Saturday, September 10, 2016

Brilliant: PolitiFact puts "Mostly False" claim in Trump's mouth

PolitiFact claims it takes context into account when it does its fact-checking.

That often is not the case.

Observe this example, from a Sept. 8 fact check of Donald Trump (bold emphasis added):
Donald Trump defended his praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin during NBC’s Commander-in-Chief Forum, claiming he was only returning the favor.

NBC host Matt Lauer listed some of the things Trump and Putin have said about each other, and asked if Trump wants admiration from someone who is at odds with U.S. foreign policy and may be meddling with the election.

"You said, ‘I will tell you, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, our president is not doing so well. And when referring to a comment that Putin made about you, I think he called you a brilliant leader, you said, ‘It’s always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his country and beyond,’ " Lauer said. "But do you want to be complimented by that former KBG officer?"

Well, I think when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK?" Trump said, "The fact is, look, it’s not going to get him anywhere. I’m a negotiator."
PolitiFact's opening paragraph mischaracterizes the exchange between Lauer and Trump. Trump was answering NBC host Matt Lauer's suggestion that receiving praise from Putin is a bad thing, not defending his own praise of Putin.

Returning the favor?

Linda Qiu, the PolitiFact writer responsible for the fact check, never provided any evidence that Trump said anything about returning a favor through his compliments of Putin.

Qiu didn't even link to a video or transcript, instead posting text-only references to the Commander-in-Chief event.

Time magazine posted a transcript of the event. We took the time to find where Qiu went wrong (bold emphasis added):
LAUER: Do you think the day that you become president of the United States, he’s going to change his mind on some of these key issues?

TRUMP: Possibly. It’s possible. I don’t know, Matt. It’s possible. And it’s not going to have any impact. If he says great things about me, I’m going to say great things about him. I’ve already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, oh, isn’t that a terrible thing — the man has very strong control over a country.

Now, it’s a very different system, and I don’t happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.
If one takes the sentence "If he says great things about me, I'm going to say great things about him" out of context, one might justify saying Trump claimed he complimented Putin only because Putin complimented him. However, given the context, that claim will not hold. Trump goes on to suggest that his praise of Putin is sincere. And, in the greater context, Trump is saying the praise either way is not likely to affect Trump's approach to negotiation ("and it's not going to have any impact").

It is deceptive to describe that exchange by saying Trump was "claiming he was only returning the favor." And that exchange had little to do with the claim PolitiFact was fact-checking.

Who said Putin called Trump "brilliant"?

It was Lauer who put forth the idea that Putin called Trump "brilliant," in the context of Putin praising Trump. Lauer followed up by asking Trump if he was comfortable accepting praise from a bad actor like Putin.

Trump responds by saying, using Lauer's example, that he is fine with accepting compliments from Putin, and that the praise would not affect his negotiating stance.

The nature of the compliment serves a very minor point in this exchange. Trump's point in response to Lauer should have taken precedence, but PolitiFact ignored it, preferring to strain gnats.

The key question is whether Trump is responsible for fact-checking Lauer. If Lauer thinks Putin said Trump was brilliant then it is reasonable for Trump to accept the premise of Lauer's question when he gives his answer.

Ignoring that principle may turn a fact checker into a pedant.

PolitiFact dons a fig leaf by pointing to past cases where Trump said Putin called him a "genius." But other fact checkers addressed those cases months ago. They carry no real relevance in this case, unless they show PolitiFact was eager to pile on.

Summary: two flubs for PolitiFact

PolitiFact misleadingly led its fact check by saying Trump was defending his praise of Putin. PolitiFact built on that error by falsely claiming Trump defended himself by saying he was just returning the favor.

What a great start.

From there, PolitiFact blamed Trump for accepting the premise of Matt Lauer's question. If it's appropriate to place blame for that, Lauer should receive the lion's share. PolitiFact made sure that would not happen, at least in terms of its fact check (whatever happened to PunditFact?).

This is what we've learned to expect from PolitiFact.

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