Thursday, February 20, 2020

PolitiFact weirdly unable to answer criticism

Our title plays off a PolitiFact critique Dave Weigel wrote back in 2011 (Slate). PolitiFact has a chronic difficulty responding effectively to criticism.

Most often PolitiFact doesn't bother responding to criticism. But if it makes its liberal base angry enough sometimes it will trot out some excuses.

This time PolitiFact outraged supporters of Democratic (Socialist) presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with a "Mostly False" rating of Sanders' claim that fellow Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg "opposed modest proposals during Barack Obama’s presidency to raise taxes on the wealthy, while advocating for cuts to Medicare and Social Security."

Reactions from left-leaning journalists Ryan Grim and Ryan Cooper were typical of the genre.

The problem isn't that Sanders wasn't misleading people. He was. The problem stems from PolitiFact's inability to reasonably explain what Sanders did wrong. PolitiFact offered a poor explanation in its fact check, appearing to reason that what Sanders said was true but misleading and therefore "Mostly False."

That type of description typically fits a "Half True" or a "Mostly True" rating--particularly if the subject isn't a Republican.

PolitiFact went to Twitter to try to explain its decision.

First, PolitiFact made a statement making it appear that Sanders was pretty much right:

Then PolitiFact (rhetorically) asked how the true statements could end up with a "Mostly False" rating. In reply to its own question, we got this:
Because Sanders failed to note the key role of deficit reduction for Bloomberg.
Seriously? Missing context tends to lead to the aforementioned "Mostly True" or "Half True" ratings, not "Mostly False" (unless it's a Republican). Sanders is no Republican, so of course there's outrage on the left.

Anyway, who cuts government programs without having deficit reduction in mind? That's pretty standard, isn't it?

How can PolitiFact be this bad at explaining itself?

In its next explanatory tweet PolitiFact did much better by pointing out Bloomberg agreed the Obama deficit reduction plan should raise taxes, including taxes on wealthy Americans.

That's important not because it's on the topic of deficit reduction but because Sanders's made it sound like Bloomberg opposed tax hikes on the wealthy at the federal level. Recall Sanders' words (bold emphasis added): "modest proposals during Barack Obama’s presidency to raise taxes on the wealthy."

Mentioning the proposals occurred during the Obama presidency led the audience to think Bloomberg was talking about tax hikes at the federal level. But Sanders was talking about Bloomberg's opposition to tax hikes in New York City, not nationally.

PolitiFact mentioned that Bloomberg had opposed the tax hikes in New York, but completely failed to identify Sanders' misdirection.

PolitiFact's next tweet only created more confusion, saying "Sanders’ said Bloomberg wanted entitlement cuts and no tax hikes. That is not what Bloomberg said."

But that's not what Sanders said. 

It's what Sanders implied by juxtaposing mention of the city tax policy with Obama-era proposals for slowing the growth of Medicare and Social Security spending.

And speaking of those two programs, that's where PolitiFact really failed with this fact check. In the past PolitiFact has distinguished, albeit inconsistently, between cutting a government program and slowing its growth. It's common in Washington D.C. to call the slowing of growth a "cut," but such a cut from a higher growth projection differs from cutting a program by making its funding literally lower from one year to the next. Fact checkers should identify the baseline for the cut. PolitiFact neglected that step.

If PolitiFact had noted that Bloomberg's supposed cuts to Social Security and Medicare were cuts to future growth projections, it could have called out Sanders for the misleading imprecision.

PolitiFact could have said the Social Security/Medicare half of Sanders' claim was "Half True" and that taking the city tax policy out of context was likewise "Half True." And if PolitiFact did not want to credit Sanders with a "Half True" claim by averaging those ratings then it could have justified a "Mostly False" rating by invoking the misleading impression Sanders achieved by juxtaposing the two half truths.

 Instead, we got yet another case of PolitiFact weirdly unable to to answer criticism.

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