Sunday, June 21, 2020

Trump again tries using hyperbole without a license

President Donald Trump said nobody had heard of "Juneteenth," the name given to a day many use to commemorate the end of U.S. slavery, until he popularized it. So PolitiFact fact-checked whether it was true that nobody had heard of it.

The result was a "Pants on Fire" rating. PolitiFact said millions of people knew about Juneteenth before Trump scheduled a campaign rally for that day.

PolitiFact cited the Wall Street Journal for its quotation of Trump. Here's how PolitiFact presented it to readers:

President Donald Trump took credit for boosting awareness of Juneteenth, a day that marks the end of slavery in America.

"I did something good: I made Juneteenth very famous," Mr. Trump said, in a Wall Street Journal interview. "It’s actually an important event, an important time. But nobody had ever heard of it."

PolitiFact claims in its statement of principles it recognizes the literary technique of hyperbole (bold emphasis added):

In deciding which statements to check, we consider these questions:

• Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole.

Hyperbole involves the use of exaggeration to make a particular point. Hyperbole works as hyperbole when the audience understands that the exaggeration was not meant literally.

It's as though PolitiFact has caught Mr. Trump red-handed, trying to use hyperbole without a license.

We think Trump's statement certainly bears the obvious signs of hyperbole. If literally nobody had heard of Juneteenth before Trump scheduled his campaign rally, then Trump did not merely make Juneteenth very famous. He helped create it by inspiring others. But Trump's words, in fact, suggest that Juneteenth existed as "an important event, an important time" before that. Those words from Trump cue the average reader that "nobody had ever heard of it" was not meant literally but instead meant that Juneteenth was not well known.

Vice President Joe Biden illustrated what Trump likely meant. A (user-created) video clip from C-SPAN shows Biden on June 11, 2020 apparently expressing the belief that "Juneteenth" was the anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre. The massacre happened on June 1, 1921. Trump's rally was originally scheduled on "Juneteenth,"--June 19, 2020--but was moved back one day to June 20, 2020. The rally took place in Tulsa, which of course was the location of the Tulsa Race Massacre.

If Biden did not know about it then perhaps others did not know about it as well.

Maybe the problem is that PolitiFact does not set partisanship aside when it issues hyperbole licenses.

(Note: we'll add the full complement of tags after publishing, thanks to Blogger's new interface that only remembers one assigned tag when first publishing)

Does PolitiFact deliberately try to cite biased experts? (Updated)

If there's one thing PolitiFact excels at, it's finding biased experts to quote in its fact checks.

Sometimes there's an identifiable conservative, but PolitiFact favors majority rule when it surveys a handful of experts. It seems to us that PolitiFact lately is suppressing the appearance of dissent by not bothering to find a representative sample of experts.

How about a new example?

For this fact check on President Trump's criticism of President Obama, PolitiFact cited three experts, in support of its "Truth-O-Meter" ruling.

Two out of the three were appointed to Mr. Obama's "Task Force on 21st Century Policing." All three have FEC records showing they donate politically to Democrats:
The first two on the list, in fact, specifically donated to Mr. Obama's presidential campaign.  Thus making them perfect experts to comment on Mr. Trump's criticism of Mr. Obama?

Seriously, isn't this set of experts exactly the last sort of thing a nonpartisan fact-checking organization that declares itself "not biased" should do?

As bad as its selection of experts looks, the real problem with the fact check happens when PolitiFact arbitrarily decides that the thing Trump said President Obama did not try to do was "police reform" when Trump said "fix this." Plenty of things can fit under "police reform," and PolitiFact proves it by citing how "the Justice Department did overhaul its rules to address racial profiling."

Other evidence supposedly showing Trump wrong was the task force's (non-binding!) set of recommendations. The paucity of the evidence comes through in PolitiFact's summary:
The record shows that is not true. After the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and related racial justice protests, Obama established a task force to examine better policing practices. The Obama administration also investigated patterns or practices of misconduct in police departments and entered into court-binding agreements that require departments to correct misconduct.
So putting together a task force to make recommendations on police reform is trying to "fix this."

