Monday, February 22, 2021

PolitiFact's "In Context" deception (Updated)

In (a) perfect world, fact checkers would publish "In Context" features that simply offer surrounding context with objective explanatory notes.

This ain't no perfect world.

The PolitiFact "In Context" articles tend to serve as editorials, just like its fact checks. Two "In Context" articles from the past year (actually one from 2021 and one from 2019) will serve as our illustrative examples.

The Vaccine Supply

President Biden said "It’s one thing to have the vaccine, which we didn’t have when we came into office, but a vaccinator; how do you get the vaccine into someone’s arm?"

Instead of using context to figure out what Mr. Biden meant or perhaps intended to say, PolitiFact offered that he was not saying there was no vaccine when he took office because elsewhere in the speech he said there were 50 million vaccine doses when he took office ("we came into office, there (were) only 50 million doses that were available"):

You can judge his meaning for yourself, but it’s clear to us that Biden didn’t mean there were no vaccines available before he took office.
So Mr. Biden could have meant anything except for there were no vaccines available when he took office? Oh thank you, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact checkers!

The fact checkers at CNN at least made a game attempt to make heads or tails out of Mr. Biden's words:

Biden made a series of claims about the Covid-19 vaccine situation upon his January inauguration. He said early at the town hall that when "we came into office, there was only 50 million doses that were available." Moments later, he said, "We got into office and found out the supply -- there was no backlog. I mean, there was nothing in the refrigerator, figuratively and literally speaking, and there were 10 million doses a day that were available." Soon after that, he told Cooper, "But when you and I talked last, we talked about -- it's one thing to have the vaccine, which we didn't have when we came into office, but a vaccinator -- how do you get the vaccine into someone's arm?"

Facts First: Biden got at least one of these statistics wrong -- in a way that made Trump look better, not worse, so Biden's inaccuracy appeared accidental, but we're noting it anyway. A White House official said that Biden's claim about "10 million doses a day" being available when he took office was meant to be a reference to the 10 million doses a week that were being sent to states as of the second week of Biden's term, up from 8.6 million a week when they took over.

CNN's "Facts First" went on to explain that the Trump administration released all vaccine reserves to the states instead of holding back the second doses recommended by the manufacturers. CNN also pointed out that the Biden administration continued that same policy.

The CNN account makes it appear Mr. Biden uttered an incoherent mixture of statistics. PolitiFact didn't even make an attempt in its article to figure out what Biden was talking about. PolitiFact simply discounted the statement Biden made that seemed to contradict his dubious claim about the availability of 50 million vaccine doses when he took office.

PolitiFact's "In Context" article looks like pro-Biden spin next to the CNN account. And we thought of another "In Context" article where PolitiFact used an entirely different approach.

Very Fine People

PolitiFact used Mr. Biden's statement about "50 million doses" to excuse any inaccuracy Biden may have communicated by later saying the vaccine cupboard was bare when he took office.

But PolitiFact's "In Context" article about the circumstances of President Trump's reference to "very fine people," published April 26, 2019, made no similar use of Mr. Trump's same-speech clarification "and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists -- because they should be condemned totally."

With Biden, readers got PolitiFact's assurance that he wasn't saying there were no vaccine doses when he took office, even though he used words to that effect.

With Trump, readers were left with PolitiFact's curiosity as to what the context might show (bold emphasis added):

We wanted to look at Trump’s comments in their original context. Here is a transcript of the questions Trump answered that addressed the Charlottesville controversy in the days after it happened. (His specific remarks about "very fine people, on both sides" come in the final third of the transcript.)

Not only did PolitiFact fail to use the context to defend Trump from the charge that he was calling neo-Nazis "fine people," about a year later (July 27, 2020) PolitiFact made that charge itself, citing its own "In Context" article in support:

• As president in 2017, Trump said there were "very fine people, on both sides," in reference to neo-Nazis and counterprotesters in Charlottesville, Va.
Making the situation that much more outrageous, PolitiFact declined to correct the latter article when we send a correction request. PolitiFact remained unmoved after we informed the International Fact-Checking Network about its behavior.

Is PolitiFact lucky or what that its owner, the Poynter Institute, also owns the International Fact-Checking Network?

This is how PolitiFact rolls. PolitiFact uses its "In Context" articles to editorially strengthen or weaken narratives, as it chooses.

It's not all about the facts.

Correction: We left out an "a" in the first sentence and also misstated the timing of the two articles our post talks about. Both errors are fixed using parenthetical comments (like this).

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Republican uses wrong embedded URL, receives "False" rating as a reward (Updated)

Have we mentioned lately that PolitiFact is biased and leans left? Ready for another example?

Buckle up.

