Saturday, July 19, 2014

Guest post: PolitiFact and the Washington Redskins

At we ran across a criticism of PolitiFact by Grim17.  We obtained permission from JLG, the author, to reproduce the post here (edited for style).

Also see our afterword.


Politifact recently decided to evaluate and rule on the following story/claim:
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office "received zero complaints" about the Washington Redskins name.
It is the one and only story that PolitiFact has fact checked that evaluates the validity of the "zero complaints" claim and just so there are no misunderstandings, let me make some things clear:

1. Evaluating that claim is legitimate and completely valid.
2. This issue is a political one and their ruling has political implications for those on both sides of the Redskins issue.
3. This review also has the potential to negatively affect the credibility of certain conservative media organizations.

PolitiFact ruled that the claim was "False", but I have concluded that their evaluation displays a clear liberal bias on their part, and does so in several different ways.


Here is the headline from PolitiFact's front page:

As you see they rate the "received zero complaints" claim as false, and use their subheading to further substantiate that rating by saying "Except for the complaint that started this case" (take note of the subheading, as it will come into play in the future).

People arriving at the PolitiFact website who haven't yet read the actual article, or who choose not to read it, are sent a very clear, cut-and-dry message through that headline. It tells them that both the story and the claim are false and the patent office did in fact receive public complaints about the Redskins name, prior to making their ruling.

Political implications

That headline and subsequent ruling bode well for those on the political left who believe the name is offensive and should be changed, and harms the reputation and credibility of the Washington Times, since they are the ones who broke the story. It also harms the reputation and credibility of the media outlets and conservative pundits who chose to run with the story.

Methodology - Sources used to evaluate the claim

The original story which made headlines on July 1st was titled "Patent office didn’t receive a single public complaint before stripping Redskins trademark" and was published by the conservative-leaning newspaper the Washington Times. You would think that if PolitiFact wanted to fact check the story and the "zero complaints" claim, they would use the original article that was written by the Washington Times to do so... but that isn't what they did.

PolitiFact decided they would fact check the claim by evaluating the opinions written about the story on the Internet by various conservative bloggers, rather than using the actual article written by the newspaper that broke the story in the first place. The reason they chose to evaluate the claim in this way will become clear shortly. 

PolitiFact's ruling and the flaws behind it:

Conservative blog posts smell a scandal in the cancellation of the Washington Redskins trademark, pointing out that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office "received zero complaints" about it before an administrative law court ruled in June.

The case was opened because someone complained -- so that assertion is wrong on its face. But even that aside, the post is misleading in suggesting that public comments are part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office process when they are not.

When people have a problem with patents and trademarks and want them removed, they file formal complaints, prove their standing in the case, pay a fee, and provide evidence to support their case.In other words, they do exactly what the five plaintiffs in this case did here.

We rate the claim False.
So PolitiFact rules the claim that the patent office "received zero complaints" as "False" based on two reasons. That the five Native Americans who filed the legal challenge qualify as a "complaint" and because they claim an opinion posted on the Conservative Tribune blog misled readers by suggesting that public comments are part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office process.

The first reason is flawed because it's public knowledge that five Native Americans filed a formal complaint challenging the renewal of the trademark, which led to the USPTO review in the first place. Plus the blog even linked to the original story, making that perfectly clear. So it's obvious that both the blog and the Washington Times were saying "zero complaints other than the formal complaint that started all of this" because they assumed their readers were fully knowledgeable of the controversy, including the USPTO ruling and the factors that led to it.  This is a case of PolitiFact choosing to omit logic and common sense.

The second reason isn't flawed, it's just flat out incorrect, as well as being totally irrelevant to the validity of the quote. Nowhere in the post made by the Conservative Tribune blog, in the post they quoted from the Weasel Zippers blog, or in the original story from the Washington Times, was it ever implied in any way that "public comments are part of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office process". That is a completely false claim by PolitiFact.  But even if bought into their assertion, it would still have nothing to do with whether the "zero complaints" claim was true or not. Their headline and subheading on their front page simply says that the claim that the patent office "received zero complaints" about the Washington Redskins name, is false, and any implications based on that claim are totally irrelevant.


1. PolitiFact rating that story/claim as "false", is itself false. One of their two conclusion requires a parsing of words that defies logic, is devoid of common sense and ignores the content of the original story, while the other conclusion is a falsehood that is not supported by any of the 3 sources they used to render their ruling.

2. Claiming that "The case was opened because someone complained -- so that assertion is wrong on its face" would not have been possible if they evaluated the original story, because it explained how the five Native Americans were responsible for the trademark being reviewed. It would have made their conclusion an absolute joke. Evaluating the claim through an opinion on a conservative blog however, allowed them to use a technicality to parse words and make that claim, because the blog never mentioned the 5 Native Americans... they only linked to the original story that did mention them.

3. It's obvious that PolitiFact was aware that saying "The case was opened because someone complained -- so that assertion is wrong on its face" was extremely weak, which is why they tried to strengthen it by falsely claiming that the blog article was misleading, when it wasn't.


After reading the PolitiFact article and the 3 stories they used to make their ruling, it's obvious that their ruling was bogus. They took a story that looked bad for the political left that should have been ruled "Mostly true" or "True", and deemed it "False". On their front page, they falsely led their readers into believing that people had in fact complained about the Redskins name, and that the entire story that Washington Times published was a lie, bringing into question the credibility of other conservative media outlets, conservative bloggers and conservative pundits who ran with the story. The "liberal biased" icing on the cake is the fact that PolitiFact chose to evaluate the story through the opinions published by conservative bloggers, rather than just evaluating the original story itself, because that was the only way they could avoid having to rule that the claim and the story were in fact true.

Liberal bias CONFIRMED
(end of post by JLG)


Another member of the debate.politics community, "Hatuey," challenged Grim17's post, noting that complaints were lodged against the name "Redskins" at a public hearing held by the USPTO.  While that information does have bearing on whether the "zero complaints" claim is literally true, it has no bearing on the quality of PolitiFact's fact check.  PolitiFact does not list the public hearing on its source list, therefore Grim17's central criticism of PolitiFact's method stands. 

Edit 7-20-2014: Added link to PolitiFact/Redskins article to the word "False."- Jeff

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