Thursday, April 11, 2024

And, a farcical "Pants on Fire" for Donald J. Trump

 As our "Pants on Fire" bias study regularly points out, PolitiFact's "Pants on Fire" rating counts as substantially if not wholly subjective. Surveying PolitiFact's "Pants on Fire" ratings serves as one of the most direct routes for finding flawed fact checks. And that brings us to April 1, 2024 and Donald J. Trump.


We'll grant that Trump lost the state of Wisconsin to Joe Biden in 2020. That doesn't make PolitiFact's rating or its reasoning correct, however. PolitiFact spent considerable effort trying to lump in Trump's claim that his campaign "did much better" in 2020 than in 2016. 

PolitiFact:

Let’s tackle the first part of Trump’s claim: That he performed better in Wisconsin in 2020 than he did in 2016. 

That is unequivocally false. And it’s something PolitiFact Wisconsin has checked on multiple occasions, including in 2021. 

Is it "unequivocally false" that Trump did better in Wisconsin in 2020 than he did in 2016?  What's false is that PolitiFact debunked the claim with the article linked in the second sentence. The link leads to a fact check examining whether Trump won Wisconsin in 2020.

PolitiFact itself provides the evidence that Trump's claim is not unequivocally false (bold emphasis added):

We noted then, and we’ll repeat here, that President Joe Biden won Wisconsin in 2020. Biden took 1,630,866 votes compared to Trump’s 1,610,184 in the state, so Trump lost by 20,682 votes. 

Trump did win the state in 2016, taking more than 22,000 votes over Democrat Hillary Clinton. He netted 1,405,284 votes in Wisconsin in 2016.

So, according to PolitiFact, Trump received 1.4 million votes in Wisconsin in 2016 and 1.6 million votes in 2020 but he "unequivocally" did not do better in 2020 than in 2016.

That's 2+2=5 level logic.

Trump's vote total in Wisconsin was better in 2020 than in 2016. That means that in a real sense Trump did better in Wisconsin in 2020 than in 2016 even if he lost the state in 2020. By analogy, it's like a sprinter winning the 100 meter dash at one meet with a time of 9.99 seconds but subsequently losing the event with a time of 9.97 seconds. The runner performed better in terms of time but worse in terms of the competition.

The runner did not "unequivocally" perform worse in the second meet.

If PolitiFact wanted to fairly call Trump's claim false, let alone "Pants on Fire," it should have stuck with the claim Trump won Wisconsin in 2020.

How does a fair and objective fact checker make an error like that?

We say it doesn't.

PolitiFact isn't fair and objective.

Saturday, April 6, 2024

PolitiFact's farcical "Pants on Fire" for Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (Updated)

Robert F. Kennedy's presidential bid has taken its toll on our "Pants on Fire" bias study.

Kennedy claimed half the two "Pants on Fire" ratings given to Democrats in 2023 and just received the only one so far awarded in 2024. It distorts the bias numbers.

This April 5, 2024 rating of Kennedy, by the way, is ridiculous:


It's just another instance of the liberal bloggers at PolitiFact elevating narrative way above facts.

Kennedy was making a point about the protests not counting as an insurrection. PolitiFact narrowed its focus down to "protestors carried no weapons" and broadened "weapons" to count things not all that helpful in taking over the government of a superpower. PolitiFact also (again) ignored the principle established by founding editor Bill Adair that the most important aspect of a numbers claim is its underlying point.

PolitiFact:

Kennedy’s statement goes further than Trump, because he said protesters "carried no weapons." A weapon doesn’t have to be a gun.

Sure, PolitiFact, but insurrectionists armed with flagpoles and fire extinguishers aren't going to be able to take and hold the United States government.  PolitiFact did offer evidence of protesters charged with possession of firearms, but none of them were used to threaten or harm police or security forces. In other words, the firearms weren't used to carry out any "insurrection."

Imagine the headline:

Insurrectionists using flagpoles, bear spray and fire extinguishers take over federal government

It's completely absurd.

Here's what Kennedy said, via PolitiFact:
"I have not examined the evidence in detail, but reasonable people, including Trump opponents, tell me there is little evidence of a true insurrection," Kennedy said in his April 5 statement. "They observe that the protestors carried no weapons, had no plans or ability to seize the reins of government, and that (former President Donald) Trump himself had urged them to protest ‘peacefully.’"
The obvious point is the protesters were not armed befitting a serious attempt to overthrown the government. PolitiFact cites one person charged with firing a gun into the air twice before packing it away again. Other gun charges were related to possession.