And, for what it's worth, the fact check offered no clear support for its claim "The Obama administration also investigated patterns or practices of misconduct in police departments." PolitiFact included a paragraph describing what the administration supposedly did, but that paragraph did not reference any of its experts and did not cite either by link or by name any source backing the claim.

Mr. Trump was not specific about what he meant by "fix this." Rather than granting fact-checkers license for free interpretation, that type of ambiguity in a statement makes it nearly impossible to fairly fact check the statement. Put simply, a fact checker has to have a pretty clear idea of what a claim means in order to fact check it adequately. Trump may have had in mind his administration's move to create a record of police behavior that would make it hard for officers with poor records to move to a different police department after committing questionable conduct. It's hard to say.

Here's Mr. Trump's statement with some context:
Donald Trump: (11:32)
Under this executive order departments will also need a share of information about credible abuses so that offers with significant issues do not simply move from one police department to the next, that's a problem. And the heads of our police department said, "Whatever you can do about that please let us know." We're letting you know, we're doing a lot about it. In addition, my order will direct federal funding to support officers in dealing with homeless individuals and those who have mental illness and substance abuse problems. We will provide more resources for co-responders, such as social workers who can help officers manage these complex encounters. And this is what they've studied and worked on all their lives, they understand how to do it. We're going to get the best of them put in our police departments and working with our police.

Donald Trump: (12:33)
We will have reform without undermining our many great and extremely talented law enforcement officers. President Obama and Vice President Biden never even tried to fix this during their eight-year period.
We can apparently credit the Obama administration with talking about doing some of the things Trump directed via executive order.

In PolitiFact's estimation, that seems to fully count as trying to actually do them.

And PolitiFact's opinion was backed by experts who give money to Democratic Party politicians, so how could it be wrong?

Update June 21, 2020:

The International Fact-Checking Network Code of Principles

In 2020 the International Fact-Checking Network beefed up its statement of principles, listing more stringent requirements in order to achieve "verified" status in adhering to its Code of Principles.

The requirements are so stringent that we can't help but think that it portends lower standards for applying the standards.

Take this, for example, from the form explaining to organizations how to demonstrate their compliance (bold emphasis added):
3. The applicant discloses in its fact checks relevant interests of the sources it quotes
where the reader might reasonably conclude those interests could influence the
accuracy of the evidence provided.
It also discloses in its fact checks any commercial
or other such relationships it has that a member of the public might reasonably
conclude could influence the findings of the fact-check.
Is there a way to read the requirement in bold that would relieve PolitiFact from the responsibility of disclosing that every one of the experts it chose for this fact check has an FEC record showing support for Democratic Party politics?

If there is, then we expect that IFCN verification will continue, as it has in the past, to serve as a deceitful fig leaf creating the appearance of adherence to standards fact checkers show little interest in following.

We doubt any number of code infractions could make the Poynter-owned IFCN suspend the verification status of Poynter-owned PolitiFact.

Note: Near the time of this update we also updated the list of story tags.

Edit 2050 PDT 6/21/20: Changed "a" "to" and "police" to "of" "for" and "officers" respectively for clarity in penultimate sentence of paragraph immediately preceding Trump 11:32 quote - Jeff

Monday, June 8, 2020

PolitiFact mangles fact check of Larry Elder

Editor's note June 8, 2020: We intended to acknowledge when we published that Newsbusters beat us to the punch with a story on PolitiFact's Larry Elder fact check. Our version does not rely on that version in any sense. We're taking the opportunity with this update to fix an improper use of its/it's in the second paragraph

The reason we do not trust PolitiFact fact-checking?

It's because we accepted PolitiFact's challenge to second-guess its work even before PolitiFact started asking. What we found then isn't pretty. It still isn't pretty.

Let's have a look at PolitiFact's June 5, 2020 fact check of conservative radio talk show host Larry Elder.

In Context

PolitiFact claims, as part of its statement of principles, to fact check claims in their original context.

How did PolitiFact do on that?

As the U.S. entered a second week of protests after the death of George Floyd, conservative radio host Larry Elder argued that "cops rarely kill anybody, let alone an unarmed black person."

"Last year, there were nine unarmed black people killed. Nineteen unarmed white people," Elder said June 2 on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s TV show.

