Saturday, January 21, 2012

The PolitiFact response to the Romney story pushback

PolitiFact doesn't just entertain with its incompetent and unfair fact check stories.  It also entertains with its response to criticism. 

The most popular response of all is the "turtle."  Just don't respond and wait for the criticism to die off.

The second method involves acknowledging the criticism, followed by ignoring it as though it makes no difference.

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair uses a variant of the second method in responding to criticism of a recent fact check of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney:  Seize on some minor point in the criticism and act like the minor point nullifies the criticism (second method plus the minor point, in other words).

Hilariously, PolitiFact takes its critic, Dylan Byers, out of context for purposes of its response.  Note the relevant portion of Byers' critique:
I've reached out to Jacobson to see how many experts PolitiFact spoke with, and to ask for his reaction to Bruscino's post. There's a fair chance that PolitiFact spoke to other experts who saw things differently, but its hard to imagine how Bruscino, with all that detailed analysis, could be relegated to a minority view.
Bruscino was one of the experts PolitiFact cited in the Romney story.  He objected to PolitiFact's methods and conclusion in a blog post earlier this week at Big Tent.

Check out the headline over PolitiFact's response:

'There's a fair chance PolitiFact spoke to other experts' -- yes, 13 others
Yes, ladies and gentlemen, our esteemed fact checkers lead off with a fine example of quote mining.
And though Adair subsequently provides the relevant context, Byers ends up receiving the same straw-man treatment of his critique that Romney received in the fact check that kicked off the whole controversy.

Let's look more closely at Adair's response:
We've gotten some criticism today about the Pants on Fire we gave to Mitt Romney for his claim that the size of the U.S. Navy and Air Force shows the United States is at risk of losing its "military superiority."
Romney continues to wear the straw man around his neck courtesy of PolitiFact.  Supposedly the mere size of the Navy and Air Force creates the risk of losing military superiority and not the proposed cuts in military spending.  Whether it's deliberate spin or just an innocent blunder, it's horrific journalism.

Adair continues:
Tom Bruscino, one of the experts we consulted, wrote in a blog post that he thought it merited a Half True rather than a Pants on Fire.

Bruscino's post, which included his e-mail exchange with us, was picked up conservative bloggers who said it was evidence of liberal bias, and by POLITICO media writer Dylan Byers, who seemed to concur with Bruscino that the ruling was too harsh. "There's a fair chance that PolitiFact spoke to other experts who saw things differently, but its hard to imagine how Bruscino, with all that detailed analysis, could be relegated to a minority view."
We get no specific example of a conservative blog calling the example an evidence of liberal bias.  Pity, that. 

On the plus side, Adair quoted Byers to the point that we can see that the associated headline contains a falsehood. It implies that Byers wasn't aware that PolitiFact cited other experts.

Byers told us he read our lengthy article, but his line that "there's a fair chance that PolitiFact spoke to other experts who saw things differently" suggests he did not. The article's source list clearly shows we consulted 14 different experts. Many were quoted on the record in the story -- including Bruscino. They ranged from the senior policy analyst for national security with Taxpayers for Common Sense to a defense expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
Now Adair's implying that Byers is a liar for claiming to have read the article.

Byers' skepticism of expert support for PolitiFact's conclusion is justified, however.  It's largely irrelevant how many experts were cited if we don't know with some precision how they weighed in on the Romney case.  As such there's nothing in Adair's paragraph to reasonably suggest that Byers did not read the article.  Byers' skepticism doubtless springs from the fact that not a single one of the quotations used to convey expert opinion within the fact check unambiguously disagrees with Bruscino's assessment.   Any disagreement seems predicated on PolitiFact's inaccurate framing of Romney's statement.  Take, for instance, this quotation from Charles Knight:
"If Mr. Romney wants a truly stark example of diminished military capability, he should compare today’s horse cavalry to that in 1917, or even 1941 when there were still 15 active horse-cavalry regiments in the Army. Today there has been total disarmament of horse cavalry,’ he might say, ‘leaving our nation defenseless in this regard.’ His chosen comparisons are almost as absurd."
Did Romney claim that the current state of the Navy and Air Force represents diminished military capability?  No, he really did not.  And regardless of that, how does the above imply disagreement with Bruscino's opinion?

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.
Did Knight find that Romney was inaccurate as to the numerical metrics?  The quotation doesn't indicate anything of the kind.  It simply places Knight thoroughly in the camp of finding that the context complicates the matter.

PolitiFact does have a "Truth-O-Meter" rating for claims that are substantially accurate on technical grounds yet fail to acknowledge relevant context:
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
Byers has every right to doubt the consensus of experts as to a "Pants on Fire" rating as well as to the ways the context complicates assessment of Romney's claim.  And PolitiFact's counterattack against Byers was simply sleazy.

PolitiFact's difficulty in dealing with criticism hints that the organization is feeling the heat of the criticism.

Here's to more heat.

(added 1/22/2012)
Addendum on FEC filings for PolitiFact's cited experts

Note that FEC filings only appear for individuals making donations greater than $200 in an election cycle.

Lance Janda (Cameron University):  None found.
Mackenzie Eaglen (American Enterprise Institute):  Donated to one Republican.
Charles Morrison (American Enterprise Institute):  None found
Ted R. Bromund (Heritage Foundation):  None found
Ted Wilson (University of Kansas):  None found
William W. Stueck (University of Georgia):  Donated to Obama, DNC
John Pike (  None found
Todd Harrison (Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments):  None found
Michael O'Hanlon (Brookings Institution):  Gives consistently to Democrats.
Richard H. Kohn (University of North Carolina):  Gives consistently to Democrats.
Charles Knight (Commonwealth Institute):  Gives consistently to Democrats.
Laura Peterson:  (Taxpayers for Common Sense):  None found
Thomas Bruscino (U.S. Army Command and General Staff College):  None found
Col. James C. Ruehrmund Jr. (Air Force colonel, retired):  None found

Which sources were quoted with the most critical attacks on Romney?  Stueck.  Knight. 

The FEC pattern of giving certainly does not necessarily indicate that the donor fails to provide a professional assessment.  It is primarily an interesting coincidence that a past Obama donor and a regular giver to Democrats received the opportunity to stick it to Obama's likely challenger in the next election.

Between the straw man mockery of Romney's argument, the dubious neutrality of the experts PolitiFact relied on and especially the general lack of context enabling the reader to relate the expert testimony to what Romney actually claimed, this fact check is yet another journalistic travesty created by PolitiFact.


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