Before looking at anything PolitiFact California had to say about House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's claim, we had reason to suspect something weird was going on. We knew the CBO estimated potential job losses in the millions for a minimum wage hike to $15 an hour. And PolitiFact often gives partial credit for a valid underlying point. So a politician can give a figure that's substantially off and still get a rating in the "Mostly False" to "Mostly True" range.

In McCarthy's case, it seems that his office put together a press release and used the wrong URL. The Congressional Budget Office put together a report in 2019 estimating the effects of a minimum wage hike to $15 per hour and its high-end estimate for job losses was 3.7 million.

On the other hand, the CBO recently gave a new assessment of raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and revised its job loss estimates down. The high-end estimate dropped to 2.7 million.

Here's the relevant part of the Feb. 9, 2021 press release:

At this critical point, the Democrats’ big, creative response is to raise the federal national wage to $15 an hour — a move the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office previously found could cost nearly 4 million workers their jobs. Plus, these job losses would disproportionately hit already economically disadvantaged populations the most.

The new version of the CBO's report came out on Feb. 8, 2021, the day before McCarthy's office published the press release. It's plausible and perhaps likely the press release was largely composed before the CBO released the new report. The press release cited the known report, and staffers hunted up the embedded URL leading to the brand new report.

Of course we do not know that is what happened. Certainly if McCarthy knew of the new report and its updated estimates and stuck with the old estimates--even while using the qualifier "previously"--that counts as misleading.

But here's the thing: PolitiFact concluded, just as we did, that McCarthy appeared to cite the 2019 report. PolitiFact put that reveal front and center in its "If Your Time Is Short" bullet point summary:

  • McCarthy appears to be citing a Congressional Budget Office analysis from 2019 that said, at the high-end, 3.7 million jobs could be lost from the wage hike.

  • But in his statement, he cited the CBO’s new analysis published this week which found an average estimate of 1.4 million jobs would be lost.

Yes, PolitiFact, McCarthy appears to be citing the 2019 CBO analysis. And, yes, the press release "cited" the 2021 report insofar as it embedded the link to that report instead of the 2019 one.

Therefore, PolitiFact said, McCarthy's claim was "False" notwithstanding his valid point that the CBO gave a high-end estimate for job losses in the millions.

Anyone who thinks that's fair needs to learn more about PolitiFact's inconsistencies on rating numbers claims. McCarthy could easily have received a "Half True" and especially so if he was a Democrat making a claim Democrats would like to be true.

Wisconsin Montana Democrat Steve Bullock said a quarter of gun sales avoid background checks. PolitiFact Wisconsin said his claim was "Mostly False" even though it said the true number was only 13 percent. Going by that number, Bullock exaggerated by at least 53 percent.

For comparison, McCarthy's use of the 2019 CBO figure exaggerated the truth by 37 percent. And PolitiFact ruled McCarthy's claim "False."

It's yet another reminder that PolitiFact's "Truth-O-Meter" ratings are subjective and not ultimately rooted in objective findings.

Correction/Update July 29, 2022: We incorrectly identified Steve Bullock as a "Wisconsin Democrat." Bullock was the Democratic governor of Montana. H/T to PFB friend Matthew Hoy for pointing out the error.

Thursday, February 11, 2021

Story Focus Shenanigans

We've pointed out for years that PolitiFact's story focus often determines the "Truth-O-Meter" rating at the end. Story focus shenanigans never go out of style at PolitiFact.

PolitiFact's method allows its fact checkers any number of ways to approach the same claim. A fact checker might focus on what the claimant said was meant. Or the fact checker could focus on how an audience might perceive the claim. One approach might lead to one "Truth-O-Meter" rating and another approach to a different "Truth-O-Meter" rating. There's no good evidence of any objective criteria guiding the process.

That brings us to two timely examples that help illustrate the phenomenon.

"Mostly False" for the Republican

President Biden set policy to allow essential workers who are undocumented to receive coronavirus vaccines. Why is Scalise's statement "Mostly False"? Apparently because American citizens who are not among the first groups eligible for the vaccine are not waiting to get the vaccine:
But, we wondered, does allowing this population access to the vaccine mean they are being invited to step in front of American citizens in the queue?

PolitiFact weasel-words "in the queue" so that Americans in low priority vaccine eligibility groups are not in the queue at all and are thus not skipped over when undocumented immigrants join those in the high priority groups.

You're not waiting for the vaccine if you're not in that narrowly-defined queue. PolitiFact quoted a Scalise spokesperson who explained his meaning. To no avail. Scalise received a "Mostly False" rating even though his statement was literally true taken in context, with "in the queue" encompassing all American citizens awaiting the vaccine.

