Thursday, December 31, 2009

PolitiFact 2009: a review

After critiquing a few PolitiFact findings back in 2008, I summed up the problems I saw with the new fact-check kid on the block.  With over 60 individual items graded since then, I have much more to draw from in assessing the PolitiFact animal.

I may have given as many as three passing grades thus far.  Why is my grading so harsh?  The easy answer is that PolitiFact deserves harsh grading.  But I am not content offering the easy answer because I continue to believe that journalists tend to do their work sincerely and that failings of objectivity almost never arise as a planned feature of news reporting.

That still leaves me looking rather harsh for grading these sincere truth-excavators with strings of "F" grades.  I grade harshly because of my respect for objective reporting.  It is serious enough when literature bears the implicit label of "objective reporting."  Putting opinion under that objective label is a form of lying.  And producing literature with the label "fact-check" while under that objective label at least doubles the responsibility to get the reporting right.  For any given week, chances are I can find an egregious failing in a PolitiFact fact-check claim.

Since my previous general assessment of PolitiFact, written back in 2008, one distinct improvement seems to have occurred.  PolitiFact no longer lists the left-leaning fact-check site Media Matters on its list of sources.  Though I can imagine ways that Media Matters could be used without sacrificing objectivity, the vast majority of fact-checks should not require any material at all from that source.  Good riddance.

What problems linger?

PolitiFact's insistence on using the "Truth-O-Meter" graphic often traps the operation into unnecessarily interjecting opinion into its fact checking.  The best example occurs when PolitiFact fails to collect enough information to establish a definitive rating but proceeds to produce a rating anyway.  Media Matters appropriately called out PolitiFact on one such example involving Nancy Pelosi.  When readers view the totals by individual or organization the ratings all look the same in terms of weight.

Individual entries often fail to properly offer a statement the benefit of doubt.  For example, PolitiFact tends to take hyperbole literally, displays a tin ear when confronted with humor, and fails to undertake due diligence in otherwise respecting the context of various statements.  PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" for 2009 exemplifies this, as Sarah Palin's statement about Obama's "death panel" was taken literally and every effort was made to shoehorn the reference in with reference to specific provisions in the proposed health care legislation.  These matters of interpretation allow the latent political bias in the newsroom to manifest itself.  Writers and editors naturally exhibit sympathy for things they find agreeable, and correspondingly offer less sympathy for things they find disagreeable.  The best journalists largely check their sympathies at the door, but newsrooms trend so markedly left that the workplace climate serves as a sort of "echo chamber."  Drive past the Fenholloway River near Perry, Fla. and the visitor will smell the wood pulp.  The locals won't notice it.

I mentioned above the tendency to include opinion under the banner of objective journalism.  PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" story again provides a clear example.  When PolitiFact published a piece soliciting reader votes, it was freely admitted that the candidates for the title were picked by the editors (a write-in feature was apparently botched).  But even something that obvious failed to warrant the alternate labeling expected in the American news paradigm, "opinion" or at least "news analysis."

Sometimes PolitiFact just makes unaccountable mistakes.  A recent favorite came from a PolitiFact rating of Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal.  Jindal said that the New Orleans Saints would set a national record if they went undefeated for the season and won the Super Bowl and called that feat "unprecedented."  PolitiFact rightly pointed out that the Miami Dolphins went undefeated in 1972 and won the Super Bowl.  But the story omitted all mention of the fact that the Dolphins accomplished the feat during the era when the regular season consisted of 14 games.  One simply cannot omit that information on that particular fact check and call it fair.

Most perniciously, PolitiFact apparently continues to let its readership have a hand in story selection.  The more skewed the coverage, the less likely the offended group will bother with PolitiFact.  Thus any story selection bias coming from readers (minus some sort of organized effort by the minority) will tend to reinforce and perpetuate story selection bias.



The issue of bias

Is PolitiFact biased?

Yes, of course PolitiFact is biased.  But probably not the way people expect.

