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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Media Bias In Action: Providence Journal Politicizes PolitiFact

The Providence Journal, the only statewide daily newspaper in Rhode Island which dominates news coverage, has endorsed Democrat David Cicilline for Congress in the RI-01 District, running against John Loughlin.  As my readers know, this is my home district and I support Loughlin.

Unfortunately, the PolitiFact feature at ProJo reflects these political leanings, as substantially identical analyses result in PolitiFact ratings more favorable to Cicilline.  I'll assume this bias is unintended, but the bias is there nonetheless.

Here is the official PolitiFact ratings system for its Truth-O-Meter:
True – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
Mostly True – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
Half True – The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
Barely True – The statement contains some element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
False – The statement is not accurate.
Pants on Fire – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.
I first noticed the bias in the ProJo's application of these ratings earlier this month, when Cicilline was touring senior centers in Rhode Island falsely claiming Loughlin and Republicans wanted to privatize social security and give the money to Wall Street to invest in the stock market.  A Politifact analysis of an identical claim -- this is a standard DCCC talking point after all -- in Wisconsin had resulted in a "Pants on Fire" false rating.

So I contacted ProJo to get them to rate the claim by Cicilline being lodged against Loughlin.  ProJo took up the issue, but rated Cicilline's charge "Half True." 

To get a "Half True" rating, ProJo framed the issue as Ciciline claiming that "The Republican candidate [John Loughlin] has talked about privatizing Social Security ... so we know where he stands on the issue."

ProJo found that indeed Loughlin talks about privatization, but that when Loughlin talks about it, he is against it.  This, of course, is an absurd way to analyze an issue to get to a Half True.  If David Cicilline "talked about" child abuse, but what he said was against child abuse, would ProJo rate as "Half True" the charge that Cicilline "has talked about child abuse ... so we know where he stands on the issue"?  Of course not, it is the substance of what is said that matters, not whether a candidate "talked about" something. 
When Cicilline goes to senior centers and says Loughlin "has talked about privatizing Social Security," he clearly is sending a message to seniors that Loughlin wants to privatize Social Security.  Nonetheless, on this central focus of Cicilline's campaign, ProJo used a ridiculous formulation of the issue to give Cicilline's charge a Half True rating.

A day later, ProJo ran a PolitiFact story rating as False Loughlin's claim that "Social Security is a Ponzi scheme." Projo's analysis found that on one of the central aspects of a Ponzi scheme -- new investors pay old investors -- Loughlin was right, but that since Social Security was not created with an "intent to deceive" Loughlin's claim was not credible:
"Without that key element of deceit, we find it hard to find Loughlin's analogy -- or that of anyone who uses it -- credible."
So Loughlin was at least partly right, but ProJo's PolitiFact rated the claim a full False, rather than a Half True as it did with Cicilline's charge that Loughlin "has talked about" privatization.

I wrote to ProJo about this discrepancy, and here is the response from its PolitiFact editor (emphasis in original):
Mr. Jacobson,
We rated David Cicilline’s claim Half-True in part because of the way he worded it. He said John Loughlin “has talked about privatizing Social Security,” which is literally true. Loughlin has talked about it. Many times. But as the item points out at length, Loughlin has talked about limited voluntary private accounts, not the broad privatization that Cicilline’s statement implies.

As for the Ponzi scheme item, you incorrectly say that we found his comments to be substantively true. In fact, we found the opposite.

A Ponzi scheme is an opaque, fraudulent investment scam that, by design, will collapse after enriching the perpetrator and defrauding the unknowing victims. Social Security is a retirement funding system that is transparent and backed by the U.S. government. There is a plan in place to pay benefits to retirees. You can argue whether the funding system is sound or not. But it, in our opinion, does not have the key elements of a Ponzi scheme.
Why did we issue a different ruling than PolitiFact Wisconsin?

