Friday, March 15, 2019

Remember Back When PolitiFact was Fair & Balanced?

PolitiFact has leaned left from the outset (2007).

It's not uncommon to see people lament PolitiFact's left-leaning bias along with the claim that once upon a time PolitiFact did an even-handed job on its fact-checking.

But we've never believed the fairy tale that PolitiFact started out well. It's always been notably biased to the left. And we just stumbled across a PolitiFact fact check from 2008 that does a marvelous job illustrating the point.

It's a well-known fact that nearly half of U.S. citizens pay no net income tax, right?

Yet note how the fact checker, in this case PolitiFact's founding editor Bill Adair, frames President Obama's claim:
In a speech on March 20, 2008, Obama took a different approach and emphasized the personal cost of the war.

"When Iraq is costing each household about $100 a month, you're paying a price for this war," he said in the speech in Charleston, W.Va.
Hold on there, PolitiFact.

How can the cost of the war, divided up per family, rightly get categorized as a "personal cost" when about half of the families aren't paying any net federal income tax?

If the fact check was serious about the personal cost, then it would look at the differences in tax burdens. Families paying a high amount of federal income tax would pay far more than the the price of their cable bill. And families paying either a small amount of income tax or no net income tax would pay much less then the cost of their cable service for the Iraq War (usually $0).

PolitiFact stuffs the information it should have used to pan Obama's claim into paragraph No. 8, where it is effectively quarantined with parentheses (parentheses in the original):
(Of course, Obama's simplified analysis does not reflect the variations in income tax levels. And you don't have to write a check for the war each month. The war costs are included in government spending that is paid for by taxes.)
President Obama's statement was literally false and highly misleading as a means of expressing the personal cost of the war.

But PolitiFact couldn't or wouldn't see it and rated Mr. Obama's claim "True."

Not that much has changed, really.

Afters (for fun)

The author of that laughable fact check is the same Bill Adair later elevated to the Knight Chair for Duke University's journalism program.

We imagine Adair earned his academic throne in recognition of his years of neutral and unbiased  fact-checking even knowing President Obama was watching him from behind his desk.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Gender Pay Gap Shenanigans from PolitiFact Virginia

PolitiFact has a long history of botching gender wage gap stories, often horrifically.

PolitiFact Virginia's March 13, 2019 treatment of the subject does nothing improve the reliability of PolitiFact's reporting on the topic.

It's not true that women earn 80 percent of the pay men earn doing the same job, though Democrats proclaim otherwise from time to time. And that's probably what Scott did, using "similar" in its role as a synonym for "same."

PolitiFact was apparently very eager to use the technique of charitable interpretation--most likely because Scott is a Democrat. Republicans rarely receive the benefit of that feature of competent fact-checking from PolitiFact.

We're partial to the using charitable interpretation when appropriate, but PoltiFact Virginia ends up running data through the confirmation bias filter in its effort to bail out Scott.

We'd judge Scott's use of the term "similar" as an ambiguity. PolitiFact Virginia calls it "nuance":
Scott’s statement, however, is nuanced. He says women get 80 percent pay for doing "similar" jobs as white men, which is different than saying the "same" job as men.
PolitiFact Virginia apparently skipped the step of checking the thesaurus to see if the terms "similar" and "same" may be used interchangeably. They can. The two terms have overlapping meanings, in fact.

We find it notable that PolitiFact Virginia set aside the usual PolitiFact practice of relying on explanations from spokespeople representing the figure being fact-checked.

Scott's staff said he got his numbers from sources relying on Census Bureau data.

PolitiFact Virginia:
Stephanie Lalle, Scott’s deputy communications director, told us the congressman got the statistic from separate reports published in late 2018 by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Both reports said the statistic comes from the U.S. Census Bureau. The latest gender-gap statistics from the Bureau show in 2017 women earned 80.5 percent of what men made - the same percentage as in 2016.
PolitiFact Virginia's determination to defend Scott's statement leads it to spout statistical mumbo-jumbo. Based on apparently nothing more the Scott's "nuanced" use of the term "similar," PolitiFact Virginia tried to reverse engineer an explanation of his statistic to replace the explanation offered by Scott's staff.

