Saturday, January 6, 2018

More "True But False" fact-checking from PolitiFact

PolitiFact has always had a tendency to skew its fact-checking in favor of liberals and Democrats. But with speak-from-the-hip President Trump in the White House, PolitiFact has let its true blue colors show like perhaps never before.

A Jan. 5, 2017 fact check from PolitiFact's John Kruzel rates two true statements from President Trump "False." Why would a fact checker rate two true statements "False"? That's a good question. And it's one that the fact check doesn't really answer. But it's worth fisking the fact check for whatever nods it makes toward justifying its conclusions.

Framing the fact check


President Trump tweeted that he had not authorized any White House access for Michael Wolff, the author of the book "Fire and Fury" and that he had not spoken to Wolff for the book.

Right off the bat, PolitiFact frames Trump's claim as a denial that Wolff had access to the White House. With the right evidence, PolitiFact might have a case interpreting Trump's statement that way. But pending that justification, PolitiFact leads with a red flag hinting that it is more interested in its own interpretation of Trump words than in the words Trump used.

If Trump had meant to indicate Wolff had no access at all to the White House, he could tweet that in under 140 characters.  Like so:
Wolff had Zero access to White House. I never spoke to him. Liar! Sad!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
See? Under 90 characters, including the multiple exclamation points.

Most people understand that when a writer or speaker burdens potentially simple statements with more words the extra words are supposed to mean something. For example, if somebody says "I never spoke to Wolff for book" and not "I never spoke to Wolff" then it strongly hints that the speaker spoke to Wolff but not for the book.

Can PolitiFact explain away the importance of all those words Trump used?

Leading with the fact checker's opinion

From the first, we have said PolitiFact mixes its opinion in with its supposedly objective reporting. PolitiFact and Kruzel have opinion high in the mix in the introduction to the story (bold emphasis added):
The Trump administration has scrambled to control damaging headlines based on Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House, which was rushed to shelves Jan. 5 over threats from President Donald Trump’s attorneys.

For his part, Trump sought to undermine Wolff’s credibility by calling into question the author’s access to the administration’s highest levels.
Is Kruzel an objective reporter or a prosecuting attorney telling the jury that the accused has a motive?

Kruzel dedicates his first to paragraphs to the creation of a narrative based on Trump's desire to attack Wolff's credibility. As we proceed, we should stay alert from cues Kruzel might offer the reader about Wolff's credibility. Will Kruzel allow any indication that Wolff deserves skepticism? Or perhaps present Wolff as credible by default?

Dissecting Trump's tweet or ignoring what it says?

Trump's tweet:
Kruzel comments:
We decided to dissect Trump’s tweet by sifting through what’s known about Wolff’s White House access. We can’t know everything that goes on behind the scenes, but even the public record shows that Trump’s statement is inaccurate.
This had better be good, given that the headline offers a skewed impression of Trump's tweet.

Kruzel defeats a straw man

PolitiFact and Kruzel deal first with the issue of White House access. Whereas Trump said he authorized no access for Wolff, PolitiFact creates a straw contradiction by pointing out some might believe Trump was saying Wolff had no access to the White House at all.

How we wish we were kidding (though this is by no means a first for PolitiFact):
Wolff’s access to the White House

Trump’s tweet could give the impression that Wolff was denied access to the White House entirely. But as Trump’s own press secretary has acknowledged, the author had more than a dozen interactions with administration officials at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
What if instead of fact-checking people's false impressions fact checkers instead explained to people the correct impression? But that's not PolitiFact's way. PolitiFact dedicates its fact check to showing that misinterpreting the claim shows that Trump wasn't telling the truth.

Kruzel concludes the first section:
So, while it may be the case that Trump did not personally grant Wolff access, his own press secretary says the author had access to administration officials at the White House.
Our summary so far:
  1. PolitiFact finds "it may be the case" that Trump did not authorize Wolff's access to the White House (as Trump said)
  2. No indication from PolitiFact that Wolff should be regarded as anything other than reliable
  3. Proof that the misinterpreted version of Trump's statement is false (straw man defeated)

Kruzel defeats another straw man

With the first straw man defeated, PolitiFact and Kruzel deal with the burning question of whether Trump spoke to Wolff at all.

Yes, you read that correctly. The fact check focuses on whether Trump spoke to Wolff, not on whether Trump spoke to Wolff "for book."
Did Wolff and Trump talk?

To the casual reader, Trump’s tweet could give the impression that he and Wolff never spoke — but that’s far from the case.
Never fear, casual reader! PolitiFact is here for you as it is for no other type of reader. And if PolitiFact has to create and destroy a straw man or two to keep from helping you improve your reading comprehension, then so be it.

Kruzel follows immediately with his conclusion (explaining after that the details behind the defeat of the straw man):
While it may be the case that Trump never talked to Wolff with the express understanding that their discussion would later be incorporated into a book, the two men certainly spoke, though the length and nature of their conversations is not entirely clear.
And we review and add to our summary:
  1. PolitiFact finds "it may be the case" that Trump did not authorize Wolff's access to the White House (as Trump said)
  2. Still no indication from PolitiFact that Wolff should be regarded as anything other than reliable
  3. PolitiFact proves that the misinterpreted version of Trump's first claim is false (first straw man defeated)
  4. PolitiFact finds "it may be the case" that Trump did not talk to Wolff for the book (as Trump said)
  5. PolitiFact proves that the misinterpreted version of Trump's second claim is false (second straw man defeated)

Whatever one thinks of Trump, that's awful fact-checking

Trump made two claims that were apparently true according to PolitiFact's investigation, but because casual readers might think Trump meant something other than what he plainly said, PolitiFact rated the statements "False."

That approach to fact-checking could make virtually any statement false.

Is Wolff reliable? Who cares? PolitiFact is interested in Trump's supposed unreliability.

This PolitiFact fact check ought to serve as a classic example of what to avoid in fact-checking. Instead, PolitiFact's chief editor Angie Drobnic Holan edited the piece. And a PolitiFact "star chamber" of at least three editors reviewed the story and decided on the rating without seeing anything amiss with what they were doing.

Welcome to the "True but False" genre of fact-checking.

You can't trust these fact checkers.

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