Here's PolitiFact's fact check in terms of X's Community Notes:



In terms of our "Pants on Fire" bias study, this "Pants on Fire" given to a Democrat is actually attacking a conservative viewpoint. We kept this data point in the study at face value, but it actually deserves an asterisk.

Strikethrough explanation April 9, 2024: We neglected to note that Kennedy is now listed as an Independent at PolitiFact. So, Kennedy does throw a spanner in the 2023 PoF percentages, but our chart now removes him from consideration for his one PoF in 2024, as a Democrat anyway.

Thursday, February 29, 2024

PolitiFact's "no spin" lie

 Apparently PolitiFact's hot new method for getting people to trust their work is to lie to them.

I see it at the top of every fact check these days. PolitiFact posts a summary of its fact check near the top of the story, and at the bottom of that summary lets readers know "No spin, just facts you can trust."

"No spin."

Really?

That howler accompanied a PolitiFact fact check I ran across today, published on Feb. 23, 2024.


PolitiFact's "no spin" approach added spin to the article deck, even before the assurance that PolitiFact has a "no spin" approach: "Do immigrants crossing the US southern border take union jobs? Fact-checking Donald Trump."

The deck claim doesn't match the headline quotation.

So, why the spin?

The second paragraph counts as the key to the fact check:

"The biggest threat to your unions is millions of people coming across the border, because you're not gonna have your jobs anymore," Trump said at the Feb. 17 rally, later adding "The truth is, though, when you have millions of people coming in, they're going to take your jobs."

PolitiFact cited a CSPAN video that clocks in at over an hour. PolitiFact is also the organization that claims it constructs its fact checks to make them replicable. Clue to PolitiFact: If you're trying to allow people to fact-check your work, you tell them where to find key quotations taken from a long video.


 

It's even possible at CSPAN to create a snippet of limited length to include both quotations. We did that.

Trump's making the common sense point that importing millions of low-skilled laborers makes it easy for employers to hire low-wage workers instead of high-wage union workers. PolitiFact turns that point into a straw man, visible at the top of PolitiFact's summary section "If Your Time is Short": "Economy and labor experts told PolitiFact immigrants who recently crossed the U.S. border likely aren't taking Michigan's union jobs."

Did Trump say immigrants who recently crossed the U.S. border were taking Michigan's union jobs? As though an immigrant can run up to Michigan, accept a union job and thereby displace the former holder of that union job? No, that's no what Trump's talking about. He's talking about the general depression of wages that undercuts the stability of an established high-wage union job. Low wages in Kentucky, for example, can eliminate union jobs in Michigan if the employer relocates to Kentucky and hires non-union workers.

If somebody thinks PolitiFact was actually treating Trump's claim exactly the way I suggested it should be taken, the corrective is no further away than the next bullet point in PolitiFact's summary: "(N)ewly arrived migrants are likelier to work in jobs Americans don’t want to do, such as day laborer positions. These aren’t union jobs."

PolitiFact missed Trump's point, whether intentionally or otherwise. The point is immigrants taking jobs Americans don't want to do depresses the value of labor. Cheap labor works its way through the economy, affecting jobs Americans do want to do by making labor cheaper for those jobs as well.

We see a hint of that point in PolitiFact's third bullet point: "There is a correlation between an increase in immigration and a drop in unionization. However, experts said that’s not evidence that immigrants are taking union jobs."

So, what do we do with this claim that an increase in immigration correlates with a drop in unionization in conjunction with the claim that it's not evidence immigrants are taking union jobs?

As noted above, there's ambiguity here. If immigration lowers unionization, that's certainly evidence, albeit not definitive proof, that lower wages from immigration cost the economy union jobs.

It looks like the fact check hinges on an equivocal phrase, "taking union jobs."

But taking Trump's point as we suggested, the fact check affirms Trump's accuracy. PolitiFact included this in its story summary:
(E)xperts agree immigration and union membership numbers move in concert: as immigration rises, unionization drops.

"As immigration rises, unionization drops." That's what earns Trump a "Mostly False" rating instead of "Pants on Fire," I suppose. It arguably makes Trump's claim "Mostly True." 

We consider it unforgivable for a fact checker to leave ambiguity around what is meant by "taking union jobs," and the problem is magnified when the fact checker opts for the interpretation most damaging to the person it is fact-checking.

