Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Little Bit More and We'll Be Inches Away from Hacks

Sometimes PolitiFact's assault on consistency is so overwhelmingly obvious, it makes my brain hurt. Do these people even keep track of what they write?

A few weeks ago PolitiFact published an article analyzing an Obama campaign ad describing the president's tax plan:

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The ad attempts to differentiate between the president's plan and Mitt Romney's tax plan. The ad claims millionaires, under Obama's plan, will "pay a little more." PolitiFact's article goes on to describe different figures and analyze different metrics and concludes millionaires, on average, would end up paying roughly $189,000 more in taxes. Seems like a simple thing to rate. What could go wrong?
Supporters of Obama’s tax plan are free to argue that the tax hike on high earners is wise policy or morally justifiable. However, we think that even for a millionaire, an extra $189,000 in taxes on average -- resulting in a decline in after-tax income of 8.8 percent -- goes well beyond chump change.
So how does this rate on the trusty ol' Truth-O-Meter?
We considered putting this to the Truth-O-Meter, but we decided that "a little more" is an opinion, not a checkable fact.
That's right. The phrase "a little more" is beyond the scope of objective facts. It's an opinion. I agree with PolitiFact. So what's the point of this post? Have a look at this:

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When Barack Obama tells you millionaires will only pay a little more, it's an opinion. When Mitt Romney uses a common metaphor, it's a lie. In fact, it's a lie twice:

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Twice PolitiFact found enough verifiable facts to assign a value of honesty to a Mitt Romney opinion. Obama? Well, heck, they don't check opinions.

All three articles were written by Louis Jacobson. Both Romney articles were edited by Martha Hamilton.

The Washington Free Beacon: "Fisking Fiske's Record"

Ordinarily we at PolitiFact Bias highlight stories that provide the best evidences of PolitiFact's liberal bias.  This post doesn't exactly do that.

A recent Washington Free Beacon story presents information it gathered about PolitiFact Virginia editor Warren Fiske's voting history.  Fiske has a history of participating mostly in Democratic Party primaries:
An influential Virginia fact-checker accused of anti-Republican bias has a history of tilting left, according to documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.
I'm not impressed with evidence of bias via voting records.  I agree with media critic Jay Rosen's argument that journalism's code of secrecy about political preferences has slipped into obsolescence.  For one thing, the European model of non-objective news coverage has successfully invaded the United States.  Secondly, liberals have taken over mainstream media news to the point that failing to disclose political preferences amounts to dishonesty.

In simple terms, personal preferences need not introduce bias into reporting.  A good reporter (or researcher) will set personal preferences aside or recognize the inability to remain objective.

I support making public information about Fiske's voting record, so long as it doesn't violate the privacy of the voting booth.  The public is entitled to take Fiske's personal bias into account when considering his professional work.

The problem comes when reporters and editors prove unable to separate their ideology from their reporting.  There's a good argument against PolitiFact on that score.

Jeff adds: Count me in the group of those skeptical that a writer's voting record is solid evidence of bias in their reporting. The fact that Fiske tends to vote Democrat is anecdotal, interesting, and hardly surprising, but it doesn't necessarily provide proof that his articles are biased.

For example, one doesn't need to be opposed to abortion to recognize how misleading and dishonest PolitiFact's treatment of abortion ratings have been. Serious reporters should be able to provide unambiguous data to their readers regardless of their personal inclinations.

PolitiFact's liberal bias is evident in the selection of stories and also in the evidence ignored when writing those articles. The fact that PolitiFact writers are liberals may confirm what we already suspect, but in and of itself it's small beer.

PolitiFact's most offensive lie is its presentation of itself as an objective, unbiased resource. Any newspaper, blog, or television station is inherently imbued with the reporter's or host's bias, including this blog. PolitiFact presents itself as beyond these political limitations. PolitiFact is the beautifully dressed Emperor of Objectivity, and only the lowly partisans fail to appreciate the royal dress.

If PolitiFact acknowledged that it is an editorial site, bound by the realities of personal bias, it's doubtful we would have ever started this website, and unlikely that we would have given it a second thought. The reason PolitiFact is so offensive is because it implies a certain amount of scientific authenticity is involved in their work.

Personal voting records are interesting, but the evidence of bias is more appropriately exposed through pointing out the flaws in the fact checks.

PolitiFlub: PolitiFact Wisconsin, the Obama promise and the Janesville GM plant (Updated)

Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations

PolitiFact has earned its status as the least-dependable of the stable of left-leaning fact check organizations.  PolitiFact Wisconsin gives us one more sparkling example supporting that judgment with a fact check of Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan.

Ryan said President Obama broke a campaign promise to keep the Janesville (Wisc.) plant open.   PolitiFact Wisconsin detected no such promise from Mr. Obama.

Here's what then-candidate Obama said in February 2008 (bold emphasis added) during a speech in Janesville:
This can be America’s future. I know that General Motors received some bad news yesterday, and I know how hard your Governor has fought to keep jobs in this plant. But I also know how much progress you’ve made – how many hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles you’re churning out. And I believe that if our government is there to support you, and give you the assistance you need to re-tool and make this transition, that this plant will be here for another hundred years. The question is not whether a clean energy economy is in our future, it’s where it will thrive. I want it to thrive right here in the United States of America; right here in Wisconsin; and that’s the future I’ll fight for as your President.
Importantly, Obama opened his speech with references to the plant.  He then sketched his vision of America before mentioning how the Janesville plant could stay open if the government provides support.  In that context, Obama pledged to provide that support.  Does Mr. Obama use the specific term "promise" in his statement?  No, certainly not.  Does he guarantee the plant will remain open?  Again, no.  However, there is little doubt  that every person in Janesville listening to his speech took it as a pledge from the president to work to enact policies to keep the plant open. Mr. Obama did, in fact, pledge to do just that.

PolitiFact Wisconsin located no such pledge.

But it gets worse.  Much worse. PolitiFact builds its conclusion primarily on its claim that the Janesville plant closed before Mr. Obama took office (bold emphasis added):
Ryan said Obama broke his promise to keep a Wisconsin GM plant from closing. But we don't see evidence he explicitly made such a promise -- and more importantly, the Janesville plant shut down before he took office.

