that the private sector jobs increased by 3 million in 22 months.

Jared Bernstein:
I ask you, why do they go where they go? Because of this:
In his remarks, Obama described the damage to the economy, including losing millions of jobs "before our policies were in full effect." Then he describe [sic!] the subsequent job increases, essentially taking credit for the job growth. But labor economists tell us that no mayor or governor or president deserves all the claim or all the credit for changes in employment.
Really? That's it? That makes the fact not a fact? I've seen some very useful work by these folks, but between this and this, Politifact just can't be trusted. Full stop.
(what's with the exclamation point after the "sic," Bernstein?)

Was PolitiFact blatantly unfair to Obama?

Not necessarily. PolitiFact pledged in July of 2011 to take credit and blame more into account for statistical claims.  PolitiFact, in the segment Bernstein quoted, made a decent case that Obama was giving credit to his policies.

Fortunately for the crybabies of the left, PolitiFact promptly caved on this one, revising the ruling to "Mostly True."  The rationale for the change is weaker than the justification for the original ruling:
EDITOR’S NOTE: Our original Half True rating was based on an interpretation that Obama was crediting his policies for the jobs increase. But we've concluded that he was not making that linkage as strongly as we initially believed and have decided to change the ruling to Mostly True.
That editor's note doesn't give readers any concrete information at all justifying the new ruling.  It doesn't take Obama's phrasing into account in any new way, doesn't acknowledge any misinterpretation of Obama's words and doesn't reveal new information unavailable for the earlier ruling.  In short, it looks like a judgment call all the way, where PolitiFact arbitrarily (if we don't count the criticism from the left) decided to give Obama the benefit of the doubt.

The critics on the left, meanwhile, remain apparently oblivious to the another ruling from the State of the Union speech where Obama received an undeserved "True" rating. 

And where were they when Sarah Palin could have used their defense for her true claim about defense spending as a percentage of GDP?

We have a PFB research project planned to address this general issue of technically true claims.


PolitiFact editor Bill Adair has once again come forth to explain PolitiFact's ruling and change of mind:
Lou, deputy editor Martha Hamilton and I had several conversations about the rating. We wrestled with whether it deserved a Half True or a Mostly True and could not reach a conclusion. We decided that it would depend on how directly Obama linked the jobs numbers to his policies.
What criteria were used to determine how directly Obama linked the jobs numbers to his policies?

Lou, Martha and I had another conversation about the rating and whether it should be Half or Mostly True. At various points, each of us switched between Half and Mostly True. Each of us felt it was right on the line between the two ratings (unfortunately, we do not have a rating for 5/8ths True!).

We brought another editor, deputy government & politics editor Aaron Sharockman, into the conversation and he too was on the fence. Finally, we decided on Half True because we thought Obama was implicitly crediting his own policies for the gains.
How was Obama's statement "right on the line"?  What criteria placed it there?  What criteria might have moved it one way or the other?

An item like this from Adair is precisely where we should expect a detailed explanation if there is any detailed explanation.

There's essentially nothing.

We get the report of disagreement and vacillation and none of the specific reasons in favor of one rating over the other, except for the implied admission that at least one person making the determination had a change of heart leading to a reversal of the rating.

If that sounds subjective on PolitiFact's part, it probably is.


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