Tuesday, January 15, 2019

PolitiFact and the Contradiction Fiction

We consider it incumbent on fact checkers to report the truth.

PolitiFact's struggles in that department earn it our assessment as the worst of the mainstream fact checkers. In our latest example, PolitiFact reported that President Donald Trump had contradicted his claim that he had never said Mexico would pay for the border wall with a check.

We label that report PolitiFact's contradiction fiction. Fact checkers should know the difference between a contradiction and a non-contradiction.

PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
"When during the campaign I would say ‘Mexico is going to pay for it,’ obviously, I never said this, and I never meant they're going to write out a check," Trump told reporters. "I said they're going to pay for it. They are."

Later on the same day while visiting the border in Texas, Trump offered the same logic: "When I say Mexico is going to pay for the wall, that's what I said. Mexico is going to pay. I didn't say they're going to write me a check for $20 billion or $10 billion."

We’ve seen the president try to say he never said something that he very much said before, so we wondered about this case.

Spoiler: Trump has it wrong.

We found several instances over the last few years, and in campaign materials contradicting the president’s statement.
PolitiFact offers three links in evidence of its "found several instances" argument, but relies on the campaign material for proof of the claimed contradiction.

We'll cover all of PolitiFact evidence and show that none of it demonstrated that Mr. Trump contradicted himself on this point. Because we can.


Campaign Material

PolitiFact made two mistakes in trying to prove its case from a Trump Campaign description of how Trump would make Mexico pay for the border wall. First, it ignored context. Second, it applied spin to one of the quotations it used from the document.

PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
"It's an easy decision for Mexico: make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion continues to flow into their country year after year," the memo said.

Trump proposed measures to compel Mexico to pay for the wall, such as cutting off remittances sent from undocumented Mexicans in the U.S. via wire transfers.

Then, the memo says, if and when the Mexican government protested, they would be told to pay a lump sum "to the United States to pay for the wall, the Trump Administration will not promulgate the final rule, and the regulation will not go into effect." The plan lists a few other methods if that didn’t work, like the trade deficit, canceling Mexican visas or increasing visa fees.
We placed bold emphasis on the part of the memo PolitiFact mentioned but ignored in its reasoning.

If the plan mentions methods to use if Mexico did not fork over the money directly, then how can the memo contradict Trump's claim he did not say Mexico would pay by check? Are fact checkers unable to distinguish between "would" and "could"? If Trump says Mexico could pay by check he does not contradict that claim by later saying he did not say Mexico would pay by check.

And what's so hard to understand about that? How can fact checkers not see it?

To help cinch its point, PolitiFact quotes from another section of the document, summarizing it as saying Mexico would pay for the wall with a lump sum payment: "(Mexico) would be told to pay a lump sum 'to the United States to pay for the wall'"). Except the term "lump sum" doesn't occur in the document.

There's reason for suspicion any time a journalist substitutes for the wording in the original document, using only a partial quotation and picking up mid-sentence. Here's the reading from the original:
On day 3 tell Mexico that if the Mexican government will contribute the funds needed to the United States to pay for the wall ...
We see only one potential justification for embroidering the above to make it refer to a "lump sum." That's from interpreting "It's an easy decision for Mexico: make a one-time payment of $5-10 billion to ensure that $24 billion continues to flow into their country year after year" as specifying a lump sum payment. We think confirmation bias would best explain that interpretation. It's more reasonable to take the statement to mean that paying for the wall once and having it over with is an obvious choice when it helps preserve a greater amount of income for Mexico annually after that. And the line does not express an expectation of a lump-sum payment but instead the strength (rightly or wrongly) of the bargaining position of the United States.

In short, PolitiFact utterly failed to make its case with the example it chose to emphasize.


... And The Rest


 (these are weak, so they occur after a page break)

URL One

PolitiFact's first linked example showing Trump contradicting himself led to this:
I would build a great wall, and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me, and I’ll build them very inexpensively, I will build a great, great wall on our southern border. And I will have Mexico pay for that wall.
Is there anything in there about making Mexico pay for the wall directly instead of indirectly? We don't see it. It's a mystery why PolitiFact would find any contradiction in this.


URL Two

PolitiFact's second linked example showing Trump contradicting himself led to a YouTube video. The video page includes a link to a transcript of Trump's remarks. That led to this:
We have a trade deficit of China of $500 billion a year. We have a trade deficit with Japan of over $100 billion a year. We have a trade deficit with Mexico.

That's why Mexico's going to pay for the wall. Fifty-eight billion dollars a year -- 100 percent. It's 100 percent. You know, these guys come up that I'm against and they say you're not going to get Mexico to pay for the wall. I said of course I am. We have a trade deficit with Mexico of $58 billion a year. The wall's going to cost $10 billion. You tell me I can't make that deal? That's an easy deal.
Again, Trump's remarks contain nothing specifying a lump sum payment from Mexico. There's nothing about paying by check and nothing specifying direct payment instead of indirect payment. It remains a mystery why PolitiFact would see any contradiction.

URL Three

PolitiFact's third linked example supposedly showing Trump contradicting himself led to another YouTube video. Again, the video page included a link to a transcript. That led to this:

DM
Are you going to direct U.S. funds to pay for this wall? Will American taxpayers pay for the wall?


DT
Ultimately, it'll come out of what's happening with Mexico. We're going to be starting those negotiations relatively soon. And we will be in a form reimbursed by Mexico, which I've always said.

DM
So they'll pay us back?

DT
Yeah, absolutely, 100 percent, yes.

DM
So the American taxpayer will pay for the wall at first?

DT
All it is, is we'll be reimbursed at a later date from whatever transaction we make from Mexico. Now, I could wait a year and I could hold off the wall. But I want to build the wall. We have to build the wall. We have to stop drugs from pouring in. We have to stop people from just pouring into our country. We have no idea where they're from. And I campaigned on the wall. And it's very important. But that wall will cost us nothing.

DM
But you talked often about Mexico paying for the wall. And you, again, say they'll pay us back. Mexico's president said in recent days that Mexico absolutely will not pay, adding that, It goes against our dignity as a country and our dignity as Mexicans." He says

DT
Well, I think he has -- David, I think he has to say that. He has to say that. But I'm just telling you, there will be a payment. It will be in a form, perhaps a complicated form. And you have to understand, what I'm doing is good for the United States. It's also going to be good for Mexico.

DA
What are you going to say to some of your supporters who might say, Wait a minute

DT

Well, I'd say very simply that they are going to pay for it. I never said they're going to pay from the start. I said Mexico will pay for the wall.
When Trump says "we will be in a form reimbursed by Mexico" does PolitiFact read that as "we will be reimbursed by Mexico with a lump-sum check"?

When Trump says "It will be in a form, perhaps a complicated form," does PolitiFact think that means Trump thinks writing a check is complicated?

How can that count as fact-checking?

PolitiFact asserted Trump contradicted himself but failed to provide any type of reasonable evidence backing its claim.

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