It's yet another case of uncharitable interpretation, violating the basic interpretive principle of charitable interpretation.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

PolitiFact's how-to primer on improperly fact-checking an analogy

There's so much wrong with this Feb. 22, 2024 PolitiFact fact check that I'm bound to go way beyond the scope of the title.


How To Wrongly Fact Check an Analogy

PolitiFact's summary/quotation of Trump's statement counts as reasonably accurate. He drew an analogy between the fine imposed in the New York fraud case to the political persecution of Alexei A. Navalny, who notably opposed Vladimir Putin in Russian.

At its most basic level, the analogy says Navalny and Trump were treated unfairly in court over politics. But PolitiFact affords nearly zero attention to the basic comparison. Instead, PolitiFact focused on differences as though differences can erase similarities.

Karl Malden's nose remains Karl Malden's nose even if you put it on Emma Stone. And Emma Stone with Karl Malden's nose is Emma Stone having a point of similarity with Karl Malden.

PolitiFact classed Trump's statement (wrongly, we think) as hyperbole, but then justified revoking Trump's license for hyperbole because "we determined there were enough factual elements at play to rate his statement on the Truth-O-Meter."

We're not sure how that's supposed to work. As we noted on X, PolitiFact could use a similar approach to find a vegetarian "Pants on Fire" for comparing vegetarian bacon to regular bacon. The bacon example came straight from a dictionary definition of "analog."

Here We Go Again: "Experts"

Part of PolitiFact's schtick comes from its interviews of experts. Typically the pool of experts leans left, and often has a record of giving politically to Democrats. For some reason PolitiFact doesn't see that as a mark against its own credibility.

Let's take a look, shall we?

Harley Balzer
Highly partisan political giving. One of the most partisan records we've encountered, and that's really saying something.

Erik Herron
We found no political giving under Herron's name. But we did find an X post by Herron that appears to acknowledge the legitimacy of analogies where the comparison may seem strained.


Ric Simmons 
Simmons (employed at The Ohio State University) has two political donations listed. One was to Democrat Joe Biden and the other to the anti-Trump group "The Lincoln Project."

Scott Gehlbach
Gehlbach's partisan political giving fails to challenge that of Balzer, but it's solidly behind Democrats with the exception of one nonpartisan figure, now a (liberal) judge in the Wisconsin court system.

Stephen Sestanovich
Sestanovich has six donations, minimum $250, all going to Democrats.

Kathryn Hendley
Hendley has only one political donation listed, with a Democrat listed as the recipient of the $200 gift.

Mark Osler
Osler has given exclusively to Democrats, with six donations in the range of $50-$250.

What are the chances a fact checker can find seven expert sources and six out of seven have given exclusively to Democrats? It's as though PolitiFact intentionally seeks out Democrats to serve as its experts.

Of course, the mere fact that the experts give to Democrats should not discredit their expertise. But PolitiFact simply uses the experts to underscore that the Navalny case is different than the Trump case. We don't need experts to prove that, and as we pointed out above, differences are irrelevant to the similarities, The former cannot erase the latter.

PolitiFingers on the Scale

As if distracting from the point of Trump's argument and using partisan experts wasn't enough, we have PolitiFingers on the scale of this fact check.

PolitiFact omits all mention of two significant aspects of the fraud case against Trump. Both aspects tend to support the Navalny analogy.

First, the trial judge found that Trump's fraud did not damage anyone financially. That makes the prosecution and the judgment unusual. The fine represents higher conjectured interest charges from lower valuations of Trump properties. We doubt such a basis has ever before been used in the United States to support a fraud penalty.

USAToday:

(Gregory) Germain, the Syracuse professor, said the government did a good job of showing Trump inflated the value of his properties, but noted that sophisticated financial institutions didn't require a third-party appraisal like they do for a typical mortgage on a home.

"There are no cases like it," Germain said.


An Associated Press story makes a related point:

And though the bank offered Trump lower interest rates because he had agreed to personally guarantee the loans with his own money, it’s not clear how much better the rates were because of the inflated figures. The bank never complained, and it’s unclear how much it lost, if anything. Bank officials called to testify couldn’t say for sure if Trump’s personal statement of worth had any impact on the rates.

“This sets a horrible precedent,” said Adam Leitman Bailey, a New York real estate lawyer who once successfully sued a Trump condo building for misrepresenting sales to lure buyers.

Second, PolitiFact's fact check misrepresents the ease of appealing the ruling. 