We rate Ryan's statement False.
GM announced the likely permanent closure of the Janesville plant in June of 2008, less than four months after Mr. Obama pledged to work toward an agenda that would keep the plant open for "another hundred years."

So, when is the plant closed?  When it closes for the last time?  When it produces its last GM vehicle?  When the company announces its permanent closure on a particular date?

When President Bush left office, he had provided Chrysler and GM loans to keep them going until the automakers could present restructuring plans to the Obama administration in April.

GM announced the final closing of the Janesville plant in April of 2008, and the final Chevy Tahoe came off the line in December 2008, before Obama took office as president.  On the other hand, the plant stayed open so that GM could build trucks for Isuzu:
The company stopped building SUVs at the plant just before Christmas.

That decision left about 1,200 workers unemployed.At the time GM said a crew would remain to complete an order for Isuzu.
But by June of 2009, while the Obama administration was still negotiating GM's fate and after completing the work for Isuzu, Janesville continued to maintain hope that its plant might reopen:
JANESVILLE (WKOW) -- There is a lot of optimism in Janesville today, after receiving word GM could reopen one of its idle plants to produce new fuel efficient cars, according to the Wisconsin Department of Workforce development.
If the GM restructuring deal brokered by the Obama administration resulted in continued production at GM's plant in Janesville, is there any doubt at all that Obama would receive credit for delivering on a promise?  Especially if the work involved hybrid vehicles?  The opportunity was there for the taking.

Why is so much of this information missing from a fact check?

Update 8/30/2012, 4:15 p.m.:

NPR fills in some of the missing information PolitiFact omitted.

Correction 8/31/2012:  Original version had wrong date for Obama's Janesville speech on first reference:  "Here's what President-elect Obama said in December 2008 (bold emphasis added) during a speech in Janesville:"  That sentence has been made accurate.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

National Review: "PolitiFiction"

This morning National Review published a bylineless editorial on our favorite subject:  PolitiFact.

With "PolitiFiction" the Review's editors bring a very important message to readers as we enter convention week for the GOP:
The website PolitiFact is going to be truth-squadding the Republican convention speakers this week, delivering verdicts on which claims are “mostly true” and which deserve a “pants on fire” rating. Our advice: Pay no attention to those ratings. PolitiFact can’t be trusted to get the story right.
The editorial goes on to illustrate its point by describing a number of instances where PolitiFact's reporting on health care issues failed to adequately inform.

The editorial is lean, hard-hitting and packs a whale of a kicker at the end. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The circus inside PolitiFact's "Star Chamber"

I suspect that many people think, as I originally did, that PolitiFact selects its "Truth-O-Meter" ratings through something like an objective process.

Andrew Phelps of the Nieman Journalism Lab recently sat in on PolitiFact's formerly private deliberations and produces much the picture I have come to expect (pun not intended) during my years of increasing skepticism.

Adair doesn't reveal his politics.  Who put that Obama cutout back there?

WASHINGTON — PolitiFact’s “Star Chamber” is like Air Force One: It’s not an actual room, just the name of wherever Bill Adair happens to be sitting when it’s time to break out the Truth-O-Meter and pass judgment on the words of politicians. Today it’s his office.

Three judges preside, usually the same three: Adair, Washington bureau chief of the Tampa Bay (née St. Petersburg) Times; Angie Drobnic Holan, his deputy; and Amy Hollyfield, his boss.
"Star Chamber" aptly describes the secretive nature of the judges' meeting. PolitiFact staffers sometimes talk about what goes on in the meetings, but PolitiFact readers get no "report card" on the voting records of the fact check judges.

Jeff and I have repeatedly criticized PolitiFact's process for its institutionalization of PolitiFact's group ideology. Phelps' descriptions and transcripts bring our worst nightmares to life as the judges make their decisions with no apparent grounding in objective data. Phelps featured the following transcript early in his story:
Hollyfield: Is there any movement for a Pants on Fire?

Adair: I thought about it, but I didn’t feel like it was far enough off to be a Pants on Fire. What did you think, Lou?

Jacobson: I would agree. Basically it was a case I think of his staff blindly taking basically what was in Drudge and Daily Caller. Should they have been more diligent about checking the fine print of the poll? Yes, they should have. Were they being really reckless in what they did? No. It was pretty garden-variety sloppiness, I would say. I don’t think it rises to the level of flagrancy that I would think of a Pants on Fire.

Adair: It’s just not quite ridiculous. It’s definitely false, but I don’t think it’s ridiculous.
  1. Hollyfield tests for support of the "Pants on Fire" rating she apparently wishes to promote.
  2. Adair didn't "feel" the claim went that far. How far is too far?
  3. Writer Jacobson (not one of the judges) also offers his vote in terms of opinion: He doesn't "think" it's flagrantly false. What's the objective measure for "flagrant"?
Perhaps editor Angie Drobnic Holan, whose opinion was missing from this exchange, carried the torch for objective standards during the meeting. But don't bet on it. The portion of the conversation Phelps provides smacks of exactly the type of subjectivity hypothesized in PolitiFact Bias' initial research study into PolitiFact's bias.

Like the original Court of Star Chamber, PolitiFact’s Truth-O-Meter rulings have always been secret. The Star Chamber was a symbol of Tudor power, a 15th-century invention of Henry VII to try people he didn’t much care for.

...The site’s basic idea — rate the veracity of political statements on a six-point scale — has modernized and mainstreamed the old art of fact-checking.
Granted, I put together statements from Phelps a few sentences apart, but regardless of that one is still struck by the segue from PolitiFact's parallel to the 15th century "Star Chamber" to the praising of PolitiFact for modernizing fact checking. Indeed, the abandonment of transparency occurs as one of PolitiFact's most distinctive innovations in the fact checking business.

The secret voting serves the same purpose as the secrecy about staff members' voting history. PolitiFact does not want its readers taking the fact checkers' biases into account. The fact checkers doubtless assure themselves of their neutrality as nearby two-dimensional cardboard Obamas smile approvingly at their work.

