Sunday, May 24, 2020

Research update, May 2020

PolitiFact updated its website in 2020, and we acknowledged one clear improvement when the fact checkers added a link to the "Corrections and Updates" page on the main menu.

As we've moved to update our research, particularly the "Pants on Fire" bias research, we've noticed that PolitiFact has made made our job more tricky.

In times past, PolitiFact neatly separated its stories into categories. PolitiFact National once had its own page, and did not include stories from the state operations such as PolitiFact California and PolitiFact Texas.

This year PolitiFact changed it hierarchical tree. That means older links from our spreadsheet probably won't work.

PolitiFact now relies on its tagging system to separate and group its stories. The site has no "PolitiFact National" menu item, but using the "PolitiFact National" tag creates a page of such stories. Or would, if PolitiFact had done a precise job of applying its system of tags to its content. We're finding stories tagged with contradictory tags, such as "Pennsylvania" for PolitiFact Pennsylvania and "National" for PolitiFact National. Many items by the staff of PolitiFact National now appear categorized as though they came from the distinct state operations.

We'll have to take a closer look at some of these cases to categorize them appropriately for our research, and we'll take note when a state operation might as well count as PolitiFact National.

Is it PolitiFact Arizona or PolitiFact New York?

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Malleable principles at PolitiFact Pennsylvania

We don't look at every PolitiFact fact check. Not by a long shot. But when we do, we often find problems.

We did not start reading PolitiFact Pennsylvania's fact check of Repblican Mike Turzai looking for problems. It came on our radar because we were updating our "Pants on Fire" bias research. We noticed the fact check had tags for "National" and for "Pennsylvania." State tags do not normally occur on stories with the "National" tag.

But we had to give this one a closer look. It rated Turzai "False" for claiming children are not at risk from COVID-19 unless they have underlying medical issues. It seemed worth looking at since children seem substantially less affected than adults by the novel coronavirus.

It didn't take us long to notice that a study PolitiFact used to justify its rating was published on May 11, 2020:
Turzai was on the right track when he said that children in poor health who contract the coronavirus are at risk of becoming seriously ill. And it’s true that children are far less susceptible than adults. But his claim that other children are totally safe is incorrect, according to a study published recently in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics.
And the rest of the justification came from an announcement made on May 11, 2020:
Publication of the study came the same day New York City officials announced that a growing cluster of children sickened with the coronavirus have developed a serious condition called pediatric multi-symptom inflammatory syndrome.
So, what's the problem?

PolitiFact's statement of principles stipulates it will judge claims based on information available when the claim was made. Turzai made his claim in a video released on May 9, 2020. Both sources of PolitiFact's rebuttal information came from May 11, 2020. The "False" ruling goes directly against PolitiFact's statement of principles (bold emphasis added):
The burden of proof is on the speaker, and we rate statements based on the information known at the time the statement is made.
The fact check's summary paragraph emphasizes that the ruling's justification came from the two sources identified above, both coming to light on May 11, 2020.
Our ruling

Speaking about the coronavirus, Turzai said children are "not at risk unless they have an underlying medical issue." A new study and a growing number of gravely ill children in New York City prove otherwise. We rate this statement False.
Once again, PolitiFact acted out-of-step with its own principles. In this case a Republican received unfair harm as a result.

That's the tendency we see from left-leaning PolitiFact.

Add caption


Unlike PolitiFact, we were not sure upon reading Turzai's claim what risk to children he meant. Risk of death? Risk of contracting the disease and/or carrying and spreading it? Risk of suffering severe illness upon contracting COVID-19?

PolitiFact settled on the last of those, without discussion. We think understanding him to mean the risk of death has equal justification.

PolitiFact builds straw man for PolitiSplainer on unmasking

If PolitiFact's one-sided PolitiSplainer on the Justice Department's reversal on Gen. Michael Flynn's prosecution was not enough, now we have a PolitiSpainer on the Obama administration's unmasking efforts on Flynn and others.

The new PolitiSplainer could win awards for the way it buries the fundamental problem of the unmasking efforts--evidence that knowledge of Russia/Trump collusion falsehood went to the top of the Obama administration and included Vice President Biden--to focus instead on making the unmasking sound like a normal everyday thing at the top of an administration.

But our favorite PolitiMisfire involves PolitiFact's straw-manning of the Republicans' side of the story.

