Monday, December 5, 2016

Handicapping PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" for 2016

A full plate of stuff to write about has left me a little behind in getting to PolitiFact's list of finalists for its "Lie of the Year" award--the award that makes it even more obvious that PolitiFact does opinion journalism, since judging the importance of a "lie" obviously requires subjective judgments.

I clipped an image of the most important part of the electronic ballot:

One thing jumped out right away. Typically the list of finalists includes about 10 specific fact checks from a number of sources. This year's menu includes only four specific fact checks, two each from Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. PolitiFact rounds out the menu with two category choices, the whole 2016 election and the "fake news" phenomenon that, without much hint of irony, has galvanized the mainstream press to make even greater efforts to recapture its (legendary?) role as the the gatekeeper of what people ought to know and accept.

Given PolitiFact's recent tendency to select a "Lie of the Year" made up of multiple finalists, these changes make a great deal of sense. We've already pointed out one of the advantages PolitiFact gains from this approach. Having a multi-headed hydra as the winner allows PolitiFact to dodge criticisms of its choice. Oh, that hydra head got lopped off? No worries. These others continue to writhe and gnash their teeth.

Without further ado, I'll rate the chances of the six listed finalists. Doubtless my co-editor Jeff D. will weigh in at some point with his own comments and predictions.

Clinton "never received nor sent any email that was marked as classified" on her private email server while acting as Secretary of State

Of the specific claims listed, this one probably had the biggest impact on the election. Clinton made this claim a key part of her ongoing defense of her use of the private email server. When FBI Director James Comey contradicted this part of Clinton's story, it cinched one of Clinton's key negatives heading into the 2016 election. This one would serve as a pretty solid choice for "Lie of the Year." The main drawback of this selection stems from liberal denial of Clinton's weakness as a presidential candidate. This choice might generate some lasting resentment  from a significant segment of PolitiFact's liberal fanbase, some of whom will insist Clinton was telling the truth.

Clinton says she received Comey's seal of approval regarding her truthfulness about the email server

This item gave us a notable case where a major political figure made a pretty much indefensible and clear statement that was quickly publicized as such. Was this one politically significant? I think journalists were a bit shocked that Clinton made this unforced error. But I doubt voters regarded this case as anything other than a footnote to Clinton's earlier dissembling about her email server.

Trump claims "large-scale voter fraud"

Talk about awkward!

Trump was pilloried by the mainstream press along with pundits and politicians aplenty for his statements calling the presidential election results into doubt. But the political importance of this one gets complicated by liberal challenges to the election results in states where Trump's margin of victory was not particularly narrow (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin). Why challenge the results if they were not skewed by some form of large-scale fraud? This selection also suffers from the nature of the evidence. Trump received the rating not because it is known that no large-scale voter fraud has taken place in 2016, but because of a lack of evidence supporting the claim.

Donald Trump said he was against the war in Iraq

This one counts as the weakest of the specific fact checks on the list. PolitiFact and its fact-checking brethren built a very weak case that Trump had supported the Iraq War. Making this one by itself the "Lie of the Year" will result in some very good challenges in the mainstream and conservative press.

"The entire 2016 election, when falsehoods overran the facts"

Now things get interesting! Could PolitiFact opt for a "Lie of the Year" awarded to a candidate even more generalized than "campaign statements by Donald Trump," which won in 2016? And does PolitiFact have the ability to objectively quantify this election's overrunning of the facts compared to elections in the past? And could PolitiFact admit that falsehoods overran the facts despite proclamations that fact-checking enjoyed a banner year? If falsehoods overrun the facts while fact checkers enjoy a banner year then what will journalists prescribe to remedy the situation? More of what hasn't worked?

This choice will likely have good traction with PolitiFact's editors if they see a way toward picking this one while avoiding the appearance of admitting failure.

The fake news phenomenon(?)

Fake news has been around a good while, but it's the new hotness in journalistic circles. If mainstream journalism can conquer fake news, then maybe the mainstream press can again take its rightful place as society's gatekeepers of information! That idea excites mainstream journalists.