The truth is that fact-checking, and fact checkers, are kinda boring. What I witnessed was fair and fastidious; methodical, not mercurial. (That includes the other three (uneventful) rulings I watched.) I could uncover no evidence of PolitiFact’s evil scheme to slander either Republicans or Democrats. Adair says he’s a registered independent. He won’t tell me which candidate he voted for last election, and he protects his staff members’ privacy in the voting booth. In Virginia, where he lives, Adair abstains from open primary elections. Revealing his own politics would “suggest a bias that I don’t think is there,” Adair says.
It's nice that Phelps didn't see any obvious bias, but who is he kidding? The PolitiFact staff knew he was observing them, didn't they? I think probably PolitiFact doesn't deliberately slant its fact checks, but Phelps offers the thinnest of reassurances on that count, particularly since the tone of his story suggests he shares the port side slant so common in modern journalism.

We could probably mine Phelps' story for a week's worth of material.  Maybe we will.

All credit to Jeff for spotting the President Obama cardboard figure in Adair's office that turns the statement about staffers' voting history into an absolute howler.

But don't get the idea that Adair is biased or anything. We wouldn't want that.

Jeff adds:

This ode to the majesty of PolitiFact's Echo Star Chamber is jaw-droppingly awful. Phelps' inability to untangle the contradictions in front of his own eyes was painful to read. For example, he describes the Truth-O-Meter as "simple, fixed, unambiguous." Unfortunately, Phelps never reconciles these concrete terms with the subjective nomenclature of the actual ratings. He writes:
“Pants on Fire,” a PolitiFact trademark reserved for claims it considers not only false but absurd.
Phelps never shares PolitiFact's unequivocal, dispassionate standard for "absurd." And the ratings process Phelps describes as "fair and fastidious; methodical", ultimately boils down to "What did you think, Lou?"

But fear not PolitiFans. PolitiPhelps assures us that he "could uncover no evidence of PolitiFact’s evil scheme to slander either Republicans or Democrats." This is the same Andrew Phelps who once asked "[W]hy is George Bush such a flaming moron?" The man who described Maureen Dowd as "The person who best captures my feelings about our miraculously awful [Bush] administration" is confident Bill Adair gives it to us straight.

It's worth noting that Phelps, despite mentioning the left's outrage over the recent LOTY rating, as well as Rachel Maddow's outbursts, was unable to link to the any of the persistent, and numerous PolitiFact rebukes from the right. It's been our experience that PolitiFact's attacks from the left are very often lame, but they get the links in Phelps' piece.

If there are actual scientific, objective standards applied to PolitiFact's ratings, Phelps failed to report them. Phelps' flattering prose aside, the article shows that PolitiFact's system is really just a bunch of coworkers asking each other if they are having a "movement."

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Madison Forum: "Not Politifact; Just Politicopinion"

In March of this year J. Randolph Evans of "The Madison Forum" clobbered PolitiFact over its failure to cleave to objective standards in its fact checks: 
(W)ith a name like Politifact, readers might think that in at least one area, newspapers had abandoned their biases for one brief moment of objectivity. Do not be fooled. Hidden within the clever marketing names like Politifact and the nifty ratings like pants-on-fire, newspapers still filter in their biases.
Evans used a fact check of Mitt Romney's claim about President Obama's international policy tour as his example.

Even though Politifact writers by their own admission “reviewed several analyses of what Obama’s foreign policy goals are in traveling the world and readily admitting to America’s mistakes,” they could never bring themselves to the Politifact of the matter; instead they opted for politicopinion.
Evans goes straight for his point and makes it well, though he could have strengthened his case even more by pointing out PolitiFact's eye-popping arbitrary dismissal of one of the expert opinions it sought (bold emphasis added):
We sent Obama's remarks to several different experts on foreign policy and apologies, to see if they thought Obama was apologizing.

Nile Gardiner, a foreign policy analyst with the the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Obama is definitely apologizing, and it's not good. He co-wrote the Heritage analysis, "Barack Obama's Top 10 Apologies: How the President Has Humiliated a Superpower."
That's true fact checking.  If an expert gives a take you don't agree with or is out of step with other experts, just ignore them.  In the name of the Truth, of course.

Evans makes a number of good points about modern American journalism, so pay The Madison Forum a visit and read the whole bit.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Dustin Siggins: "Is PolitiFact Campaigning for Obama?"

Dustin Siggins offers up another solid critique of PolitiFact in an article that was first posted at Right Wing News and then promoted at Hot Air. This time Siggins takes apart a PolitiFact Wisconsin rating on Nobel Teen Choice Award-winning actress Eva Longoria:

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This seems like an easy claim to rate. Ryan's budget either cuts Pell Grant scholarships to 10 million students or it doesn't. How can PolitiFact screw this one up? Siggins fishes out the flaws:
PFW ranks this claim as “half-true.” Their primary evidence? An unsubstantiated claim by President Obama in April 2012:
Fortunately, our colleagues at PolitiFact National evaluated a similar statement made by Obama himself in April 2012, a few days after the GOP-controlled House approved Ryan’s budget resolution. (The plan didn’t pass in the Democratic-controlled Senate.)

Obama said that if spending reductions in the resolution “were to be spread out evenly,” nearly 10 million college students would see their financial aid cut by an average of more than $1,000 each. The White House told our colleagues the president was referring to the Pell Grant program.

So, Ryan’s plan does not specify cuts to Pell Grants. Obama is simply applying the total spending cuts in the plan evenly across the overall budget to derive a Pell Grant number.
This alone should make PolitiFact’s claim laughable.
Laughable is the right word. All PolitiFact has done here is accept Obama's dubious and "Half True" talking point as an actual budget number, and used it as a baseline to judge the accuracy of Longoria's claim. That's not fact-checking, that's the kind of spin the Obama campaign pays for from Robert Gibbs.

Siggins zeros in on another critical point PolitiFact uses to make Longoria's (and Obama's) talking point hold water:
[F]ollowing a link from the PFW analysis to the Department of Education’s website, one sees the Department has requested Pell Grants whose cost will total $36.629 billion – meaning that in a budget proposal that spends nearly one hundred times what the Department has requested, PolitiFact is making big assumptions.
It's hard to reconcile this type of rubber stamping of stump-speech rhetoric with the title of "non-partisan fact-checkers." There's simply nothing in Ryan's budget that identifies specific cuts to Pell grants, and it's only in the fast and loose world of political talking heads that assumptions like Obama's and Longoria's pass muster. Rather than sorting out the truth of the matter, PolitiFact runs to the kitchen to toss more ingredients into the soup.