We had no luck getting the linked Fox News video to play. Likely Fox News shoulders the blame for that. We got around the problem by going to a transcript posted at Fox News. A version of the Hannity show we found at an alternative source varied substantially from the Fox News transcript. But the transcript had the words PolitiFact used, so we're assuming the video version we found was somehow corrupted.

Here's the transcript version of Elder's words with bold emphasis to highlight the part PolitiFact quoted:

HANNITY: Shoot him in the leg he said, Larry. If he comes at you, if somebody comes up at you with a knife, just shoot him in the leg and not a word about all the officers shot, killed, injured in the process, that even last night. Not a word today.

LARRY ELDER, SALEM RADIO HOST: Yes, it's unreal. The number one responsibly of government is to protect people and property and that is not happening. And, Sean, what is so maddening about all of this, and we touched on this the other night, the premise is false. It is not true that the police are out there mowing down black people.

Again, according to the CDC, in the last 45 years, black -- killings of blacks by the police have declined 75 percent. Last year, there were nine unarmed black people killed, 19 unarmed white people. Name the unarmed white people who were killed. You can't because the media gives to the impression that this is something that happens all the time.

Obama says this ought not be normal. Mr. Former President, it's not normal, it is rare. Cops rarely kill anybody let alone an unarmed black person. And the idea that this happens all the time is why some of these young people are out in the streets, and it is simply false. Isn't that good news? It's not true!

We consider it an unorthodox treatment of a quotation to present the first part of the quotation before the second part. On the positive side, PolitiFact's construction does appear to capture the point Elder was trying to make: Police rarely kill unarmed black people. Elder's earlier comment about police not "mowing down black people" helps make clear he was talking about intentional actions resulting in the deaths of blacks.

The problem? PolitiFact treated Elder's claim as though he was making a different point.

(T)he number of unarmed people killed in encounters with law enforcement in 2019 is higher for both races than Elder claimed. How much higher is not clear.  What is clear, experts told us, is that despite what Elder’s absolute numbers may suggest, black people in the U.S. have died from fatal encounters with police at a disproportionate rate.
PolitiFact replaces Elder's point with "what Elder's absolute numbers may suggest," and uses the disagreement of experts with that suggestion to suggest Elder's point was wrong.

We'll see that PolitiFact argued a straw man.

Absolute Numbers

Elder was too vague in describing his statistic on police killings of unarmed persons, though arguably the context he established of "mowing down" was a legitimate clue he was talking about shootings. But PolitiFact did not rest its argument on Elder's ambiguity. PolitiFact argued Elder's raw numbers might produce a false impression that police killings of unarmed blacks are not disproportionate.

Elder said police killed nine unarmed blacks and 19 unarmed whites.

PolitiFact, using data from "Mapping Police Violence," corrected those numbers counting all deaths caused by police, whether on-duty or off-duty. The findings?

Mapping Police Violence said police killed 28 unarmed blacks and 51 unarmed whites.

By Elder's numbers, killings of unarmed blacks made up 32.1 percent of combined killings of unarmed whites and blacks.

By Mapping Police Violence's numbers, killings of unarmed blacks made up 35.4 percent of combined killings of unarmed whites and blacks.

That does not count as a major difference. If Elder had used the same numbers PolitiFact used PolitiFact could still have claimed Elder's raw numbers "may suggest" black people in the U.S. have not died from fatal encounters with police at a disproportionate rate.

Elder wasn't saying anything about disproportionate rates any more than Mapping Police Violence was. Elder was making the point that the killings have gone down over time to become rare.

Though Mapping Police Violence only posts data back through 2013, its chart from unarmed black victims of police killings would support Elder's point:

Disproportionate Rates?

PolitiFact (citing experts!) said deaths of unarmed black victims of police killings were disproportionally high. But PolitiFact made the comparison in terms of overall U.S. population. That counts as the wrong measure. Finding the proportionality of those killings requires apples-to-apples comparisons of the number of police encounters according to race.

The Centers for Disease Control has done preliminary research in that direction.

Missing the Point?