The writers and editors almost certainly do not have plotting sessions during which they plan ways to favor liberal causes and persons.  The bias comes from the fact that journalists tend to lean left (though most label themselves as "moderates").

The dominance of liberal thinking in the newsroom manifests itself when the newsroom determines which stories to cover.  Stories reinforcing liberal politics will have an edge.

In like manner, the writing process will tend to forgive liberal legends more often than those distinctive of conservative origin.

The end product is flawed because it was produced by humans, and likely flawed with a tendency to favor the left.

PolitiFact's year-end stories helped provide evidence of its bias.  One story highlighted the ten most popular PolitiFact stories as measured by page loads.  All of the top ten stories were critical of conservatives or conservatism.  Those numbers indicate that PolitiFact readers very probably skew to the ideological left.  So let those readers influence story selection?  Great idea!

Other than selection bias, what can possibly explain the fact that Nancy "Loose Cannon" Pelosi, she of the highest rank in the House of Representatives, managed to have just four statements rated for all of 2009?  House Minority Leader John Boehner, for comparison, had 13 statements rated in 2009.  Likewise in the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid had just one statement subjected to PolitiFact's scrutiny.  His Republican counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell, was judged on six occasions.  You do the math.


Conclusion

PolitiFact continues to fall far short of its promise.  The idea is good.  The reporters are reasonably talented.  But the whole operation repeatedly fails to meet the basic standards for objective fact checking.

Best wishes from the port side?

I trust this type of response is not typical of the political left.  But I see this sort of thing far too often.



Mary Caruso made her comment over at PolitiFact's FaceBook page, in the discussion under a PolitiFact piece on its top 10 pundit stories.

It would not surprise me if the PolitiFact folks delete that particular post.

I'd support the move.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In the Know: underwear bombs

Many radio listeners know about underwear bombs.  The type of bomb, that is, that was used in a botched terrorist attack on Christmas day.

ABC News even had a photograph.

So what do readers of the St. Petersburg Times know about underwear bombs as of today?

Putting "underwear" and "bomb" together in the search window at the Times' online Web site drew a page and a half of hits, but nothing about the recent attack.

A second search using "Flight 253" and "bomb" produced a pair of hits:


Click the image to enlarge.

The first hit was apparently a set of blurbs on the main page.  No relevant information was available on the page by the time I checked.

The second hit was fresh, dated Dec. 30.  The story goes into the background of the would-be bomber, and only near the tail end of the story (inverted pyramid, anyone?) do we get a small set of curious details.

Why curious?  Read for yourself:
Detroit: About noon Friday, officials say, Abdulmutallab tried to ignite an incendiary powder mixture he had taped to his leg as Flight 253 made its final approach to Detroit. He is being held at the federal prison in Milan, Mich.
For all we know, Abdulmutallab really did try to ignite an incendiary power mixture that had been taped to his leg.  If other reports prove reliable, then he apparently succeeded in igniting something.  Perhaps the "incendiary powder" was supposed to ignite his explosive underwear in turn.

We know from the opening paragraph that Abdulmutallab was charged with trying to bomb the airliner.  But the story leaves unclear the fact that he may well have had the means to accomplish his task save for a malfunction.  Incendiary powder does not sound particularly threatening.  Unless one takes the additional step of calling it a bomb.  Firecrackers are filled with incendiary powder.  But a firecracker set off in the cabin of a jetliner probably would not cause it to crash.

Almost a week after the incident and this is the type of detail we get?

I was able to locate one other well of information in the Times, courtesy of a story borrowed from the New York Times.

The latter newspaper took a relatively hard critical line, using the title "Questions on Why Suspect Wasn't Stopped."


The St. Petersburg Times was kinder and gentler:  "Airline security takes renewed urgency."  And if that renewed urgency includes some lax application of procedures as part of an effort to confuse potential purveyors of man-made disasters, no doubt it's all good.

In the know, baby.


