Thursday, July 3, 2014

PolitiFact's compound problem

Why PolitiFact's rating of Steve Doocy was unfair

After criticizing PunditFact's failure to own up to its mistakes in post this Wednesday past, we promised an example of how PolitiFact applies its rule for compound claims inconsistently.

What is a compound claim?


A compound claim is a claim that asserts more than one truth.  For example:
  • The car is a red Chrysler
The statement makes two assertions of truth:  The car is red, and the car is a Chrysler.

In its statement of principles, PolitiFact says it divides compound claims into segments, grades the segments separately, then rates the overall accuracy:
We sometimes rate compound statements that contain two or more factual assertions. In these cases, we rate the overall accuracy after looking at the individual pieces.
As is normal with PolitiFact, these principles are more like guidelines.  We'll look at the Doocy rating and compare it to another recent PolitiFact rating, this one looking at a statement from liberal columnist Sally Kohn.

"NASA scientists fudged the numbers to make 1998 the hottest year to overstate the extent of global warming."

PolitiFact rated Doocy's claim "Pants on Fire."

"Hobby Lobby provided this (birth control) coverage before they decided to drop it to file suit."

No, wait.  The above quotation is the one PolitiFact said it was checking.  But the actual sentence went on a bit longer (bold emphasis added):

"Hobby Lobby provided this (birth control) coverage before they decided to drop it to file suit, which was politically motivated."

PolitiFact rated Kohn's claim "Mostly True."

With the amputated ending restored, it's easy to see the parallel between the two claims.  Both Doocy and Kohn make assertions of fact, followed by judgments of motivation.  Doocy's claim arguably reports the results of the numbers-fudging rather than asserting that the scientist were motivated to achieve a particular end, but that point isn't necessary to show PolitiFact's inconsistency.

Given the similarity between the two claims, why did PolitiFact treat Doocy's compound claim as a unitary claim and Kohn's as a two-part compound claim?

We suggest a two-part theory.  Treating Doocy's statement as a compound claim might result in a "Mostly False" or better rating for a claim skeptical of human-caused climate change.  Liberals wouldn't like that.  Treating Kohn's claim as a unitary claim, or even dealing with her evidence-free claim of a political motivation for the Hobby Lobby lawsuit, harms the narrative liberals prefer on that topic.

In short, PolitiFact acted inconsistently because of political bias.  That's the theory.  If anybody has a better one, feel free to leave a comment.

The failure to consistently apply its principles provides avenues for the biases of PolitiFact's staffers to suffuse its fact checks.  This is just one example among many.

Additional note on the Kohn fact check

I can't figure out why PolitiFact fact checked Kohn if it wasn't intended to implicitly support her charge that the Hobby Lobby suit was not based on a sincere religious objection.  PolitiFact said "We can’t determine if politics motivated the company."  Without that charge, who cares if Hobby Lobby covered morning-after pills before it decided to bring a suit against the administration?  Despite its disclaimer, PolitiFact goes out of its way to make a circumstantial case supporting Kohn's charge:
The Greens re-examined the company’s health insurance policy back in 2012, shortly before filing the lawsuit. A Wall Street Journal story says they looked into their plan after being approached by an attorney from the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty about possible legal action over the federal government’s contraceptives requirement.

That was when, according to the company’s complaint, they were surprised to learn their prescription drug policy included two drugs, Plan B and ella, which are emergency contraceptive pills that reduce the chance of pregnancy in the days after unprotected sex. The government does not consider morning-after pills as abortifacients because they are used to prevent eggs from being fertilized (not to induce abortions once a woman is pregnant). This is not, however, what the Green family believes, which is that life begins at conception and these drugs impede the survival of fertilized eggs.
We can't determine PolitiFact's motivation for doing this fact check, but ... you get the picture.

Additional additional note:

Somehow, PolitiFact neglected to include the following information from its implicit concurrence with Kohn's attack on the Hobby Lobby's owners, the Green family:
54.  Hobby Lobby's insurance policies have long explicitly excluded--consistent with their religious beliefs--contraceptive devices that might cause abortions and pregnancy-termination drugs like RU-486.
This is from a court document PolitiFact cited in its fact check of Kohn.  PolitiFact used the next item from the document, No. 55, out-of-context against Hobby Lobby.  That was Hobby Lobby's admission that it unwittingly covered two morning-after drugs that may cause abortion.  No. 54 just wouldn't have fit Kohn's narrative, would it?

Jeff Adds: (7-5-2014) It's worth noting that both the Doocy and Kohn ratings were edited by Aaron Sharockman, so the inconsistency cannot be explained by the different journalistic styles of two people.

Update 7/8/2014:

Here's another recent case of the same compound problem, this time featuring Hillary Clinton (bold emphasis added):
"It’s very troubling that a salesclerk at Hobby Lobby who needs contraception, which is pretty expensive, is not going to get that service through her employer’s health care plan because her employer doesn’t think she should be using contraception," Clinton said.
No worries, Mrs. Clinton.  PolitiFact will just focus on the first part of the claim.  It's not really a fact checker's job to point out that Clinton's claim conflicts with Hobby Lobby's willingness to cover 16 kinds of contraception, right?  Nor should we consider Hobby Lobby's religious objection to paying for certain types of contraception.

Edit 7/5/2014: Added links to PolitiFact's Doocy and Kohn ratings - Jeff
Edit 7/5/2014:  Corrected some misspellings, including Mr. Doocy's name.

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