Thursday, November 19, 2020

PolitiFact's 'Rubberstamps for Democrats' program

To be clear, PolitiFact has, as far as we know, no program it calls "Rubberstamps for Democrats." We invented that name for PolitiFact's propensity to put only enough effort into a fact check of a Democrat to find a result that reflects favorably on the Democrat.

PolitiFact Wisconsin gave us a terrific example of the genre with its Nov. 17, 2020 article supporting a narrative promoted by Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisc.).

During a television appearance, Sen. Baldwin said the Department of Homeland Security said the 2020 election was the most secure in the history of the United States.

PolitiFact offered no context to speak of for Sen. Baldwin's remark. See for yourself:

That was the claim from U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wisconsin, in a Nov. 15, 2020 appearance on WISN-TV’s "UpFront" program

"We heard from the Department of Homeland Security this week that this was probably the most secure election that’s ever been run in the United States," Baldwin said. 

Is it true that some of the nation’s own top cybersecurity experts disagree with Trump?

We're always curious about the context, even if PolitiFact isn't. In this case, we found that the journalist interviewing Sen. Baldwin, Matt Smith, led the senator toward her statement when he introduced her segment of the show (transcript ours, see starting at 1:05 of the video):

Trump has made unsubstantiated allegations of widespread voter fraud about an election the Department of Homeland Security this week called the most secure in American history.
While it's certainly possible Smith and Baldwin heard that report independently, the interview gives the impression Baldwin is just echoing back what Smith had said.

That's clue No. 1 that PolitiFact was looking to give Sen. Baldwin a rubberstamped positive rating. Do fact checkers truly wonder "Is that true?" when a politician echoes back what a journalist said just a couple of minutes before?

More importantly, did the Department of Homeland Security say what Sen. Baldwin and Smith claimed?

 

Fuzzy Math: (EIS-GCC)+SCC=DHS

Looking at the joint statement to which Sen. Baldwin referred, it is credited to members of the Elections Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council (EIS-GCC) and the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Committee (SCC).

PolitiFact, judging from its story and its source list, did no digging to find out the specifics of the relationship between the committees and the Department of Homeland Security. Instead, we get this:

On Nov. 12, 2020, officials from two Department of Homeland Security committees — the Election Infrastructure Sector Coordinating Council and the Election Infrastructure Government Coordinating Council overseeing cybersecurity — released a joint statement debunking their own boss’s rampant misinformation campaign.

How did PolitiFact conclude that the people who signed the letter were DHS employees under the Trump administration, other than by jumping to conclusions based on similarly spotty reporting from one of its listed sources, Axios?

PolitiFact and Axios simply leave out relevant information. While the committees have members (at least one, anyway) who work under DHS, most, by far, are in the private sector or state government working in a partnership organized by DHS. DHS developed the partnership to improve election security infrastructure. So, when members of the committees release a statement telling us that our election was supremely secure, they are patting themselves on the back: Hey, we did a great job! How about that?!

It's not as if these committees were objectively examining this election compared to others to judge the level of security. If they had done that, we'd have it from them in a detailed report. Now, to be fair, the joint statement lists specific reasons for saying the 2020 election showed improved security. They mention the widespread use of paper ballot backups, allowing elections officials to go back and correct various types of mistakes. And they may have good reason to believe elections systems now have greater resistance to hacking than in the past. However, it is unlikely on its face that the signing members have any solid reason for judging this election more secure than any particular election in the past. If they had any such solid reason they didn't bother mentioning it in their letter.

When journalists like Smith or politicians like Baldwin say the statement came from the Department of Homeland Security they apply or echo misleading spin, implying that the statement has the direct backing of DHS. There is apparently no such backing. The strongest backing apparently comes from the decision of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency--directly under DHS--to publish the joint letter from members of the committees. 

ABC News reported President Trump fired the head of CISA, Christopher Krebs, on Nov. 17, 2020 after Krebs said there was no evidence of fraud in the 2020 election.

Krebs said on Nov. 12, 2020 (via the Washington Times) he expected Trump to fire him.

Did PolitiFact make any connection between these events? Not at all. Or if it did, it was deemed unimportant.

In short, the Department of Homeland Security kinda-sorta-but-not-really said what Smith and Baldwin claimed it said. Which is to say it wasn't really DHS but at least one DHS official along with others working in partnership with DHS.


