Wednesday, December 24, 2014

PolitiFact editor explains the difference between "False" and "Pants on Fire"

During an interview for a  "DeCodeDC" podcast, PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan explained to listeners the difference between the Truth-O-Meter ratings "False" and "Pants on Fire":

Our transcript of the relevant portion of the podcast follows, picking up with the host asking why President Barack Obama's denial of a change of position on immigration wasn't rated more harshly (bold emphasis added):
Why wouldn't that be "Pants on Fire," for example?

You know, that's an interesting question.

We have definitions for all of our ratings. The definition for "False" is the statement is not accurate. The definition for "Pants on Fire" is the statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim. So, we have a vote by the editors and the line between "False" and "Pants on Fire" is just, you know, sometimes we decide one way and sometimes decide the other. And we totally understand when readers might disagree and say "You rated that 'Pants on Fire.' It should only be 'False.'" Or "You rated that 'False." Why isn't it 'Pants on Fire'?" Those are the kinds of discussions we have every day ...
One branch of our research examines how PolitiFact differentially applies its "Pants on Fire" definition to false statements by the ideology of the subject. Holan's description accords with other statements from PolitiFact regarding the criteria used to distinguish between "False" and "Pants on Fire."

Taking PolitiFact at its word, we concluded that the line of demarcation between the two ratings is essentially subjective. Our data show that PolitiFact National is over 70 percent more likely to give a Republican's false statement a "Pants on Fire" rating than a Democrat's false statement.

We don't necessarily agree with PolitiFact's determinations of what is true or false, of course. What's important to our research is that the PolitiFact editors doing the voting believe it.

Holan's statement helps further confirm our hypothesis regarding the subjective line of demarcation between "False" and "Pants on Fire."

We'll soon publish an update of our research, covering 2014 and updating cumulative totals.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Mailbag meets windbag

PolitiFact published a "Lie of the Year" edition of its "Mailbag" feature on Dec. 22, 2014. Criticism by Hot Air's Noah Rothman drew immediate mention:
Noah C. Rothman at the conservative blog Hot Air took issue with our Lie of the Year choice.

"Some of these assertions (that collectively earned the Lie of the Year) were misleading, but PolitiFact’s central thesis – ‘when combined, the claims edged the nation toward panic’ – is unfalsifiable. In the absence of any questioning of the federal response to the Ebola epidemic, an unlikely prospect given the government’s poor performance, PolitiFact cannot prove there would have been no broader apprehension about the deadly African hemorrhagic fever. In fact, to make that claim would be laughable.

"In response to Ebola, Sierra Leone literally canceled Christmas. In Britain, returning health care workers who may have had contact with an Ebola patient will have a lonely holiday as well. They will be forced by government mandate to isolate themselves for the duration of the 21-day incubation period, despite the protestations of health care workers. If Ebola ‘panic’ exists, it is certainly not limited to America and is not the fault of exclusively conservative lawmakers. … PolitiFact embarrassed itself again today, but I guess that’s hardly news."
Rothman's main criticism was PolitiFact's ridiculous primary focus on George Will's true claim that Ebola could be transmitted through the air by a sneeze or a cough.

PolitiFact's guidelines:
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
Left out: the main part of Rothman's criticism.


Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Commentary: 'PolitiFact’s Ebola Distortions'

Seth Mandel has another deft dissection of PolitiFact's 2014 "Lie of the Year" up at Commentary:
Different statements being grouped together into one “lie”–especially when they’re not lies, even if they’re mistaken–will not do wonders for PolitiFact’s already rock-bottom credibility. But in fact it’s really worse than that. Here’s PolitiFact’s explanation for their choice of “Lie of the Year,” demonstrating beyond any semblance of a doubt that those who run PolitiFact don’t understand the concept around which they’ve supposedly built their business model:
Yet fear of the disease stretched to every corner of America this fall, stoked by exaggerated claims from politicians and pundits. They said Ebola was easy to catch, that illegal immigrants may be carrying the virus across the southern border, that it was all part of a government or corporate conspiracy.
The claims — all wrong — distorted the debate about a serious public health issue. Together, they earn our Lie of the Year for 2014.
You’ll notice right there that PolitiFact engages in its own bit of shameless dishonesty.
Mandel makes a great point about PolitiFact's careless reporting of its "Lie of the Year" selection, a point we're also poised to make by using even more blatant examples from Aaron Sharockman, the editor of PolitiFact's "PunditFact" venture.

It's bad enough to botch the fact-checking end of things. Telling people about the botched fact checks using a new layer of falsehoods and distortions intensifies the deceptive effects.

This is nothing out of the ordinary for PolitiFact.

