Tuesday, October 30, 2018

PolitiScam: It's Not What You Say, It's How PolitiFact Frames It

PolitiFact's Oct. 29, 2018 fact check of President Trump gave us yet another illustration of PolitiFact's inconsistent application of its principles.

The same day as shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue resulting in multiple deaths, Mr. Trump justified not canceling his campaign appearances by saying that terrorizing acts should not alter daily business. Trump used the New York Stock Exchange as his example, saying it opened the day after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

But it didn't open the next day. Trump was flatly wrong.


Note that PolitiFact spins its description. PolitiFact says Trump claimed he did not cancel the political rally simply because the NYSE opened the day after Sept. 11. But the NYSE opening was simply an example of the justification Trump was using.

This case involving Trump carries a parallel to a fact check PolitiFact did in 2008 of then-presidential candidate Barack Obama. Both Trump and Obama made false statements. But PolitiFact found a way to read Mr. Obama's false statement favorably:

Obama claimed his uncle helped liberate Auschwitz. But Obama's uncle was never particularly close to Auschwitz. That most famous of the concentration camps was located in Poland, not Germany, and was liberated by troops from the Soviet Union.

One might well wonder how Obama received a "Mostly True" rating for a relatively outrageous claim.

PolitiFact Framing to the Rescue!

It was very simple for PolitiFact to rehabilitate Mr. Obama's claim about his uncle. The uncle was a real person, albeit an uncle in the broad sense, and he did serve with American troops who helped liberate a less-well-known concentration camp near Buchenwald, Germany.

PolitiFact explains in its summary paragraph:
There's no question Obama misspoke when he said his uncle helped to liberate the concentration camp in Auschwitz.

But even with this error in locations, Obama's statement was substantially correct in that he had an uncle — albeit a great uncle — who served with troops who helped to liberate the Ohrdruf concentration/work camp and saw, firsthand, the horrors of the Holocaust. We rate the statement Mostly True.
See? Easy-peasy. The problem? It's pretty much just as easy to rehabilitate the claim Trump made:
There's no question Trump misspoke when he said the NYSE opened the day after Sept. 11.

But even with his error about the timing, Trump was substantially correct that the NYSE opened as soon as it feasibly could following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The NYSE opened the following week not far from where the twin towers collapsed.
PolitiFact only used two sources on the reopening of the NYSE, and apparently none that provided the depth of the Wall Street Journal article we linked. Incredibly, PolitiFact also failed to link the articles it used. The New York Times story it used was available on the internet. Instead, the sources have notes that say "accessed via Nexis."

All it takes to adjust the framing of  these fact check stories is the want-to. Trump was off by a week. Obama was off by a country. Both had underlying points a fact checker could choose to emphasize.

These fact checkers do not have objective standards for deciding how to frame fact checks.

Related: "Lord knows the decision about a Truth-O-Meter rating is entirely subjective"

Monday, October 22, 2018

PolitiFact: One Standard For Me and Another For Thee 2

PolitiFact executed another of its superlative demonstrations of hypocrisy this month.

After PolitiFact unpublished its botched fact check about Claire McCaskill and the affordability of private aircraft, it published a corrected (?) fact check changing the rating from "False" to "Half True." Why "Half True" instead of "True"? PolitiFact explained it gave the "Half True" rating because the (Republican) Senate Leadership Fund failed to provide adequate context (bold emphasis added).
The Senate Leadership Fund says McCaskill "even said this about private planes, ‘that normal people can afford it.’"

She said those words, but the footage in the ad leaves out both the lead-in comment that prompted McCaskill’s remark and the laughter that followed it. The full footage makes it clear that McCaskill was wrapping up a policy-heavy debate with a private-aviation manager and with a riff using the airport manager’s words. In context, he was referring to "normal" users of private planes, as opposed to "normal" Americans more generally.

We rate the statement Half True.
Let's assume for the sake of argument that PolitiFact is exactly right (we don't buy it) in the way it recounts the problems with the missing context.

Assuming the missing context in a case like this makes a statement "Half True," how in the world does PolitiFact allow itself to get away the shenanigan PolitiFact writer Jon Greenberg pulled in his article on Sen. Elizabeth Warren's DNA test?

