Our latest example consists of PolitiFact's fact check of Tim Kaine from Oct. 5, 2016. Kaine said his vice-presidential debate opponent, Mike Pence, had said Vladimir Putin was a better leader than President Obama.
PolitiFact's cutesy-and-misleading video short captures the moment. Well, one of the moments:
Kaine used the same line twice. PolitiFact did well to report both instances, along with providing the broader context of the first instance:
At one point, Kaine said, "Hillary also has the ability to stand up to Russia in a way that this ticket does not. Donald Trump, again and again, has praised Vladimir Putin. … Gov. Pence made the odd claim — he said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama. Vladimir Putin has run his economy into the ground. He persecutes LGBT folks and journalists. If you don't know the difference between dictatorship and leadership, then you got to go back to a fifth-grade civics class."It turned out Pence had said "stronger," not "better." Kaine had the wording of the quotation precisely aside from that key word, making sure both times he misquoted Pence that he got the use of "inarguably" right.
Kaine hammered the point again later in the debate.
"Well, this is one where we can just kind of go to the tape on it. But Gov. Pence said, inarguably, Vladimir Putin is a better leader than President Obama."
Is it a big deal to get the key term wrong? Not so much, according to PolitiFact. PolitiFact rated Kaine's claim "Mostly True":
Pence did say something very similar -- but not exactly as Kaine said. Pence had said that Putin "has been a stronger leader in his country than Barack Obama has been in this country." However, "stronger" is not identical to "better." We rate the statement Mostly True.Not identical? Certainly not. And certainly not in the context Kaine presented the claim. Remember the examples Kaine gave to show the oddness of Pence's claim?
Putin ran the Russian economy into the ground.It's not "better" to run an economy into the ground, is it? But bucking the West and annexing Crimea despite Western sanctions takes strong leadership. Strong, yes. Better, no.
Persecutes LGBT folks and journalistsIt's not "better" to persecute LGBT folks and journalists. But doing so while maintaining high public approval ratings (over 84 percent) shows strength of leadership. Strong, yes. Better, no.
PolitiFact's ratings gameKaine fully exploited the difference between "stronger" and "better" the way a skilled liar would. But PolitiFact drops his rating only to "Mostly True" because he literally changed the word Pence had used.
Kaine would have been taking Pence out of context. even if he had quoted Pence correctly. His examples saw to that.
Eeny-Meeny-Miny-Moe (red emphasis added):
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.Is it a critical fact that "stronger" and "better" have different meanings?
HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Did Kaine provide a context for "better" that differed from the context for "stronger" offered by Pence?
Is the statement "accurate" if the key word is the wrong word?
Do PolitiFact's definitions for its "Truth-O-Meter" ratings mean anything at all?
Make-Believe: A world where PolitiFact's definitions mean what they sayIf PolitiFact's definition of "Mostly True" was taken literally, then Kaine's statement could not receive a "Mostly True" rating. Kaine's version of what Pence said used a different word than what Pence had said. That makes Kaine's version inaccurate. If accurate and inaccurate do not mean the same thing, then "Mostly True" cannot fit Kaine's claim.
How about "Half True"? Kaine's paraphrase of Pence was not wildly off. "Stronger" and "Better" have some overlap in meaning, and otherwise Kaine got the words right. Kaine's statement could pass as "partially accurate." Kaine also took things out of context, which fits the description of "Half True."
And what about "Mostly False"? Kaine's statement could also qualify as having an element of truth. Most of the words he attributed to Pence were right, though he switched out "stronger" for "better." Was that change a critical fact, given how the terms differ in meaning? Arguably so. Kaine's statement thus also fits the definition of "Mostly False." Which rating fits better amounts to a subjective judgment. The definitions overlap, like the definitions of "stronger" and "better."
If PolitiFact's definitions were taken literally, Kaine's rating would be a subjective coin flip between "Half True" and "Mostly False." That PolitiFact can bend its definitions to apply the rating for accurate statements to inaccurate statements, like Kaine's, shows that PolitiFact puts even more subjectivity in its ratings than its fuzzy definitions demand.
Coincidentally, the Democrat gained the benefit this time. It's a pattern.