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."


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.

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