Dec. 31, 2009:  Added a paragraph explaining the image of two search results.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Spotty application of airport security policies will confuse the enemy

Yes, the inconsistency noted in the follow-up to the jockeybomber incident has prompted at least one security expert (?) to surmise that applying certain rules according to discretion would assist security efforts by confusing would-be agents of man-made disasters.  Those were the disasters formerly known as terrorism.
The Transportation Security Administration did little to explain the rules. And that inconsistency might well have been deliberate: What's confusing to passengers is also confusing to potential terrorists.

"It keeps them guessing," transportation expert Joseph Schwieterman said.
I don't quite buy it. 

It seems to me that WBAMMDs (formerly known as terrorists) would simply look at what is and what isn't screened and act accordingly.  So long as discretion fails to include the most obvious tip-offs of likely terrorist activity (Arabic background and Islamic religious affiliation), discretion will primarily amount to planned carelessness.

Checking shoes on occasion tells WBAMMBs that shoe bombs have a chance of making it through security.  Likewise other potential security checks.

This discretion thing sounds like a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Coming soon: "Abdullah's Secret" underwear catalogs

If it hasn't happened already, we're sure to encounter a spoof of the explosive jihad underwear concept tied to the popularity of underwear catalogs.  I'd imagine that live modeling is out, however, for obvious reasons.

"Our patented method keeps volatile liquids from mixing before the right moment.  And with our silk mesh design, going to meet your 100 virgins never felt better!"

Monday, December 28, 2009

Was PolitiFact's Pulitzer deserved? Pt. 3

The third of 13 items offered to the Pulitzer Prize folks concerned presidential candidate Hillary Clinton's qualifying experiences, in particular her engagement with United States foreign policy while her husband, President Bill Clinton, was in office.

I found myself inclined to trust the PolitiFact account, and I suspect that the same attitude occurs routinely among Pulitzer jurors when they consider prize submissions.

The piece had a number of positive features.  It presented information about Hillary Clinton's experiences.  It offered a few quotations from foreign dignitaries.  It offered quotations from a few experts.  The feature was nicely organized.

Reading through most of the material, nothing in particular screamed for more attention.  But I did detect a whisper, at least.

The whisper came from Dick Morris' comments.  Morris, of course, served as a close adviser to Mr. Clinton, and has written both critically and respectfully of Mrs. Clinton.  PolitiFact used a portion of an op-ed authored by Morris in its fact checking:
Clinton critics like Dick Morris, a onetime political adviser to President Bill Clinton, ridiculed her foreign agenda as little more than ceremonial fluff.

“During her international travels, there was no serious diplomacy, just a virtually endless round of meetings with women, visiting arts-and-crafts centers, watching native industries and photo opportunities for the local media,” Morris wrote recently.

The White House schedules certainly show lots of that, but what emerges from a careful review is a truth that lies somewhere in between the characterizations by the competing camps. There were more weighty activities than Clinton’s critics like to believe; but little indication that the first lady played any kind of pivotal foreign policy role.
The second quoted paragraph seemed capable of some nuance.  What is "serious diplomacy" other than what Morris views as important?

The main body of the PolitiFact story stayed clear of any serious error.  The statements of competing camps were presented along with enough events from Clinton's career to offer a fuller picture.  But the sidebar went a bit further:



Though the body of the piece seems to bear out Morris, leading from his "no serious diplomacy" remark to the PolitiFact "little indication that the first lady played any kind of pivotal foreign policy role," the sidebar appears to call Morris' judgment "False" without qualification.  That judgment appears to hinge on the contradiction between Morris' judgment that Clinton's meetings were not "serious" diplomacy compared to the PolitiFact judgment that Clinton's meetings with world leaders were "serious."

By grading Morris' statement "False," PolitiFact arguably slipped well over the line into opinion journalism while competing for an award given to journalism exhibiting the "highest standards" in the category of "national reporting."