We'll once again emphasize the point we made in our post yesterday: Naming more than one "Lie of the Year" has some utility when it comes to deflecting criticism. Even Mandel mumbled something about being fair to PolitiFact owing to the multiple winners before he eviscerated their inclusion of Will's claim about the airborne spread of Ebola.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Lost letters: Apology Tour edition

We love getting reader feedback on our posts. And we're much more likely to respond to criticism than is PolitiFact. We found this bit of feedback very recently posted to a message board after somebody mentioned how PolitiFact found claims about an Obama "apology tour" false:
How cute, some nut's blog claiming that conservative-leaning Politifact is biased in favor of Obama. And claims that Obama had an "apology tour" because...far-right nutcase Nile Gardiner of the Heritage Foundation says so
How odd for "conservative-leaning PolitiFact" to dismiss the one conservative view among the four experts whose views it solicited! Especially when Gardiner stood alone among the experts with his experience in international relations.

And, of course, our argument wasn't based solely on PolitiFact arbitrarily ignoring an expert opinion it solicited. We found descriptions of apologies in professional journals and applied the definitions we found to the idea of an Obama "apology tour." Because that's what nutcases do.

Why didn't PolitiFact bother reviewing professional literature in its effort to settle the fact of the matter? Probably the same reason it ignored Gardiner's professional opinion: PolitiFact is conservative-leaning.

It makes complete sense if reality is liberally biased.

Find the full explanation of why it's reasonable to call Obama's world tour an "apology tour" at Zebra Fact Check


Jeff thinks it may not be obvious to every visitor that I'm kidding about PolitiFact's conservative bias. This note is intended as a corrective for any who might fall in that group.

2014: Another year, another laughable Lie of the Year

It's time for our annual criticism of PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" award!

Leading off in a bipartisan spirit, let's note that every single one of PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" award winners have contained some nugget of truth. This year, PolitiFact decisively elected to give the award to many quite different claims, each having something to do with the Ebola virus.

There's nothing like the meat tenderizer approach when wielding the scalpel of truth.

My handicapping job on the Lie of the Year award was pretty close. But PolitiFact threw us another curve this year by choosing two entries from its list of candidates and then throwing a bunch of other somewhat related claims in for good measure.

No, we're not even kidding.

Let's let PolitiFact's editor, Angie Drobnic Holan, tell the story:
[F]ear of the disease stretched to every corner of America this fall, stoked by exaggerated claims from politicians and pundits. They said Ebola was easy to catch, that illegal immigrants may be carrying the virus across the southern border, that it was all part of a government or corporate conspiracy.

The claims -- all wrong -- distorted the debate about a serious public health issue. Together, they earn our Lie of the Year for 2014.
PolitiFact's lead example, that Ebola is easy to catch, matches closely with the entry I marked as the most likely candidate. It's also the candidate that Hot Air's Noah Rothman identified as the worst candidate:
[T]he most undeserving of entries upon which PolitiFact has asked their audience to vote is a claim attributed to the syndicated columnist George Will. That claim stems from an October 18 appearance on Fox News Sunday in which Will criticized the members of the Obama administration for their hubristic early statements assuring the country that the Ebola outbreak in Africa was contained to that continent.

“The problem is the original assumption, said with great certitude if not certainty, was that you need to have direct contact, meaning with bodily fluids from someone because it’s not airborne,” Will said of the deadly African hemorrhagic fever. “There are doctors who are saying that in a sneeze or some cough, some of the airborne particles can be infectious.”
Rothman's post at Hot Air makes essentially the same points we posted to PolitiFact's Facebook page back in October:

PolitiFact's ruling was an exercise in pedantry, extolling the epidemiological understanding of "airborne" over the common understanding. Perhaps Will's statement implicitly exaggerated the risk of contracting Ebola via airborne droplets, but his statement was literally true.

What else went into the winning "Lie of the Year" grab-bag?
  • Rand Paul's claim that Ebola is "incredibly contagious" (not a candidate)
  • Internet users claiming Obama would detain persons showing Ebola symptoms (not a candidate)
  • Bloggers claiming the virus was cooked up in a bioweapons lab (not a candidate)
  • Rep. Paul Broun's claim he'd encountered reports of Ebola carriers crossing the U.S.-Mexico border (a candidate!)
  • Sen. John McCain's claim the the Obama administration said there's be no U.S. outbreak of Ebola (not a candidate).
PolitiFact tosses in a few more claims later on, but you get the idea. PolitiFact crowned every blue-eyed girl Homecoming Queen in 2014, after naming only two statements "Lie of the Year" in 2013.

Why so many lies of the year in 2014?

