Friday, May 21, 2021

Andrew Clyde out of context

If Republicans fail to make enough false statements, apparently PolitiFact has to invent them.

Is it to meet a quota?

PolitiFact is on a roll, lately, taking claims out of context to present them as false. Today's example involves Rep. Andrew Clyde (R-Ga.).

When PolitiFact gets around to showing what Rep. Clyde actually said, it creates an instant contrast with the sensationalistic presentation above. "Pants on Fire"! Oh, my!

(Bold highlights added to match what PolitiFact highlighted in its above misquotation of Clyde):
"Watching the TV footage of those who entered the Capitol and walked through Statuary Hall, showed people in an orderly fashion staying between the stanchions and ropes taking videos and pictures. If you didn't know the TV footage was a video from Jan. 6, you would actually think it was a normal tourist visit," Clyde said at a May 12 House hearing.

 In context, Clyde appears to clearly talk about video of protestors passing through Statuary Hall. In other words, video like this:

We think any normal, competent fact checker should have no trouble at all figuring this out.

When PolitiFact repeatedly publishes material in this vein, it makes us suspect PolitiFact is not a normal, competent fact checker.

Would it surprise our readers to learn that PolitiFact awarded Clyde his "Pants on Fire" rating based on evidence that had nothing to do with video from the Statuary Room?

(H)ere is what a normal visit looks like for tourists: They go on guide-led tours of historic areas. They buy souvenirs at the gift shop. They view temporary exhibits. They dine in the restaurant. And they do it all without bringing in weapons (or even water).

Here’s what rioters did on Jan. 6. They forced their way through barricades and past law enforcement to breach the building. They smashed windows and broke doors. They ransacked offices. They chanted "Hang Mike Pence!" They attacked police officers. They caused the House and Senate to shut down for several hours on the day they were certifying the presidential election. One put his feet up on a desk in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office and left her a nasty note. None of these actions are things that tourists normally do at the Capitol.

Here's a list of things we do not see in the Jan. 6, 2021 video from Bloomberg News showing protestors making their way through the Statuary Room:

  • forcing their way past barricades
  • forcing their way past law enforcement
  • smashing windows, breaking doors
  • ransacking offices
  • chanting "Hang Mike Pence!"
  • Attacking police
  • causing any apparent shutdown
  • putting feet on the House Speaker's desk
  • leaving nasty notes

PolitiFact's fact check counts as a ridiculous sham, based on a straw man reading of Rep. Clyde's words. We can imagine legitimate criticism of what Clyde said. For example, one might legitimately claim that by restricting his comments to the Statuary Room video he distracted from things the Capitol mob did elsewhere.

But PolitiFact's fact check succeeded in avoiding any legitimate criticism of Clyde's claim.

Afters I

PolitiFact appears to have handled its headline quotation of Rep. Clyde improperly, using AP Style as the guide:

A longer quotation might span multiple sentences. Use four ellipsis points (rather than three) to indicate any omission between two sentences. The first point indicates the period at the end of the first sentence quoted, and the three spaced ellipsis points follow.

The existing punctuation appears to credit (?) Rep. Clyde with a fragmentary sentence: "Watching the TV footage at the Capitol."  There was no such fragment in the actual quotation. Cutting and pasting the headline material shows a space between the first ellipsis point (probably intended as a period by the PolitiFact team) and the three ellipsis points that followed. Usage of the ellipsis following the AP Style blog instructions would have had four ellipsis points evenly spaced. That was not PolitiFact's approach.

For what it's worth, we're not sure how that supposedly correct format would help the casual reader understand that material was omitted before and after the period.

Afters II

In its concluding paragraphs, PolitiFact informed its readers that taking pictures or capturing video do not count as tourist activities (bold emphasis added):

Clyde’s spokesperson pointed to a few moments of video of people walking through Statuary Hall snapping photos or videos. But those people were not engaged in anything that resembles tourism. They were part of a group who had violently breached the U.S. Capitol. 
Color us skeptical.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

PolitiFact unpublishes 2020 fact check on coronavirus origin

Hat tip to NY Post editor Sohrab Ahmari,whose tweet alerted us to this story.

Though unpublishing stories counts as a bit of a taboo in journalism, PolitiFact appears to prefer the practice when it comes to minimizing some of its most sensational blunders.