Though the bulk of the story might have served to justify awarding a Pulitzer, I judge that the inclusion of editorial opinion ought to have kept this example from counting particularly in favor of the PolitiFact evaluation of Clinton.  I rate it a six on a 0-10 scale, counting neither for nor against.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Reason.com: "Obama's Latest Health Care Lie"

I wonder if PolitiFact will report on this one?
That would be in remarks the president made yesterday:
The Congressional Budget Office now reports that this bill will reduce our deficit by $132 billion over the first decade, and by as much as $1.3 trillion in the decade after that.  So I just want to be clear, for all those who are continually carping about how this is somehow a big spending government bill, this cuts our deficit by $132 billion the first 10 years, and by over a trillion in the second.  That argument that opponents are making against this bill does not hold water.
There are actually multiple lies and deceptions in this paragraph, beginning with the verb "reports" to describe what the Congressional Budget Office does.
Read the whole of it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

PolitiFact can't handle the truth

Editor Bill Adair wrote a year-end summary about PolitiFact's fact checking efforts for 2008.

The piece deserves its own fact check.
The Truth-O-Meter went red in 2009.

We mention red because that’s the meter’s color for our lowest ratings, False and Pants on Fire. Of the 432 fact-checking items we published this year, 26 percent were rated False and 10 percent earned a Pants on Fire.

That means more than one-third of all the claims we checked were incorrect.
Gotta love the confidence.

Plenty of evidence exists to show that PolitiFact errs in its ratings.  Even when much of the research is on target, the assignation of a "Truth-O-Meter" rating often might as well be random.  Thus, it does not follow that "more than one third of all the claims (PolitiFact) checked were incorrect."  It follows that PolitiFact graded as incorrect more than one-third of all the claims it checked.
Another way to look at it: The truth took a beating in 2009.

That was particularly true in the debate over health care, where nearly 40 percent of claims were rated False or Pants on Fire.
The truth particularly took a beating because an outfit posing as an objective and unbiased source started putting the fact-checking label on ordinary flawed opinion/news analysis journalism.
And if you’re relying on pundits or talk show hosts for your facts, you might want to reconsider. More than 45 percent of their claims were False or Pants on Fire.
If Adair was one of those pundits--especially a conservative pundit--he could expect PolitiFact to count his statement either "False" or "Pants on Fire" because PolitiFact only graded a very select few statements from pundits.  It is absurd to state that "More than 45 percent of their claims were False or Pants on Fire."  Absurd claims rate the "Pants on Fire" rating, using PolitiFact guidelines.

Adair could of course argue that he was, if context was considered, merely saying that of the pundit claims rated by PolitiFact more than 45 percent received a "False" or "Pants on Fire" rating.  But if he were to receive that type of benefit of the doubt it would represent a special dispensation.
The social scientists on our staff (okay, there’s just one) discourage us from comparing this year’s ratings with last year, when we were focused on the presidential campaign. Our ratings are journalism, not social science, after all, and the items are chosen based on our news judgment and staffing, not randomly selected.
We can be thankful for small favors.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

PolitiFact designates a "Lie of the Year"

Of all the falsehoods and distortions in the political discourse this year, one stood out from the rest.
"Death panels."

(...)

The editors of PolitiFact.com, the fact-checking Web site of the St. Petersburg Times, have chosen it as our inaugural "Lie of the Year."
Unfortunately, the PolitiFact editors persist in making no effort to distinguish editorial opinion and news analysis from objective reporting.  What could be less objective than designating a "Lie of the Year"?  Picking an official "Favorite Ice Cream of PolitiFact" might come close.

This effort by PolitiFact is rife with problems beyond the obvious failing of objectivity.



Friday, December 18, 2009

Grading PolitiFact:: Karl Rove and President Obama's approval rating

The issue:

Take careful note of the way PolitiFact potrays Karl Rove's statement:









The fact checkers:


Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor


Analysis:

Regular readers know by now that establishing the context of the claim in question stands as a chief priority:
Barack Obama has won a place in history with the worst ratings of any president at the end of his first year: 49% approve and 46% disapprove of his job performance in the latest USA Today/Gallup Poll.
Rove's statement, as noted in the story, came from an op-ed appearing in the Wall Street Journal.  The paragraph occurs at the start of his column, and sets the stage for Rove to analyze the reasons behind President Obama's historic slide.  Where PolitiFact paraphrases Rove to the effect that Obama's approval ratings are the worst, PolitiFact introduces an ambiguity later exploited by author Louis Jacobson.

