Sunday, August 8, 2021

PolitiFact attack on DeSantis attacks a straw man

PolitiFact's supposed fact check of Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida did not fact check what DeSantis said. Instead it attacked a straw man version of DeSantis' words.

The tag we use on these kinds of stories here at PolitiFact Bias is "altered claims." It's a relatively common occurrence. We just don't have time to document them all.

The problem sticking out like a sore thumb yet invisible to PolitiFact? DeSantis didn't say anything about what's driving the coronavirus surge. Look for yourself. Here's PolitiFact's account of what DeSantis said, with our highlights of DeSantis' actual words:

DeSantis unloaded on Biden during an Aug. 4 news conference in Panama City, Fla. 

"He’s imported more virus from around the world by having a wide open southern border. You have hundreds of thousands of people pouring across every month," DeSantis said. "You have over 100 different countries where people are pouring through. Not only are they letting them through — they're then farming them out all across our communities across this country. Putting them on planes, putting them on buses."

DeSantis doubled down in a fundraising letter later that day: "Joe Biden has the nerve to tell me to get out of the way on COVID while he lets COVID-infected migrants pour over our southern border by the hundreds of thousands. No elected official is doing more to enable the transmission of COVID in America than Joe Biden with his open borders policies."

See? There's not a word from DeSantis about what's driving the current coronavirus surge.

Perhaps the fact checkers somehow derived the core of their fact check based on the news report they cited in the story (WPTV):

DeSantis accused Biden of accelerating the pandemic through lax security at the U.S.-Mexico border.

But again, DeSantis didn't say anything about accelerating the pandemic. He said Biden's border policy was "helping to facilitate" the spread of covid-19:

(")And so he's not shutting down the virus, he's helping to facilitate it in our country."

"Facilitate" is not the same word as "accelerate." They don't mean the same thing.

"Accelerate" is not the same word as "drive." They don't mean the same thing.

In like manner, "facilitate" doesn't mean the same thing as "drive." 

It's irresponsible and wrong for journalists to play the telephone game with key terms.

The fact check's conclusion derives almost entirely from PolitiFact's straw man focus:

DeSantis said Biden has driven the current coronavirus surge because he "imported more virus from around the world by having a wide open southern border." 

The available evidence shows that coronavirus hot spots tend to be clustered either far from the border or on the water, whereas the entire land border with Mexico has fairly low rates. The hotspot locations tend to correlate with low rates of vaccination among the public. 

In addition, the U.S. does not have a "wide open" border. Most people who are encountered are turned away under a Trump-era policy that Biden continued. 

We rate the statement False.

DeSantis did not say Biden has driven the current coronavirus surge. DeSantis said Biden had done more than any other elected official to facilitate the spread of covid. PolitiFact's experts affirmed that border crossings under Biden represent a valid concern. PolitiFact never bothered comparing Biden's border policy to that of any other elected official (Gov. Cuomo, maybe?).

PolitiFact put two other (post-publication note: we deal with one of them!) elements in its fact check that we find worthy of note.

'Hotspot Locations Tend to Correlate With Low Rates of Vaccination'

That sentence was a fact check of Biden, albeit carried out with a carelessness that totally undermines its validity.

Let's take a look at the map of "hotspots" PolitiFact provided.


Now take a look at the Johns Hopkins map (as of Aug. 8, 2021--archived version doesn't show the map) showing vaccine percentages by state (fully vaccinated, top; at least one dose, bottom):


The claim from President Biden and repeated by PolitiFact, deserved far more scrutiny than it got (look at Nebraska and Nevada, just for starters).

PolitiFact supposedly relied on The New York Times to support the notion that low vaccination rates explain the surge's current pattern:

There’s also a more plausible explanation for the coronavirus surge’s current pattern: Case rates are higher in places with lower rates of vaccination. 

An analysis by the New York Times found that at the end of July, counties with vaccination rates below 30% had coronavirus case rates well over double the case rates in counties with at least 60% vaccination. And five of the six least-vaccinated states — Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, and Mississippi — are all squarely within the geographical quadrant of the country that has the highest case rates.

PolitiFact's claim relies on specious reasoning, given that the Times conducted nothing like a controlled experiment. The Times showed some charts of test results in high-vaccinated counties compared to low-vaccinated counties. But a vaccinated person is more likely to dismiss mild illness as something other than covid and skip testing. Unvaccinated people would be more likely to get tested and artificially bump the percentage for positive tests in counties with low vaccination percentages.

We'd say that a fact checker who fails to realize this perhaps belongs in another line of work.

Instead of building a straw man out of DeSantis' claim, PolitiFact would have served the public better by doing a serious examination of Biden's implied claim that vaccination effectively provides a significant degree of immunity against covid--to the point where vaccinated persons do not need to worry much about passing the virus on to others (vaccinated and unvaccinated alike).

How does Iceland fit with PolitiFact's rubberstamping of Biden's claim, for example?

From the Brussels Times (bold emphasis added):

About one month ago, the country became the first in Europe to lift all its domestic restrictions, however, on 12 July, it faced a sharp spike in COVID-19 cases for the first time since October, registering 355 new infections, despite over 70% of the total population being vaccinated.

Three-quarters of these were among vaccinated people, and most were linked to the Delta variant of the virus, according to the health authorities. The last such spike in the country had been in late October.

How will mainstream media fact checkers wean themselves from preferring narratives instead of checking facts?

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