Greenberg (bold emphasis added):
Trump once said she had as much Native American blood as he did, and he had none. At a July 5 rally in Montana, he challenged her to take a DNA test.

"I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you're an Indian," Trump said.

Trump now denies saying that, but in any event, Warren did get tested and the results did find Native American ancestry.
Trump said those words, but Greenberg's version of the quote leaves out more than half of Trump's sentence, as well as comments that came before. The full quotation makes it clear that Trump's million dollar challenge was presented as a potential future event--a hypothetical, in other words. In context, Trump was referring to a potential future challenge for Warren to take a DNA test as opposed to making the $1 million challenge at that moment.

PolitiFact takes Trump just as much, if not more, out of context as the Senate Leadership Fund did with McCaskill.

How does that kind of boundless hypocrisy pass the sniff test? Are the people at PolitiFact that accustomed to their own stench?


PolitiFact's "In Context" presentation of Trump's million-dollar challenge to Sen. Warren, confirming what we're saying about PolitiFact's Jon Greenberg ignoring the surrounding context (bole emphasis in the original):
(L)et's say I'm debating Pocahontas. I promise you I'll do this: I will take, you know those little kits they sell on television for two dollars? ‘Learn your heritage!’ … And in the middle of the debate, when she proclaims that she is of Indian heritage because her mother said she has high cheekbones — that is her only evidence, her mother said we have high cheekbones. We will take that little kit -- but we have to do it gently. Because we're in the #MeToo generation, so I have to be very gentle. And we will very gently take that kit, and slowly toss it, hoping it doesn't injure her arm, and we will say: ‘I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you're an Indian.’
See also: Fact Checkers for Elizabeth Warren

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Washington Free Beacon: "PolitiFact Retracts Fact Check ..."

Full title:

PolitiFact Retracts Fact Check After Erroneously Ruling Anti-Claire McCaskill Ad ‘False’

We were preparing to post about PolitiFact's crashed-and-burned fact check of  the (Republican) Senate Leadership Fund's Claire McCaskill attack ad. But we noticed that Alex Griswold did a fine job of telling the story for the Washington Free Beacon.

In the revised fact check published Wednesday, PolitiFact announced that "after publication, we received more complete video of the question-and-answer session between McCaskill and a constituent that showed she was in fact responding to a question about private planes, as well as a report describing the meeting … We apologize for the error."

PolitiFact still only ruled the ad was "Half True," arguing that the Senate Leadership Fund "exaggerated" McCaskill's remarks by showing them in isolation. In full context, the fact checker wrote, McCaskill's remarks "seem to refer to ‘normal' users of private planes, not to ‘normal' Americans more generally."
Griswold's article managed to hit many of the points we made about the PolitiFact story on Twitter.

For example:

New evidence to PolitiFact, maybe. The evidence was on the World Wide Web since 2017.

PolitiFact claimed it was "clear" from the short version of the town hall video that the discussion concerned commercial aviation in the broad sense, not private aircraft. Somehow that supposed clarity vanished with the appearance of a more complete video.

Read the whole article at the Washington Free Beacon.

We also used Twitter to slam PolitiFact for its policy of unpublishing when it notices a fact check has failed. Given that PolitiFact, as a matter of stated policy, archives the old fact check and embeds the URL in the new version of the fact check. No good reason appears to exist to delay availability of the archived version. It's as easy as updating the original URL for the bad fact check to redirect to the archive URL.

In another failure of transparency, PolitiFact's archived/unpublished fact checks eliminate bylines and editing or research credits along with source lists and hotlinks. In short, the archived version of PolitiFact's fact checks loses a hefty amount of transparency on the way to the archive.

PolitiFact can and should do better both with its fact-checking and its policies on transparency.

Exit question: Has PolitiFact ever unpublished a fact check that was too easy on a conservative or too tough on a liberal?

There's another potential bias measure waiting for evaluation.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Fact Checkers for Elizabeth Warren

Sen.Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) provided mainstream fact checkers a great opportunity to show their true colors. Fact checkers from the PolitiFact and Snopes spun themselves into the ground trying to help Warren excuse her self-identification as a "Native American."