Siggins has plenty more to say and we recommend checking out the entire piece.

On one point we don't quite agree with Siggins. He offers his own assessment of the correct rating without basing it on PolitiFact's definitions. We agree that Longoria's claim is false on its face, however, we tend to think that once one starts rolling around in the mud with PolitiFact's specific ratings, one may fall into their trap of trying to parse words to fit claims into its ready-made Truth molds. For my part however, I'm sympathetic to Siggins' point that this rating fails to meet PolitiFact's own standards for Half-True. The "important details" Longoria and Obama leave out happen to serve as the entire basis for their respective claims.

Bryan adds: 

I'm skeptical whether any of PolitiFact's logical hopscotch reasonably overcomes the hurdle of PolitiFact's "burden of proof" criterion:
Burden of proof -- People who make factual claims are accountable for their words and should be able to provide evidence to back them up. We will try to verify their statements, but we believe the burden of proof is on the person making the statement.
If we have evidential support of the Pell grant cuts then Sasquatch is "Half True" based on fur samples and footprints.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Relevant: Tim Groseclose explains the proof of media bias for Prager University

A little over a year ago, PFB linked to Power Line blog's excerpts from UCLA political scientist and economist Tim Groseclose's book "Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind."

We're delighted at the opportunity to host this brief video presentation of Groseclose's case:

Hat tip to Breitbart TV and Prager University.

Different but Equal: PolitiFact Jumps on the "Ryan cuts Medicare" Bandwagon

This week's liberal talking point fact-checking effort from PolitiFact comes in the form of giving Stephanie Cutter a "True" for her claim regarding Paul Ryan's budget. Once again, in lieu of an actual investigation of the facts, PolitiFact settles for good old fashion electioneering. First up, the issue:

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PolitiFact tells us exactly what they're checking (emphasis added):
For this check, we’re looking specifically at what Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said on Face the Nation when debating Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom.

"You know, I heard Mitt Romney deride the $700 billion cuts in Medicare that the president achieved through health care reform," Cutter said. "You know what those cuts are? It’s taking subsidies away from insurance companies, taking rebates away from prescription drug company. Is that what Mitt Romney wants to protect? And interestingly enough Paul Ryan protected those cuts in his budget." 

[We] focus on the question of whether Cutter is correct that Ryan relies on those same reductions in his budget.
PFB editor Bryan White joined the chorus of critics early, and in a single line exposed how amateurish PolitiFact's effort was:
Ryan's budget is neither listed among the sources on the sidebar nor linked in the text of the story.
That's right. In a "fact-check" of Paul Ryan's budget, PolitiFact doesn't actually cite Paul Ryan's budget. Unfortunately, it goes downhill from there. Bryan continues (Bold emphasis added):
PolitiFact's source, a CBO report, communicates the nature of the [ACA's Medicare] reduction a bit more clearly than does PolitiFact (yellow highlights added):
Changes to Payment Rates in Medicare
In February 2011, CBO estimated that the permanent reductions in the annual updates to Medicare’s payment rates for most services in the fee-for-service sector (other than physicians’ services) and the new mechanism for setting payment rates in the Medicare Advantage program will reduce Medicare outlays by $507 billion during the 2012–2021 period. That figure excludes interactions between those provisions and others—namely, the effects of the changes in the fee-for-service portion of Medicare on payments to Medicare Advantage plans and the effects of changes in both the fee-for-service portion of the program and in the Medicare Advantage program on collections of premiums for Part B (Supplementary Medical Insurance).
The bulk of the reduction, then, occurs as the result of the two reductions the CBO identifies.  Therefore, we should expect to see both of those features in the Ryan budget plan at minimum to rate Cutter's statement true.
This is a subtle yet critical point, and one that PolitiFact completely dodged. The issue isn't whether or not the Ryan plan reduces Medicare spending growth as much as ObamaCare does, the issue they claim to be fact-checking is if both plans rely on the same reductions. The bulk of the $716 billion in Medicare reductions comes from "the permanent reductions in the annual updates to Medicare’s payment rates for most services in the fee-for-service sector" along with "the new mechanism for setting payment rates in the Medicare Advantage program."

PolitiFact seems to think they've found their smoking gun (bold emphasis added):
Here’s what Ryan said in an interview with George Stephanopolous of ABC News in June, before his selection as Romney’s running mate:

Stephanopoulos: "You know, several independent fact-checkers have taken a look at that claim, the $500 billion in Medicare cuts, and said that it's misleading. And in fact, by that accounting, your budget, your own budget, which Gov. Romney has endorsed, would also have $500 billion in Medicare cuts.

Ryan: "Well, our budget keeps that money for Medicare to extend its solvency. What Obamacare does is it takes that money from Medicare to spend on Obamacare. ..." (Read the full exchange.)

So Ryan has confirmed his budget includes the Medicare savings.
See what PolitiFact did? Bryan spots the bait and switch:
"The" Medicare savings?  The same exact ones from the ACA and not just the future rate of growth pegged at the same percentage?  How do we know that?  Where is the fact check?
There isn't one. PolitiFact conjures up a June interview, ignores Ryan's actual budget, calls it close enough and pats themselves on the back for being "wonks." You'd think if you have enough hubris to call yourself a wonk, you'd actually refer to the budget you're wonking. PolitiFact doesn't do that, and an article by Yuval Levin at NRO cites the part of Ryan's budget that directly refutes PolitiFacts claim:
This budget ends the raid on the Medicare trust fund that began with passage of the new health care law last year. It ensures that any potential savings in current law would go to shore up Medicare, not to pay for new entitlements. In addition to repealing the health care law’s new rationing board and its unfunded long-term care entitlement, this budget stabilizes plan choices for current seniors.
Levin nails the point. There is simply no way for PolitiFact to accurately claim that Paul Ryan's reductions are the same as the Medicare reductions in ObamaCare. Levin continues:
The “Ryan did it too” defense is perhaps the most amusing of the three, as it succeeds in being simultaneously untrue, irrelevant, and an admission of the basic charge against the Democrats. Even as they call Paul Ryan a cruel and merciless budget cutter who cares not for the weather service and would gladly see children exposed to E. coli, the Democrats justify their taking $710 billion out of Medicare and spending it on Obamacare over the next decade by pointing out that Paul Ryan didn’t put that money back into Medicare in his budget. So if he had, would that have made their cuts unjustifiable? Well it so happens that he did. By repealing all of Obamacare’s spending, the Republican budget does not spend the money Obamacare took out of Medicare and thus those funds are used to extend the Medicare trust fund. And this point is hardly hidden in the Ryan budget.
It may be the case that both Ryan's budget and the ACA reduce the growth of Medicare the same amount. But PolitiFact's suggestion that those figures are arrived at through the same methods is a 3-alarm howler. How can these people call themselves fact-checkers when this rating doesn't actually check any facts? At best, this effort between two of PolitiFact's top dogs, Angie-Drobnic Holan and Bill Adair, is little more than a wordy defense of a weak Democratic talking point.