The latest? In a Sept. 16, 2020 fact check, PolitiFact declared it a "Pants on Fire" conspiracy theory that the coronavirus might have resulted from humans tampering with it in the lab.

No, we're not making this up:

PolitiFact, placing full confidence in experts it cited, declared that human tampering could not account for the genetic code of the coronavirus (bold emphasis added):

The genetic structure of the novel coronavirus, which has been shared by thousands of scientists worldwide, rules out the possibility that it was manipulated in a lab. Public health authorities have repeatedly said the virus was not created in a lab. Scientists believe the coronavirus originated in bats before jumping to humans. Experts have publicly rebuked Yan’s paper, and it’s unclear whether it was peer reviewed.

The claim is inaccurate and ridiculous. We rate it Pants on Fire!

Though PolitiFact repented of its fact check to the point of unpublishing it, the IFCN-verified fact checkers admitted no error and have not run a correction, clarification or update to appear on its comprehensive (cough) list of corrections and updates.

Here's the editor's note that greets web surfers when they succeed in stumbling across the archived fact check:

Editor’s note, May 17, 2021: When this fact-check was first published in September 2020, PolitiFact’s sources included researchers who asserted the SARS-CoV-2 virus could not have been manipulated. That assertion is now more widely disputed. For that reason, we are removing this fact-check from our database pending a more thorough review. Currently, we consider the claim to be unsupported by evidence and in dispute. The original fact-check in its entirety is preserved below for transparency and archival purposes. Read our May 2021 report for more on the origins of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The fact check occurred as part of PolitiFact's partnership with Facebook. That means Facebook likely used the fact check to help justify sanctioning (censoring) Facebook accounts that suggested the Wuhan coronavirus originated in a lab.

These are the wrong people (using the wrong methods) to trust with the power of censorship.

On the positive side, PolitiFact redirected the old URL to the (temporarily?) archived version of its fact check. That's better than receiving a 404 error, as has happened in the past with PolitiFact's unpublishing.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Kevin McCarthy out of context

PolitiFact: The supposedly unbiased fact checker that takes statements from politicians out of context all the time, but punishes politicians for taking statements out of context.

If it sounds hypocritical that's because it is.

PolitiFact put its out-of-context crosshairs on Republican congressman Kevin McCarthy on May 14, 2021. Supposedly McCarthy said no one questions Joe Biden's election as president.

McCarthy might as well have said "No one in the entire universe questions Biden's election," in PolitiFact's eyes.

PolitiFact puts what's supposed to pass for its reasoning in its concluding paragraphs:

McCarthy said, "I don't think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election." 

This runs contrary to the actions and statements of numerous members and leaders of his own party, including himself. McCarthy objected to certifying election results from two states that Biden won, claiming electoral process concerns. Those concerns haven’t been proven. McCarthy and other Republicans also supported a lawsuit that challenged the validity of Biden’s victory in some states. 

Some Republican lawmakers who have been questioned about Biden’s legitimate victory state the obvious — that Biden is president — while still suggesting that it happened unlawfully.

As usual, the context serves as the key to understanding what was said. PolitiFact pays lip service to the context with a full quote of McCarthy that will end up putting the lie to its reasoning:

Here's PolitiFact's (accurate) version of the expanded context of McCarthy's statement:

"I don't think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with. We’re sitting here with the president today. So from that point of view, I don’t think that’s a problem."

PolitiFact could have done better by quoting in full the question McCarthy was answering. Here's the Washington Post's account of that question:

“You’re about to elevate someone to a leadership position who is still questioning the legitimacy of the 2020 election results,” NBC News’s Kristen Welker asked McCarthy, referring to Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who will probably replace Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) as the third-ranking member of the Republican caucus in the House. “Does that not complicate your efforts to find common ground with the president?”

Was McCarthy answering that question by saying nobody at all questions Biden's election? Of course not. He was addressing the idea that questions about the election would hamper efforts to find common ground. First, he says nobody (in the leadership group, including Stefanik) currently questions Biden's election. He offers the opinion "that's over with," acknowledging that happened in the past.

When we put that information, along with one more sentence from McCarthy, in PolitiFact's concluding paragraph, PolitiFact's reasoning crashes and burns (bold emphasis added to our editorial suggestion):

McCarthy said, "I don't think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with.