We'll turn our attention now to Jacobson and his account of Rove's statement:
We'll begin by clarifying a few points.

First, we should note that Rove was guilty of rhetorical excess when he said that Obama's numbers are the worst of "any president" at this point. Gallup's historical data -- the longest-running of the major polling firms -- dates back to Harry Truman, who was the first president whose entire tenure was polled in a fashion that modern experts would consider scientific. So Rove should have argued that Obama's numbers were the worst of any post-World War II president at this point in his term.
Jacobson's first point is fair.  The distinction between a vice president elevated to the presidency by circumstances compared to elected presidents certainly affects any comparison such as the one Rove would undertake.  Charitable reading would encourage the interpreter to consider that point assumed in Rove's writing.  After all, it followed from the publication of a USA Today/Gallup poll that included that observation in specific terms:
In comparison to the approval ratings for modern elected presidents in December of their first year in office, Obama's standing is the worst, though he's close to Ronald Reagan.
Rove did not take the same care in explaining himself.  And though that should not be enough to significantly fault Rove in terms of normal communication, it is the sort of omission that PolitiFact often uses to justify a "Mostly True" rating.

Jacobson's next point:
Second, Rove misspoke when he referred to measuring Obama's ratings at the end of his first year. By definition, those numbers won't be available until late January. But in assessing his statement, we've sidestepped that problem by asking Gallup to provide us the approval ratings for December of the first year in office of the postwar presidents, so that the ratings for each can be compared more directly with the figures we have for Obama.
This objection is essentially like the first.  It is charitable to take as understood in Rove's writing what USA Today made more explicit in its presentation of the data.

Jacobson's third objection treads similar territory by noting that some presidents were not elected to office, such as Nixon's successor, President Ford.

I note with approval that PolitiFact, with some apparent encouragement from pollsters--elected not to count the above three objections against Rove.  That is in keeping with the practice of charitable interpretation, though I would have been OK with PolitiFact using its "Mostly True" rating based on the three objections.  I do fault PolitiFact slightly for using some prejudicial language, however.  Rove was "guilty of rhetorical excess" and "misspoke" with respect to the first two points.  Those terms offer a grudging version of interpretive charity.

Those observations out of the way, how does Jacobson evaluate Rove's claim?
Eisenhower, 69-22
Kennedy, 77-11
Nixon, 59-23
Carter, 57-27
Reagan, 49-41
George H.W. Bush, 71-20
Clinton, 53-39
George W. Bush, 86-11
Obama, 49-46

Compared to these predecessors, Obama's numbers are indeed the weakest -- but he's tied with Reagan in that unflattering achievement.
Note that Jacobson finds Obama "tied" with Reagan, whereas USA Today found Obama "worst" but close to Reagan.  The difference comes from the ambiguity I mentioned earlier.

There are at least two ways to understand "approval ratings."  One puts the focus squarely on the approval number.  The other considers both approval and disapproval numbers.  Jacobson used the former method, while USA Today/Gallup and Rove used the latter.

Obama only warrants a tie with Reagan if the disapproval number is thrown out.  Otherwise it serves as a definitive tiebreaker, and would fully justify Rove's statement with other considerations set aside.

PolitiFact's final assessment of Rove ("Mostly True") is fair  for the wrong reasons.


The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Greg Joyce:  F

I was so pleased with PolitiFact appearing to use a reasonable semblance of charitable interpretation that I wrestled with giving Jacobson and Joyce passing grades.  The PolitiFact effort in this instance has some very positive features, and it seems only fair to credit both men on that point.

But PolitiFact claims to be in the business of fact-checking.  And dropping the disapproval number for the sake of slipping Obama into a tie with Reagan so that Rove gets dropped to "Mostly True" cannot be accepted in fact-checking.