What if "similar" meant broad classes of jobs, and data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed white men making more than women in those classes of jobs?

PolitiFact Virginia thought it was worth a shot:
Women out-earned men in three occupations: wholesale and retail buying; frontline supervisor of construction trades and extraction workers; and, as we mentioned, dining room and cafeteria attendants and bartender helpers.

Fact-checking Scott, however, requires a deeper dive. The percentages we just discussed compare the full-time weekly earnings of all women to all men in these occupations. Scott, in his statement, compared the earnings of all women to white men in similar jobs.

The BLS’s data set that compares gender pay by specific jobs does not sort men and women by race. It does, however, categorize the jobs into 29 broad fields of work and, in each of those fields, breaks down women and men by sex.

Overall in 2018, women earned 78.7 percent less than white men in the same areas of work. The comparison of women’s pay to white men’s produces a bigger gender gap than the comparison to all men. That’s because white males tend to earn more than black males.

White men out-earned women in all 29 fields of work.
Note that PolitiFact Virginia isn't really showing its work. And what it does show contains appalling mistakes.

Let's break it down piece by piece.

Piece by Piece, Step by Step

"The percentages we just discussed compare the full-time weekly earnings of all women to all men in these occupations."

Do the percentages compare the full-time weekly earnings of all women to all men in those occupations? It's hard to tell from PolitiFact's linked source document. If author Warren Fiske was talking about Table 18, as we believe, then the fact check should refer to Table 18 by name.

Looking at Table 18, it seems Fiske reasoned improperly. The table mentions 121 groups of occupations but most of occupations nested under the list headers have no estimate of a gender wage gap, entering a dash instead of a number. In the notes at the bottom of the table, BLS warns that a dash means "no data or data that do not meet publication criteria." That makes it improper to extrapolate the listed results into a nationally representative number. Nor should a fact-checker assume that the subject of the fact check had such creative reasoning in mind.

In short, using numbers from Table 18 to support Scott represents unjustifiable cherry-picking.

"Scott, in his statement, compared the earnings of all women to white men in similar jobs."

We cannot find any citation in PolitiFact Virginia's fact check that offers data addressing the racial aspect of Scott's claim. Without that data, how can the fact checker reach a reasonable conclusion about the claim?

"The BLS’s data set that compares gender pay by specific jobs does not sort men and women by race."

That's bad news for this fact check. As noted above, without the data on race there's no checking the claim.

"It does, however, categorize the jobs into 29 broad fields of work and, in each of those fields, breaks down women and men by sex."

Breaking down men and women by sex is not the same as breaking them down by race, so this "however" doesn't point the way to a solution to the problem.

"Overall in 2018, women earned 78.7 percent less than white men in the same areas of work."

The fact checkers probably meant 78.7 cents to the dollar compared to men, not 78.7 percent less (about 22 cents to the dollar). But we still do not know the source of the race-based claim. We'd love to see a clear clue from PolitiFact Virginia regarding the specific source of this claim.

"The comparison of women’s pay to white men’s produces a bigger gender gap than the comparison to all men. That’s because white males tend to earn more than black males."

This part we follow. But it doesn't help us understand how PolitiFact can claim how white men out-earned women in all 29 fields of work in the BLS data.

"White men out-earned women in all 29 fields of work."

Based on what? We just went through PolitiFact's argument step by step. There's no reasoning in the fact check to justify it, and we can't find any citation that appears to lead to a justifying document.


PolitiFact failed to offer information justifying its key data point ("White men out-earned women in all 29 fields of work). It failed to show how cherry-picking that information, even if legitimately sourced, would justify Scott's statement in the context of "fair pay" legislation. And it simply blundered with the claim that women earned 78.7 percent less than white men (in same areas of work or otherwise).

Making the bad news worse, we could write another article about the problems in PolitiFact Virginia's wage gap story without repeating the same points.

Update March 14, 2019

After we contacted PolitiFact Virginia on March 13, 2019 it corrected the "78.7 percent less" mistake.

PolitiFact Virginia attached no editor's note to the story indicating either a correction or clarification.