"Half True" for the Democrat


Pointedly, PolitiFact does not look at all the ways Mr. Biden's claim fails the test of truth. It does mention some of them, but breezes past such technicalities to point out that IF the person making below $15 per hour is the sole breadwinner in a family of four AND/OR lives in an area with high living expenses THEN they would fall below the poverty level.

How many of those earning less than $15 per hour meet those conditions? Well, if that was important then PolitiFact would have given us a number. Obviously it's not important. What we need to know is that under some conditions Biden's statement could be true. Those missing conditions count as missing context and that matches PolitiFact's definition of "Half True"!

Marvel at PolitiFact's rationalization:

A spokesman for Biden said he was referring to a family of four with one full-time income using the federal government’s poverty guideline, an explanation Biden didn’t include in the interview. Using that measurement, that family with a paycheck of $13 an hour would live below the poverty line. At $15 an hour, the same family would clearly be above the poverty line. So Biden was off by about a dollar, using the existing standards.

But experts said wages alone don’t tell the full story about whether a household lives in poverty. Other factors include child care and housing costs, for example, which can vary by geography. Generalizing a "poverty wage" to a specific number ignores the different circumstances that families face. Other experts said the federal definition of a poverty level is out of date and needs changing.

We rate this claim Half True.

You wonder why similar reasoning couldn't justify a "Half True" for Scalise?

Why do you hate science?

How To Tell a Climate Science Denier

Who would believe how often professional fact-checkers fail spot-checks of their accuracy?

On Feb. 9, 2021, PolitiFact's Daniel Funke had his byline appear on a fact check that featured this:

The Epoch Times attributed the tally to John Droz Jr., who it described as a "physicist and environmental advocate in Morehead City, N.C." Droz is a political activist who has denied the science of climate change and advocated against legislation aimed at mitigating sea-level rise.

Funke's fact check looked at a chart Droz created and the Epoch Times used as the foundation for a story about the outcomes of court cases addressing the 2020 presidential election. Funke's implicit ad hominem and genetic fallacies aside, we wondered if Droz was the climate change science denier Funke claims.

Is That True?

PolitiFact says it picks which claim to check partly by simply running across claims that cause one to wonder "Is that true?" That's the method we used for this spot check.
We would expect a professional journalist using URL hotlinks in the body of a story to use them to properly back up the claims in the story. So where "has" and "denied" feature those hotlinks in the context of claiming Droz denies climate change science, we expect at least one of them to offer solid evidence of Droz denying climate change science.


The first hyperlink led to the news site dated June 6, 2012 (archived Feb. 10, 2021). The article claims Droz denies climate change science. It does not quote Droz to that effect (bold emphasis added) and offers no relevant examples to illustrate its claim:

On the front lines of the debate is NC-20's science consultant John Droz, a retired realtor and climate change denier who's become something of a cause celebre in conservative circles. 

Promoted by the conservative John Locke Foundation, Droz has given presentations on energy and climate change around the state. He's also a fellow of the conservative American Tradition Institute, along with former Locke Carolina Journal editor Paul Chesser.
Is it proof enough for Funke and PolitiFact that an article hosted at called Droz a climate change denier? Did Funke even notice the update to the article, dated the day after it published (June 7, 2012)?
Update: In response to this post, Mr. Droz contacted us to seek a retraction. He says he is not a climate change denier, and says he has "never claimed to be a climate expert."

WRAL offered no rationale for refusing Droz the requested retraction.

Funke used a news report claiming, without evidence, that Droz was a climate change denier and with an addendum that featured Droz denying he is a climate science denier.

We consider that extraordinarily weak evidence Droz counts as a climate change science denier.

Scientific American

Funke's second hyperlink led to Scientific American, a magazine and website long considered a reputable source.

The title of the Sept. 30, 2013 article said Droz "has notched a remarkable record fighting sea-rise science, coastal development limits and renewable energy plans."

And the evidence of climate science denial?

The strongest evidence in the piece appears to consist of an expert's opinion that Droz's work criticizing scientists may lead to lower trust in scientists who promote various climate change ideas. This:

The efforts of Droz – and those who present similar arguments in a similar fashion, notably Fox News and other conservative media – erode the public trust in scientists, said Dana Nuccitelli, an environmental scientist at a consulting firm in California and an advocate for responsible energy policies.

An outsized voice
It also discredits the notion of global warming, added Nucitelli, who recently co-authored a study looking at the scientific consensus on climate change.

Was Nucitelli turned into a newt or what?

Funke's evidence that Droz counts as a denier of climate change science comes across about as strong as the evidence of witchery from the witch trial in the classic film "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." 

That's minus the accused turning out to weigh the same as a duck, of course.

Maybe there's good evidence Droz counts as a climate change science denier. If there is, Funke and PolitiFact should mention the evidence in the fact check.

Otherwise, take out the line accusing Droz of denying climate change science.