You don't get a taste of Andy McCarthy's expert analysis. And you don't get Jonathan Turley's view. You don't get a host of stories written by well-known and experienced conservative pundits or experts.

No, you get a Facebook post from Diamond & Silk.

No, we're not making this up.
Does the unmasking list show that top officials "knew" that concerns about Flynn were a "lie"?

The pro-Trump social media personalities Diamond and Silk drew this conclusion in a Facebook post that featured images of the list of Obama administration officials:

"Obama knew. Clinton knew. Biden knew. Comey knew. Brennan knew. McCabe knew. Strzok knew. Clapper knew. Rosenstein knew. FBI knew. DOJ knew. CIA knew. State knew. They all knew it was a lie, a witch-hunt, a scandal, a plot, a conspiracy, a hoax. #ObamaGate #SubpoenaObama."

Partisans have an easy time jumping to conclusions. And that tendency represents our best guess as to why PolitiFact assumed Obama, Clinton, Strok, Clapper, Rosenstein, FBI, CIA and State all knowing "it" was a lie referred to the Flynn unmasking all by itself.

That's the beauty of picking on a short Facebook post. The "fact checker" (liberal blogger) can see a set of dots and then freely connect them to construct an understanding that fits a preconceived narrative.

There's nothing in Diamond & Silk's Facebook post explaining that the list follows solely from the Flynn unmasking disclosure. PolitiFact invented that and presented it to readers as fact.

PolitiFact can do that, you see, because it does not apply to itself the "Burden of Proof" principle it applies (on occasion) to others.

It's a shameful example of fact-checking. It qualifies as the straw man fallacy, in fact.

It's likely Diamond & Silk were talking about the Trump/Russia collusion narrative being a lie. not "concerns about Flynn."

Fact checkers, if you want the conservative argument about some aspect of executive office procedures try Andrew McCarthy sometime:

This week’s revelations about unmasking are important and intriguing. They should be thoroughly examined. In fact, they are only a snapshot of the unmasking issue — involving just one U.S. person (Flynn) over a period of less than three months. It is highly irregular for government officials on the political side of the national-security realm to seek the unmasking of Americans. It is eye-opening to learn that Vice President Biden and President Obama’s chief-of-staff (McDonough) unmasked the incoming Trump administration’s national security advisor. It is downright scandalous that Samantha Power, Obama’s ambassador to the United Nations, who had little reason to seek unmasking, reportedly requested 260 unmaskings . . . and then told Congress that she did not make the vast majority of requests attributed to her — though it remains unclear, years later, who did make them.

But let’s not miss the forest for the trees. This is not just about unmasking. It is about how pervasively the Obama administration was monitoring the Trump campaign.
PolitiFact's left-leaning fan base was spared any in-depth analysis from the right in favor of PolitiFact's straw man version of Diamond & Silk's Facebook post on the topic. And it got standard talking points from the left (unmasking is so totally normal!).

That kind of fact-checking qualifies as a disservice to readers who are interested in the truth.

Update May 17, 2020: clarified language in the second paragraph

Sunday, May 10, 2020

PolitiFact's Michael Flynn case PolitiSplainer (Updated & Corrected)

We almost titled this post "PolitiFact's Michael Flynn case PolitiSplainerainerainerainer" in honor of way PolitiFact reinforces the liberal echo chamber effect surrounding the Michael Flynn prosecution and reversal.

This week the Justice Department filed a motion declaring it would no longer prosecute the case against Flynn, citing recent document releases that drew into serious question the materiality of the statements over which Flynn was prosecuted. The Washington Post published a piece in 2018 by Phillip Bump that helps explain the importance of materiality:
Clearly, telling an FBI agent something untrue during an interview at FBI headquarters as you face criminal charges subjects you to charges of making false statements. Equally clearly, if an FBI agent friend of yours asks to borrow a dollar and you lie and say you don’t have any cash, that’s not going to get you taken away in handcuffs. But where is the line drawn between the two?
The Justice Department's filing says it believed it could no longer prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Flynn communicated a material falsehood to the FBI. The main key to that reversal stemmed from the disclosure that the FBI had an investigation specific to Flynn ("Crossfire Razor") and that the FBI had recommended closing that investigation for lack of evidence before deciding to interview Flynn.

Adding insult to injury, prosecutors never revealed that exculpatory evidence during trial or via disclosure to the defense. That failure deprived Flynn of a valuable tool that might have aided his defense.