Note this from PolitiFact's policy on corrections:
Errors of fact – Errors of fact that do not impact the rating or do not change the general outlook of the fact-check receive a mark of correction at the bottom of the fact-check.

The text of the fact-check is updated with the new information. The correction states the correct information that has been added to the report. If necessary for clarity, it repeats the incorrect information. Corrected fact-checks receive a tag of "Corrections and updates."

Typos, grammatical errors, misspellings – We correct typos, grammatical errors, misspellings, transpositions and other small errors without a mark of correction or tag and as soon as they are brought to our attention.
So we're supposed to believe writing "earned 78.7 percent less" instead of "78.7 percent as much" counts as one of the following:
  • typo
  • grammatical error
  • misspelling
  • transposition
  • other small error
Who buys it?

Update Aug. 5, 2019

On some unknown date, PolitiFact Virginia got around to adding a correction notice to its fact check article:
Correction: Women earned 78.7 percent as much as white men, overall, in 22 broad fields of work in 2018, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. An earlier version of this story misstated the statistics.
The story does not, however, appear on PolitiFact's supposedly exhaustive list of corrected or updated stories (there's no subject tag on the story that would result in it appearing on that list).

Monday, March 4, 2019

The underlying point saves the day for Bernie Sanders falsehood?

For some reason there are people who believe that if a fact checker checks both sides that means that the fact checker is neutral.

We've kept pointing out that checking both sides is no kind of guarantee of nonpartisanship. It's a simple matter to give harsher ratings to one side while rating both sides. Or softer ratings to one side while rating both sides.

Latest case in point: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders claimed that the single-payer health care system in Canada offers "quality care to all people  without out of pocket expenses."

PolitiFact found that the Canadian system does not eliminate out-of-pocket expenses (contradicting Sanders' claim).

And then PolitiFact gave Sanders' claim a "Half True" rating.

Seriously. That's what PolitiFact did.

PolitiFact's summary is remarkable for not explaining how Sanders managed to eke out a "Half True" rating for a false statement. PolitiFact describes what's wrong with the statement (how it's false) and then proclaims the "Half True" ruling:
Sanders said, "In Canada, for a number of decades they have provided quality care to all people without out-of-pocket expenses. You go in for cancer therapy, you don't take out your wallet."

So long as the care comes from a doctor or at a hospital, the Canadian system covers the full cost. But the country’s public insurance doesn’t automatically pay for all services, most significantly, prescription drugs, including drugs needed to fight cancer.

Out-of-pocket spending is about 15 percent of all Canadian health care expenditures, and researchers said prescription drugs likely represented the largest share of that.

The financial burden on people is not nearly as widespread or as severe as in the United States, but Sanders made it sound as though out-of-pocket costs were a non-issue in Canada.

We rate this claim Half True.

PolitiFact says Sanders made it sound like Canadians do not pay out-of-pocket at all for health care. But Canadians do pay a substantial share out of pocket, therefore making it sound like they don't is "Half True."

Republicans, don't get the idea that you can say something PolitiFact describes as false in its fact check and then skate with a "Half True" rating on the "Truth-O-Meter."

Friday, March 1, 2019

PolitiFact Tweezes Green New Deal Falsehoods

In our post "PolitiFact's Green New Deal Fiction Depiction" we noted how PolitiFact had decided that a Democrat posting a falsehood-laden FAQ about the Green New Deal on her official congressional website escaped receiving a negative rating on PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter."

At the time we noted that PolitiFact's forbearance held benefits for Democrats and Republicans alike:
Many will benefit from PolitiFact's apparent plan to give out "Truth-O-Meter" mulligans over claimed aspects of the Green New Deal resolution not actually in the resolution. Critics of those parts of the plan will not have their attacks rated on the Truth-O-Meter. And those responsible for generating the controversy in the first place by publishing FAQs based on something other than the actual resolution also find themselves off the hook.
 We were partly right.

Yes, PolitiFact let Democrats who published a false and misleading FAQ about the Green New Deal off the hook.