CNBC:

Former President Donald Trump is gearing up to fight a massive fine in the New York business fraud case that threatens to erase most of the cash he says he has on hand.

But first, he has to secure a bond — and that might not be so easy.

Why doesn't PolitiFact tell you any of that?

Because they're biased.

They make sure there are no observations from a conservative such as Andrew C. McCarthy:

Afters:

PolitiFact is on a real tear against Trump early in 2024. It's almost like they're trying to retroactively make true their false claims about Trump's "Truth-O-Meter" record.

In fact it was Louis Jacobson, listed first on the byline of PolitiFact's fact check, who recently endured two corrections from Slate after it published an interview with him. Jacobson made two flatly false claims about Trump's record on the "Truth-O-Meter."


One wonders whether publicly making false claims about Trump should disqualify Jacobson from working on fact checks involving Trump.

Note: Huh--Looks like Slate botched its editor's note: "It has also been updated to clarify that among major politicians frequently fact-checked by PolitiFact, Trump has the highest percentage of Pants on Fire ratings." I gave them the example of Michele Bachmann, who has had 72 "Truth-O-Meter" ratings.

Hmm. Looks like it's time for another correction request, if there's no clear justification for that claim.

Thursday, February 8, 2024

The "Pants on Fire" bias study updated through 2023

 We have updated our "Pants on Fire" bias study with data from 2023.

What is it? We use a spreadsheet to track all "False" and "Pants on Fire" ratings given to partisan Republicans or Democrats whether candidate, officeholder or appointed administration official plus party officials or organizations. We then calculate the percentage of false ("False" plus "Pants on Fire") ratings given the "Pants on Fire" rating.

Why do we do it? Because PolitiFact has never offered an objective means of distinguishing its "False" rating from its "Pants on Fire" rating, we infer that the difference is either substantially or wholly subjective. Assuming the substantial subjectivity of the ratings, we expect that differences in the percentages will help identify PolitiFact's partisan bias, if any.

Here's the updated chart:


What have we learned so far?

We've learned that national PolitiFact after 2007 shows a consistent bias for Democrats/against Republicans. That trend shows poorly on the graph above because this graph includes ratings from PolitiFact's various state operations. Before PolitiFact changed its website making it far less clear which franchise was responsible for what, we kept track of each part of the organization separately. The years from 2010 through 2015 show a moderation of bias thanks to state operations that sometimes were legitimately tough on Democrats. PolitiFact Wisconsin was notably tough on Democrats during that period, for example.

By looking at the total number of various ratings given to the political parties, we've also noted that Republicans (after 2007) receive far more of PolitiFact's bottom two ratings. That effect may stem from Republicans lying more or simply because of bias in story selection and ratings. We've documented enough of the latter two factors to reasonably prefer the second option. That's where the evidence leads.

If, as the available evidence suggests, PolitiFact's "Pants on Fire" rating has no objective basis, "Republicans lie more" carries no objective explanatory value respecting the percentages on our graph.

We've also learned that harsh ratings for both parties are on the decline, in terms of raw numbers. The most obvious explanation for that trend stems from PolitiFact's social media partnerships. If PolitiFact fact checks a politician, revenue consists of donations, grants and ad revenue. But if PolitiFact fact checks something for its social media partners, there's a payday for that. PolitiFact discloses that more than 5 percent of its revenue comes from the social media company Meta. The Chinese social media company TikTok likewise accounts for over 5 percent of PolitiFact's revenue.  

Why doesn't PolitiFact offer more transparency than that regarding its income? Good question, but we don't have an answer free of conjecture.

As for our study of PolitiFact's numbers in 2023, the Republican average fell well below its historic norm, establishing an all-time low for the GOP. PolitiFact's ratings of Democrats pulled their historic average down for the eighth straight year.

A potential weird Trump effect?

The percentages for Republicans haven't really changed much over the years, defying the existence of any Trump effect in terms of increasing Republican dishonesty (in PolitiFact's data, anyway). But the percentages for Democrats have declined noticeably since around 2016 as Trump ascended politically.

Could Trump help explain an increase in Democratic Party honesty?

More likely those changes happen because the makeup of PolitiFact's franchises has shifted over time. State franchises no longer take the edge off the pro-Democrat bias of national PolitiFact. 

Saturday, January 20, 2024

PolitiFact Wisconsin, Glenn Grothman and uncharitable interpretation

 The principle of charitable interpretation is pretty simple. It consists of offering a claim the interpretation that best favors the speaker or writer without undue acrobatics.