Make sure to head over to Bryan's post detailing even more evidence of how badly they flubbed this rating, and check out Levin's full article showing the flimsiness of this entire line of attack on Ryan's Medicare plan.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

PFB Smackdown: Tommy Christopher and Maddow's abortion critique of Romney

We use the PFB Smackdown feature to critique the worst of the left's best critiques of PolitiFact.

Perhaps inspired by my assertion earlier this week that the criticism of PolitiFact from the political Left lack punch, Mediaite's Tommy Christopher jumps in the ring again, trying to float like Rachel Maddow and punch like, well, Rachel Maddow.

On Monday night’s The Rachel Maddow Show, host Rachel Maddow accused Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney of supporting a law that would outlaw abortions, even in cases of rape and incest, while also tying freshly-crowned VP nominee Rep. Paul  Ryan to extreme measures related to reproductive freedom. What’s curious is that Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact just got done incinerating President Obama‘s trousers over the same claim. Who’s right?
Good question.  Which one is right?
Politifact rated the claim “Pants on Fire,” based on the “logic” that some personhood amendments contain exceptions for rape and incest, and the life of the mother, and since Romney didn’t mention such exceptions when he expressed support for personhood, that must mean he supports such exceptions. It’s an idiotic bit of logic, like concluding that if I say I like Pepsi, I must really be saying I like Diet Pepsi.
Christopher is wrong about PolitiFact's logic.  Rather than using Romney's ambiguity to insist that Romney was specific about allowing for exceptions, PolitiFact criticized the Obama ad for assuming that Romney's ambiguity meant that he specifically favored no exceptions in his opposition to abortion.

(T)he Obama campaign has a problem in extrapolating Romney's position from that comment. Support for the amendment does not necessarily equate to opposing abortion when pregnancy is due to rape or incest.
So the Obama campaign, to use Christopher's illustration, was saying that if Romney says he likes Pepsi then he's really saying he likes Diet Pepsi.  PolitiFact and Christopher criticize forms of the same error, but PolitiFact does so accurately in this case.

Was the "Pants on Fire" rating harsh?  Sure.  As we argue, all of PolitiFact's "Pants on Fire" ratings are ultimately subjective and amount to an opinion.  But the basic criticism of the Obama campaign ad was on target.

Weak attacks like Christopher's Maddowesque flailing don't amount to much, however.  If Christopher was interested in the truth of the matter we could expect to see him refrain from blatantly misrepresenting PolitiFact's logic.  Complaints like Christopher's tend to look like attempts to work the referee.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Turning up the heat on mainstream fact checkers

Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations

Dustin Siggins' post at the conservative blog "Hot Air" serves notice that I'm not alone in pointing out the failure of mainstream fact checkers in testing claims about effective tax rates.

The Obama campaign is running an ad claiming that Mitt Romney pays a lower tax rate than that of the average American.  Following the ad’s release, PolitiFact published an article rating it as “Half-True.”  From the article:
There are two main ways to make this calculation, and they lead to opposite conclusions. While we believe that including payroll taxes in the calculation offers a more accurate picture of what the American public pays the IRS, it’s also true that the Obama ad didn’t specify which measurement it was using, and in fact used a figure for Romney — 14 percent — that was based on income taxes alone. On balance, then, we rate the claim Half True.
Unfortunately for PolitiFact, their analysis completely misses the boat.
Siggins links to an analysis from "Just Facts," a not-for-profit independent fact checker:
Specifically, CBO found that households in the middle 20% of the U.S. income distribution paid an effective federal tax rate of 11.1% in 2009. Using CBO’s new estimate for allocating the burden of corporate income taxes, Just Facts and Ceterus calculate that Romney’s federal tax rate was 23.3% in 2010, which is twice the middle-income tax rate in 2009.
Just Facts published the above the same day I published my critique of Farley's fact check (Aug.7).  Their fact check goes much deeper than mine--I simply noted that Farley had short shrifted an entire body of evidence indicating that Romney almost certainly paid a higher effective tax rate than the average American. 

I criticized PolitiFact along the same lines on Aug. 10, but Siggins takes note of something I missed:
(T)he PolitiFact analysis ignores data cited by its own resource.  The article cites the Tax Policy Center to look at what tax levels are at for all income quintiles.  However, PolitiFact fails to note that the Center’s chart (the same one cited in the article) shows that the top 1% (which Romney definitely falls into) pay 7.7% of their income into the corporate tax structure.
So the PolitiFact researcher, Louis Jacobson, had the information staring him in the face and missed it or ignored it.  That's on top of somehow missing the CBO studies on effective tax rates.

Not good.

Correction Aug. 15, 2012:  Apologies to Dustin Siggins for consistently finding ways to put the vowel "a" in his name where it doesn't belong.

Tommy Christopher: "My conclusion isn't all that different from yours"

We panned Mediaite's Tommy Christopher over his critique of PolitiFact earlier this week.  Christopher has responded via Twitter, resulting in a correction and update of our original item.

Christopher responded again via Twitter not long ago, in response to our tweet about the update:

Gasp! @tommyxtopher responds by pointing out...a typo. Will he address actual flaws in his analysis? Here's our update:…

@PolitiFactBias Well, you don't seem to have read it. My conclusion isn't all that different from yours.
Christopher accurately notes that PolitiFact's ratings make for an inconsistent and unsatisfactory whole.  But our conclusions based on that common observation are fundamentally dissimilar.

