Wednesday, June 7, 2017

PolitiLies at PolitiFact Wisconsin I (Updated: PolitiFact amends)

Back on May 15, 2017 we noticed a suspicious factoid in PolitiFact Wisconsin's fact check of congressman Glenn Grothman (R-Wis.) (bold emphasis added):
Grothman’s quick response: "Planned Parenthood is the biggest abortion provider in the country."

He added that the group is an outspoken advocate for what he termed "controversial" services such as birth control.
The notion that birth control services count as controversial looked suspiciously like the result of a liberal press filter. Curious whether the context of Grothman's statement supported PolitiFact Wisconsin's telling, we had a look at the context (17:55 through 20:55).

The crosstalk made it a bit hard for us to follow the conversation, but a partial transcript from an article by Jen Hayden at the left-leaning Daily Kos seemed reasonably accurate to us. Note the site also features a trimmed video of the same exchange.

It looked to us as though Grothman mentioned the "controversial programs" without naming them, instead moving on to talk about why his constituents can do without Planned Parenthood's role in providing contraceptive services. Just before Grothman started talking about alternatives to Planned Parenthood's contraceptive services, an audience member called out asking Grothman for examples of the "controversial programs." That question may have led to an assumption that Grothman was  naming contraceptive services as an example of "controversial programs."

In short, we could not see any solid justification for PolitiFact Wisconsin's reporting. So we emailed PolitiFact Wisconsin (writer Dave Umhoefer and editor Greg Borowski) to ask whether its evidence was better than it appeared:
Upon reading your recent fact check of Republican Glen Grothman, I was curious about the line claiming Grothman called birth control a "controversial" service.

He added that the group is an outspoken advocate for what he termed "controversial" services such as birth control.

I watched the video and had trouble hearing the audio (I've found transcripts that seem pretty much correct, however). It sounded like Grothman mentioned Planned Parenthood's support for some controversial services, then went on to talk about the ease with which people might obtain birth control. Was there some particular part of event that you might transcribe in clear support of your summary?

From what I can tell, the context does not support your account. If people can easily obtain birth control without Planned Parenthood's help, how would that make the service "controversial"? It would make the service less necessary, not controversial, right?

I urge you to either make clear the portion of the event that supports your interpretation, or else alter the interpretation to square with the facts of the event. By that I mean not guessing what Grothman meant when he referred to "controversial programs." If Grothman did not make clear what he was talking about, your account should not suggest otherwise.

If you asked Grothman what he was talking about and he made clear he believes birth control is a controversial service, likewise make that clear to your readers.
The replies we received offered no evidence in support of PolitiFact Wisconsin's reporting. In fact, the reply we received on May 18 from Borowski suggested that Umhoefer had (belatedly?) reached out to Grothman's office for clarification:
Dave has reached out to Grothman's office. So, you;ll [sic] have to be patient.
By June 4, 2017 we had yet to receive any further message with evidence backing the claim from the article. We sent a reminder message that day that has likewise failed to draw a reply.

[Update June 8, 2017: PolitiFact Wisconsin editor Greg Borowski alerted us that the fact check of Grothman was updated. We have reproduced the PolitiFact Wisconsin "Editor's note" at the end of this post]

What does it mean?

It looks like PolitiFact Wisconsin did careless reporting on the Grothman story. The story very likely misrepresented Grothman's view of the "controversial programs" he spoke about.

Grothman's government website offers a more reliable account of what Grothman views as Planned Parenthood's "controversial" programs.

It appears PolitiFact Wisconsin is aware it published something as fact without adequate backing information, and intends to keep its flawed article as-is so long as it anticipates no significant consequences will follow.



Also see PolitiLies at PolitiFact Wisconsin II,  published the same day as this part.

Update June 8, 2017: PolitiFact removed "such as birth control" from its summary of Grothman's statement about "controversial services."  PolitiFact Wisconsin appended the following editor's note to the story:
(Editor's note, June 7, 2017: An earlier version of this item quoted Grothman as saying that Planned Parenthood is an outspoken advocate for "controversial" services such as birth control. A spokesperson for his office said on June 7, 2017 that the video, in which Grothman's voice is hard to hear at times, may have led people to that conclusion, but that Grothman does not believe birth control is a controversial service. The birth control quote had no bearing on the congressman’s statement about Planned Parenthood and its role in abortions, so the rating of True is unchanged.)
We are impressed by PolitiFact Wisconsin's ability to run a correction while offering the appearance that it committed no error. Saying the original item "quoted Grothman" gives the reader the impression that Grothman must have misspoke. But benevolent PolitiFact Wisconsin covered for Grothman's mistake after his office clarified what he meant to say.

It's really not a model of transparency, and offers Grothman no apology for misrepresenting his views.

We stick with our assessment that PolitiFact Wisconsin reported carelessly. And we suggest that PolitiFact Wisconsin's error was the type of error that occurs when journalists think they know how conservatives think when in reality the journalists do not know how conservatives think (ideological bias).

On the bright side, the portion of the fact check that we criticized now reads as it should have read from the start. We credit PolitiFact Wisconsin for making that change. That fixes the main issue, for there's nothing wrong with having a bias if it doesn't show up in the reporting.

Of secondary importance, we judge the editor's note was subtly misleading and lacking in transparency.

We also note with sadness that the changes to PolitiFact Wisconsin's story do not count as either corrections or updates. We know this because PolitiFact Wisconsin added no "corrections and updates" tag to the story. Adding that tag would make a fact check appear on PolitiFact's page of stories that have been corrected or updated.

Correction June 9, 2017: Removed a redundant "because" from the final paragraph of the update.

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