Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Grading PolitiFact: Characterizing Mitt Romney's characterization of Obama

Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations

PolitiFact's attempt to use an "In Context" item to soften the negative effects of President Obama's "you didn't build that" moment didn't work out so well.

More was needed to help the president.

The issue.

(clipped from PolitiFact.com)

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


Watch how many times PolitiFact uses partial quotations to protect its Obama from having his statement taken out of context.  We have two already in the graphic up above ("is the result of government" "hard-working people").

On with the fact check.

PolitiFact tells us that the Romney campaign and the Obama campaign have been wrangling over whether the latter insulted entrepreneurs.  That issue is somewhat settled when entrepreneurs perceive an insult.  Romney wins that point.  PolitiFact wants to let us know that Obama did not mean to insult entrepreneurs.  And maybe attacking Romney in relation to this issue is the ticket.

Romney, in comments at public events and in several ads, has argued that the remarks show a general disdain for business. The Republican National Committee and the National Federation of Independent Business are among the groups have [sic] released their own videos and statements echoing Romney that the president is out of touch.
The above summary is fair but potentially misleading.  We'll watch for those effects as the story progresses.

In one fundraising e-mail [sic], Matt Rhoades, Romney’s campaign manager, decried Obama’s "naïve view that government, and not the hard work, talent, and initiative of people, is the center of society and the economy."
The email from Rhoades helps make it plain that PolitiFact distorts the Romney campaign's argument.  The argument is that Obama credits the government too much, not that he doesn't credit entrepreneurs at all. Yet the latter is what PolitiFact suggests in its graphic.

In another campaign e-mail [sic], Amanda Henneberg, a Romney spokeswoman, said Obama had "denigrated Americans who built their own businesses."
Henneberg's statement dovetails with the Romney campaign message that Obama overemphasizes the role of government, but PolitiFact can potentially make it look like she is saying that Obama gives entrepreneurs no credit.

The issue has become so big that the Obama campaign felt the need to address the issue head-on in a Web video titled "Tampered" that quoted media accounts saying the quote had been taken out of context.
The current size of the issue could mean that the Romney campaign is right that Obama is out of touch.  But it would help Obama if it appeared that people were simply misled by Romney about what Obama said.  PolitiFact did the Obama campaign a favor, by the way, by overlooking for the sake of this story the Obama campaign video suggesting Obama did not say what Romney quotes him to say.

Not only was Obama taken out of context, he didn't even say it in the first place.

Or something like that.

PolitiFact settles on the latest Romney campaign video for purposes of its fact check, focusing in particular on the Romney campaign's preface to the video:
President Obama recently said: "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."

Clearly, this President doesn't understand how our economy works.

Mitt Romney understands that we have to celebrate people who start enterprises and employ other people rather than devalue them. Success is not the result of government, it is the result of hard-working people who take risks, create dreams, and build lives for themselves and for their families.
In this item, we’ll rate the claim that Obama was saying success "is the result of government," not "hard-working people," when he said, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
PolitiFact distorts Romney's claim by taking his comments out of context.  Ironic, no?

PolitiFact tries to set the stage by asserting that Romney's quote of Obama distorts the meaning of Obama's claim.  In effect, PolitiFact suggests this is obvious if one reads Obama's statement in context.  But doesn't the entire context of Obama's statement emphasize the role of the government in business creation at the expense of the entrepreneur?  How does PolitiFact miss the obvious?

We believe, as do our friends at FactCheck.org and the Washington Post Fact Checker, that Romney has seriously distorted Obama’s comments.
PolitiFact is checking this fact by proclaiming it obvious that the context of Obama's statement puts the lie to Romney's claim.  Other fact checkers supposedly agree.  Hopefully one or both of them actually bothered to check some facts.

There's really nothing like that in this fact check.  It consists of PolitiFact insisting that Obama was taken out of context, and Romney's statements taken out of context make up the bulk of the case against Romney.

PolitiFact's conclusion, part one
In speeches and videos, the Romney campaign has repeatedly distorted Obama's words. By plucking two sentences out of context, Romney twists the president's remarks and ignores their real meaning.

The preceding sentences make clear that Obama was talking about the importance of government-provided infrastructure and education to the success of private businesses.
PolitiFact is partly right.  Obama was extolling the importance of the government role in allowing business to prosper.  He did so in the context of beneficiary businesses "giving back" as if it wasn't the taxes of businesses that helped pay for the infrastructure in the first place.  And the words he used diminish the role of individual effort ("Let me tell you something -- there are a whole bunch of hardworking people out there").

Why does PolitiFact simply ignore the material in Obama's speech that diminishes the importance of the entrepreneur?

PolitiFact's conclusion, part two:
Romney also conveniently ignores Obama's clear summary of his message, that "the point is ... that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together."

By leaving out the "individual initiative" reference, Romney and his supporters have misled viewers and given a false impression. For that, we rate the claim False.
Romney ignores Obama's "clear summary" because the summary is ambiguous.  The summary provides no justification for successful businesses "giving back."  That concept comes out as Obama essentially tells entrepreneurs that they were lucky (others worked just as hard) and owe a big honkin' portion of their success to Our Glorious Government.  And the government, Obama says, is ready to take its rightful cut.

By leaving out the reference to increasing taxes on entrepreneurs, PolitiFact has misleads readers and gives a false impression.

PolitiFact creates what Mr. Obama likes to call a "false choice."  It isn't whether the government gets all the credit or the entrepreneur gets all the credit.  It's which one has the lead role in the economy (bold emphasis added):
Matt Rhoades, Romney’s campaign manager, decried Obama’s "naïve view that government, and not the hard work, talent, and initiative of people, is the center of society and the economy."
By neglecting the importance of that context, PolitiFact again misleads readers and gives a false impression.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Bill Adair:  F

Once again, the subject of the fact check was arguably more accurate than his would-be fact checkers.


The fact checks by Annenberg Fact Check and the Washington Post Fact Checker essentially leap to the same conclusions PolitiFact achieved with its leaps of logic.  But both of the other fact check services did a superior job to PolitiFact in providing context for the issue.

Jeff adds: 
It's worth noting that anytime PolitiFact starts determining whether or not something is "in context", by definition the exercise is one fraught with subjective impressions as opposed to concrete facts. What context is relevant? What objective standard is used to measure what portions should be included, or what element of the speech is unnecessary?

One wonders what exactly Romney could have done to satisfy PolitiFact's  ambiguous contextual standards. As Twitter user @CuffeMeh suggested, should Romney have hired the fast talking Fed Ex guy to repeat Obama's entire speech in a 30 second ad? For my money, Romney's ad didn't change, distort, or flub Obama's context at all. But there it is, right next to a big gimmicky False graphic. Romney's a liar and I'm a dim bulb because I'm not picking up on the subtle nuance of Obama's delicate context.

Another question worth asking is whether and when PolitiFact will rate Obama's ad that says Romney is taking Obama out of context by taking Romney out of context? PolitiFact would have been served well by reading this Conn Carroll piece in the Washington Examiner that shows how the context game is played. PolitiFact could have just as easily conjured up a different angle, and using their own standards for context, could have come up with the same headline Carroll used:
"Obama video deceptively edits Obama speech to make it sound pro-business"
The bottom line is Romney's ad didn't remove or change anything. This isn't a fact check. It's damage control from a partisan media group attempting to sugarcoat Obama's clear, unambiguous message declaring his attitude towards individual achievement.

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