Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Fact Too Far

PolitiFact Rhode Island published an article yesterday that highlights the distance between fact checking and what PolitiFact actually does.

Image from PolitiFact

At issue is radio host John DePetro's comments regarding the current resting place of the deceased Boston bomber: "You know, in a way, think of who else is there. That is, President Kennedy is buried not far from there, in Virginia,"

PolitiFact's findings?
We used the Google Maps Distance Calculator to find the actual span between Kennedy's grave at Arlington and the Al-Barzakh Cemetery on Sadie Lane in Doswell, Virginia.

Driving distance: 87 miles.
Bee-line distance: 74 miles.
That's about 55,817 casket lengths.

When we informed DePetro of the distance and asked if he was still bothered, he wrote in an e-mail, "Yes. Insult to bury him so close to JFK. Johnston landfill was my choice or out to sea."
Notice anything missing?  PolitiFact failed to provide a standardized measurement for the linear distance of "not far." Probably because no such definition exists. It's an opinion, and one DePetro articulated quite effectively.

Any guess on PolitiFact's rating?
[T]o say that such a distance should somehow spark offense strikes us as mildly ridiculous, so we rate his statement Pants on Fire!
This is a wholly inappropriate sentence to include in a supposed fact check. We've long argued that there is simply no objective definition of what makes a claim "ridiculous." It's a subjective term determined only by the personal inclinations of PolitiFact's editors. Compounding that subjectivity, PolitiFact finds DePetro's claim only mildly ridiculous in this case. So now not only is the Pants on Fire rating based on an opinion, it's also subject to a sliding scale, the standards for which have yet to be published. Is it a Truth-O-Meter or a mood ring?

It would be interesting to learn when PolitiFact acquired the magical gift of objectively defining what should or should not cause offense. The fact that PolitiFact Rhode Island isn't offended does not make something inoffensive. That's a personal judgement that has no place in a dispassionate determination of fact.

This article is yet another example of how PolitiFact operates as an editorial site sheathed in a false blanket of objectivity. There is simply no way for them to measure the accuracy of DePetro's opinion, and even less possible for them to place a factual determination on what is or isn't offensive.

This is an opinion piece. It's not a fact check. It is dishonest for PolitiFact to suggest otherwise.


  1. You are aware that Virginia is a really big state, right? If you say someone is buried "not far," the implication is the same or a nearby cemetery.

    No, you're the one who fails here.

  2. That would be a valid argument if we were writing a critique about a site called "PolitImplication." However, PolitiFact exists, ostensibly, to determine facts.

    What is the cut off between "nearby" and "not far"? Is it 12 miles? 62 kilometers? 12 Parsecs?

    Reasonable people can disagree with DePetro's characterization. But that's an argument more appropriate for the editorial pages.

  3. Yeah. Alaska, Virginia, then Texas in order of size.

    The bigger the state, the less "not too far" implies a nearby location, relatively speaking.

    I'll re-explain JD's point to you. "Not too far" is an indeterminate distance. It can mean almost anything. It can mean the adjacent cemetery to a person living in a gigantic state like Virginia. Or it can mean on Neptune to a visitor from Betelgeuse.

    It's improper for a journalist to assume the meaning of an indeterminate distance and present it as a fact check. And it's improper for you to defend the practice given the weak basis you're using.

  4. Bryan - Virginia is the 12th biggest state. That puts it in the top 25 percent of states. That's big. I'm sorry you didn't check your facts there.

    Anyone who considers 74 miles "not far" doesn't know what they're talking about. That's over an hour of driving in ideal conditions - possibly two. No, that's not nearby.

  5. "Bryan - Virginia is the 12th biggest state."

    You're joking.

    "Anyone who considers 74 miles "not far" doesn't know what they're talking about."

    What would you do to convince somebody that your statement just above is a statement of fact rather than a statement of opinion?

  6. What's the square acreage required to be considered a "really big state."? I'm always getting those confused with *mediocre sized* states.

  7. While I do find PF's insistence on denouncing such an obvious attempt at hackle-raising somewhat redundant (fact checking conservative talk radio sounds like sweeping leaves in a hurricane), you do seem to be defending a statement that is a perfect example of bad conservative punditry. Anyone who reads that statement and agrees with it has more pressing problems than the rhetorical ramifications of using a nebulous term such as "not far".

    Again, I agree that this is a petty waste of time on the part of PolitiFact. But for the sake of your own credibility, at least try not to give the impression that you agree with John DePetro on this.

  8. Adam Parry wrote:

    "try not to give the impression that you agree with John DePetro on this."

    What did we write that would offer that impression?

    Our point is that "too far" isn't quantifiable. It's squishy. It's opinion. There's no fact in "not too far."

    1. You know, you're right. I apologize. I think I was more irritated at PF themselves, as analyzing this statement brings it and DePetro undeserved validation. That accompanied by your (fully justified) criticism of said analysis sadly means that a lot of people are going to allow the original statement a lot more credibility than it should ever have gotten in the first place.

      And that's PF's fault entirely.


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