Thursday, January 3, 2019

PolitiFact's 10 Worst Fact Check Flubs of 2018

The worst of the mainstream fact checkers, PolitiFact, produced many flawed fact checks in 2018. Here's our list of PolitiFact's 10 worst fact check flubs from 2018.

10 PolitiFact Wisconsin's Worry-O-Meter

Republican Leah Vukmir challenged Democrat Tammy Baldwin for one of Wisconsin's senate seats in 2018. Vukmir challenged Baldwin's willingness to take a hard line on terrorism by saying Baldwin was more worried about "the mastermind of 9/11" than supporting Trump's nominee head of the CIA.

How does a fact checker measure worry?

No worries! PolitiFact Wisconsin claimed to have looked for signs Baldwin worried about Khalid Sheik Mohammed and didn't find anything. So it rated Vukmir's claim "Pants on Fire." PolitiFact Wisconsin skillfully circumnavigated Vukmir's clearly implied reference to a key reason Democrats opposed Trump's nominee, Gina Haspel: She had followed orders to implement enhanced interrogation techniques, including waterboarding. Mohammed was one of those to whom the technique was applied. Those are not the kinds of dots a fact checker like PolitiFact can connect.

Current immigration policy costs as much as $300 billion according to one study

The White House published an infographic claiming immigration policy costs the government money--as much as $300 billion according to one study. PolitiFact examined the question and found that it was "Half True" because it supposedly left out important details, like "U.S.-born children with at least one foreign-born parent are among the strongest economic and fiscal contributors, thanks in part to the spending by local governments on their education." No, really. That's critical missing context in PolitiFact's book. At least in this case.

Trump says senior White House official who said North Korean summit would be impossible to keep does not exist

The New York Times reported a "senior White House official" said U.S. summit with North Korea would be impossible to keep on its original date. It turned out the official didn't quite say that, but instead said words to the effect that keeping the original date would prove extremely difficult.

When Trump tweeted that the the source did not exist, PolitiFact fact checked the claim. In doing so, the fact checkers set aside the idea that Trump was saying no senior White House official had made the claim attributed by the Times. The fact checkers concluded that Trump's tweet was "Pants on Fire" false because the person to whom the Times attributed its dubious paraphrase was a real person.

We count this as a classic example of uncharitable interpretation.

Sen. Ted Cruz claims he has consistently opposed government shutdowns

After Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he has consistently opposed government shutdowns, PolitiFact rated his claim "Pants on Fire" because Cruz joined a failed vote against cloture on a bill that would have ended a government shutdown. PolitiFact said Cruz had failed his own test for supporting a shutdown: Cruz said shutdowns happen when senators vote to deny cloture on a funding bill. But obviously on a failed cloture vote the shutdown does not occur even though some senators voted to deny cloture on a funding bill. PolitiFact tried to make Cruz look like a hypocrite by taking his statement out of context.

PolitiFact claims Trump was wrong that a civilian in the room with Omar Mateen might have prevented the Pulse nightclub massacre

(Via Zebra Fact Check) When President Trump tweeted that a civilian with a gun in the room with Mateen might have prevented or reduced the casualties from the Pulse nightclub shooting, PolitiFact ruled the claim "False."

But PolitiFact made an incoherent case for its ruling. Trump was stating a counterfactual scenario, that if a civilian with a gun had been in the room with Mateen then the killing might have been prevented. PolitiFact argued, in effect, that the police detective doing guard duty in the Pulse parking lot counted as the civilian in the room with Mateen and had no effect on the outcome. A person in a parking lot is not the same as a person in the room, we say. And we see no grounds for the implication that the detective in the parking lot failed to contribute to a better outcome compared to having no armed guard in the parking lot.

PolitiFact determines 4.1 percent GDP growth objectively not "amazing."

After President Trump went to Twitter to declare 4.1 percent GDP growth rate "amazing," PolitiFact fact checked the claim and determined it "False." The Weekly Standard took note of PolitiFact's factual interest in a matter of opinion.

PolitiFact often fails to follow its principle against fact-checking opinion or hyperbole, and this case serves as an excellent example.

Does the European Union export cars to the U.S. by the millions?

After President Trump claimed the EU exports cars to the United States by the millions, PolitiFact interpreted the claim to refer specifically (and separately) to Mercedes and BMW vehicles (Trump mentioned both in his tweet) or to Germany in particular. Additionally, PolitiFact assumed that the rate of imports had to exceed 1 million per year to make Trump's claim true. That's despite the fact Trump specified no timed rate.

PolitiFact found its straw man version of Trump's claim "False." As a matter of fact, the number of cars manufactured in the European Union and exported to the United States exceeded 1 million from 2014 through 2016 (the latest numbers when Trump tweeted). Definitely false, then?

3 Did added debt in 2017 exceed cumulative debt over the United States' first 200 years in terms of GDP?

When MSNBC host Joe Scarborough said the Trump administration had added more debt than was accumulated in the nation's first 200 years, PolitiFact fact checked the claim. It was true, PolitiFact found, in terms of raw dollars. But experts told PolitiFact that the debt as a measure percentage of GDP serves as the best measure. So PolitiFact incorrectly interpreted the total accumulated debt in 2017 as added debt and proclaimed that Scarborough's claim checked out in terms of percentage of GDP.

Scarborough received a "Mostly True" rating for a claim that was incorrect in terms of GDP--what PolitiFact reported as the most appropriate measure.

Making this one even better, PolitiFact declined to fix the problem after we pointed it out to them.

2 PolitiFact decides who built what

After the right-leaning Breitbart news site published a fact check announcing that immigrants did not build Fall River, Massachusetts ("mostly false," according to that fact check), PolitiFact published a fact checking finding the Breitbart fact check "False." PolitiFact and Breitbart reported that established residents of Fall River built factories. Immigrants came to work in the factories. We agree with Breitbart that it does not make sense to withhold all credit from the people who built the factories.

1 PolitiFact flip-flops on its 2013 "Lie of the Year"

Republican senatorial candidate Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) tagged his opponent, Democrat Claire McCaskill, with chiming in on PolitiFact's 2013 "Lie of the Year"--the promise that Americans would be able to keep their existing health care plans under the Affordable Care Act.

Hawley accurately summarized PolitiFact's reasoning for its 2013 award. Obama's promise was emphatic that people would not lose their existing plans. Yet millions received cancellation notices in 2013 from insurance companies electing to simply drop potentially grandfathered plans. That led to Obama's promise sharing the "Lie of Year." PolitiFact baselessly claimed that when Hawley said people lost their plans he was sending the message that the millions of people completely lost insurance instead of simply losing the plans they preferred.

Happy New Year!

Correction Jan 3, 2018: Did a strikethrough correction, changing "measure of GDP" to "percentage of GDP"

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