Where's my teleprompter?

The Politico weighed in on President Obama's tone for his big Copenhagen speech:

COPENHAGEN — A visibly angry Barack Obama threw down the gauntlet at China and other developing nations Friday, declaring that the time has come "not to talk but to act" on climate change.



If Obama was angry, perhaps it stemmed from the fact that he apparently had to speak without his teleprompter. Note the triangular pattern he used instead of the usual tennis-watching right/left bounce.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The Democrats' desperation on health care reform

Byron York found a Democratic strategist (who preferred not to be named) who may have found the perfect characterization of the Democratic strategy on the health care reform jam-down:
(H)e compared congressional Democrats with robbers who have passed the point of no return in deciding to hold up a bank. Whatever they do, they're guilty of something. "They're in the bank, they've got their guns out. They can run outside with no money, or they can stick it out, go through the gunfight, and get away with the money."
I feel like a bit of a criminal myself for extracting that gem from York's journalistic jewelry. So please read the whole excellent story.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Jets beat Bucs 26-3

My halftime post reflected poor recollection on my part.

The Bucs offense was completely pathetic against the New York Giants earlier this season.  I thought the particularly dismal performance had come against the Bills.  The Bucs produced that type of pathetic offensive performance against the Jets today.  But at least it wasn't a shutout like the Giants game.

I think Raheem Morris may have the raw materials to turn into a great coach.  But signs of ineptitude have plagued the Bucs since the firings of Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen.

The Bucs did, after all, get rid of the two key hires after Morris and new GM Mark Dominic.  Offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski was fired in preseason, and defensive coordinator Jim Bates was relieved of defensive play calling duties a few weeks ago.  In both cases, the new coordinator entirely scrapped the existing terminology in favor of a new system.  Whether that made a big difference for the offense, I do not know.  But the defense has performed much better since Raheem Morris took over defensive playcalling and went more to last year's style of play.

Morris is the hope for this team.  If he is the type of emerging star coach the front office believed he was, then the team can recover from its 2009 stumbles.  But the failed hires of Jagodzinski and Bates count at least partly against Morris.  He is the guy in charge.

As I have noted previously, Morris also has his wagon attached to Josh Freeman's career.  Freeman won me over with his first three starts.  I believed he was the real deal.

But the past two games have refreshed my doubts.

****

One note about the television coverage:  The announcers seemingly could not praise Darrelle Revis enough.  And Revis played a decent game, tackling and covering well while picking off a pass.  But come on, announcers.  On that first throw that Revis broke up, WR Antonio Bryant had a step on Revis, but Freeman just threw a bad ball.  Good coverage, yes.  But it could have been a big play for Bryant with a good throw.  The announcers were similarly giddy when Freeman threw a bad ball to WR Bryan Clark.  Likewise, the interception was a good catch by Revis, but the pass would not have been complete to Clark even if Revis had vanished from the field of play at the moment Freeman released the pass.

I suppose that praising one of a team's top players is expected of a broadcast team.  They went overboard on the pass coverage aspect with regard to Revis.  But I give the Jets highest marks for their team tackling.  The announcers were not just correct to highlight that aspect of the game.  It would have been criminal to ignore it.

Jets @ Tampa halftime report

I predicted that the Bucs would win this game.

So far, the Bucs look terrible.  The offense has not earned a first down, and QB Josh Freeman is not playing well at all.  The running game has been shut down by the Jets, but it looks like Freeman has open receivers.  He just isn't hitting them.  It reminds me of the offensive offensive performance against the Buffalo Bills.  Yuck.

The defense has played a pretty decent game, but it is not a winning formula to only let the defense rest during a three-and-out for the offense.

Hoystory skewers absurd PolitiFact rating

I don't have time to evaluate every PolitiFact entry. There just isn't enough time in the week. I took some time to look over blog commentary about PolitiFact. As expected, most of the comments simply report a rating of interest to the blogger. However, a few more bloggers than I expected have started writing response pieces.

