Friday, July 5, 2024

PolitiFingers on the scale: Presidential debate edition

 As we have documented over the years, PolitiFact's supposedly objective system affords its writers and editors myriad ways of inserting political bias into their work.

One popular method employs story focus to skew fact check findings. If a political figure utters a compound statement, PolitiFact affords itself the flexibility of focusing on the whole statement, just one part of the statement, or by evaluating multiple parts of the statement and averaging out the results. That's not to rule out a random mixture of all three approaches. See this vintage version of PolitiFact's statement of principles.

It's a highly unscientific and non-objective process, and PolitiFact provided a good pair of examples in its analysis of the debate between President Joe Biden and former president Donald Trump.

PolitiFact on Biden

Biden: While talking about a bipartisan border bill, "by the way, the Border Patrol endorsed me, endorsed my position."

Half True. The National Border Patrol Council — the U.S. Border Patrol’s union endorsed a bipartisan border security bill in February. But it didn’t endorse Biden.

Biden made a compound claim consisting of two parts. With part 1, Biden claimed to have the endorsement of the Border Patrol. With part 2, Biden claimed the Border patrol endorsed his position. PolitiFact allowed that Biden hadn't received the endorsement of the National Border Patrol Council, but gave Biden half credit because the border patrol union favored a failed bill Biden had said he would sign into law. As to why PolitiFact would come to rest on that instead of Biden's position on the border generally, perhaps the Texas sharpshooter fallacy explains it best.

The Texas sharpshooter fallacy involves taking note of where one finds a bullet hole and then drawing a target around it with the bullet hole at its center.

PolitiFact took a false statement and averaged it out with a vague statement that might have some truth to it to reach a "Half True" conclusion. But even that leaves out part of the story because many of these evaluations never become part of a politician's "Truth-O-Meter" record.

PolitiFact on Trump

Trump: "The problem (Democrats) have is they're radical, because they will take the life of a child in the eighth month, the ninth month, and even after birth."

False. Willfully terminating a newborn’s life is infanticide and is illegal in every U.S. state. 

 Here we have another compound claim, this one made up of three parts. Democrats, Trump claims, would permit abortion in the eighth or ninth month (part 1, part 2) or even after birth (part 3).

PolitiFact focuses entirely on part three, and rules solely on that basis.

To be fair in a twisted sort of way, PolitiFact tends to rule it "False" that various "Pro-Choice" laws permit abortion up until the moment of birth even though they would permit abortion up through the moment of birth. The explanation? Abortions up until the moment of birth don't happen. That's supposed to mean it's not legal to do one, we suppose.

Why It's PolitiFingers on the Scale

As noted above, no objective process accounts for this willy-nilly drift of story focus. PolitiFact focuses on what it pleases. And if the rulings fall more harshly on conservatives or Republicans, hey maybe Republicans just lie more, right?

That's a post hoc justification for a slanted fact-checking process.

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