Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Ohio Watchdog: the "PolitiFact or Fiction" series

The Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity is onto PolitiFact, in the form of Watchdog Ohio and its seven-part (so far?) series "PolitiFact or Fiction."

Each of the seven parts reviews a questionable ruling by PolitiFact Ohio, with the focus falling on the U.S. Senate contest between incumbent Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican challenger Josh Mandel.

Part 1

The opening salvo by Jon Cassidy blasts PolitiFact Ohio for rating two nearly identical claims from Mandel differently.  One version received a "Half True" while the other garnered a "Mostly True."  Cassidy argues that both versions were true and explains the flaw in the reasoning PolitiFact used to justify its "Half True" rating in one case.

Part 2

This installment, again by Cassidy, criticizes PolitiFact's use of softball ratings in the context of its candidate report cards. The report cards graphically total PolitiFact's ratings for a given candidate and PolitiFact encourages readers to compare the report cards when deciding for whom to vote.

Here’s Democrat Brown’s claim, which got a rating of “true”:
Rooting for the Red Sox is like rooting for the drug companies. I mean it’s like they have so much money, they buy championships against the working-class, middle-America Cleveland Indians. It’s just the way you are.
Yes, it's questionable whether Brown's statement is even worthy of a fact check.  Cassidy goes further, showing that PolitiFact's rating doesn't make any sense given Brown's failure to draw an apt analogy:
Brown didn’t pick a dominant pharmaceutical company for his comparison. He picked all pharmaceutical companies, as though we should root against an entire industry because of its size.

Part 3

With the third installment Cassidy absolutely clobbers PolitiFact for a botched rating of Brown's claim regarding average student loan debt for Ohio graduates.  PolitiFact originally gave Brown a "True" rating but changed it to "Half True" after readers pointed out problems with the rating.  Brown claimed the average graduate owed about $27,000 on student loans but in fact that number only applies to students who had taken out student loans.  Cassidy did the calculations including the students without student loans:
Since 32 percent of Ohio graduates have no student debt at all, Brown overstated the average debt by half.
And that warrants a "Half True" on PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter."  Supposedly.

Part 4

As with Part 3, Part 4 hits PolitiFact Ohio for choosing a softball issue on which to grade Brown while also giving him an inflated grade.  Cassidy points out how PolitiFact's use of equivocal language gets Brown off the hook for using a very misleading statistic.  Brown ends up with a "Mostly True" from PolitiFact.

Part 5

The fifth installment adds another example in kind with the previous two.

PolitiFact uses equivocal language--well beyond using mere charitable interpretation--to help defend another of Brown's dubious claims.

“You’d think it would be as easy as comparing the value of goods and services exported from the United States with those imported from other countries,” [PolitiFact Ohio's Stephen] Koff writes.

Note to Koff: it’s exactly that easy.
 Cassidy could have shown PolitiFact's spin more graphically than he did.

For January through September 2010, the most recent measurement available, the trade balance was a negative $379.1 billion. Assuming the monthly trends hold through December, this year’s annual trade deficit should reach $500 billion.

Divide that by the days of the year and you’d have a daily trade deficit of $1.37 billion a day. That’s 32 percent lower than Brown’s claim of $2 billion a day.
The accurate figure should always serve as the baseline.  PolitiFact uses Brown's number as the baseline instead, finding the real figure lower by 32 percent.  A 32 percent error doesn't sound so bad.  Use $1.37 billion as the baseline and it turns out that Brown's number represents an inflation of 46 percent.  In PolitiFact terms, that's "Mostly True."  PolitiFact tried to justify the rating based on higher trade deficits from prior to 2009.

Cassidy's right again that Brown benefited from grade inflation.

Part 6

With Part 6, Cassidy offers an example of PolitiFact Ohio nitpicking Mandel down to "Mostly True" for a plainly true statement.

Mandel claimed his election to the office of state treasurer came from a constituency where Democrats outnumber Republicans  2 to 1.  People would understand that to mean a count of voter registration records.

PolitiFact justified its ruling according to an expert's claim that voter registration numbers aren't "the best litmus test."  But think how much more context was missing from Sherrod Brown's statement in Part 5.  There's no comparison.

Part 7

In Part 7 Cassidy switches gears and defends one of Brown's statements from the truth-torturers at PolitiFact, but uses the minor slight as a contrast to yet another example of grade inflation.

When Brown said “we buy 35 percent of all Chinese exports” and the actual number turned out to be 25 percent, they gave him a “half-true.”

We’re not sure which half. If you take out the middle four words, “we buy… Chinese imports” is true. You can argue Brown’s claim is close enough, or that it’s way off the mark, but whatever you call it, it isn’t half-true.
Looking at the original story we find PolitiFact again favoring Brown by using the errant figure as the baseline for comparison:
But while PolitiFact Ohio isn’t looking to play Gotcha!, a key tenet is that words matter. In this case, Brown’s number is nearly 30 percent greater than the correct figure.
Yes, words matter.  PolitiFact uses words that suggest the accurate figure was used as the baseline.  But the math tells a different story.  The 10 percentage point difference between 25 percent and 35 percent is nearly 30 percent of Brown's incorrect figure--the wrong one to use as the baseline.  In fact, Brown's number is 40 percent greater than the correct figure.


Overall, Cassidy did a fine job of assembling a set of PolitiFact Ohio's miscues and explaining where the ratings went wrong.  When PolitiFact botches the math on percentages, as we point out, it helps out Sherrod Brown all the more.

We appreciate Ohio Watchdog's contribution toward holding PolitiFact to account.

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