In what we would take as an astonishing move if PolitiFact was an objective and impartial fact checker, its PolitiSplainer explains none of that.

Here's the whole of the case for Flynn, by PolitiFact's telling:

After Attorney General William Barr asked Jeff Jensen, the U.S. attorney in St. Louis, to review the case, Jensen concluded that a dismissal of the case was warranted. Barr agreed.

In its filing, the Justice Department argued that the FBI had no basis to continue investigating Flynn after failing to find illegal acts. Flynn’s answers during the interview were equivocal, not false, and weren’t relevant to the investigation, the department said.

"A crime cannot be established here," the attorney general told CBS, saying "people sometimes plead to things that turn out not to be crimes."

 Sure, PolitiFact reports the Department said Flynn's answers "weren't relevant to the investigation" but it does not explain that answer in terms of the law.

None of the experts PolitiFact quoted for the story had anything to say about it, either. Only two of the four had records of giving to Democrats this time (Barbara McQuade, James Robenalt). Open Secrets had no record of political giving from the other two.

PolitiFact also curiously failed to either link to or quote from the DOJ filing in the Flynn case. We wonder if anyone from PolitiFact bothered to read it.

Oh, for what might have been!:
FBI executives decided to keep open an investigation into whether Flynn was a Russian asset based on a conversation that was innocuous save for its interpretation as a violation of the (virtually ignored) Logan Act.

It's as though PolitiFact's PolitiSplainer was designed to keep people in the dark, or at least support a rapidly eroding media narrative.

Update/Correction May 12, 2020: PolitiFact Bias asserted that PolitiFact failed to quote from the DOJ filing. We fixed that with a pair of strikethroughs. PolitiFact used a pair of very short snippets near the beginning of its PolitiSplainer (bold emphasis added):
The filing said that a key interview of Flynn did not have "a legitimate investigative basis" and therefore the department does not consider Flynn’s statements from the interview to be "material even if untrue."
We still say PolitiFact's 'Splainer fails to explain the legal importance of materiality. If Flynn's alleged falsehoods were not relevant (material) to the active investigation then they were not illegal.

We also note that this part of PolitiFact's article undercuts the "expert" testimony discussed in our critique. If only "a key interview of Flynn" did not have the legitimate investigative basis then what of the other parts of the Flynn investigation? PolitiFact's Louis Jacobson should have noticed the discrepancy.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Pulitzer update: PolitiFact fails to grow its Pulitzer Prize collection in 2020

Pulitzer Prize winners were announced and PolitiFact extended its losing streak, which dates back to 2010. PolitiFact won a 2009 Pulitzer, for work done in 2008.

Nearly every year we at PolitiFact Bias make note of PolitiFact's losing streak. Why do we do that, given that our Pulitzer losing streak is almost as long as PolitiFact's?

We do it because the 2009 Pulitzer Prize has nothing to do with accuracy, even though PolitiFact advertises itself as "Winner of the Pulitzer Prize" as though to suggest the reverse. And from time to time we even encounter people who seem to want to argue that PolitiFact's 2009 Pulitzer Prize somehow helps offer evidence of its reliability.

That's also why PolitiFact Bias emphasized former Pulitzer Prize juror James Warren's interview with incoming Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy. Warren mentioned that when he served as a juror he was tempted to fact check the work he evaluated but the rules prevented that. Canedy suggested that policy would likely continue.

This year's list of winners helps underline that policy, as The New York Times' factually challenged 1619 Project snagged a Pulitzer Prize for project principal Nikole Hannah-Jones.

That win ought to help scuttle the notion that Pulitzer Prizes have something to do with reliably reported facts.


We suggested to PolitiFact that it should fact check the Times' 1619 Project. So far, PolitiFact does not appear interested in doing so.

Correction May 5, 2020: I (Bryan) inexplicably had the following in the first paragraph of this post: "PolitiFact won a 2009 Pulitzer, awarded in 2010." We know better, or ought to, having written about it numerous times. PolitiFact's 2009 Pulitzer was recognition for what it published in 2008. My apologies for the error, which is now fixed.

Saturday, May 2, 2020

'Objective' PolitiFact Uses Biased Framing

Though PolitiFact absurdly tries to claim it is unbiased, its work shows bias in a multitude of ways.