This runs contrary to the actions and statements of numerous members and leaders of his own party, including himself. McCarthy objected to certifying election results from two states that Biden won, claiming electoral process concerns. Those concerns haven’t been proven. McCarthy and other Republicans also supported a lawsuit that challenged the validity of Biden’s victory in some states. 

Some Republican lawmakers who have been questioned about Biden’s legitimate victory state the obvious — that Biden is president — while still suggesting that it happened unlawfully.

With the context added, nothing McCarthy said runs contrary to any of the evidence PolitiFact offered to contradict McCarthy's claim. Things Republicans like McCarthy and Stefanik did in January 2021 do not count as continued questioning of Biden's election.

And it becomes obvious that PolitiFact misled its readers by telling them "McCarthy’s May 12 claim that the legitimacy of Biden’s victory hasn’t been questioned is wrong."

That's not what McCarthy said. "Nobody is questioning" isn't the same thing as "hasn't been questioned."

Such fact checks from PolitiFact count as an embarrassment to fact-checking.

It's a very bad idea to give this brand of fact-checking power over social media censorship.

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Tucker Carlson out of context

If  politicians take facts and presents them out of context, PolitiFact uses its "Truth-O-Meter" to punish them.

If PolitiFact takes politicians out of context and issues ratings based on its own bad behavior, that's just part of a day's work for the worst mainstream fact checker in the United States.

Speak of the devil:

We're showing the presentation PolitiFact used on its Facebook page. PolitiFact used the same wording in the deck section of its website.

Immediately one should notice that the claim that a COVID-19 vaccine might not work seems consistent with estimated efficacy rates in the 70 to 96 percent range as estimated the the vaccines' manufacturers. The CDC website comes right out and says "Some people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 will still get sick because no vaccine is 100% effective."

PolitiFact gave Carlson's a "Pants on Fire" rating for saying vaccines might not work. Does the CDC get that rating, too?

Let's look to the concluding paragraphs of the fact check to see what PolitiFact said Carlson got wrong.

Carlson said, "Maybe (the COVID-19 vaccine) doesn't work, and they're simply not telling you that."

That claim is countered by clinical trials and real-world studies that show the available vaccines effectively protect against COVID-19 infections and severe symptoms.

PolitiFact makes it sound like vaccines are 100% effective, regardless of the statement from the CDC. Not only do the vaccines protect you from infection, they protect you from severe symptoms after you're infected, by PolitiFact's telling. Without fail? Or is it possible the vaccine might not work?

Maybe PolitiFact simply missed Carlson's point. Perhaps the fact checkers think Carlson believes the vaccines do not work at all even though earlier in the same program he affirmed that they work.

We have two more concluding paragraphs from PolitiFact: 

Carlson based his claim largely on the fact that the CDC still recommends that fully vaccinated people wear masks and keep their distance in public spaces. Carlson said he couldn’t think of a reason why the CDC would do that, but we found some pretty simple explanations. 

Experts said those precautions are advisable because most of the U.S. population remains unprotected and because scientists are still studying to what extent the vaccines stop transmission, among other things.

Carefully note in the last paragraph how PolitiFact justifies the continued use of masks and social distancing for vaccinated people. PolitiFact mentions unprotected people and the possibility of transmission from vaccinated persons. It's two clauses describing one reason, with the reader left to guess at the "other things."

PolitiFact is saying scientists think the vaccine may not work to prevent transmission of the virus from vaccinated people to unprotected people.

Will PolitiFact rate itself or the scientists whose views it touts "Pants on Fire"?

How can fact checkers fire so wide of the mark?

It was and is obvious Carlson was making a point about the rhetoric about the vaccine. Get it, it works, said the government, and we can get back to normal. Later, the government says it's nice you got the vaccine but you can't get back to normal.

Carlson has a legitimate point, and PolitiFact's own reasoning proves it ("scientists are still studying"). Why are the scientists still studying it? Because it might not work to prevent transmission.

Fact checkers should not fail to figure out such basic stuff.

PolitiFact provided a link to Facebook for watching the relevant segment of Carlson's show. Their link didn't work for us, but we found the video independently and found the link matches what PolitiFact posted (huh? yeah). We're providing the same link in hopes that it works better for our readers.

It worked in pre-publication testing, but we shall see.