Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tweezers or tongs?

We've noted before PolitiFact's inconsistency in its treatment of compound statements.  It's time to focus on a specific way that inconsistency can influence PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter.

We'll call this problem "tweezers or tongs" and illustrate it with a recent PolitiFact fact check of Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.):
"As a physician for over 30 years, I am well aware of the dangers infectious diseases pose. In fact, infectious diseases remain in the top 10 causes of death in the United States. … Reports of illegal migrants carrying deadly diseases such as swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis are particularly concerning."


The reality is that Ebola has only been found in Africa -- and experts agree that, given how the disease develops, the likelihood of children from Central America bringing it to the U.S. border is almost nonexistent. But most importantly for our fact-check, Gingrey’s office was unable to point to solid evidence that that Ebola has arrived in Western Hemisphere, much less the U.S. border. To the contrary, the CDC and independent epidemiologists say there is zero evidence that these migrants are carrying the virus to the border.

We rate the claim Pants on Fire.
It's tweezers this time.

Gingrey states that disease crossing the border via migration creates a concern.  He mentions reports of swine flu, dengue fever, Ebola virus and tuberculosis crossing the border as examples of concern.  PolitiFact takes its tweezers and picks out "Ebola virus," and drops from consideration the other diseases in Gingrey's compound statement.

Let's review again PolitiFact's guidelines statement of principles:
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.
Or sometimes PolitiFact will just settle on rating one piece of the compound statement.  It's up to PolitiFact, based on the whim of the editors.

Burying Gingrey's underlying point

Though we're focused mainly on PolitiFact's inconsistent handling of compound statements, it's hard to ignore another PolitiShenanigan in the Gingrey fact check.  PolitiFact sometimes takes a subject's underlying point into account when making a ruling.  And sometimes not.  In Gingrey's case, PolitiFact buried Gingrey's underlying point:
As a surge of unaccompanied children from Central America was arriving on the United States’ southern border this month, Rep. Phil Gingrey, R-Ga., expressed concern about the impact they could have on public health.
PolitiFact left out part of the story.  Yes, Gingrey was expressing concern about the potential spread of disease from human migration.  But he wasn't simply airing his concerns to the Centers for Disease Control, to whom he addressed the letter PolitiFact fact checked.  He was asking the CDC to assess the risk:
I request that the CDC take immediate action to assess the public risk posed by the influx of unaccompanied children and their subsequent transfer to different parts of the country.
PolitiFact claims "words matter."  Yet, contrary to PolitiFact's claim, Gingrey did not say migrants may be bringing Ebola virus through the U.S.-Mexico border.  Rather, he said it was troubling to hear reports of diseases, including Ebola virus, coming across the border.

Words matter to PolitiFact, we suppose, since one needs to know exactly how much twisting is needed to arrive at the desired "Truth-O-Meter" rating.

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