Saturday, September 1, 2012

PolitiFlub: PolitiFact grades Callista Gingrich by the wrong measure

Crossposted from Sublime Bloviations

Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the "Truth-O-Meter"

It's a testament to PolitiFact's warped self-image that it continues churning out journalistic offal even while enduring a wave of substantive criticism.

Our latest example comes again from the Republican National Convention, where Callista Gingrich claimed that the Obama administration's foreign policy has led to decreased respect for the United States.

A legitimate fact checking enterprise immediately suspects that Gingrich referred to respect from foreign governments in terms of recognizing the U.S. as a power to which deferral yields the most beneficial results.  In other words, other nations fear the United States depending on the degree to which they operate contrary to our policy designs.  Based on that premise, the legitimate fact checker asks Gingrich to clarify the intent and tries to find a verifiable statistic that measures her accuracy.

That's not PolitiFact:
While surveys are currently being undertaken in 20 nations, only 14 of those have been done for long enough to shed light on Callista Gingrich’s claim.

The question asked is, "Please tell me if you have a very favorable, somewhat favorable, somewhat unfavorable or very unfavorable opinion of ... the United States." While favorability isn’t exactly identical to respect, we think it’s very close and a good approximation.

No doubt PolitiFact used the opinions of foreign policy experts to determine that the Pew data were an appropriate measure.

Or maybe not:

Seriously?  No expert sources?  Not one?

That's not a responsible fact check.  The global standing of the United States does not depend on the popular view among the world's peoples.  It comes directly from the way the world's leaders view the United States and whether they believe they can flaunt their power contrary to U.S. interests.

PolitiFact chose the wrong measure.

Why does anyone take PolitiFact seriously?

Jeff adds (9-2-12): 

If there's any doubt that PolitiFact is peddling editorial pieces as objective reporting, check out this Bret Stephens op-ed in the Wall Street Journal last week discussing the same topic and using the same sources:
In June, the Pew Research Center released one of its periodic surveys of global opinion. It found that since 2009, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. had slipped nearly everywhere in the world except Russia and, go figure, Japan. George W. Bush was more popular in Egypt in the last year of his presidency than Mr. Obama is today.

It's true that these surveys need to be taken with a grain of salt: efficacy, not popularity, is the right measure by which to judge an administration's foreign policy. But that makes it more noteworthy that this administration should fail so conspicuously on its own terms. Mr. Obama has become the Ruben Studdard of the world stage: the American Idol who never quite made it in the real world.
Is PolitiFact accusing Mr. Stephens of lying? Inaccuracy? Or is the reality that the world's opinion of America is beyond the scope of objective, measurable standards? How could two reputable outfits come up with such contradictory interpretations of the same facts? What is the measuring stick that makes Louis Jacobson and the Truth-O-Meter the final arbiter of truth on one end and Bret Stephens a dishonest, partisan dolt on the other?

Callista Gingrich made a perfectly reasonable, if not politically rhetorical, statement about Obama's influence on the world's impression of our country. She offered an opinion that has solid, if not conclusive, support. PolitiFact's biggest lie is their claim that they can fit opinions onto a ratings scale and objectively disprove them with opinions of their own.

The reality is PolitiFact often publishes opinion pieces instead of fact checks. And if it expects to maintain whatever shred of credibility it has left, it should take a lesson from Mr. Stephens' employer, and publish its articles on the editorial page.

(Earlier today I explained even more problems with PolitiFact's treatment of Gingrich's claim in the comments section below, so I won't repeat them here.)


  1. You do know that pew research is a verified source made by expert researchers, right? Also, I think that the logical thing to do when presented with that quote would be to factcheck the actual quote, not ask Gingrich what he "really meant".

  2. It may be logical to "fact check the actual quote" but that's not what PolitiFact did.

    Gingrich's actual quote did not include a "compared to Bush" qualifier. PolitiFact noted: "However, America’s favorability has eroded somewhat since Obama’s first year in office, though it’s still above the final levels of the Bush administration." That point is irrelevant to Gingrich's statement, and to the veracity of her claim. Any loss of respect since Obama took office would make her claim accurate.

    Also, PolitiFact couldn't come up with a measure of respect: "While favorability isn’t exactly identical to respect, we think it’s very close and a good approximation." I'm not sure when "close approximation" became the gold standard in fact checking.

    And finally, as Bryan pointed out in Nov. of 2010, it's worth noting PolitiFact's treatment Rand Paul, where he earned a False despite being accurate, because of what PolitiFact assumed "most people" would assume about his claim.

    You can see the "Literal Interpretation" and "Underlying Argument" labels on the right of this page for more examples of the different standards PolitiFact applies in different situations.

    Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

    [Edit: Corrected publication date of Bryan's Paul piece-Jeff]

  3. "You do know that pew research is a verified source made by expert researchers, right?"

    Sure. But are they experts on international relations or are they experts at collecting poll data? Plumbers are experts at installing pipes. Its about as relevant.

    "Also, I think that the logical thing to do when presented with that quote would be to factcheck the actual quote, not ask Gingrich what (s)he "really meant"."

    There's the rub. There is no meaning to an "actual quote" without interpretation. And interpretation without consideration of the speaker's intent is foolishness.

  4. Ironically this site uses the argument that - the quote is the quote, no interpretation allowed - when defending Paul Ryans speech quotes about the plant closing, which is admirable, and then this article is about getting an interpretation of a quote first.....

    I wonder if politifact had interpreted the quote as meaning world leaders and that data proved her claims false if you would have said to take the quote at face value instead? Site is a sham - and yes you can fact check that statement but I'll save you the trouble, TRUE

    1. I don't quite get what you're saying. There is no such thing as understanding any communication without interpretation. It's an indispensable part of communicating.

      We at PolitiFact Bias always advocate interpreting communications. Otherwise there's no understanding them. We also advocate charitable interpretation when the circumstances warrant.

      So, how should we interpret your comment?


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