Thursday, December 12, 2019

PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" farce, 2019 edition

From the start, PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" award has counted as a farce.


Because it has supposedly neutral and unbiased fact-checkers offering their collective editorial opinion on the most impactful falsehood from the past year.

How better to illustrate their neutrality than by offering an opinion?

PolitiFact's actions in choosing its "Lie of the Year" have borne out farcical nature of the exercise, with farces including naming true statements as the "Lie of the Year" and the immortal ObamaCare bait and switch.

On With the Latest Farce

This year we quickly noticed that all of the nominated falsehoods received "Pants on Fire" ratings. That's a first. The nominees usually received either a "False" or a "Pants on Fire" rating in the past, with the ObamaCare bait and switch counting as the lone exception.

Next, we noticed that of the three nominations connected to Democratic Party politicians only one came from PolitiFact National. PolitiFact California and PolitiFact Texas each scored one of those nominations.

No state PolitiFact operation had a Republican subject nominated, and President Trump received three of the four.

Is This the Weakest Field Ever?

PolitiFact says it awards its "Lie of the Year" to "the most impactful significant falsehood."

We don't see much impact on PolitiFact's list of nominations. We'll go through and handicap the list based on PolitiFact's claimed criterion.

But first we remind readers that PolitiFact has a history of not limiting its choice to an item from its own list of nominations. This is a good year in which to pull that stunt.

Says Nancy Pelosi diverted "$2.4 billion from Social Security to cover impeachment costs."
— Viral image on Wednesday, October 9th, 2019 in a Facebook post
Anybody remember any real-world impact from this claim? We don't. 0

"The first so-called second hand information ‘Whistleblower’ got my phone conversation almost completely wrong."

— Donald Trump on Saturday, October 5th, 2019 in a tweet
How about this footnote from the Trump impeachment parade? The impact of this supposed falsehood (isn't it closer to opinion than a specific statement of fact?), if any, comes from its symbolic representation of the case for impeachment. The appeal of this choice comes from the ability of the media to clap itself on the back for its impeachment reporting. 5

Between 27,000 and 200,000 Wisconsinites were "turned away" from the polls in 2016 due to lack of proper identification.

— Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, September 17th, 2019 in a speech at George Washington University
Again, what was the real-world impact of Clinton's claim? If PolitiFact bothered to tie together the exaggerated election interference claims from the Democratic presidential candidates plus failed Democratic nominee for the governorship of Georgia, Stacey Abrams, then maybe PolitiFact could reasonably say the collected falsehoods carried some impact. 1

Originally "almost all models predicted" Dorian would hit Alabama.

— Donald Trump on Wednesday, September 4th, 2019 in a tweet
Although we're not aware of any real-world impact from this Trump tweet, this one had a pretty big impact in the world of journalism (not to be mistaken for the real world).

That may well prove enough to give this claim the win. The press made a huge deal of this presidential tweet, and the issue eventually led to accusations Trump broke the law by altering a weather report (not kidding).

Were the media correct that Trump inspired disproportionate worry in the state of Alabama? We would not expect the media to offer strong support for that proposition. Thanks, Washington Post, for providing us an exemplar of our expectations. 6

"The vast majority" of San Francisco’s homeless people "also come in from — and we know this — from Texas. Just (an) interesting fact."

— Gavin Newsom on Sunday, June 23rd, 2019 in an interview on "Axios on HBO"
Gavin Newsom isn't well known nationally, and his statement had negligible real-world impact, by our estimation. This nomination is another tribute to PolitiFact's difficulty in finding falsehoods from Democrats. If PolitiFact had rated any of the many claims from Stacey Abrams that she won the Georgia election then we might have had a legitimate contender from the Democrats. 1

U.S. tariffs on China are "not hurting anybody" in the United States.

— Peter Navarro on Sunday, August 18th, 2019 in an interview
This "gotcha" fact check ignores much of the context of the Navarro interview, especially Navarro's point about China's major devaluation of its currency. That aside, despite media attempts to trumpet the harm to American consumers Americans seem mostly okay with whatever harm they're supposedly receiving.

Tariffs and the trade war make up a big issue, but it's sad if this shallow fact check treatment had any real-world impact. 2

"Remember after the shooting in Las Vegas, (President Donald Trump) said, ‘Yeah, yeah, we’re going to ban the bump stocks.’ Did he ban the bump stocks? No."

— Kirsten Gillibrand on Sunday, June 2nd, 2019 in a Fox News town hall
Ah. The fact check that brought an end to Kristen Gillibrand's hopes for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination.

Just kidding. Gillibrand never caught fire in the Democratic primary and there's no reason to suppose her statement criticizing Trump had anything to do with it. We doubt many are familiar with either Gillibrand or the fact check. Real world impact? Not so much. But at least PolitiFact National can take credit for this fact check of a Democrat. That's something. 0

Video shows Nancy Pelosi slurring her speech at a public event.
— Politics WatchDog on Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019 in a Facebook post
The video that misled thousands into thinking Speaker Pelosi slurred her speech in public. 1

"There has never been, ever before, an administration that’s been so open and transparent."
— Donald Trump on Monday, May 20th, 2019 in remarks at the White House
What was the context of this Trump claim?

PolitiFact used a short video snippet posted to Twitter as its primary source. PolitiFact offered no surrounding context. Is everyone good with that?

Can a potentially hyperbolic statement lifted out of context serve as the most significant falsehood of 2019?

This is PolitiFact we're talking about. 4

Says John Bolton "fundamentally was a man of the left."
Tucker Carlson on Tuesday, September 10th, 2019 in a TV segment
Fired Trump national security adviser John Bolton might have better name recognition than Kirsten Gillibrand. Not that we'd bet money on it or anything. Carlson was offering the opinion that Bolton's willingness to use government power (particularly military power) marked him as a progressive.

So what? Even if we suppose that political alignment counts as a matter of fact, who cares? 1


Two Trump claims have a chance of ending up with the "Lie of the Year" award. But the weak field makes us think there's an excellent chance PolitiFact will do what it has done in the past by settling on a set of claims or a topic that failed to make its list of nominees.

PolitiFact's list offers few nominees with significant political impact.

Correction Dec. 17, 2019: We misquoted PolitiFact's description of its "Lie of the Year" criterion and we have overlooked a second criterion PolitiFact claims to use (at least potentially). We fixed our use of the wrong word with a strikethrough and replaced it with the correct word ("significant" for "impactful").

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