Each PolitiFact partner has its own reporters and editors. And each has its own panel of three senior editors who read the items and decide the ruling. Our panel of editors decided that Mr. Loughlin’s claim was False.
I wasn't going to write about this, but on the ProJo's website today, there are two new PolitiFact articles which once again use different standards in applying ratings more favorably to Cicilline.

ProJo looks at the charge by Cicilline that "John Loughlin voted to let people accused of domestic violence keep their guns."  ProJo rates the charge Mostly True because Loughlin voted against a bill in the state legislature on civil (not criminal) restraining orders because, according to a Loughlin spokesman, "John is a supporter of the Second Amendment and he voted against this bill because it was too broad and he was concerned that there was no distinction made between handguns and antique collectibles or family heirlooms."  Loughlin felt the law was overly broad and would have unintended consequences, so he voted against it.

Yet Projo only rates as Barely True a third-party group advertisement that Cicilline "argued against Megan's Law and voted against mandatory registration of sex offenders."  ProJo asserts that the ad is misleading because Cicilline voted against the Meghan's law proposal only because the proposal contained a condition (it applied to teenagers) with which Cicilline did not agree, and that it was misleading to assert that Cicilline was against Meghan's law in general.  Cicilline felt the law was overly broad and would have unintended consequences, so he voted against it.

In these latest examples the circumstances are virtually identical -- both candidates voted against a law they generally supported because the laws were overly broad and would have unintended consequences -- but the ratings applied are much more favorable to Cicilline.

In all of the cases above, the ProJo's substantive analysis was pretty accurate and fair.  The problem is the rating was not fairly applied, which of course is what people focus on.

I'm not claiming a conscious bias on the part of the ProJo PolitiFact analysts.  I'm sure they think they are being fair.  The facts, however, say otherwise.

Implicit media biases can be just as harmful as conscious bias, and ProJo needs to reconsider how it rates candidates during contentious campaigns, when such ratings can have an impact.

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  1. the problem is that they use subjective standards for the purpose of their ratings in stead of objective standards.

  2. Maybe they should ask Professor Laurence Kotlikoff whether it is false to call Social Security a Ponzi Scheme. From his recent book, Jimmy Stewart is Dead:
    "If our findings hold up after further analysis, Social Security can be said to constitute a Ponzi Scheme in that it is misrepresenting its long-term funding gap. But two things can be said in Social Security's defense. First, the valuation mistake is relatively small compared to the the overall fiscal gap of $15.1 trillion dollars that it reports. Second, Social Security's trustees, in its infinite time horizon liability calculations, do attempt to measure the system's fiscal gap. Indeed, Social Security's fiscal gap analysis is the only such analysis is the only such analysis being done by any branch of the federal government for any of its programs."

    Kotlikoff argues that the whole federal government budget constitutes a massive Ponzi scheme. For example, see


    "But Social Security has also played a central role in the massive, six-decade Ponzi scheme known as U.S. fiscal policy, which transfers ever-larger sums from the young to the old.

    In so doing, Uncle Sam has assured successive young contributors that they would have their turn, in retirement, to get back much more than they put in. But all chain letters end, and the U.S.’s is now collapsing."

  3. Your second example really does show their bias. Maybe they should change their name to Politi-Half-True.

  4. PIMCO's Bill Gross, who runs a $1 trillion U.S. government bond portfolio, compared U.S. government debt as a Ponzi scheme in this month's investment letter to clients (he even bolds the following two sentences on page 3 of the PDF):

    "Check writing in the trillions is not a bondholder’s friend; it is in fact inflationary, and, if truth be told, somewhat of a Ponzi scheme. Public debt, actually, has always had a Ponzi-like characteristic."


    It's a pretty good read. The first few paragraphs make him sound like he's as fed up with Washington as Tea Partiers.

  5. Professor, I wrangled with this *objective* group for over 2 months about Obama's campaign promise against Signing Statements. Even though I provided video evidence of his promise, and video evidence of his broken promise, they still rated it as a Compromise. So, anyone that uses them as the end all to truth telling probably uses Wikipedia as a reference tool.