Monday, June 3, 2013

Elspeth Reeve's "tea party" hypothesis

We've written a good amount recently about the George Mason University study of PolitiFacts ratings.  GMU's Center for Media and Public Affairs looked at PolitiFact's ratings for President Obama's second term--the term plagued by numerous instances of dubious congressional testimony--and found PolitiFact giving harsher ratings to Republicans by a 3 to 1 margin.

A number of media outlets, including Slate, misinterpreted the study to say that Republicans tell more untruths than Democrats.  Slower-reacting outlets tended to get the story right.  Elspeth Reeve, writing for the Atlantic Wire gets the reason behind the survey right, but offers a silly explanation for the numbers:
This month, 60 percent of Republican claims have been rated as lies, while 29 percent of Democratic claims have been.

Why is that? It's possible the fact-checkers are intentionally or unintentionally letting some bias show through. Whether or not that's true, the state of each party right now most certainly plays a role. A lot of very conservative Republicans got elected in 2010, and the Tea Party got a lot of attention, and some Tea Party Republicans have had a tendency to say inflammatory things. Like, say, Michele Bachmann.
The tea party received a large amount of media attention.  And that's supposed to mitigate the appearance of liberal bias by media fact checkers?  Media fact checkers are part of the media.  Of course media fact checkers follow the stories that get media attention.  The mainstream media have roughly the same liberal bias as PolitiFact.  Reeve's excuse explains media bias by positing an alternative cause that itself amounts to media bias.

It's easy to pop the air-filled idea.  Ask Reeve how she knows people like Michele Bachmann say such outrageous things.  She'll name personally observed anecdotes (mostly from the media) and fact checks like the ones from PolitiFact.  Anecdotal evidence is weak, of course.  But PolitiFact, now there's a source we can trust.

Oh, wait, PolitiFact is precisely the entity that has drawn scrutiny for its potential bias.  If we use PolitiFact's ratings to justify PolitiFact's ratings we're fallaciously arguing in a circle.

Has Reeve got anything other than her own personal observations about the outrageous comments from tea party folks?  If so, she should remember to include that information in support of her hypothesis.

Until Reeve provides some sort of real evidence in favor of this hypothesis, hers is just the latest ad hoc excuse for PolitiFact's appearance of bias.  Spare us the excuses.

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