This surprise nominee has everything going for it. Fake news is fake by definition, so who can criticize the choice? It's total journalistic hotness, as noted. And the choice represents a call to action, opposing fake news, in symphony with a call that is already reverberating in fact-checking circles.

Is it a lame choice? Yes, it's as lame as all get out. I'd doubt journalists even have a clue about the impact of fake news, not to even mention the role fact checkers play in supporting false news memes that liberals favor.


Clinton's claim she never sent or received material marked as classified on her private server is the favorite according to the early established norms of the "Lie of the Year" award. But the fake news choice serves as the clear favorite in terms of sympathy with its Democratic-leaning readership and promoting its own sense of mission. I expect the latter favorite to prevail.

Jeff Adds:

I don't see much to disagree with Bryan. You can dismiss any claim relating to Trump right off the bat. Giving the award to Trump would neither shock people that hate him nor would it upset people that love him (who presumably already have low regard for liberal fact checkers.) It would be a yawner of a pick that would fail to generate buzz.

The Clinton pick would be a favorite in any other year. Because Clinton has already lost the election and her status on the left has been diminished, handing her the award wouldn't do any harm to her, but it would provide PolitiFact with a bogus token of neutrality ("See! We call Democrats liars too!") Likewise, the resulting outrage of PolitiFact's devoted liberal fanbase would generate plenty of clicks, and typically that's what the Lie of the Year has been about. It's true they would temporarily upset the faithful, but we've seen this exact scenario play out before with little consequence. Historically, PolitiFact seems motivated by clicks (and even angry liberal clicks will do, not to mention they keep the "we upset both sides" charade going.)

But the Fake News pick is the obvious favorite here. It's the hottest of hot topics in journalist circles, and PolitiFact sees themselves on the front lines in the war against opposing viewpoints unfacts. They're already trying to rally the troops and want to be seen as a beacon of truthiness in a sea of deceit.

It's been my view that while PolitiFact formerly cared primarily about generating buzz, since Holan's ascension [Angie Drobnic Holan replacing Bill Adair as chief editor--bww] they've behaved more and more like political activists. The Clinton choice would get more clicks, but I'd bet on Fake News being this year's rally cry for PolitiFact's army of Truth Hustlers.

Viva la Factismo!


  1. "Trump received the rating not because it is known that no large-scale voter fraud has taken place in 2016, but because of a lack of evidence supporting the claim."

    The onus is on the claimant to provide some evidence. Providing zero evidence means it can be totally ignored and essentially means the person is a liar or trusts some intuition unsupported by reality.

    If I said, "Unicorns are shapeshifters that have taken over top spots in all governments across the Earth," a claim that is unsupported by any data, you would probably call me a liar or crazy. I doubt you would say "Well, we can't really say one way or another since there's a lack of evidence supporting the claim."

    1. Roger wrote:

      **The onus is on the claimant to provide some evidence.**

      Prove it (just making a point).

      We're well aware that PolitiFact includes a "burden of proof" as part of its statement of principles. Unfortunately, PolitiFact seems unaware of the way its application of that principle leads it to commit logical fallacies. I'll be able to explain it to you.

      **Providing zero evidence means it can be totally ignored and essentially means the person is a liar or trusts some intuition unsupported by reality.**

      It does? Have you provided evidence supporting your claim, or shall I totally ignore it since you're making your claim based on intuition unsupported by reality?

      **If I said, "Unicorns are shapeshifters that have taken over top spots in all governments across the Earth," a claim that is unsupported by any data, you would probably call me a liar or crazy.**

      As it happens, I've debated issues of epistemology before, so I'd be likely to think you were trying to illustrate a point. I would ask you what evidence supports your claim. If you say you have no evidence I may well take you at your word. But if you do not answer, it does not necessarily follow that you do not have evidence supporting your view. Naturally, to support your point you're using an example that is intended as absurd. But we should be using the same (epistemological) standards to judge every claim, to whatever degree we can apply them. So if you say triangles have three sides and provide no evidence in support, just as with your absurd example it does not follow that you are either lying or relying on intuition unsupported by reality.

      Do you follow?


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