Friday, November 29, 2013

Planetizen: 'How Many Bicycles Can Park In The Space Required By One Car? Don’t Ask PolitiFact'

Though we think PolitiFact unfairly harms conservatives more than liberals, we recognize that PolitiFact's ineptitude can potentially harm anything it touches.  We have a handy example of that from PolitiFact Oregon, courtesy of Todd Littman and the website Planetizen.

Littman wrote a report that undergirded Democrat Earl Blumenauer's claim that 20 bicycles can park in the space required by one car.

PolitiFact pulled its patented methods of misinterpretation and assumed that the "space required by one car" is a parking space.  Littman explained that his report isn't about parking spaces alone but takes into account the total space of a parking lot on a per-car basis.  He then related how he went through the all-too-typical runaround with the PolitiFact gang trying to get them to see his point and change the ruling.

His dealings with PolitiFact culminated in yet another disappointing exchange with the editor of PolitiFact national, this time with new national editor Angie Drobnic Holan:
I then contacted PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan, who, after several queries finally replied,
I looked at the report and I didn't see anything that wasn't factually accurate. In addition, the report seemed very thorough. I appreciate that you disagree with the rating, but at the end of the day, the rating is the judgment of the editors.
These responses indicate that the PolitiFact organization has little interest in helping their readers understand complex issues. It is news as sport rather than education. They showed no interest in making the column more accurate and fair by explaining the difference between on- and off-street parking facilities, and admitting that the statement would be "True" for the majority of car parking. Most readers will simply look at the Truth-o-Meter rating, few will understand that the conclusion only applies to a subset of total car parking.
The only way we could imagine PolitiFact could justify its stand was if Blumenauer was clearly talking about an individual parking space.  So we looked up the statement from Blumenauer:
Between 6 and 20 bicycles can be parked in the space required by one car.  The average cost of one parking space for a car in a paved lot is $2,200; in parking garages, a single car space averages $12,500. An independent cost-benefit analysis of Portland Oregon’s Bicycle Master Plan concluded that the plan would lower fuel costs by as much as $218 million (depending on the level of final investments) by 2040. (Journal of Physical Activity and Health, Vol 8 Supplement, January, 2011)
The context supports Littman.  Did PolitiFact object to the difference in cost between a parking space in a paved lot and that same space in a parking garage?  There's no excuse for the disparity in price unless one considers the structures as a whole.

This sort of thing is all too normal for PolitiFact.

We recommend Littman's critique.  He's got all the support he needs for some scathing commentary about PolitiFact.

Monday, November 18, 2013

PolitiFact: Pay no attention to the experts behind the curtain!

Over at my other project, Zebra Fact Check, I just finished a review of a research paper that defended the accuracy of the mainstream fact checkers partly because they tend to agree with each other.

I was thinking "How can they overlook the many cases where PolitiFact disagrees with itself?"

And moments ago, we have another case in point:
PolitiFact previously reviewed Obama’s claim that "our deficits are falling at the fastest rate in 60 years" and rated it True.

The deficit was 10.1 percent of GDP in 2009, but fell in 2012 to 7 percent -- a decline of 3.1 percentage points. The period between 1946 and 1949, when the deficit as a percentage of GDP fell 7.4 percentage points, produced the only bigger decline.

Experts have criticized Obama’s point as misleading.
PolitiFact's "Principles" page lists its criteria for choosing statements to rate. One of them is "Is the statement leaving a particular impression that may be misleading?"

PolitiFact rated President Obama "True" for a statement experts found misleading.


Note:  Zebra Fact Check also found the statement misleading.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Letters to PolitiFact: "Losing Credibility"

Alert reader Michael Schmidt shared this letter he wrote to PolitiFacter Louis Jacobson. Mr. Schmidt raises some excellent points and makes a good comparison. We appreciate him granting us permission to post it so you can read it as well. The following is unedited with the exception of formatting:
Your continued statements regarding the following being "half true" impacts your credibility since you treat two individuals in nearly identical situations differently. Here is the statement on Obama:
After the Supreme Court upheld the health care bill he’d signed into law, President Barack Obama applauded the decision in a speech at the White House. In that speech, Obama responded to critics, including Mitt Romney, who say the law could force many Americans off their health care plans.

"If you're one of the more than 250 million Americans who already have health insurance, you will keep your health insurance," Obama said. "This law will only make it more secure and more affordable."
The next statement is regarding Valerie Jarrett:
But critics of the law have been on the attack about what they call Obama’s broken promise. Defending the law, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett sent out this message via Twitter on Oct. 28, 2013:

"FACT: Nothing in #Obamacare forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans."
Both instances are in response to defending Obamacare. One uses "nothing" while the other states "if you are one of". Your ruling points out that "nothing" is an extreme claim. Obamacare effectively stated "all" of the 250 million people will get to keep their health insurance which appears to be extreme also.