One bias that popped out this week was in PolitiFact's PolitiSplainer about Tara Reade and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. Reade has accused Biden of sexual harassment to the point of rape. Her description of the alleged incident would technically meet at least one statutory definition of "rape."

But get a load of PolitiFact introductory paragraph concerning Reade and Biden:
More than two dozen women have accused President Donald Trump of sexual assault, and many of the allegations emerged not long before his election in November 2016. In October of that year, multiple women said he forced himself on them. A few months earlier, another woman who worked with Trump in the 1990s claimed he once pushed her against a wall and put his hand up her skirt.
There's not a word in there about Reade or Biden. The focus is entirely on sexual assault accusations against President Trump.

Why would an explainer on Reade and Biden start out focusing on allegations made against Trump, readers may wonder?

It's journalistic framing. That is, telling a story in a way to convey a particular message. The message in this case is "both sides do it" but Trump did it worse (so if it's between Biden and Trump vote Biden).

This is from the fact-checking organization that in 2018 published an article assuring readers it is unbiased. Because we could not see their faces as they published it we cannot say they published it with straight faces.

Blasey Ford/Kavanaugh, Hill/Thomas

How did PolitiFact treat parallel allegations against Justice Kavanaugh when Christine Blasey Ford accused him of attempted rape? Both sides do it?

Not quite:
As senators weigh the Supreme Court nomination of Brett Kavanaugh amid allegations of sexual misconduct, many Americans are thinking back to a previous example of accusations against a Supreme Court nominee.
Instead of "both sides do it" PolitiFact offered us a frame telling us that Republicans are doing it again. Clarence Thomas, though black, represented male power, which back in the olden days could easily dismiss accusations from women such as Thomas' accuser, Anita Hill:
The 1991 hearing "exposed critical fault lines in the lived-experience of those at the crossroads of race and gender," said Deborah Douglas, a journalist and visiting professor at DePauw University. "Thomas, a black man, could evoke the image of a ‘high-tech lynching’ to plead both innocence and male privilege, trumping the lived experience of a woman who represents a class of woman, the black woman, arguably, the last thought in the American public imagination."

Though Ford is white, gender has played out similarly in both cases, said Douglas, who is African-American.
What's missing from PolitiFact's PolitiSplainer on Blasey Ford and Kavanaugh? PolitiFact offers no assessment of the strength of the evidence. The article notes Anita Hill supposedly had corroborating witnesses, but does nothing to emphasize that point of contrast with the Blasey Ford allegations. Blasey Ford had no helpful corroboration from the time period the incident allegedly occurred. And PolitiFact somehow fails to mention it.

PolitiFact's Reade/Biden story, in contrast, puts focus on the evidence, albeit with signs of bias against Reade.

Spinning the Reade Evidence

Regarding the Larry King Live episode where Reade's mother apparently talked to King about an incident regarding her daughter, PolitiFact left out details supporting Reade's account. PolitiFact allowed excessive doubt to hang over the idea that it was Reade's mother who called:
On April 24, the Intercept reported on an August 1993 Larry King Live episode in which a woman calls into the CNN show to discuss her daughter’s "problems" with a senator. Reade says that caller was her mother, who has since died.
So all we have is Reade's word for it?


Circumstantial evidence PolitiFact left out strongly supports Reade's account. The time frame (1993) matches. PolitiFact mentions the call occurred in 1993 but does not remind readers how this helps support Reade's account.

More importantly, the show identified the caller with the town San Luis Obispo. That's where Reade's mother lived (The Tribune, San Luis Obispo).
The woman who says former Vice President Joe Biden sexually assaulted her in 1993 used to live in Morro Bay and apparently returned here shortly after the alleged incident.

Video uncovered over the weekend and first reported by The Intercept shows an August 1993 segment on CNN’s “Larry King Live” in which a caller from San Luis Obispo County later confirmed by media outlets to be the mother of former Biden staffer Tara Reade appears to confirm that Reade had told her mother of an alleged sexual assault by Biden, who is the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for president.

Read more here:
PolitiFact saw no reason for its readers to know that.

Note the story we quoted from The Tribune ran on April 28, 2020. PolitiFact's fact check published on April 30, 2020. In fact, CNN had reported the San Luis Obispo connection on April 25, 2020. And PolitiFact doesn't have it figured out by April 30?

Can an unbiased source leave out something like that?

When PolitiFact assures its readers it is unbiased it is lying to them, if not to itself.