Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wisconsin Reporter: "Politifact Wisconsin politispins a half truth on tax hikes"

Via, the same folks who brought us Ohio Watchdog and Virginia Watchdog, we have a critique of PolitiFact Wisconsin from the Wisconsin Reporter:
MADISON — Here’s a riddle for you: When is a tax hike not an increase? Answer: When Politifact, the self-proclaimed political fact-checking enterprise, decides to take the question for a spin.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel version of the national Politifact brand did so when it rated half-true Gov. Scott Walker’s Jan. 4 tweet: “Thanks to Washington, nearly everyone will pay more in taxes in 2013. Somehow people think it’s just the wealthy. It’s not.”
Reporter Ryan Ekvall nails PolitiFact on a couple of its traditional problems.  First, it grades Gov. Walker  "Half True" for a true statement.  Second, the justification rests on Walker failing to provide sufficient context--on Twitter, of all places.  Yes, Twitter, the social media site that limits comments to 140 characters.

Ekvall's critique is solid, so give it a read.

We look forward to more from's Wisconsin Reporter.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Another Black Knight for PolitiFact

The comedy film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" is justly famous for its fight scene between King Arthur and the mysterious Black Knight who attempts to block his path.

Arthur defeats the Black Knight, first chopping off an arm, then another arm, then a leg and then the other leg.  As the Black Knight suffers each stage of defeat he defiantly continues to challenge Arthur to continue the fight.

PolitiFact's efforts to defend itself from criticism often run parallel to the Black Knight's fighting prowess against Arthur.

The latest duel pits PolitiFact editor Bill Adair against critics who say Fiat's confirmation that it will produce over 100,000 Jeep vehicles annually at a Chinese manufacturing plant undercuts PolitiFact's 2012 choice for "Lie of the Year."  The Romney campaign produced an ad saying Obama sold Jeep to Italians who will build Jeeps in China.  PolitiFact ruled the ad "Pants on Fire" in October before selecting it as the "Lie of the Year" in December.

The original ruling drew plenty of criticism, and the recent confirmation of the deal to produce Jeeps in China produced a renewal of that criticism, perhaps best expressed by Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard.

"It's just a flesh wound."

On Jan. 18 Adair responded to the latest round of criticism:
A number of readers emailed us this week about news reports that Chrysler is moving forward with a partnership in China to produce Jeeps. They wondered: Doesn’t that disprove our Lie of the Year -- that Mitt Romney said Barack Obama "sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China" at the cost of American jobs?
No, it doesn’t.
It bears emphasis that Jeep sold about 50,000 American-made Jeeps in China in 2012. Somehow no mention of Jeep exports to China crept into any of PolitiFact's fact checking of the Romney ad.

Adair's right about one thing, at least.  All of PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" selections contain a significant element of truth, so of course it doesn't matter to PolitiFact if the ad is true.  It can still qualify as "Lie of the Year."  The tough thing for Adair to explain, which he doesn't attempt, is how the ad can be technically true yet receive a "Pants on Fire" rating as election day approached.

It's just another dismal defense of a PolitiFact blunder.

Mark Hemingway, by the way, responded with Arthurian effectiveness to Adair's post the same day it was published.

We'll give away the ending:
PolitiFact has a reputation for alternately being unresponsive or inadequately responding to criticisms. And they haven't done anything to remedy that today.

(The video contains language some may find offensive.  Oh, and there's lots of obviously fake blood.)

Jeff adds (1/30/13):
Adair's most recent CYA/non-response to Hemingway is typically awful of the genre, and PolitiFact has had some stinkers. Chock full of evasions and denials, it would seem that Adair is completely unable to confront the facts that lurk in front of his face. Take a look at the opening paragraph of his nada culpa, and pay special attention to the quotation marks:

[Readers] wondered: Doesn’t that disprove our Lie of the Year -- that Mitt Romney said Barack Obama "sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China" at the cost of American jobs?

No, it doesn’t.
The entire basis for the Pants of Fire rating is something the Romney ad never claimed. If it did, why didn't PolitiFact quote the relevant portion? The portion that Adair quotes is entirely accurate, even by PolitiFact's own admission. The only falsehood here is PolitiFact's invention that the Romney ad claimed it would cost American jobs.

Another comically dishonest diversion from Adair is his assertion that PolitiFact isn't making a value judgement on Obama's policy. He writes:
We should be clear, we are not defending President Obama’s auto policy. As independent fact-checkers, we don’t take positions on policy issues. So whether it was advisable to bail out the auto companies, and or whether the bailout  was done with proper safeguards was beyond the scope of our fact-check.
As I pointed out in our original review of this claim back in November, PolitiFact was much more smitten with the Presidents performance back then (emphasis added):
With Ohio’s 18 electoral votes very much in play, the Mitt Romney campaign aims to blunt one of Barack Obama’s key advantages in that state -- his rescue of the auto industry.
Let me be clear: PolitiFact has determined that Barack Obama single-handedly rescued the entire auto industry...they're just not taking a position it.