Review: Who they are and what they do:

Election Infrastructure Subsector Government Coordinating Council

Sector Coordinating Councils

Finally, here's a link to a list of the active parties for the elections GCC and SCC. The SCC has representation by voting system companies including Dominion. See for yourself.

To reiterate, it is nothing short of deceptive to represent the joint statement of a GCC and SCC as coming from the Department of Homeland Security. DHS has a finger in the pie, but that's about it.

And it's important to note that it isn't clear at all the select members who put their names on the joint statement carry the authority of their respective councils.


Afters

We could do another article on this PolitiFact "fact check" noting that it provides no specific evidence to support its claim that the joint statement "debunks" claims from President Trump.

The statement notably debunks claims from President Donald Trump and others that have alleged massive fraud.

 Does it? Explain how, fact checkers.

Monday, November 16, 2020

PolitiFact, misspellings and minor errors

We have noted that PolitiFact has over the years tried to minimize the impression that it often publishes things that need correction. And PolitiFact's lengthy description of its corrections policy contains loopholes that give its editors a hand in lessening the appearance of fact checker error.

The Case in Point

PolitiFact published a Nov. 10, 2020 PolitiSplainer telling readers how two incumbent Republican senators were attacking Republicans in the Georgia state government over that state's election recount.

PolitiFact reported that the senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, were "facing tough recall elections."

When PolitiFact tweeted out that misinformation to its Twitter audience someone quickly noticed the mistake:

https://twitter.com/punsultant/status/1326286056690503683


 

Art Allen was right. Neither Republican senator faces a recall election.

Allen wasn't the only person to highlight the mistake. But the mistake stayed on in PolitiFact's tweets and in the box summarizing the article at the main PolitiFact website (highlights added for emphasis):

To be clear, a recall election is not the same thing as a runoff election.

By November 16 PolitiFact had corrected its error, yet without admitting any wrongdoing.

The page received no "corrections or updates" tag and features no correction or update notice.

How can that be, given that PolitiFact has, according to its editor, one of the most robust and detailed corrections policies in journalism?

It's easy-peasy. And that's because the robust details in the corrections policy are ambiguous. The details make readers think PolitiFact is transparent about its mistakes when in reality the policy features (intentional?) loopholes that allow the fact checker to obscure its history of embarrassing mistakes.

The mistake on "recall elections" was likely treated under this section of PolitiFact's policy:

Typos, grammatical errors, misspellings – We correct typos, grammatical errors, misspellings, transpositions and other small errors without a mark of correction or tag and as soon as they are brought to our attention.

By counting the use of "recall" where "runoff" was meant as a typo, grammatical error, misspelling or other small error, PolitiFact ends up deceiving its audience about the robustness of its corrections policy. When we read (in the same statement of principles) that PolitiFact corrects its errors "with appropriate transparency" we expect that to include an admission when PolitiFact finds itself guilty of spreading misinformation.

PolitiFact undeniably spread misinformation. People who saw only PolitiFact's early tweets highlighting its article were misinformed that Loeffler and Perdue were facing recall elections. Those whose time was short and read only the article summary were similarly misinformed. And PolitiFact, contrary to its commitment under the principles of the International Fact-Checking Network, which it professes to follow, took no steps to make sure those who were misled had the corrected version brought to their attention.

We publish our corrections policy and follow it scrupulously. We correct clearly and transparently in line with our corrections policy, seeking so far as possible to ensure that readers see the corrected version.

That's how these Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists operate. This has always been part of their approach to corrections.

It's embarrassing to mix up "runoff election" with "recall election." Therefore, PolitiFact buries its mistake as though it merely mixed up "its" with "it's."

"Recall" is not a misspelling of "runoff" any more than "Trump" is a misspelling of "Biden." If every wrong word can count as a misspelling then journalists can completely do away with correction notices under a policy like PolitiFact's.



Correction Nov. 16, 2020: In the fifth-to-last paragraph we committed an error similar to PolitiFact's stating that PolitiFact "misinformed that Loeffler and Perdue were facing runoff elections." In fact, PolitiFact misinformed its readers that Loeffler and Perdue were facing recall elections and not runoff elections. Hat tip to Matthew Hoy for catching the error and alerting us to its existence. The problem is fixed with this update.