But apparently PolitiFact has reserved the right to fault Republicans and conservatives who base their criticisms of the Green New Deal on the false and misleading information published by the Democrats.

PolitiFact Florida tweezed out a such a tidbit from an editorial written by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.):

False? It doesn't matter at all that Ocasio-Cortez said otherwise on her official website? There is no truth to it whatsoever? And Ocasio-Cortez gets no "False" rating for making an essentially identical claim on her website?

This case will get our "tweezers or tongs" tag because PolitiFact is once again up to its traditional shenanigan of tweezing out one supposed falsehood from a background of apparent truths:
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., outlined his opposition to the Democrats’ Green New Deal in a Feb. 25th Orlando Sentinel op-ed:

"If you are not familiar with it, here’s the cliff notes version: It calls for rebuilding or retrofitting every building in America in the next 10 years, eliminating all fossil fuels in 10 years, eliminating nuclear power, and working towards ending air travel (to be replaced with high-speed rail)."


Let’s hit the brakes right there -- do the Democrats want to end air travel?
See what PolitiFact did, there?

Scott can get three out of four points right, but PolitiFact Florida will pick on one point to give Scott a "False" rating and build for him an unflattering graph of  "Truth-O-Meter" ratings shaped by PolitiFact's selection bias.

The Jestation Hypothesis

How does PolitiFact Florida go about discounting the fact that Ocasio-Cortez claimed on her website that the Green New Deal aimed to make air travel obsolete?

The objective and neutral fact checkers give us the Jestation Hypothesis. She must have been kidding.

No, really. Perhaps the idea came directly from one of the three decidedly non-neutral experts PolitiFact cited in its fact check (bold emphasis added):
"It seems to me those lines from the FAQ were lighthearted and ill-considered, and it’s not clear why they were posted," said Sean Hecht, Co-Executive Director, Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA law school.
Hecht's FEC contributions page is hilariously one-sided.

Does anyone need more evidence that the line about making air travel obsolete was just a joke?
"No serious climate experts advocate ending air travel -- that's simply a red-herring," said Bledsoe, who was a climate change advisor to the Clinton White House.
Former Clinton White House advisor Bledsoe is about as neutral as Hecht. The supposed "red-herring," we remind readers, was published on Ocasio-Cortez's official House of Representatives website.

The neutral and objective fact-checkers of PolitiFact Florida deliver their jestational verdict (bold emphasis added):
Scott wrote in an op-ed that the Democrats’ Green New Deal includes "working towards ending air travel."

The resolution makes no mention of ending air travel. Instead, it calls for "overhauling transportation systems," which includes "investment in high-speed rail." Scott seized on a messaging document from Democrats that mentioned, perhaps in jest, getting rid of "farting cows and airplanes." But we found no evidence that getting rid of airplanes is a serious policy idea from climate advocates.
Apparently it cannot count as evidence that Democrats have advocated getting rid of airplanes if a popular Democratic Party representative publishes this on her website:
The Green New Deal sets a goal to get to net-zero, rather than zero emissions, at the end of this 10-year plan because we aren’t sure that we will be able to fully get rid of, for example, emissions from cows or air travel before then. However, we do believe we can ramp up renewable manufacturing and power production, retrofit every building in America, build the smart grid, overhaul transportation and agriculture, restore our ecosystem, and more to get to net-zero emissions.
Oh! Ha ha ha ha ha! Get it? We may not be able to fully get rid of emissions from cows or air travel in only 10 years! Ha ha ha!

So the claim was quite possibly a joke, even if no real evidence supports that idea.

But it's all PolitiFact needs to give a Republican a "False" rating and the Democrat no rating at all for saying essentially the same thing.

This style of fact-checking undermines fact checkers' credibility with centrists and conservatives, as well as with discerning liberals.


There was one more expert PolitiFact cited apart from the two we showed/noted were blatantly partisan.

That was "David Weiskopf, climate policy director for NextGen Climate America."

Here's a snippet from the home page for NextGen Climate America:

So basically neutral, right?

PolitiFact Florida "fact checker" (liberal blogger) Amy Sherman seems to have a special gift for citing groups of experts who skew hilariously left.