Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The PolitiFact "Lie of the Year" conspiracy of the year

PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" for 2013 will prove its most embarrassing effort to date.

My PolitiFact Bias co-editor, Jeff D, figured out why.  At first I didn't quite buy it.  I'm a tough sell for conspiracy theories.  The mainstream journalists I've met virtually all seem decent, and I'm typically willing to grant the benefit of the doubt.

But this year's "Lie of the Year" is a travesty.  And as a former skeptic I'll explain it to the other skeptics.

Jeff's earlier post, PolitiFact's Bait and Switch: "If You Like It" is Not a Lie of the Year Finalist, was toned down and altered at my urging.  It concludes that Obama's "If you like it" promise is not one of this year's "Lie of the Year" finalists.

But we think PolitiFact intends people to think it is one of the finalists.

Why is there any question about it?


In our earlier post, we noted that PolitiFact used bold emphasis to identify each candidate for its "Lie of the Year" prize except for one:

Why did I think "If you like it" wasn't one of the choices despite occurring with bold emphasis?  Two reasons, both mentioned by PolitiFact right along with the choice:
  1. The claim in bold came from "previous years"
  2. The description mentions a different, though related, claim from 2013 that received a "Pants on Fire" rating.  That claim would more naturally qualify as a candidate.
I charitably assumed PolitiFact would not nominate a claim it rated "Half True" in June 2012 as its 2013 "Lie of the Year" without carefully justifying that decision.  The evidence suggests that charity was misplaced.

    But the "Pants on Fire" claim is really the same thing, isn't it?

    As mentioned in our earlier post, Jeff noticed that Tampa Bay Times political editor Adam Smith appeared to think "If you like it" was one of the candidates.

    A writer for PolitiFact Oregon, Ryan Kost, said "(I) think for all intents and purposes it represents the same claim to readers."

    Does it represent the same claim to readers?

    The "If you like it" line was used repeatedly to sell the Affordable Care Act. The "What we said was" line was used in an embarrassing and short-lived attempt at damage control when the "If you like it" line came under withering criticism (after hundreds of thousands of people started receiving cancellation notices from their health insurance carriers).

    They're not the same thing at all. "If you like it" was politically important for years, and remains a major issue for the entire Democratic Party this year. "What we said was" is politically unimportant in comparison, just one of many implausible excuses Democrats have offered for Obama's failed promise. The final proof they're not the same? PolitiFact rated one of them no worse than "Half True" but rated the other one "Pants on Fire." That's a big difference.

    Why are the two different claims linked in the "Lie of the Year" competition?

    That's the key question right there.

    PolitiFact has to know the two claims aren't essentially the same, or else the two claims would receive essentially the same rating.
    Click image for larger view

    "If you like it" counts as the pre-emptive favorite. The rest of this year's candidates are pretty weak. Without "If you like it" picking favorites would be tough. There's really nothing of comparable political importance, and PolitiFact has consistently used political importance as a key criterion for making its "Lie of the Year" selection.

    PolitiFact has a problem. It didn't rate its strongest "Lie of the Year" candidate at all in 2013, so how can it justify nominating the claim? Worse, PolitiFact has rated it no lower than "Half True." Half is quite a bit of truth for a "Lie of the Year," especially if it's a 2012 rating receiving special consideration in 2013.

    Is there any way out of the conundrum?

    What if PolitiFact just sort of combined the two claims? It's not really a cop-out if the claims aren't formally combined! Mentioning the related "Pants on Fire" claim may help deflect attention from the fact PolitiFact is nominating a "Half True" claim from 2012 as a "Lie of the Year" in 2013.

    That's why PolitiFact linked the two claims when describing the nominations. No other rationale makes sense of the decision (see our handy-dandy flow chart up and to the right). Though we're mindful of Hanlon's razor, mentioning "What we said was" in the description of "If you like it" has no bearing on whether the latter is a worthy "Lie of the Year" unless the two are formally combined into one choice. PolitiFact mixed the two claims to help neutralize the downside of nominating a "Half True" statement as its "Lie of the Year."

    But it's just the reader's poll!  Who cares?

    With a hat tip to Vicini, it's inconceivable that PolitiFact will choose a claim other than "If you like it" as the "Lie of the Year" from its list of nominees.  Having gone out of the way to nominate a claim from years past made relevant by the events of 2013, PolitiFact must choose it or lose credibility.

    But what about the reader's poll?  That's just entertainment, right?

    That's what I argued to Jeff, since that's how I've viewed the "Lie of the Year" reader's poll.  But once we see the utility in PolitiFact's decision to cloud the picture by mixing the two claims, we can also see how the reader's poll helps PolitiFact fulfill its aim.

    If PolitiFact's readers support voting for a claim PolitiFact rated "Half True" in 2012, then PolitiFact gains valuable justification for doing the same thing.  With luck, PolitiFact can claim strong public support for its decision.  And mixing in that "Pants on Fire" claim with "If you like it" will help deceive readers into providing that support.

    "Lie of the Year" as political messaging

    There's good reason for anger in response to PolitiFact manipulating its "Lie of the Year" competition to burnish its own image.

    We've criticized PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" as an obvious piece of editorializing.  Picking a "Lie of the Year" is not fact-finding.  It's editorial judgment all the way.  But think about the implications of PolitiFact using "What we said was" for purposes of misdirection.  PolitiFact is using its "Lie of the Year" in 2013 as a cover for its failure to adequately report on the "If you like it" claim as well as for its failure to admit the first failure.  And it's very hard to imagine the strategy is not deliberate.

    Jeff Adds:

    Make no mistake: Obama's "What we said was" claim will be PolitiFact's winner. Furthermore, you can guarantee that the headline announcing the winner will be pretending "If you like it" is the actual winner, despite PolitiFact failing to actually rate that claim this year.

    It hardly takes magical powers to predict PolitiFact's announcement. The field is intentionally weak in order for PolitiFact to justify the outcome. It strains credulity to even consider Obamacare will question your sex life as one of "the most significant falsehoods of the year." The notion that a chain email suggesting Muslims are exempt from Obamacare was a nationally compelling story doesn't pass the sniff test. The only one that comes close to "If you like it" is Ted Cruz's claim about Congress being exempt from the ACA. However, that rating is so comically flawed (and easily debunked) it's unlikely PolitiFact would like to draw attention to it.

    Notably absent in the finalists is any mention of Obama's claim that he didn't draw a red line on Syria's use of chemical weapons (PolitiFact courageously avoided that claim by writing an In Context article, claiming it was too nuanced. Of course, PolitiFact Wisconsin later gave Paul Ryan a Half-Flip on the red line they couldn't tell Obama drew.)

    What about James Clapper lying under oath to Congress regarding the NSA's surveillance activities? No, PolitiFact gives us an Ann Coulter article to vote for.

    Oddly enough, in the year of Lois Lerner and the IRS scandal, PolitiFact selected a chain email that unbelievably claimed Obamacare means forced home inspection as candidate for most significant falsehood of the year. 

    Once you understand PolitiFact is a self-aware political animal as opposed to an unbiased arbiter of facts, it's hardly difficult to figure out which direction they'll take. The fix is in.

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