In defense of your ruling for Obama's statement and partly as a critique, you state that Obama "suggests that keeping the insurance you like is guaranteed."  In the statement I read, the statement was explicitly stated versus implied. To soften the statement to "suggests" is a misrepresentation.

I enjoyed the PolitiFact site for a while and I go back from time to time but its apparent bias to a Democratic president and the criticisms I have seen regarding the disparity in rulings between Democrats and Republicans is convincing me that the site is biased and therefore guilty of the same behavior as both politicians and mainstream media outlets (on either side of the political spectrum).


Michael Schmidt
Mr. Schmidt repeats a common theme we've talked about here, and that is PolitiFact's inconsistency. Obama makes a definitive statement, and PolitiFact mitigates it by painting it as merely a vague implication. Jarrett does the same but fails to earn PolitiFact's protective nuance allowance. It's true that both Obama and Jarrett are Democrats, but we've pointed out before that inept ratings toward liberals can be indicative of just how incompetent and arbitrary PolitiFact's system is. It's also worth noting that Jarrett is hardly the figurehead of liberalism that Obama is, and throwing her under the bus is a small price to pay for PolitiFact's appearance of neutrality.

Ultimately, PolitiFact's inconsistency overwhelmingly falls against one side of the political aisle, but there's so much inconsistency there's certain to be liberals hit by friendly fire. PolitiFact's ratings are arbitrary, and should be treated as the commentary pieces they are.

Many thanks to Mr. Schmidt for allowing us to share his letter. Of course, if Mr. Jacobson would like to respond to Schmidt's letter we're happy to publish it here with his permission.

Edit 11/10/13 2104PST:  Added links to two PolitiFact articles in both instances of the word "statement" in Mr. Schmidt's letter. The links did not appear in the original letter sent to us, but it's our policy to link to the PolitiFact articles we are critiquing. - Jeff

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The Washington Examiner: "Politifact's pants are on fire on coverage of Obamacare promises"

Sean Higgins of the Washington Examiner makes the logical expansion on the criticism of PolitiFact's "Half True" rating of President Obama's "You can keep it" promise.  Higgins looks at PolitiFact's entire account of the promise.

Higgins may have pre-empted a similar story I had planned for Zebra Fact Check.  He did such a good job there's little room for improvement except by making the story longer and more detailed.

The first of these six Politifact columns ran Oct. 7, 2008, and evaluated Obama's comment, “[I]f you've got a health care plan that you like, you can keep it.” It rated this as “true” since Obama was “accurately describing his [then-proposed] health care plan.”

In other words, it was grading him on the basis of “Did he really promise this?” and not the more relevant “Is this a plausible promise?”
Higgins makes a great point in the second paragraph.  What kind of fact check is this for then-candidate Obama?  A test of whether he can accurately describe what his health care plan promised at the time?

The inside story on health care reform from the Obama campaign helps fill in that picture.  Obama was telling people what they wanted to hear.

Perhaps of greatest interest to me was the response Higgins received from PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan:
I asked Politifact’s editors whether they still stood by these columns. Editor Angie Holan did not respond directly, instead emailing me a round up of their more recent columns on aspects of the Obamacare debate. I asked again and she did not respond.

Apparently, Politifact thinks accountability is something that only applies to other people.
It seems that way sometimes.  I've sent a fair number of emails to PolitiFact writer/editor teams pointing out unambiguous errors.  It's normal to receive no response and to see the error go uncorrected.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Ethics Alarms: "The Washington Post’s Integrity And Trustworthiness Test Results: Mixed; Naturally, PolitiFact Flunks"

We've highlighted PolitiFact-related stories from Ethics Alarms before.  This one offers some plaudits and criticisms for the Washington Post Fact Checker, Glenn Kessler.  And it pulls no punches in its assessment of PolitiFact:
PolitiFact ... is an unethical fact-checking site that often doesn’t even try to cover its tracks as a partisan resource. It dishonestly uses the “fact check” format to challenge conservative positions and bolster Democrats. As I would have expected, PolitiFact employs euphemisms and convoluted descriptions to describe Obama’s flat out falsehood, like “overly optimistic” (you aren’t being overly optimistic when you know the sunny results you are promising won’t happen—you are lying), “less accurate” (a Clintonism), and “a different impression than what Obama is suggesting” (He wasn’t “suggesting” that nobody would be forced off their health plan; he was asserting it with no qualifiers at all, “period.”)
 There's plenty more worth reading, so visit Ethics Alarms and take it all in.

The president's promise that people could keep the healthcare plan and the doctor they like has appropriately focused attention on PolitiFact's (in)competence.

We're delighted.