PolitiFact Georgia publishes inaccurate stats for 2012?

These are definitely the people we want doing our fact checks.

PolitiFact Georgia published a statistical breakdown of its fact checks for 2012.

There's just one problem.  The statistics don't appear to have any solid relationship to reality.

Let's see how PolitiFact Georgia editor Jim Tharpe tells it:

Most ratings, as in 2011, fell between the extreme ratings of True and Pants On Fire.

Ratings for the GOP/conservative fact checks broke down like this: 26 True, 22 Mostly True, 32 Half True, 14 Mostly False, 16 False and eight Pants On Fire.

Ratings for the Democratic/liberal fact checks broke down like this: 10 True, 14 Mostly True, 23 Half True, 10 Mostly False, 15 False and four Pants On Fire.

For fact checks for groups and individuals we labeled as "other, " the ratings broke this way: seven True, 14 Mostly True, eight Half True, eight Mostly False, eight False and three Pants On Fire.

It's gotta be the glasses.

Going by the numbers appearing on its website, PolitiFact Georgia did less than 160 fact checks in 2012.  Tharpe gives the number 242.  Looking at all the "Truth-O-Meter" ratings, the site gives 20 per page in reverse chronological order.  On the eighth page of results we reach 2011.  Toss in 36 promises from Gov. Nathan Deal and we get to 196, not that PolitiFact Georgia has actually done that many ratings of Deal's promises.

Where do Tharpe's numbers come from?  Is there a secret list of unpublished "Truth-O-Meter" ratings from PolitiFact Georgia?  Does PolitiFact Georgia count PolitiFact National articles published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution?  Should PolitiFact Georgia take credit for those stories if that's how Tharpe arrived at his total?

Tharpe isn't from outer space simply with respect to the total number of stories.  None of it adds up, so far as I can tell.  Add Tharpe's total stories for Democrats and Republicans and we end with a total of 194 stories--just two short of the inflated total we get by rounding up to 160 and adding in Deal's promises.  And that doesn't count an additional 48 stories from Tharpe's "other" category.

If there's one saving grace, at least the total of all those stories does agree with Tharpe's overall total of 242 stories.  It's just hard to tell from which planet those stories originated.

Here's the tale of the numbers directly from the PolitiFact Georgia website for 2012:

PolitiFact Georgia published 148 "Truth-O-Meter" fact check stories.  Of that total, 30 were "True" ratings, 33 were "Mostly True" ratings, 35 were "Half True" ratings, 20 were "Mostly False" ratings, 22 were "False" ratings and 8 "Pants on Fire" ratings.

I emailed Tharpe asking about the discrepancy.  He answered that PolitiFact Georgia keeps "a very accurate count" and confirmed that PF Georgia counted stories from PolitiFact national as well as those from the "Deal-O-Meter."  We've already touched on the problems with those methods.

If any "Deal-O-Meter" ratings count in the totals then the breakdown I show shouldn't add up.  If we don't have any "Deal-O-Meter" ratings in the total then it takes 94 stories from PF national to get to Tharpe's total of 242 stories.

On Jan. 3 I wrote again to Tharpe:
When I added together your three breakdowns of stories in the classes "Republican," "Democrat" and "other" the totals agreed with your overall total.  But all three classes are broken down into "Truth-O-Meter" ratings like "True" and "Mostly False."  There are no ratings like "Promise Kept" in those groups. Could you explain how the "Deal-O-Meter" claims fit with the total of 242 fact checks?

You affirm that your totals include some stories from PolitiFact's national operation.  At the same time, your article reports "a year of more than 200 fact checks by your local team of truth-seekers, collectively known as PolitiFact Georgia."  How does that claim jibe with using stories from PolitiFact's national operation in the totals?

When Tharpe first replied he said I could phone him if I needed more help with the numbers. Perhaps it is because I contacted him again by email instead of by phone that the message remains unanswered.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

PolitiFact reflects on the "Obameter"

The PolitiFact staff offers its reflections on its "Obamater" ratings.

The striking thing to me is how intern J.B. Wogan comes easily the closest to providing an accurate historical context to President Obama's pre-election promises:
Then again, we expect bold rhetoric from our politicians. After all, candidates promise what they think voters want.
Exactly. And the American president is quite a bit weaker, short of things like executive orders and foreign policy actions, than the popular conception. The symbolic power of the office gives a misleading impression of presidential power with its constitutional checks and balances.

One likes to think that presidential candidates realize the limits on their power prior to taking office, and that realization ought to place some sort of check on campaign promises other than those the candidate uses purely to gain votes. It's worth noting that Mr. Obama may have realized he was likely to have unified government behind him in the form of solid majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.  And of course that aspect of political science ought to provide context to any type of historical comparison using the number of campaign promises from candidate Obama.

This article provides some tantalizing-but-inconclusive hints at ideological bias, but the superficiality of the political science knowledge expressed in the article stands as its most intriguing feature.  Given the popularity of the political science minor among journalism students, that feature comes as a bit of a surprise.