I ran across a particularly good one from Matthew Hoy of the blog "Hoystory."

Hoy objected to PolitiFact's treatment of Mike Pence. Pence had stated that the president's proposal to use TARP money for various things other than debt reduction was illegal. PolitiFact ruled Pence "Half True."

Here's the meat of Hoy's take, but I recommend reading the entirety:
As I’ve enjoyed doing before, let’s do a little reductio ad absurdum on this.

This example is inspired by Sen. Harry Reid.

Statement: It’s illegal to have slaves in the United States.

Politifact analysis: Half true. Congress could pass a constitutional amendment repealing the 13th through 15th amendments and 3/4 of the state legislatures could ratify it and then you could buy slaves again – probably at a warehouse store.

To say any true statement is “half true” because Congress may, at some point in the future, pass a law making the true statement false is the most absurd and tortured “analysis” that the self-appointed fact-checkers at Politifact have yet come up with – and that’s saying something.
Nice reductio, Mr. Hoy!

Note to self:  No need to evaluate that one.  The job's been done.

Inevitable: PolitiFact stats "prove" that Republicans lie more than Democrats

I've predicted that PolitiFact's presentation would result in some logic-challenged folks drawing ridiculous conclusions.  Now, "wizkid12" at the Daily Kos makes that expectation a reality:
clipped from www.dailykos.com
Photobucket

blog it

"wizkid12" did include an important caveat, though he was rather late in supplying it:
Third, one could rightly raise the objection that this is not reflective of Democratic and Republican comments on the whole, but only reflects the claims and comments the St Petersburg Times chose to evaluate.  This is a valid point, and it makes me wonder how politfact decides which comments to evaluate.  But, on the whole, I get the impression that these are statements of some importance to the national discourse insofar as they have been reported in the media.  Still, it would be nice if they let us know how they decide which comments to fact-check.
You think?

I'll add one more caveat to wizkid's list:  Not only does PolitiFact not stick to politically important statements, it also regularly renders bogus judgments.

I can at least partially answer the question as to how PolitiFact chooses its subject matter:  It is a combination of editorial judgment and reader requests.  So, if liberal bias doesn't skew the choices enough, political activists can drive PolitiFact to the desired subjects via e-mail.

The third caveat wizkid noted should have been sufficient to pre-empt his post.  But I suppose the headline was too much to pass up:

Republicans Lie More Than Democrats - a Politifact-Based Analysis


Gotta love it.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: James Inhofe and the science of climate change

The issue:










The fact checkers:

Catharine Richert:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor


Analysis:

I admit it.  I do not trust the newspapers.  And that distrust spills over to fact check operations run by newspapers.  And when I see a key citation missing from a citation list, it immediately plays on that mistrust.

The missing citation?  The quotation of Sen. James Inhofe (R, Okla.) about which Catharine Richert was writing.

CNN had the transcript.  PolitiFact has little excuse.
Senator Inhofe, let me start with you because the EPA administrator Lisa Jackson today she said this in announcing the steps the Obama administration wants to advance.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LISA JACKSON, EPA ADMINISTRATOR: There is nothing in the hacked e-mails that undermines the science upon which this decision is based.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Is she right?

SEN. JAMES INHOFE (R), OKLAHOMA: Oh, no. She's not right. We had Lisa Jackson before my committee, oh, not more than a week, maybe a week and a half ago. She said that they relied upon the IPCC for the science that came to this decision to have the endangerment finding. And actually, I have a letter from her in writing saying that's where they get their science.

Now we see that that science has been pretty well debunked. And one thing interesting about this, Wolf, is that I remember a long time ago on your program -- four years ago -- I made a speech on the Senate floor where I talked about all these scientists coming in, talking about how they can't get their side on there and the science is all rigged.