Christopher (bold emphasis added):
Fact-checkers like Politifact are tremendously valuable for the research that they aggregate and conduct themselves, but inconsistent, contradictory, and capricious rulings badly undercut that value, especially when those are what politicians and media outlets pay the most attention to. Either a more consistent ratings scale is needed, or they ought to scrap them entirely, and let each fact-check stand on its own merits.

Until then, though, these are the numbers we have to work with, so if these presidential campaigns are going to rely on Politifact when it’s convenient, then they ought to live with these results, and media organizations who constantly quote Politifact should report them.
In our original review of Christopher's piece, we noted the following:
In short, contrary to Christopher's suggestion, aggregating PolitiFact's ratings is a useless exercise for purposes other than evaluating PolitiFact.
Christopher says, despite the problems with PolitiFact's inconsistency, that the media should report the aggregated "Truth-O-Meter" results as if they tell us something valuable about the candidates, hence his headline about Romney's supposed dominance of Obama in the lying department.

We say that the flaws in PolitiFact's process preclude useful comparison of the aggregated results except as a means of evaluating PolitiFact.

We say our conclusion is quite different from Christopher's.  It's irresponsible for the media, including PolitiFact, to slap together the results in a way that suggests to readers something about the tendency of candidates to lie. 

Christopher, despite providing some legitimate caveats, places himself in the irresponsible camp.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

PFB Smackdown: Mediaite's Tommy Christopher (Updated/Corrected)

We use the PFB Smackdown feature to critique the worst of the left's best critiques of PolitiFact.

I get another excuse to say the political Left's critiques of PolitiFact are generally poor, thanks to Mediaite's political editor and White House correspondent Tommy Christopher.

Take it away, Christopher:
Political ads have been an especially hot topic this week, with surrogates from both presidential campaigns alternately citing, and arguing with, vaunted fact-checking outfits like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Politifact. Although controversial rulings have eroded the magic of such efforts, it is worth noting that, by Politifact’s numbers, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is 58% more likely to lie than President Obama.
What magic?

PolitiFact's ratings have always drawn well-deserved criticism, from Bill Adair's brain-dead analysis of Joe Biden's hyperbole through last week's continuation of PolitiFact's series of misdirections about effective tax rates.  Why is it worth noting PolitiFact's comparison of Romney to Obama after we add the problem of selection bias to PolitiFact's inability to apply consistent standards or even achieve a reasonable minimum standard of quality?

Other than the fact that it might serve Christopher's politics, that is?  It's hard not to notice that both of Christopher's examples of supposed "controversial rulings" allegedly caused unfair harm to the Left.

It doesn't take many blown calls to produce an 58 percent difference between two individuals' "Truth-O-Meter" report cards, nor does it take much selection bias to produce that type of difference.

In short, contrary to Christopher's suggestion, aggregating PolitiFact's ratings is a useless exercise for purposes other than evaluating PolitiFact.

We have at least two examples of the latter so far:

"Selection Bias? PolitiFact Rates Republican Statements as False at 3 Times the Rate of Democrats"
"Bias in PolitiFact’s ratings: Pants on Fire vs. False"

The utility of its "report cards" stands as one of PolitiFact's most spectacular lies.  Don't buy it.

Update Aug. 14, 2012:  

Tommy Christopher tweets in response:
@PolitiFactBias Before you "smack" anyone "down," you ought to learn some math. It was a 17-point difference, not 8. Romney 46% Obama 29%
Christopher has a point in that the numbers I used were incorrect.  The passage was intended from the first to read "a 58 percent difference," and with this update that reading shows above.  My primary mistake was in failing to see a typographical error instead of a math error when I did yesterday's correction.

The change in percentage does not significantly affect the thrust of the criticism of Christopher's claim.  Without a control on selection bias,--and there is no good evidence of any such control--using PolitiFact's ratings other than to find out things about PolitiFact just doesn't make sense.

Will Christopher address that point or allow the typographical error to serve as a red herring covering for his mushy thinking?

Correction Aug. 13, 2012:  Math mistake:  Was:  "an 8 percent difference."  Is:  "an 8 percentage point difference."  Apologies for the error.
Correction correction Aug. 14, 2012:  See update above. 
Corrected update Au. 14, 2012:   Thanks to Jeff Dyberg for pointing out that I had incorrectly posted the original intent as "a 58 percentage point difference.  Rather, the intended figure was as Christopher expressed it, as a 58 percent difference.


Friday, August 10, 2012

PolitiFlub: PolitiFact again ignores data on effective federal tax rates

 Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations

PolitiFact's latest fact check involving federal taxation sticks with its persistent pattern of ignoring and/or minimizing data on effective federal tax rates, including a study by the otherwise esteemed Congressional Budget Office.
A new ad from President Barack Obama’s campaign continues the drumbeat that Mitt Romney is a privileged rich guy who isn't paying his fair share of taxes.

"You work hard, stretch every penny," a narrator says. "But chances are, you pay a higher tax rate than him: Mitt Romney made $20 million in 2010, but paid only 14 percent in taxes — probably less than you."
Huh.  The Obama campaign didn't specify federal income taxes.  No worries.  Obama isn't Michele Bachmann, so PolitiFact can overlook the campaign's oversight.

PolitiFact then:
Bachmann would have been right if she’d said, "the top 1 percent of income earners pay about 40 percent of all income taxes into the federal government." But she didn’t say that -- and even if she had, her decision to focus on income taxes, rather than looking at the whole federal tax picture, would have presented the numbers in such a way that wealthier Americans would look more heavily taxed than they are.
So we want "the whole federal tax picture"?  Not so.  PolitiFact wants the tax picture minus the effects of corporate and excise taxes.  The thread is consistent and continues through today.

If you just look at income taxes, Obama is incorrect.
Bummer.  But since Obama didn't specify "(federal) income taxes" PolitiFact can consider payroll taxes while continuing to ignore corporate and excise taxes.  Or something like that.

