We said before that PolitiFact does not hold itself to the same standard it applies to others. Though perhaps PolitiFact's scarce adherence to any consistent standard makes that inevitable. Our example comes from a March 20, 2016 fact check of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid
Let's start with the misleading headline:
PolitiFact noted in its fact check that Democrats did, in fact, hold up the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork, whom Reagan nominated in 1987. So how does it work out that Reid's statement is "mostly true" anyway?
It's tricky, in keeping with PolitiFact's tradition of convoluted and selective justification.
In context, Reid stipulated that he was talking about lame duck cases. That makes his statement literally
(see Update below) under an expansive interpretation of "lame duck," since Bork was nominated before 1988, Reagan's final year in office.
Up through this point, one might argue PolitiFact is treating Reid unfairly by rating his true statement only "Mostly True."
But there's much more to this story, and PolitiFact leaves out important parts.
First and foremost, there is no historical parallel to the current situation with the Supreme Court. The Bork nomination is considered a prime turning point in the politization of the confirmation process, and there is no example of a lame-duck nomination since Reagan
And the current situation during Obama's last year in office sets a new precedent because his choice would not replace a liberal justice but a conservative justice. With his choice of Bork, Reagan was trying to replace the Nixon-appointed Justice Lewis Powell
PolitiFact's effort to help us understand the truth in politics completely omits any information about differences in the ways these nominations would affect the political balance on the Supreme Court. It's apparently unimportant context in PolitiFact's eyes.
PolitiFact almost makes it look like Democrats rolled out the red carpet for Bork compared to Obama's hapless nominee Merrick Garland:
Bork did face a hearing and a Senate vote, which he lost, but his confirmation process made the rules of the game more contentious.
What's left out? The Democrat-controlled Senate Committee that sent Bork's nomination to the Senate recommended the Senate reject the nomination. And Democrats had enough of a majority that Bork had no chance with 52 of 54 Democrats voting against him
(four Republicans often associated with the acronym RINO also opposed Bork).
Why is this background important? Let's revisit the context of Reid's reply to Meet the Press
host Chuck Todd. Todd played a clip from 2005 of Reid saying the Senate has no constitutional duty to vote on a Supreme Court nomination. Now Reid says the Republicans have that duty. Todd asked Reid what changed. What changed, Reid said, is that the Democrats have never opposed a lame-duck nominee--a history running right up through 1988, before Reid ever claimed the Senate has no duty to vote on a nomination.
Reid's answer to Todd was complete baloney, in context. PolitiFact's fact-check does nothing to emphasize that context to its readers. Instead, PolitiFact readers get a misleading headline sending the message that Democrats hardly at all obstruct the Supreme Court nominations of Republicans.
PolitiFact: Putting the Clintonian "is"
in "nonpartisan" since 2007.
Update: "Lame Duck" Lameness
Jeff D. points out the elephant in the room.
Before we rule, we wanted to note a slight error in the second part of Reid’s statement that "since 1900 in a lame-duck session, there have been six (nominees) that have all been approved." We have found in a previous fact-check that since the early 1900s, there have been six Supreme Court nominees in election years, and all were confirmed. However, only one was clearly a "lame-duck" nominee, meaning the president making the nomination was no question on the way out (Reagan). The others were nominated by presidents running for re-election to serve another term (Herbert Hoover, William Howard Taft, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who nominated two people in 1916).
Reid's stipulation that he was talking about lame ducks makes his statement literally false, contrary to the charitable reading I gave it in the post above. Reid's statement was flat wrong, but PolitiFact arbitrarily determined that Reid's exaggeration of 500 percent (of the number of "lame duck" Supreme Court nominations) was a "slight error" that does not appear to count against Reid's eventual rating.
PolitiFact used tweezers to pull out the most truth it could from Reid's statement, leaving behind plenty of falsehood.
Correction March 23, 2016: Replaced "Mostly False" with "Mostly True" in referring to the rating Reid received from PolitiFact. March 31 update: Added strikethrough of "true" and added "false" to clarify the meaning.