Sunday, May 20, 2018

PolitiFact Wisconsin and the Worry-O-Meter

PolitiFact Wisconsin had no representation in our article on the worst 17 PolitiFact fact checks of 2017.

A May 18, 2018 fact check of Republican Leah Vukmir should help ensure PolitiFact Wisconsin makes the list for 2018.


Vukmir, a Republican looking for an opportunity to run against Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.) in the 2018 election cycle, has used a hyperbolic ad campaign to paint Baldwin as weak on terrorism. Vukmir said Baldwin worried more about the architect of the 9-11 terrorist attacks than confirming Gina Haspel to head the CIA.

The key to Democrat opposition to the Haspel nomination stemmed from Haspel's involvement in the enhanced interrogation program, which included the technique of waterboarding. The CIA released a disciplinary review saying Haspel had no involvement in the decision to use enhanced interrogation, but that she simply carried out the orders she was issued.

PolitiFact Wisconsin adroitly skipped over all that and took the liberty of re-interpreting Vukmir's claim:
Does U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin have so much more concern for a 9/11 terrorist, compared to the president’s nominee to run the CIA, that she would vote against the nominee?
Vukmir's claim was more simple than PolitiFact Wisconsin's creative paraphrase (source: PolitiFact):
Tammy and her party are more interested, and they’re more worried about, the mastermind of 9/11 -- the individual that plotted and ultimately killed over 3,000 Americans on our soil. And she‘s more worried about those individuals than to support a very strong woman with a track record to be the head of the CIA.
Note that Vukmir did not say anything about what motivated Baldwin to withhold support for Haspel.

We suspect PolitiFact Wisconsin counts as a minority for its inability to figure out Vukmir's message: Opposing Haspel's nomination based merely on her following orders within the CIA hampers the CIA's ability to do its job effectively. Imagine working at the CIA and thinking one must second-guess the orders one receives to have a realistic shot at one day leading the CIA.

PolitiFact Wisconsin's fact check spent not a word on that angle of the story, sticking instead to its own idea that Vukmir must show that Baldwin personally showed significant worry about Khalid Sheik Mohammed in order to earn a rating better than "Pants on Fire."

Farcical Fact-Checking

To fact check what Vukmir actually said, PolitiFact Wisconsin would have needed evidence not only showing Baldwin's level of worry for Mohammed but also her level of worry for Haspel's nomination. Otherwise there's no baseline for determining one is greater than the other.

After all, Vukmir clearly made a claim comparing the two.

And how does one assess levels of worry without asserting an opinion? One might go by what a person said, but that assumes an entirely forthright subject. We don't know the answer. And PolitiFact offered no evidence it has an answer.

PolitiFact's approach was preposterous from the outset. It showed no specific level of worry over Mohammed and no specific level of worry over the Haspel nomination. And yet concluded that one was not lower than the other.

Vukmir's statement was best interpreted as hyperbole expressing the damage to CIA operations stemming from refusing a leadership role to a fully qualified woman for nothing more than following orders associated with the enhanced interrogation program--a program that the CIA described to leading congressional members of both parties without apparent objection at the time.

PolitiFact says it grants license for hyperbole. Exceptions doubtless stem, as we've said before, from Republicans trying to use hyperbole without a license.
• Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole.
PolitiFact says it doesn't rate opinions. We suppose PolitiFact is entitled to its own opinion.


After Vukmir made her claim about Baldwin, Baldwin ended up voting in opposition to the Haspel nomination.

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