Likely 2020 presidential candidate Warren has long been mocked from the right as "Fauxcahontas" based on her dubious claims of Native American minority status. Warren had her DNA tested and promoted the findings as some type of vindication of her claims.

The fact checkers did their best to help.


PolitiFact ran Warren's report past four experts and assured us the experts thought the report was legitimate. But the quotations from the experts don't tell us much. PolitiFact uses its own summaries of the experts' opinions for the statements that best support Warren. Are the paraphrases or summaries fair? Trust PolitiFact? It's another example showing why fact checkers ought to provide transcripts of their interactions with experts.

Though the article bills itself as telling us what we can and cannot know from Warren's report, it takes a Mulligan on mentioning Warren's basic claim to minority status. Instead it emphasizes the trustworthiness of the finding of trace Native American inheritance.

At least the article admits that the DNA evidence doesn't help show Warren is of Cherokee descent. There's that much to say in favor of it.

But more to the downside, the article repeats as true the notion that Trump had promised $1 million if Warren could prove Native American ancestry (bold emphasis added):
At a July 5 rally in Montana, he challenged her to take a DNA test.

"I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you're an Indian," Trump said.

Trump now denies saying that, but in any event, Warren did get tested and the results did find Native American ancestry.
Just minutes after PolitiFact published the above, it published a separate "In Context" article under this title: "In context: Donald Trump's $1 million offer to Elizabeth Warren."

While we do not recommend PolitiFact's transcript as any kind of model journalism (it leaves out quite a bit without using ellipses to show the omissions), the transcript in that article is enough to show the deception in its earlier article (green emphasis added, bold emphasis in the original):
"I shouldn't tell you because I like to not give away secrets. But let's say I'm debating Pocahontas. I promise you I'll do this: I will take, you know those little kits they sell on television for two dollars? ‘Learn your heritage!’ … And in the middle of the debate, when she proclaims that she is of Indian heritage because her mother said she has high cheekbones — that is her only evidence, her mother said we have high cheekbones. We will take that little kit -- but we have to do it gently. Because we're in the #MeToo generation, so I have to be very gentle. And we will very gently take that kit, and slowly toss it, hoping it doesn't injure her arm, and we will say: ‘I will give you a million dollars to your favorite charity, paid for by Trump, if you take the test and it shows you're an Indian.’ And let’s see what she does. I have a feeling she will say no. But we’ll hold that for the debates.
Note that very minor expansion of the first version of the Trump quotation torpedoes claims that Trump has already pledged $1 million hinging on Warren's DNA test results: "We will say." So PolitiFact's first story dutifully leaves it out and reinforces the false impression Trump's promise was not a hypothetical.

Despite clear evidence that Trump was speaking of a hypothetical future situation, PolitiFact's second article sticks with a headline suggesting an existing pledge of $1 million--though it magnanimously allows at the end of the article that readers may draw their own conclusions.

It's such a close call, apparently, that PolitiFact does not wish to weigh in either pro or con.

Our call: The fact checkers liberal bloggers at PolitiFact contribute to the spread of misinformation.


Though we think PolitiFact is the worst of the mainstream fact checkers, the liberal bloggers at Snopes outdid PolitiFact in terms of ineptitude this time.

Snopes used an edited video to support its claim that it was "True" Trump pledged $1 million based on Warren's DNA test.

The fact check coverage from PolitiFact and Snopes so far makes it look like Warren will be allowed to skate on a number of apparently false claims she made in the wake of her DNA test announcement. Which mainstream fact-checker is neutral enough to look at Warren's suggestion that she can legitimately cash in on Trump's supposed $1 million challenge?

It's a good thing we have non-partisan fact checkers, right?


Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post Fact Checker

The Washington Post Fact Checker, to our knowledge, has not produced any content directly relating to the Warren DNA test.

That aside, Glenn Kessler has weighed in on Twitter. Some of Kessler's (re)tweets have underscored the worthlessness of the DNA test for identifying Warren as Cherokee.

On the other hand, Kessler gave at least three retweets for stories suggesting Trump had already pledged $1 million based on the outcome of a Warren DNA test.