So what happens when you add payroll taxes to income taxes? Obama's ad is accurate. Here's the breakdown when you include income taxes and both sides of the payroll tax (the parts paid for by employee and employer):

Bottom fifth of earners: 1 percent
Second-to-bottom fifth:  7.8 percent
Middle fifth: 15.5 percent
Second-highest fifth: 18.7 percent
Highest fifth: 24.3 percent

Once again, we can’t know exactly what percentage of Americans paid a higher effective tax rate than Romney's 14 percent, but the top two ranges, plus a significant share of the middle group, most likely did. So probably more than half exceeded Romney’s rate, making the Obama ad accurate.

Yippee!  Obama's ad is accurate!  Average out the true and the false, give the president a "Half True" and nobody really needs to know about that messy corporate and excise tax stuff.

Speaking of that messy corporate and excise tax stuff:

(click image for enlarged view)

The chart comes directly from the CBO report mentioned up above.  There are two important things to note.  First, excise taxes fall more heavily on those in the lower income quintiles.  That's a minor point.  Second, the burden of corporate taxes falls heavily on those with higher incomes.  And the higher you go with income, the higher the corporate tax burden.  That likely means that persons like Romney pay higher portions of the corporate tax burden as a percentage of their federal taxes.

Using "the whole federal tax picture" that PolitiFact once cited as its ideal standard, the middle quintile pays less than half the average federal tax burden of a person in the top 1 percent in 2006 (14.2 percent compared to 31.2 percent).  That means that it is very probably false that most people pay less more in federal taxes than Romney.

Luckily for the president, PolitiFact can make it look otherwise by cherry picking.

That's PolitiFact for you.


See also the review of a similar story from Annenberg Fact Check.

After Afters:

Just a little review of what PolitiFact wrote while rating Bachmann "False":
[Bachmann's] decision to focus on income taxes, rather than looking at the whole federal tax picture, would have presented the numbers in such a way that wealthier Americans would look more heavily taxed than they are.
PolitiFact's hypocrisy is pretty overwhelming, isn't it?

Correction Aug. 13 2012:
Less is more, after the correction.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

PFB Penpals: What about Harry Reid?

We do occasionally receive missives from our adoring fans.  It seemed a good idea to feature a comment from our Facebook page since it provides a good excuse to review a few things about PolitiFact Bias while also addressing Harry Reid's recent "Pants on Fire" rating.

Sam Rothenberg wrote:
Where's your post on PolitiFact's "liberal bias" in giving Democrat Harry Reid a "pants on fire" for saying that Mitt Romney hasn't paid taxes for at least 10 years?
1)  We won't have a post about a "liberal bias" associated with Reid receiving the lowest possible rating from PolitiFact.  That wouldn't make any sense, for Reid is a liberal.  We think all "Pants on Fire" ratings are unfair since PolitiFact lists only a subjective criterion for applying the ruling.  The current post will offer our assessment of the Reid situation.

2)  PolitiFact Bias does not exist primarily to feature the work of its proprietors.  We try to spotlight the work of others.  Consequently, our response time often has a lag with breaking news, particularly if we find ourselves busy with other things.

What about that "Pants on Fire" for Reid?

Again, we think all "Pants on Fire" ratings are unfair.  The definition PolitiFact offers is subjective, so it makes sense to conclude that all such ratings represent an opinion judgment from PolitiFact.  That said, there's at least one positive aspect to the Reid rating:  PolitiFact has as one of its principles a "burden of proof" criterion that we expected would force a harsh PolitiFact rating if PolitiFact elected to rate Reid's statement.  PolitiFact acted consistently with its principles in rating Reid harshly.

When Democrats made Reid's claim a central issue of the election, it tended to force PolitiFact's hand.

On the downside, PolitiFact often misapplies its burden of proof criterion.  The misapplication does not serve properly as a fact-checking tool.  Rather, it is a helpful principle in argument or debate.  When a party concludes, as PolitiFact does, that a statement is true or false based simply on a lack of evidence, the conclusion represents the fallacy of argumentum ad ignorantiam--the fallacy of argument from ignorance.  When PolitiFact bases a ruling on its burden of proof criterion it is not engaged in fact checking.  It is acting as the self-appointed rhetoric police.

There are times, of course, when one can make a good case for the truth or falsehood of a claim if the lack of evidence concerns something that we reasonably expect to find. 

Did PolitiFact follow that principle?

PolitiFact arguably did follow that principle.

The article cites tax experts who find it very unlikely that Romney could avoid tax liability for 10 straight years.  But all that does is provide a reasonable justification for a "False" rating.  The "Pants on Fire" rating remains subjective.

As of today, Republicans are about 68 percent more likely than Democrats to receive a (subjective) "Pants on Fire" rating from PolitiFact for a false claim since it started in 2007.  Democrats tend not to notice the unfairness as much since it affects Democrats much less frequently.

The bias is anti-Republican.  It just happens that PolitiFact's methods damage members of both parties.

Virginia Watchdog: "State GOP criticizes PolitiFact for bias"

Virginia Watchdog takes note of the Republican Party of Virginia's critique of PolitiFact Virginia.  We at PolitiFact Bias reviewed the strengths and weaknesses of the GOP effort last month.

The story by Jon Cassidy and Kenric Ward counts as the most complete reporting yet regarding the GOP's lengthy jab at PolitiFact Virginia.  We found comments by Rick Edmonds of PolitiFact's owner, the Poynter Institute, of particular interest:
Edmonds speculated that Republicans come in for more criticism because they are the party in control of state government — not because of any built-in political bias by PolitiFact.

“Naturally, the rulings focus on the majority party,” he reasoned. “It’s also possible that one side is making more outrageous or newsworthy claims that attract attention.”
If the party in control of the government receives the most ratings then shouldn't PolitiFact National show a marked lean toward Democratic Party claims for 2009?  Democrats controlled both houses of Congress as well as the presidency. 

Edmonds' claim resists clear falsification at the state level mainly because PolitiFact mostly runs state operations in states controlled by Republicans.  And not all state operations freely allow the numbers to give the impression of bias, as we discovered from a figure associated with PolitiFact Georgia.

One wonders why Edmonds fails to mention the possibility of selection bias.


PolitiFact Bias has improved the case against PolitiFact's impartiality with the publication of our first research project earlier this month.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Americans for Tax Reform: "Responding to Politifact on Olympics and Taxes"

Do PolitiFact staffers actually read the statements they rate? It's stuff like this that implies they don't.

