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Saturday, March 12, 2011

PolitiFact Has A Serious Problem, But I Repeat Myself

I have written about PolitiFact before, includine the clear bias shown by The Providence Journal in its application of ratings during the campaign by former Democratic Mayor David Cicilline against Republican John Loughlin in my home RI-01 District. I also have noted an analysis of PolitiFact bias against conservatives.

Two recent examples demonstrate that PolitiFact as a brand has serious problems.

The first example is a PolitiFact evaluation of the following statement by Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican leader of the Wisconsin Senate:
On the night of the Wisconsin state Senate vote on the budget package, "a mob showed up and busted down the door and took over the Capitol."
Here is a video showing what happened that night, do you think Fitzgerald's statement was in any way false?



The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, however, rated the statement only half-true even though its evaluation demonstrated that the statement was true.  Here is its conclusion (emphasis mine):

Fitzgerald’s declared a mob busted its way into the Capitol and took over the building. Yes, a large, angry crowd formed and some forced their way past police officers who fell back rather than try to prevent more from entering. The crowd did not literally bust down doors, but some damage was caused to the building. While they defied orders and delayed action the following day, they never controlled the situation.

So, the thrust of Fitzgerald’s statement is correct, but the rhetoric overstates some of what actually happened. Indeed, some of the fallout was a result not just of the policy changes in the bill -- which have prompted weeks of protests -- but the procedure in how it was brought up for a vote. The short notice helped fuel the response and may have left authorities unprepared for it.

The definition for Half True is "The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context."
That’s our rating.
Notice how PolitiFact took a correct statement by Fitzgerald, but then added in a political factor, what caused the mob to act as it did, to find the statement only half-true.  The statement by Fitzgerald had nothing to do with policy, it was a simple statement of what happened that night, so PolitiFact injected an irrelevant factor to find the statement only half-true .  PolitiFact did not even "mostly true" rating, which is defined as "The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information."

The second example is by The Providence Journal which found "pants on fire" ("The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim") for the following statement by Kenneth McKay, who is running for Chairman of the Rhode Island Republican Party:
[McKay] Says Sheldon Whitehouse said on Senate floor: "Everybody in Rhode Island who disagrees with me about Obamacare is an Aryan, is a white supremacist."
The statement concerned Whitehouse's infamous speech on the floor of the Senate, in which he compared health care protests to Kristallnacht and those who opposed Obama to racists:





Despite the wide-ranging attack by Whitehouse on those who opposed Obamacare, PolitiFact chose to engage in word games to get the rating it wanted, by focusing on McKay's words "everybody" and "in Rhode Island":

First, Whitehouse was excoriating Republican senators, not Rhode Islanders. In fact, he said nothing about Rhode Island in the entire speech.

Second, despite his strident language, nowhere in the speech did he come close to saying that everyone who disagreed with the health care plan is an Aryan or a white supremacist.
He accused his Republican colleagues of engaging in a campaign of obstruction and delay "affecting every single aspect of the Senate’s business.’

He said they engaged in a "campaign of falsehoods: about death panels, and cuts to Medicare benefits, and benefits for illegal aliens and bureaucrats to be parachuted in between you and your doctor."

And he accused the GOP senators of voting against funding for soldiers, as another tactic to stall the health care vote.

But in the paragraph McKay cites, it’s clear that Whitehouse was criticizing fringe groups who are "nearly hysterical at the very election of President Barack Obama" not just opponents of the president’s health care plan.

In suggesting that Whitehouse labeled all opponents of the health care plan Aryans and white supremacists, McKay seriously distorted the senator’s speech. His further suggestion that, by extension, Whitehouse was applying the label to Rhode Islanders who disagreed with the president, is even more of a distortion.

Pants on Fire.
Listen to the videos above.  Whitehouse was not just attacking Senators.  It may have been hyperbole for McKay to say "everyone" was attacked, but not much of a hyperbole.  Additionally, while Whitehouse did not mention Rhode Islanders by name, he also did not excuse Rhode Islanders from his smear of health care protesters.  Any of the ratings from half-true to mostly true to true would have been in order.  For the ProJo to find "pants on fire" itself deserves a "pants on fire" rating.

PolitiFact, you have a problem.

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6 comments:

  1. The real problem here is that Politifact is still working with the mainstream media stream-of-soundbites model of reporting.

    Politifact does analysis. We can disagree with the analysis, but they at least take a defensible position.

    The problem occurs when their position is reduced to "true" or "half true" or "pants on fire." This reduces all the nuance of the analysis to a rating.

    (This is a bit like the DHS taking all those intelligence reports and reducing them to a color-coded chart, only at least they actually had a reason for doing it.)

    That rating is ready made to become a soundbite, in fact, the reason they have such ratings is because they know that's what will get picked up by journalists. An organization of that type depends on being regarded as a source by the press.

    This is part of a structural problem in the mainstream press: you just can't cram reasoned analysis through soundbites without losing it all. Even newspapers have this problem simply because the part of the story that actually gets read is the first paragraph or two, so they're heavily reliant on soundbites.

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  2. PolitiFact is perfectly neutral - from the liberal perspective. They can't recognize their own bias because they don't know anyone that disagrees with their analysis.

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  3. Speaking Power to Truth! You lefties always get it backasswards.

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  4. The biggest fault I have with them and the bias is what they refuse to question. The statement "The unions have agreed to concessions." in Wisconsin is pant on fire, but they refuse to even review that question even as thousands of emails to them have asked them to.

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  5. Heh. "PolitiFact, the Pauline Kael of fact-checking sites!"

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  6. I thought liberals were against 'blaming the victim' but I guess republicans never get the benefit of that ethic. Or to put it in the liberal mindset, nothing you could do against republicans is unjustified or evil, but anything you do against democrats or socialists is always evil and unjustified. So when republicans try to justify their behavior or to defend themselves, the libmedia can never support the repubs' defense, or will excuse as much as possible the vile acts of democrats and their supporters, all the while saying the repubs are uncivil for defending themselves from those idealistic non partisan protesters.

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