Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Politico: "PolitiFact without the 'Truth-O-Meter'"

Politico's media guy Dylan Byers hits and misses with his "PolitiFact without the 'Truth-O-Meter'" column.

First the miss, occurring in Byers' set up based on last week's dust-up between PolitiFact and Rachel Maddow over a rating of Florida senator Marco Rubio:
PolitiFact, the Tampa Bay Times fact-checking project, has come under fire this week for a ruling that seems to contradict common sense. Yesterday, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow -- PolitiFact's most vocal critic -- went to town on the group for claiming that an assertion made by Florida Senator Marco Rubio was "mostly true" when it was, in fact, false.
Rubio was probably correct, so if Byers intends to say that the statement was false then he needs to do better fact checking himself.  The construction of the sentence allows him to blame it on Maddow, I suppose.

Now the hit:
So, here's a thought. Get rid of the 'Truth-O-Meter.'
Okay, so I was peddling that idea back in 2008, but it's nice to see others picking up on the notion.

Byers scores another hit in supporting his suggestion:
I asked Adair today if PolitiFact would ever consider getting rid of its rulings and just present the facts on their own.

"The Truth-O-Meter is a key part of PolitiFact's work," he said. "We independently research political claims, analyze their overall accuracy and rate them from True to Pants on Fire. The rating allows readers our assessment to see the overall accuracy at a glance; they can read our analysis for more details."

Here is a less generous interpretation of that claim: The "Truth-O-Meter" allows PolitiFact to market its research -- which is painstaking and time-consuming -- to a political discourse that doesn't have time to read its analysis. The "Truth-O-Meter" is what enables pundits to put politicians on the spot by saying, "Ok, but PolitiFact found that that statement was "'mostly false.'" It is what enables political opposition to sound the siren whenever something is ruled "Pants on Fire." And without these convenient rulings, people might stop paying attention.
The "Truth-O-Meter" is a marketing gimmick.  And despite the fact that the meter's design by nature degrades PolitiFact's journalism, PolitiFact is so wedded to it that no divorce is possible.

There's a sense in which PolitiFact's marketing approach is a "savior" to print journalists.  That perception probably helped PolitiFact capture its 2008 Pulitzer Prize.  Hard news reporting was made popular while newspaper circulation numbers steadily declined.

But the false prophecies are getting more difficult to overlook.

Jeff adds: Since when is Rachel Maddow "PolitiFact's most vocal critic"? Perhaps the voices of James Taranto or Mark Hemingway aren't able to break through the echo echo chamber chamber?

Bryan adds:
  Maybe she's the "most vocal" critic because her televised messages are audible while most others just write?

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