Tuesday, May 28, 2013

PolitiFact is "Not Far" from "Large-Scale" Inconsistencies

Just over a week ago we highlighted PolitiFact's dubious rating of radio host John DePetro. The problem with that rating was simple: DePetro said the Boston Bomber was buried "not far" from John F. Kennedy. PolitiFact did a search on Google Maps to find the linear distance between the two graves, and said DePetro's claim was "mildly ridiculous." Somehow, PolitiFact Rhode Island was able to determine the specific distance of "not far."

PolitiFact explained their scientific conclusion:
Saying that Kennedy is buried "not far" from Tsarnaev is like saying Newport is not far from the eastern tip of Cape Cod, that Rhode Island's State House is not far from Derry, N.H., or that the site of the Boston Marathon bombing is "not far" from the the southernmost tip of Narragansett, R.I.

And to say that such a distance should somehow spark offense strikes us as mildly ridiculous, so we rate his statement Pants on Fire!
Last Thursday, after hearing President Obama claim "there have been no large scale attacks on the United States" during his presidency, I fired off an email to my co-editor Bryan White: "What are the odds PF gives Obama leeway because 'large scale' is too vague?"

As it turns out, the Predictability Gods were listening to my prayers:
Indeed, the definitions of "large-scale" are sufficiently vague that there’s a lot of room for Obama... 
That's right. PolitiFact can determine the linear distance of "not far," but the definition of "large scale" is beyond their ability to comprehend.

Their final ruling is so pathetically protective of Obama it's actually insulting (emphasis added)
Obama said that since he has taken office, "there have been no large-scale attacks on the United States."

Two attacks on Obama’s watch that might qualify as "large scale" -- the Fort Hood shootings and the Boston Marathon bombing. They caused substantially fewer deaths than the biggest terrorist attacks of recent years, and they are believed to have been carried out by "lone wolf" attackers with limited connections to large-scale terrorist networks. But where to draw the line between small, medium and large attacks is open to interpretation. Obama's formulation is plausible, but not the only one. We rate it Half True.
There's a lot wrong with this paragraph. What qualities are necessary for an attack to be deemed "biggest"? Loss of life? Property damage? Number of terrorists involved? How far back do "recent" years go? Notice that "small," "medium" and "large" are "open to interpretation," but "not far" can be quantified by a Google search.

The reality is that reasonable people are entitled to their own opinions about what constitutes a "large scale" attack, or how close is too close to bury a terrorist to a fallen president. In either case, though, it amounts to an opinion, and is rightly beyond the bounds of the clinical world of fact checking. 

PolitiFact does decent work as an editorial page. And they tend to provide valid arguments in favor of their opinions. But it's dishonest to label themselves "fact checkers," let alone pretend to be unbiased. This latest Obama rating is not a legitimate uncovering of facts. It's a defense of a spin of a denial. PolitiFact may as well have their own podium next to Jay Carney.

Bryan adds:

The way fact checkers rule on ambiguous claims over time reveals much about their ideology.  If one side gets a statistically significant advantage over the other then we have a strong indication of ideological bias.

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