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"

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