So Kessler's not joining the other two in excusing Warren. But he's in on the movement to brand Trump as wrong even when Trump is right.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Taylor Swift's Candidates Lag in Polls--PolitiFact Hardest Hit?

We noted pop star Taylor Swift's election endorsement statement drew the selective attention of the fact checkers left-leaning bloggers at PolitiFact.

We've found it hilarious over the past several days that PolitiFact has mercilessly pimped its Swiftian fact check repeatedly on Twitter and Facebook.

Now with polls showing Swift's candidates badly trailing the Republican counterparts we can only wonder: Is PolitiFact the entity hardest hit by Swift's failure (so far) to make a critical difference in putting the Democrats over the top?

The Biggest Problem with PolitiFact's Fact Check of Taylor Swift

The Swift claim PolitiFact chose to check was the allegation that Tennessee Republican Marsha Blackburn voted against the Violence Against Women Act. We noted that PolitiFact's choice of topic, given the fact that Swift made at least four claims that might interest a fact checker, was likely the best choice from the liberal point of view.

Coincidentally(?), PolitiFact pulled the trigger on that choice. But as we pointed out in our earlier post, PolitiFact still ended up putting its finger on the scales to help its Democratic Party allies.

It's true Blackburn voted against reauthorizing the Violence Against Women Act (PolitiFact ruled it "Mostly True").

But it's also true that Blackburn voted to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act.


Not quite. VAWA came up for reauthorization in 2012.Blackburn co-sponsored a VAWA reauthorization bill and voted in favor. It passed the House with most Democrats voting in opposition.

And the amazing thing is that the non-partisan fact checkers liberal bloggers at PolitiFact didn't mention it. Not a peep. Instead, PolitiFact began its history of the reauthorization of the VAWA in 2013:
The 2013 controversy
The Violence Against Women Act was two decades old in 2013 when Congress wrestled with renewing the funds to support it. The law paid for programs to prevent domestic violence. It provided money to investigate and prosecute rape and other crimes against women. It supported counseling for victims.

The $630 million price tag was less the problem than some specific language on non-discrimination.

The Senate approved its bill first on Feb. 12, 2013, by a wide bipartisan margin of 78 to 22. That measure redefined underserved populations to include those who might be discriminated against based on religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.
Starting the history of VAWA reauthorization in 2013 trims away the bothersome fact that Blackburn voted for VAWA reauthorization in 2012. Keeping that information out of the fact check helps sustain the misleading narrative that Republicans like Blackburn are okay with violence against women.

As likely as not that was PolitiFact's purpose.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

This Is How Selection Bias Works

Here at PolitiFact Bias we have consistently harped on PolitiFact's vulnerability to selection bias.

Selection bias happens, in short, whenever a data set fails to serve as representative. Scientific studies often simulate random selection to help achieve a representative sample and avoid the pitfall of selection bias.

PolitiFact has no means of avoiding selection bias. It fact checks the issues it wishes to fact check. So PolitiFact's set of fact checks is contaminated by selection bias.

Is PolitiFact's selection bias influenced by its ideological bias?

We don't see why not. And Taylor Swift will help us illustrate the problem.

PolitiFact looked at Swift's claim that Sen. Marsha Blackburn voted against the Violence Against Women Act. That fact check comes packed with the usual PolitiFact nonsense, such as overlooking Blackburn's vote in favor of VAWA in 2012. But this time our focus falls on PolitiFact's decision to look at this Swift claim instead of others.

What other claims did PolitiFact have to choose from? Let's have a look at the relevant part of Swift's statement:
I cannot support Marsha Blackburn. Her voting record in Congress appalls and terrifies me. She voted against equal pay for women. She voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, which attempts to protect women from domestic violence, stalking, and date rape. She believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples. She also believes they should not have the right to marry. These are not MY Tennessee values.
 Now let's put the different claims in list form:
  • Blackburn voted against equal pay for women.
  • Blackburn voted against the Reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act
  • Blackburn believes businesses have a right to refuse service to gay couples
  • Blackburn also believes they should not have the right to marry
PolitiFact says it checks claims that make it wonder "Is that True?