Mainstream media fact checkers, when not reviewing the claims of Democrats, often experience difficulty with the concept. And that brings us to PolitiFact Wisconsin and Wisconsin Republican Glenn Grothman.





Grothman's statement offers two readily apparent interpretations. He may think the United States Constitution does not afford birthright citizenship on persons in the country illegally. Or, he may think that the birthright citizenship the Constitution affords to illegal residences counts as a bad policy due for a change.

PolitiFact opted for the first interpretation.

Why did PolitiFact opt for the first interpretation instead of the second one? That's the part that's of interest to those of us who want to see fact checkers do a better job of fact-checking. We looked for PolitiFact to give reasons to prefer one interpretation over the other but this was the best we could find:

Grothman didn’t respond to our inquiry seeking clarification and backup for the claim, which is known as "birthright citizenship." But his statement aligns with that of some other conservatives, who argue birthright citizenship does not apply to children of people living in the country illegally. 

PolitiFact later points out that some other conservatives propose changing the Constitution to disallow birthright citizenship for illegals, but fails to note that Grothman's ambiguous statement aligns with both positions. It depends on whether Grothman used "wrongly" to mean "unconstitutionally" instead of it representing a moral wrong even if in accord with the meaning of the Constitution.

A fact checker ought to iron out that question before proceeding with the fact check. PolitiFact didn't do that. Instead, PolitiFact asked Grothman's office what he meant, received no reply and took it on themselves to supply Grothman's meaning without apparently considering one of the two main alternatives. 

PolitiFact's fact check thus counts as journalistic malpractice.

Double Helping of Afters

PolitiFact invented the context of Grothman's speech (bold emphasis added):

During his speech Dec. 1, 2023, Grothman expressed contempt for ways foreign nationals and their children are illegally getting into and living in America.

When listing legal ways migrants can become U.S. citizens, Grothman pivoted and said citizenship is incorrectly granted to their children born in America.

Check the audio. Grothman did not list ways migrants can become U.S. citizens (3:25 transcript ours).

"I, one more time, attended a ceremony in Milawaukee of over 250 people in one day in one city, who were sworn in to be new citizens. We are now swearing in over a million people a year that do things right. Taht are vetted, we know they're not breaking the law, that, uh, they almost always have jobs, sometimes have opened up businesses by themselves. So it's not like America is saying you can never get into America, or we're so xenophobic that we're no longer a country of immigrants. No, we have, uh, over 1 million people every year coming here are sworn in. And that's not including children who are born here to parents who are not immigrants because right now our government wrongly is saying that if you're born in this country you're automatically an American citizen."

Second Helping

Refer again to the second sentence from PolitiFact we highlighted in the "afters" section. PolitiFact said Grothman "said citizenship is incorrectly granted to their children born in America." That's before PolitiFact's paragraph about reaching out to Grothman to ask what he meant. We see in PolitiFact's choice of words that it already decided what Grothman meant. What did Grothman mean by "wrongly"? Not a moral wrong in PolitiFact's eyes. PolitiFact switches to the term "incorrectly," fitting with their interpretation that Grothman said the government applies the Constitution incorrectly.

Last Word

As for whether PolitiFact's legal experts settled the question correctly regarding the Constitution, it seems PolitiFact's work was again careless. PolitiFact said the cases setting precedent disregarded immigration status in affirming birthright citizenship. Yet the English Common Law cases on which the U.S. court relied in U.S. v. Wong Kim Ark places some importance on the alien offering allegiance to the sovereign. Thus the children of enemies of the Crown were not accepted as natural born citizens regardless of their place of birth.

 PolitiFact's fact check offers no whiff of that sentiment from the decision. That aspect of the common law throws a potential spanner in the works of PolitiFact's simplistic explanation.

Here find more about the "certificate of residence" expects of Chinese migrants, which in the late 19th century lacked a clear concept of illegal immigration. The Ark case was from 1898.

PolitiFact appears to count Plyler vs. Doe as a birthright citizenship case ("The issue came up again in the Supreme Court's 1982 Plyler v. Doe case"), but we could find no evidence in support of that notion. That decision hinged on residence within the state affording the resident equal protection under the 14th amendment, regardless of citizenship:

Held: A Texas statute which withholds from local school districts any state funds for the education of children who were not "legally admitted" into the United States, and which authorizes local school districts to deny enrollment to such children, violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.