Friday, February 21, 2020

PolitiFact's dishonest dedication to the "Trump is a liar" narrative

It's quite true that President Trump makes far more than his share of false statements, albeit many of those represent hyperbole. Indeed, it may be argued that Trump blurs the line between the concepts of hyperbole and deceit.

But Trump's reputation for inaccuracy also serves as a confirmation bias trap for journalists.

Case in point, from PolitiFact's Twitter account:

The tweet does not tell us what Trump said about windmills and wildlife, though it links to a supposedly "similar claim" that it fact-checked in the past.

That fact check concerned something Trump said about the number of eagles killed by wind turbines:

The linked fact check had its own problems, which we noted at the time.

One of the things we noted was that PolitiFact gave short shrift to the facts to prefer advancing the narrative that Trump says false things:
PolitiFact's interpretation lacks clear justification in the context of Trump's remarks, but fits PolitiFact's narrative about Trump.

A politician's lack of clarity does not give fact checkers justification for interpreting statements as they wish. The neutral fact checker notes for readers the lack of clarity and then examines the possible interpretations that are at the same time plausible. The neutral fact checker applies the same standard of charitable interpretation to all, regardless of popular public narratives.
PolitiFact's tweet amplifies the distortion in its earlier fact check. Trump said wind turbines kill eagles by the hundreds. PolitiFact made a number of assumptions about what Trump meant (for example, assuming Mr. Trump's "by the hundreds" referred to an annual death toll) then produced its subjective "Mostly False" rating based on those assumptions.

Did Trump say something comparable in Colorado?

PolitiFact's tweet communicates to readers that Trump uttered another mostly falsehood in Colorado. But what did Trump say that PolitiFact found similar to saying wind turbines kill hundreds of eagles every year?

Here's what Trump said in Colorado, via (bold emphasis added):
We are right now energy independent, can you believe it? They want to use wind, wind, wind. Blow wind, please. Please blow. Please keep the birds away from those windmills, please. Tell those beautiful bald eagles, oh, a bald eagle. You know, if you shoot a bald eagle, they put you in jail for a long time, but the windmills knock them out like crazy. It’s true. And I think they have a rule, after a certain number are killed you have to close down the windmill until the following year. Do you believe this? Do you believe this? And they’re all made in China and in Germany. Siemans.
Got it? "Knocking (Bald Eagles) out like crazy"="(killing eagles) by the hundreds"

How many is "like crazy"? Pity the fact checker who thinks that's a claim a fact checker ought to check. If wind turbines kill tens of Bald Eagles instead of hundreds, that can support the opinion that the turbines kill the eagles "like crazy," particularly given the context.

It's hard to argue that Trump said something false about Bald Eagles in his Colorado speech, yet PolitiFact did just that, relying largely on hiding from its audience what Trump actually said.

How many eagles do wind turbines kill? That's hard to say. But federal permits for wind farming potentially allow for dozens of eagle deaths per year:
(Reuters) - Wind farms will be granted 30-year U.S. government permits that could allow for thousands of accidental eagle deaths due to collisions with company turbines, towers and electrical wires, U.S. wildlife managers said on Wednesday.
Does it follow that Trump said something "Mostly False" in Colorado?

Or are the fact checkers at PolitiFact once again chasing their narrative facts-be-damned?

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