Mainstream media fact checkers often find themselves immune from the principles they use to find fault with others, however.
Consider PolitiFact's March 19, 2018 fact check of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Zinke said a Trump administration proposal "is the largest investment in our public lands infrastructure in our nation's history."
PolitiFact found that Civilian Conservation Corps program under President Franklin Roosevelt would far exceed the proposed Trump administration spending if adjusted for inflation:
The CCC’s director wrote in 1939 that it had cost $2 billion; that was two-thirds of the way through the program’s life. And according to a Park Service study, the annual annual cost per CCC enrollee was $1,004 per year. If you assume that the average tenure of the CCC’s 3.5 million workers was about a year, that would produce a cumulative cost around $3 billion.When a spokesperson for the Trump administration pointed out that the CCC included lands controlled at the state and local level, PolitiFact brushed the objection aside (bold emphasis added):
Such calculations "sound right — millions of young men, camps to house them, food and uniforms, and they were paid," said Steven Stoll, an environmental historian at Fordham University.
Once you factor in inflation, $3 billion spent in the 1930s would be the equivalent of about $53 billion today — about three times bigger than even the fully funded Trump proposal.
Interior Department spokeswoman Heather Swift pointed out that the CCC "also incorporated state and local land."The key to the "False" rating PolitiFact gave Zinke comes entirely from its insistence that Zinke's statement covers all public lands.
It’s true that the CCC created more than 700 state parks and upgraded many others, in addition to its efforts on federally owned land. Ultimately, though, the point is moot: Zinke didn’t say the proposal is the largest investment in federal lands infrastructure. He said "public lands infrastructure," and state and local parks count as "public lands."
But the context, which PolitiFact reported but ignored, clearly shows Zinke was talking specifically about spending on federal lands (bold emphasis added):
"The president is a builder and the son of a plumber, as I am," Zinke told the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee. "I look forward to working with the president on restoring America's greatness through a historic investment of our public lands infrastructure. This is the largest investment in our public lands infrastructure in our nation's history. Let me repeat that, this is the largest investment in our public lands infrastructure in the history of this country."We note a pair of irreconcilable problems with PolitiFact's reasoning.
Zinke specified that he was referring to the president's budget proposal, which would create a fund to provide "up to $18 billion over 10 years for maintenance and improvements in our national parks, our national wildlife refuges, and Bureau of Indian Education funds."
If Zinke had claimed the CCC spending was greater than the spending proposed by the Trump administration, he would be guilty of using an apples-to-oranges comparison. Why? Because the scope of the two spending programs varies at a fundamental level.
Any would-be comparison between spending on federal lands only and spending on federal, state and local lands qualifies as an apples-to-oranges comparison.
If Zinke's statement was interpreted in keeping with his comments on the scope of the spending--kept to "federal lands"--then PolitiFact simply elected to avoid doing the appropriate fact check. That is, measuring the CCC spending on federal lands against the proposed Trump administration spending on federal lands. Apples-to-apples.
PolitiFact bases its fact check on the apples-to-oranges comparison: CCC spending on federal, state and local parks against proposed Trump administration spending on federal lands only.
Afters: Multiple flaky layers
In its fact check PolitiFact stresses the enormity of CCC spending under Roosevelt by expressing it as a percentage of the federal budget. And compares that to the tiny percentage of the total budget taken up by Trump's proposed spending.
Has the federal budget increased over time (try as a percentage of GDP)? Medicare? Medicaid? Hello?
PolitiFact loves it some apples and oranges.