Bearing in mind Elder's apparent point that black deaths at the hands of police are decreasing, let's review PolitiFact's concluding rationale for its "Mostly False" rating.

PolitiFact credited Elder for using numbers that matched those published by the Washington Post. PolitiFact noted the Post's numbers "have increased since Elder made his claim," but PolitiFact principles say it grades statements according to information available at the time. So the increase to the Post's numbers ought to be moot in grading Elder's claim.

PolitiFact dinged Elder for not including all killings of unarmed blacks. But given Elder's point, his statistic only needs to serve as a representative benchmark for the decrease he claimed. PolitiFact presented no evidence Elder failed to do that. In other words, if counting all killings by police whatever the means leads to the same type of decrease over time, Elder's central point still finds support.

Finally, PolitiFact charged that Elder "omitted important context: that black people in the U.S. are disproportionately killed by police relative to their share of the population. But as we pointed out, share of the population is the wrong measure. In addition, it is not clear that Elder's point needs that context. A decrease in black deaths at the hands of police is a decrease regardless of  whether it remains disproportional. This part of PolitiFact's argument resembles a straw man.

This type of slipshod fact-checking occurs frequently at PolitiFact.

Afters: Experts Among Us

PolitiFact has unceremoniously dumped its past assurance to readers that it cites unbiased experts. Surveying the pool of experts PolitiFact cites tends to show a distinct leftward lean. Let's have a look at the pool of experts for this fact check:

  1. Frank Edwards: No FEC record we could find. Twitter account offers mere hints of a leftward lean
  2. Lorie Fridell: FEC record shows she gives to Democrats
  3. Brian Burghart: No FEC record we could find. Job: journalist
A leftward lean does not make an expert wrong, of course. We do find PolitiFact has an apparent history of picking sources that fit its chosen narrative while leaving out dissenting voices. And that tendency seems worse than ever this year.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Facebook should flag itself

We got tagged on Facebook by a person who apparently had one of their posts flagged through Facebook's fact-checker partnership. The original post did not show for us (we're looking into that), but we found it amusing that Facebook's notice contains a falsehood:

It's this part: "All fact-checkers who partner with Facebook must be signatories of the International Fact-Checking Network and follow their Code of Principles."

The IFCN verification process is soft. For example, IFCN signatories agree to "scrupulously" follow a clearly stated corrections policy. Zebra Fact Check has pointed out numerous times PolitiFact has failed in its adherence to its own corrections policy. What happens to PolitiFact as a result? Nothing. We've seen no apparent break in the Facebook partnership. More concerning than that, PolitiFact has still not acted to correct the great bulk of the errors that we've pointed out over the years. That includes things like botching a quotation. It's mostly stuff that's black-and-white error, not any kind of matter of opinion.

So, when Facebook tells you its fact checkers follow the IFCN Code of Principles they're trusting the IFCN to do the enforcement. And it just isn't happening in any strict sense.

It's worth noting, of course, that the non-profit Poynter Institute owns both PolitiFact and the accountability organization that oversees PolitiFact. No problem there, right?

PolitiFact: A peaceful protest is a peaceful protest is a peaceful protest

When President Trump said he supports peaceful protestors, the protectors of democracy at PolitiFact jumped into their batmobile and sprang into action, ready and willing to confront Trump's rhetoric with conflations of constitutional right to assembly with other forms of peaceful protest.
Trump has said before that peaceful protests are the hallmark of democracy.


But Trump has also pushed back against protests, especially the Black Lives Matter movement. We reviewed his record.
Did Trump push back against the right to protest or was it against the content of the protest? Do we even care?

To illustrate Trump's pushback against protests, especially Black Lives Matter protests, PolitiFact led with a lengthy subsection on former NFL player Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick, while doing his job for an NFL football team, knelt during the National Anthem in support of the Black Lives Matter cause. The performance of the National Anthem precedes the start of NFL games.

It's not a freedom of assembly issue. But if Kaepernick assembled with others peacefully in public to take a knee during a performance of the anthem and Trump opposed the assembly and not the point of the protest, then PolitiFact would have Trump dead to rights.

That's a big "if."

Strike one.

