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."
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.
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.