The first statement regarding equal pay for women makes a great candidate for that question. Congress hasn't had to entertain a vote that would oppose equal pay for women (for equal work) for many years. It's been the law of the land since the 1960s. Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act? Don't make me laugh.

The second statement is a great one to check from the Democratic Party point of view, for the Democrats made changes to the VAWA with the likely intent of creating voter appeals based on conservative opposition to those changes.

The third statement concerns belief instead of the voting record, so that makes it potentially more challenging to check. On its face, Swift's claim looks like a gross oversimplification that ignores concerns about constitutional rights of conscience.

The fourth statement, like the third, involves a claim about belief. Also, the fourth statement would likely count as a gross oversimplification. Conservatives opposed to gay marriage tend to oppose same-sex couples asserting every legal advantage that opposite-sex couples enjoy.

PolitiFact chose its best candidate for finding the claim "True" instead of one more likely to garner a "False" rating. It chose the claim most likely to electorally favor Democrats.

Commonly choosing facts to check on that type of basis may damage the election prospects of those unfairly harmed by partisan story selection. People like Sen. Blackburn.

It's a rigged system when employed by neutral and nonpartisan fact checkers who lean left.

And that's how selection bias works.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Again: PolitiFact vs PolitiFact

In 2013, PolitiFact strongly implied (it might opine that it "declared") that President Obama's promise that people could keep the plans they liked according to his health care overhaul, the Affordable Care Act, received its "Lie of the Year" award.

In 2018, PolitiFact Missouri (with editing help from longtime PolitiFacter Louis Jacobson) suffered acute amnesia about its 2013 "Lie of the Year" pronouncements.

PolitiFact Missouri rates "Mostly False" Republican Josh Hawley's claim that millions of Americans lost their health care plans.

Yet in 2013 it was precisely the loss of millions of health care plans that PolitiFact advertised as its reason for giving Mr. Obama its "Lie of the Year" award (bold emphasis added):
It was a catchy political pitch and a chance to calm nerves about his dramatic and complicated plan to bring historic change to America’s health insurance system.

"If you like your health care plan, you can keep it," President Barack Obama said -- many times -- of his landmark new law.

But the promise was impossible to keep.

So this fall, as cancellation letters were going out to approximately 4 million Americans, the public realized Obama’s breezy assurances were wrong.
Hawley tried to use PolitiFact's finding against his election opponent, incumbent Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) (bold emphasis added):
"McCaskill told us that if we liked our healthcare plans, we could keep them. She said the cost of health insurance would go down. She said prescription drug prices would fall. She lied. Since then, millions of Americans have lost their health care plans."

Because of the contradiction between Hawley’s assertion and the promises of the ACA to insure more Americans, we decided to take a closer look.
So, despite the fact that PolitiFact says millions lost their health care plans and the breezy assurance to the contrary was wrong, PolitiFact says it gave Hawley's claim a closer look because it contradicts assurances that the ACA would insure more Americans.

Apparently it doesn't matter to PolitiFact that Hawley was specifically talking about losing health care plans and not losing health insurance completely. In effect, PolitiFact Missouri disavows any knowledge that the promise "if we liked our healthcare plans, we could keep them" was a false promise. The fact checkers substitute loss of health insurance for the loss of health care plans and give Hawley a "Mostly False" rating based on their own fallacy of equivocation (ambiguity).

A consistent PolitiFact could have performed this fact check easily. It could have looked at whether McCaskill made the same promise Obama made. And after that it could have remembered that it claimed to have found Obama's promise false along with the reasoning it used to justify that ruling.

Instead, PolitiFact Missouri delivers yet another outstanding example of PolitiFact inconsistency.


Do we cut PolitiFact Missouri a break because it was not around in 2013?

No we do not.

Exhibit 1: Louis Jacobson, who has been with PolitiFact for over 10 years, is listed as an editor.

Exhibit 2: Jacobson, beyond a research credit on the "Lie of the Year" article we linked above, wrote a related fact check on the Obama administration's attempt to explain its failed promise.

There's no excuse for this type of inconsistency. But bias offers a reasonable explanation for this type of inconsistency.