Next up, PolitiFact presented the example of Rep. Maxine Waters, who called for U.S. society to shun and harass the members of Mr. Trump's cabinet. Presumably refusing service and generally harrassing Trump's cabinet on ideological grounds passes as some sort of peaceful pubic protest. PolitiFact made no particular effort to associate Waters' recommended protest with the Black Lives Matter movement, instead attaching it to border policy.

It doesn't seem certain that trying to totally exclude Trump's cabinet from conducting any type of business in public, including dining and grocery shopping, properly counts as a peaceful protest. If everyone followed Waters' prescription the Cabinet would need to grow its own food or else starve unless it met the demands of the peaceful protestors.

Needless to say, PolitiFact doesn't delve into that.

Strike two.

Apparently PolitiiFact finished with Trump's focus in opposition to Black Lives Matter, moving on to Mr. Trump's intolerance of heckling at his campaign rallies.

PolitiFact does not point out that heckling at a private rally open to the public is not a good example of the exercise of the right to free assembly.
Leading up the 2016 election, then-candidate Trump reserved harsh words for protesters who popped up at his rallies, including those whose actions were peaceful.
For PolitiFact, there is no important distinction between showing up to heckle at a campaign rally held in a private venue and the right to public assembly. Peaceful protest is peaceful protest is peaceful protest. I wonder how long I could peacefully protest in Jon Greenberg's office before seeing the issuance of a trespass order?

Greenberg opposes peaceful protest.

See how that works?

Strike three.

But PolitiFact lacks the good grace to return to the dugout after merely three strikes:

When opponents of placing Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court marched and rallied, Trump referred to them as "a mob" and tagged all Democrats in the midterm elections as "too extreme and too dangerous to govern." 

"Republicans believe in the rule of law — not the rule of the mob," Trump tweeted Oct. 11, 2018.

We're not sure how PolitiFact deduced that Trump was talking about peaceful protests in his tweet. He wasn't responding to anybody else's tweet. We suppose that PolitiFact's sole evidence was the date of the tweet plus Trump's use of the word "mob." Because fact-checking?

Here's the tweet:
Are we playing "Pin the Context on the Tweet" or what?

And how would opposing giving in to protestors' demands oppose their right to protest? Is it appropriate to conflate opposition to protestors' demands with opposition to their right to peacefully protest?

Isn't that exactly what PolitiFact is doing?

It appears to us that PolitiFact argues that one cannot support peaceful protest without supporting the specific demands of the peaceful protestors.

But that's insane isn't it?

A fair examination of the topic must draw the distinction between supporting the right to protest and supporting the specific cause of the protestors.

Strike four. Go sit down, PolitiFact.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

A picture worth a thousand words?

PolitiFact's executive director, Aaron Sharockman, sent out a mass email earlier today. One of those emails asking for reader support.

The image at the top of Sharockman's email was revealing, even if it happened to reveal what we already know about PolitiFact.

In journalism school we learned the importance of images. Journalists pay a great deal of attention to images and the messages they send.

So take a look. Break it down.

It's an image of protesters in front of the White House. We can see signs that say "No Justice No Peace" and "Black Lives Matter." The photo does not place the protestors in the distance as a third party. The image is taken from the midst of the protest. The point-of-view is from among the protestors. The protestors, and presumably their protests, are aimed at the White House.

The appeal makes sense, given that PolitiFact's fan base leans left and opposes Trump. The photo slyly (and with "plausible deniability!) sends an anti-Trump protest message those readers on the left will likely appreciate, even if many only appreciate it subconsciously.

The photo's an ideological tell.

But There's More

Before the fundraising email went out, we noticed PolitiFact's editor-in-chief, Angie Drobnic Holan, tweeting out an article blaming President Trump for violence directed against journalists.

Has anyone bothered to fact check that supposed cause-and-effect relationship?
We say that if a journalist truly believes Mr. Trump is responsible for violence against journalists, the journalist who thinks that should be presumed biased against Mr. Trump. Bias against Trump does not necessarily make PolitiFact's fact checks of Trump wrong. We emphasize these examples of bias mainly because PolitiFact falsely represents itself as unbiased.

Stop wearing the mask and we'll stop repeatedly peeling it away. Deal?