Monday, July 16, 2012

The Washington Times: "These three fact-checkers keep candidates in line"

Once one makes it past the glowing title the Washington Times stuck over its too-generous review of the three most significant fact-check operations, there's some good and fresh reporting.  And it touches our weakest-link candidate, PolitiFact:
(M)uch of what the fact-checkers do is inherently judgment calls.

For example, PolitiFact Virginia will grade a politician's words as true on their face, while other times will look for suggestive meanings that they say make factually true statements unfair.
The interpretive bias affecting the story focus is hard to quantify, but finding examples isn't hard.  In June, Mitt Romney claimed that poverty among Hispanics increased under Obama.  PolitiFact decided Romney was blaming Obama and ruled the true statement "Half True."  Also in June, the Obama campaign claimed that Romney, as governor of Massachusetts, outsourced call center jobs to India.  But Romney did not outsource any jobs.  He vetoed a state law that would have prevented companies contracting with the state of Massachusetts from outsourcing jobs.  The PolitiFact rating?  "Half True."  A true statement is half true depending on the focus PolitiFact gives it.  A false statement is half true, likewise depending on the focus.

Similar examples occur often throughout the various PolitiFact operations.

The best part of the Times' story comes from a quoted source:
Ray Allen, a longtime Virginia GOP consultant and adviser to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, said the entire process is inherently flawed.

"So much of what is getting fact-checked is opinion and political philosophy," he said. "The fact-checkers are actively intervening in the campaigns. We've seen fact-checkers write things they clearly want to get in TV ads."
Allen's right about the flaws in PolitiFact's process.  It enshrines liberal bias from the start through the end of the process.  The imprecise rating system provides a versatile canvas for expressing political opinions, no less so as PolitiFact's ratings in practice ignore the definitions of the ratings.

The system almost inevitably results in spin.

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