At issue is PolitiFact's rating of a recent Americans for Tax Reform claim that set the Internet abuzz:

Image from

PolitiFact found the claim to be Mostly False. Americans for Tax Reform responded and made quick work of PolitiFact's sophomoric attempt at fact checking (emphasis in the original):
ATR's primary claim is that the prizes are taxable, not that all medalists will necessarily owe $9,000 in taxes.  Poltifact admits that after they checked with their own experts, it was confirmed that prizes awarded would be taxable.  On this finding alone, the verdict should have been "mostly true," at least.
They're right. The original ATR article that PolitiFact rated emphasized the onerous tax policies of the U.S., not the specific cost.  By focusing on the $9,000 figure, PolitiFact is able to fish out a kernel of ambiguity from an otherwise factually solid article. But even with their myopic focus, PolitiFact still manages to flub this check:
ATR consistently said that prizes were taxable "up to" a 35% marginal tax rate.  We deliberately used this language because we know that Olympians will pay taxes at whatever marginal tax rate they happen to find themselves in this year.
Remember back in the olden days when PolitiFact passed out Mostly True ratings for demonstrably false numbers as long as the claimant was "citing figures from memory"?  Apparently some qualifiers are more equal than others.

ATR goes on to explain in detail how the $9,000 figure itself is a perfectly accurate example. Make sure to read the entire post to see the step-by-step take-down of PolitiFact's bupkis.

The story here is PolitiFact found a solid, honest criticism of the U.S. tax code and had to resort to distortion and gimmicks to cast a pall over the entire article. ATR presented a legitimate example that illustrated its political position. PolitiFact found that claim accurate, and then editorialized to brand ATR with the mark of dishonesty. 

That's not what a non-partisan fact checker is supposed to do.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

PFB Research: Yes, Virginia, PolitiFact is biased against Republicans

It was late during PolitiFact's first year, 2007, when I started to recognize its Achilles' heel.

PolitiFact was putting a rating on its fact checks.  PolitiFact was giving researchers a tool for measuring differing treatment of its subjects according to their politics.

I thought "They have to realize what they're doing.  Don't they?"

PolitiFact's been with us for over five years, now, and the national operation appears to lack any inkling as to how its rulings can serve to expose journalistic bias. 

It took me a few months after the first realization to develop a means of measuring PolitiFact's bias.  During the first few years I did a number of word studies that helped confirm an anti-conservative bias at PolitiFact.  But there was a problem with those studies.  PolitiFact's existence made up such a short span that I had to work with a very limited pool of data.  The small pool of data limited the usefulness of the studies.  So I sat on them, waiting for PolitiFact to expand the database and dreaming up new research methods.

Early last year I realized that PolitiFact's own rating system created a natural opinion poll for PolitiFact journalists.  PolitiFact distinguishes between its "False" and "Pants on Fire" claims according to a single criterion:
FALSE – The statement is not accurate.

PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.

"False" and "Pants on Fire" claims are not accurate.  "Pants on Fire" claims are, in addition, ridiculous.  Ridiculous means subject to ridicule.  Ridicule is, of course, the specialty of objective journalists.

Eventually I moved the "Pants on Fire" study to the highest priority on the research list.  I did so for the simple reason that PolitiFact has provided a good amount of data for this study.  And those data, now that the study is finished, tell a story of a strong anti-GOP bias at PolitiFact's national operation.

We've posted a fairly detailed account of the study at Google Docs.  Anyone with a Google account can log on with Google Docs and read the detailed version.  With this post I'll offer a brief summary.

Republicans are about 74 percent more likely than Democrats to receive a "Pants on Fire" rating--74 percent more likely to speak not just the false but the ridiculous in the eyes of PolitiFact's national operation.  It's not an easy statistic to explain without liberal bias.

Republicans lie more?  That gets us to the conclusion that Republicans will receive more combined "False" and "Pants on Fire" ratings by percentage as well as in comparison to Democrats.  It doesn't explain "ridiculous" without some sort of objective measure.  So what's that measure?  I looked for it in the texts of the stories based on the idea that PolitiFact has the criteria but doesn't reveal them on its "Principles" page.  I couldn't find the criteria in the texts.

So, yes, PolitiFact national is biased against Republicans in its use of the "Pants on Fire" ratings.  That doesn't rule out other forms of bias, either.  We're still working on those, but we've got the data for "Pants on Fire" comparisons on the states lined up except for PolitiFact New Hampshire, which has a pretty thin record so far.

More to come on the research front.  Check our PFB research page.

Calvin Freiburger: "Newt Gingrich Reminds America That the Media Covered for Barack Obama’s Baby Killing Past"

Note:  We reproduce the title of a work criticizing PolitiFact as a matter of custom.  We think Freiburger's use of the term "Baby Killing" is hyperbolic and damages his message for those who do not already agree with his pro-life views.  Though if the topic was a different one like, say, outsourcing jobs, PolitiFact might rule that it's at least partially true.  One can apparently be responsible for "baby killing" without any direct action in PolitiFact's eyes.  If PolitiFact is consistent, anyway.

Calvin Freiburger, who links to this blog from his own and contributes to the Live Action blog, had a PolitiFact criticism embedded in a post he did for Live Action.

During the Republican presidential primary, candidate Newt Gingrich criticized President Obama for his past non-support of a pro-life Illinois bill that would have prevented some instances of infanticide resulting from withholding medical care from newborns.

Right on cue, Naureen Khan of National Journal sprang into action to defend the president and the press:
According to Politifact, an independent fact-checking organization that looked into similar claims made by former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum on the campaign trail, Obama voiced his opposition to the new legislation as a state senator because it would have given legal status to fetuses and would thus have been struck down by the courts, and because Illinois already had laws to ensure infants who survived abortions would be given medical attention.
Not true, Politi-“fact”:  as Ramesh Ponnuru explained at the time, Illinois’ preexisting protections were “loophole-ridden” and only applied to babies who were considered to have “sustainable survivability,” leaving pre-“viable” newborns unprotected.
By overlooking that important detail, PolitiFact left itself wiggle-room to defend Obama's record from Gingrich's attack--and ding Gingrich's "Truth-O-Meter" record in the process.  That's a win-win in terms of expressing a liberal bias.