PolitiFact demonstrates the wrong way to fact check
When we criticize PolitiFact's subjective rating system, we often see responses like "I don't pay attention to the ratings."
We tend to respond that PolitiFact reasons poorly, offering fact check consumers yet another reason to avoid PolitiFact. PolitiFact's January 22, 2018 fact check of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) helps illustrate the point. The fact checkers use equivocal language and straw man argumentation to support their conclusion.
Cruz claimed he has consistently opposed government shutdowns, which PolitiFact contrasted to "popular belief":
With an end to the federal government shutdown in sight, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, tried to argue that, contrary to popular belief, he was not the driving force behind the previous government shutdown in 2013.Should we excuse PolitiFact from supporting its claim that most think Cruz was the driving force behind the 2013 shutdown?
The 2018 shutdown originated in the Senate, which had a funding bill but no attempt to force cloture before the funding deadline. A cloture vote would have reportedly failed, meaning the Democrats had a modern filibuster going. The 2013 shutdown stemmed from disagreement between the GOP-controlled House and the Democratic-controlled Senate.
PolitiFact tells part of the story, sending a misleading message in the process (bold emphasis added):
Back in 2013, Cruz -- then a junior member of the Senate’s minority party -- had tried to end funding for the Affordable Care Act. He pushed for language to defund Obamacare in spending bills, which would have forced then-President Barack Obama to choose between keeping the government open and crippling his signature legislative achievement.We have two types of defunding going on in PolitiFact's explanation. First, we have Cruz's effort to defund the ACA. Then we have general defunding of the government.
As the high-stakes legislative game played out, Obama and his fellow Democrats refused to agree to gut the law, and the Republicans, as a minority party, didn’t have the numbers to force their will. Following a 16-day shutdown, lawmakers voted to fund both the government and the Affordable Care Act.
Cruz was widely identified at the time as the leader of the defunding effort.
See what PolitiFact did there? PolitiFact asserts that most believe Cruz led the effort to defund the government, and slips in the line "Cruz was widely identified at the time as the leader of the defunding effort." Yes, Cruz was the leader, in the Senate, of the attempt to defund the ACA. But defunding the ACA is not the same thing as defunding the government.
PolitiFact then included a little tidbit about a Cruz speech on the Senate floor using portions of Dr. Seuss' "Green Eggs & Ham." So it was a Cruz filibuster? Maybe PolitiFact wants its readers to think it was a Cruz filibuster. But it wasn't.
“This is not a filibuster. This is an agreement that he and I made that he could talk,” (Senate Majority Leader Harry) Reid said Wednesday.Is there any good excuse for a journalist to offer such a sketchy account of history?
What PolitiFact got rightPolitiFact was right when it reported that Cruz's proposal to defund the ACA would have forced President Obama to choose between signing a bill that undercut the ACA and allowing a government shutdown. It follows that Cruz was playing the politics of government shutdown, though his method placed the onus on Mr. Obama, and of the two options Cruz would plainly prefer defunding the ACA to defunding the entire government.
So even though Cruz's effort to defund the ACA turned out a dismal failure, the effort carried a silver lining for Cruz: Cruz never needed to advocate or support shutting down the government.
... and what PolitiFact got wrongGiven that Cruz voted against the funding bill that eventually ended the 2013 shutdown, PolitiFact had what it needed to show Cruz supporting a government shutdown at least in some form.
Instead, PolitiFact opted for a hilarious overreach comparable to Cruz's failed plan to defund the ACA.
PolitiFact took the route of trying to show Cruz supported the shutdown according to his own standard:
However, even if, for the sake of argument, you accept Cruz’s line of thinking, his hallway comments offered a very specific definition of determining whether a lawmaker had "consistently opposed shutdowns."PolitiFact's notion that Cruz defined whether a lawmaker has consistently opposed government shutdowns counts as a fantasy, not a fact check. But for the sake of argument, let us accept PolitiFact's line of thinking.
In fact, Cruz offered a very specific definition of something else, as we see when PolitiFact picks up its narrative (bold emphasis added):
Specifically, Cruz said that "only one thing causes a shutdown: when you have senators vote to deny cloture on a funding bill." Cloture refers to a Senate vote to cut off debate and proceed to a bill; it’s a prerequisite for considering a bill, and these days, it typically takes 60 votes.
Cruz said a shutdown only occurs when senators vote to deny cloture on a funding bill. In context, his statement obviously means enough senators opposed cloture for the cloture motion to fail. Why? Because over 30 senators can vote to deny cloture and find themselves overruled by the others. And in that case, no shutdown results.
But understanding what Cruz said in context will not allow PolitiFact's argument to succeed. PolitiFact can only stick the hypocrisy tag on Cruz if voting against cloture on a funding bill counts as causing a shutdown regardless of the outcome of the vote.
That's crazy. But that's PolitiFact's argument:
So did Cruz ever "vote to deny cloture on a funding bill"?Regardless of whether Cruz ever supported a government shutdown, taking Cruz's statement out of context is not the way to make the argument. It's simply a fact that one can vote against cloture on principle apart from a filibuster strategy. Cruz has plausible deniability going for him.
It came on the legislation to end the 16-day shutdown -- a bill that didn’t include the Obamacare defunding language that he had been seeking. If this spending bill didn’t pass, the government wouldn’t be funded and would have to remain closed. As it happened, the bill passed by a large bipartisan majority, but Cruz was one of 16 senators to vote against cloture. He was also one of 18 to vote against the bill itself.
Cruz's was one of only 16 voting in opposition to cloture, and it could not be more obvious that such a vote does not meet Cruz's definition for what causes a shutdown. Sixteen senators voting against cloture cannot start a shutdown. Nor can they sustain a shutdown, as PolitiFact's example resoundingly illustrates.
PolitiFact altered Cruz's argument in its fact-checking process.
These fact checkers stink at fact-checking.