Sunday, December 14, 2014

PolitiFact poised to pick 2014 "Lie of the Year"

It's time for PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" nonsense again, where the supposedly nonpartisan fact checkers set aside objectivity even more blatantly than usual to offer their opinion on the year's most significant political falsehood.

We'll first note a change from years past, as PolitiFact abandons its traditional presentation of the candidates accompanied by their corresponding "Truth-O-Meter" graphic. Does that have something to do with criticisms over last year's deceitful presentation? One can only hope, but we're inclined to call it coincidence.

And now a bit of handicapping, using a 0-10 scale to rate the strength of the candidate:

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

PolitiFact's coin flips

We've often highlighted the apparent non-objective standards PolitiFact uses to justify its "Truth-O-Meter" ratings. John Kroll, a former staffer at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, PolitiFact's former partner with PolitiFact Ohio, said the choice between one rating and another was often difficult and said the decisions amounted to "coin flips" much of the time.

Heads the liberal wins, tails the Republican loses, at least in the following comparison of PolitiFact's ratings of Stephen Carter (liberal) and Ted Cruz (Republican).

I'll simply reproduce the email PolitiFact Bias editor Jeff D. sent me, reformatted to our standard PFB presentation:
Read the last three paragraphs of each one (emphasis mine):
Carter said that more than 70 percent of American adults have committed a crime that could lead to imprisonment. Based on a strictly technical reading of existing laws, the consensus among the legal experts we reached is that the number is reasonable. Way more than a majority of Americans have done something in their lives that runs afoul of some law that includes jail or prison time as a potential punishment.

That said, experts acknowledged that the likelihood of arrest, prosecution or imprisonment is exceedingly low for many of Americans’ "crimes." 

As such, we rate the claim Mostly True.

Cruz said that "Lorne Michaels could be put in jail under this amendment for making fun of any politician."

Most experts we talked to agreed that the proposed amendment’s language left open the door to that possibility. But many of those same experts emphasized that prosecuting, much less imprisoning, a comedian for purely political speech would run counter to centuries of American tradition, and would face many obstacles at a variety of government levels and run headlong into popular sentiment.

In the big picture, Cruz makes a persuasive case that it’s not a good idea to mess with the First Amendment. Still, his SNL scenario is far-fetched. The claim is partially accurate but leaves out important details, so we rate it Half True.

One wonders if PolitiFact sought the consensus of experts while considering whether blacks were convicted at a higher rate than whites in a recent fact check. Rudy Giuliani received a "False" rating since PolitiFact could locate no official statistics backing his claim. Looks like official statistics aren't really needed if experts think a claim seems reasonable.

Jeff Adds: 

Though former Cleveland Plain Dealer (PolitiFact Ohio) editor John Kroll admits PolitiFact's ratings often amount to coin flips, their other journalistic standards are applied with the same consistency. Take for instance their Dec. 2 dodge of the claim Obama's executive order on immigration would create a $3000 incentive to hire undocumented workers:
The claim isn’t so much inaccurate as it is speculative. For that reason, we won’t put this on our Truth-O-Meter.
Was there an unannounced policy change at PolitiFact? Aaron Sharockman was editor on both the Cruz and Carter checks. An unnamed editor signed off on the Incentive claim, adding flip flops to coin flips.

Here's a timeline:
  • On Sept. 11, 2014, there was enough established, tangible evidence for something that may or may not happen in the future to say Ted Cruz' prediction was half wrong
  • On Dec. 2, 2014, PolitiFact suddenly has a policy against checking speculative claims, but felt compelled enough to spend an entire article Voxsplaining their work to readers.
  • On Dec. 8th, 2014, PolitiFact is back in the future-checking business and found enough proof of something that hasn't actually happened yet to definitively determine a liberal's claim is Mostly True.
Remember also that Mitt Romney won the Lie of the Year award for a TV ad that claimed implied Chrysler would be moving Jeep production to China. So in 2012, PolitiFact's most notable falsehood of the year was a campaign ad implying something would happen in the future.

But does Obama's executive order offer a certain economic incentive, as in the Dec. 2 article? Sorry, PolitiFact says it doesn't rate speculative claims.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Legal Insurrection: 'PolitiFact debunks obviously 'shopped photo (that no one believed was real)'

The title pretty much says it all.

We had plans to write this example, but we're pleased as punch to find our effort pre-empted by the good folks at Legal Insurrection:
Two different photographs, one very clearly photoshopped to provide some social commentary on a quickly spiraling situation. Predictably, the photograph enraged some, delighted others, but no one with two brain cells to rub together believed that the “rob a store” version of the photograph was real.

Politifact, however, dove in headfirst to provide us with an analysis no one asked for[.]
Visit Legal Insurrection for the entire article and to experience the visuals.