And so I gave a speech on the floor that lasted about an hour on the floor and sure enough, what is happening today in this whole debate is just what we said was happening four years ago.
The PolitiFact deck reproduced above portrays Inhofe as saying that the e-mails undermine the science of "climate change" generally.
Richert provides an infinitely better account of Inhofe's statement:
Specifically, Inhofe was talking about data that the EPA used to form its decision. It came from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a scientific body that "reviews and assesses the most recent scientific, technical and socioeconomic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change." Thousands of scientists contribute data to the organization voluntarily, including scientists at CRU, the group whose e-mails were hacked.
Got that?  Data that contributed to the EPA decision came from CRU, the organization facing questions because of the e-mails.

Richert continues:
We've been following the complicated e-mail controversy for weeks, but there have been a number of issues that make fact-checking claims about the issue difficult. To start, the e-mails were obtained illegally, which raises questions about their validity.
If the Times and PolitiFact have been following the controversy for weeks, they sure kept it a secret for a good while, but Richert makes an admirable admission regarding the difficulty of fact-checking the issue.  The problems with the validity of the e-mails would seem like the least of the problems, since CRU staffers admitted very early on that at least the majority of the documents were the real McCoy.  I suppose it makes a handy excuse for a reluctance to publish, however.  I'll note that the Times has a stricter-than-average policy on publishing anonymous reports and the like, so allowing some leeway on this point seems reasonable.
Some e-mails simply demonstrate a professional rivalry between scientists, a phenomenon that's nothing new to the profession.
"(P)rofessional rivalry" seems like a euphemistic way to refer to efforts made to prevent dissenting scientists from getting their work published in peer-reviewed journals.  Richert ought to blush at the cover she is providing on this point.  Thomas Fuller sums up the problem:
I think that they had an informal conspiracy going to pump each others' careers up, peer review each others' papers, and slam any skeptics or lukewarmers who wandered within punching range--and later, after they realised how badly they had acted, they conspired to evade the Freedom of Information Act.
And back to Richert:
Scientists are disputing the meaning of some of the language in the e-mails.
Right.  Some scientists advocating global warming, including scientists implicated in the scandal, insist that performing a "trick" to "hide the decline" is an essentially scientific practice.
Mann said the "trick" Jones referred to was placing a chart of proxy temperature records, which ended in 1980, next to a line showing the temperature record collected by instruments from that time onward. "It's hardly anything you would call a trick," Mann said, adding that both charts were differentiated and clearly marked.   (The Washington Post)
 "Mann" is Michael E. Mann, an American climate researcher with whom Jones had friendly correspondence.

Despite Mann's protestations, it is difficult to imagine how the harmless trick of putting clearly marked data on a chart would effectively "hide" anything, and equally difficult to imagine why scientists would want to hide an impression from the data, other than for nefarious reasons.  In short, it's a tough sell.

But Richert offers another difficulty with the journalistic investigation:
Finally, CRU has announced that it is conducting its own investigation into whether data were tossed out or otherwise manipulated unethically; that investigation is not complete.
Ah, what a great comfort!  If I'm ever accused of something suspicious I'll have to remember to appeal for the opportunity to conduct my own investigation as to whether I did wrong.  And let that be the end of it after I'm ready to release my findings to Ms. Richert.

From this point in the story, Richert goes on to list some of the other scientific resources that supposedly support climate change science.  This focus of her story misses the point.

Sen. Inhofe was addressing Jackson's claim that there was nothing in the e-mails that undermined the science behind the EPA's policy proposals.  Those proposals are fixated on the effects caused by mankind such as carbon dioxide emissions, though I would anticipate that methane emissions will also receive attention.  Note the disconnect from the evidence Richert places on the "climate change" side of the ledger.  All of it concerns warming tendencies.  She offers nothing that directly concerns greenhouse gases.  That constitutes a hole in this story.

Despite her earlier fair accounting of what Inhofe said, Richert matches the misleading text from the deck as she moves to conclude:
So, to say that the CRU e-mails debunk the science supporting climate change leaves out the important point that CRU isn't the only organization looking at the issue. Indeed, there are reams of data that show temperatures are increasing and that greater concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are largely to blame. On this one, Inhofe is False.
In logical terms, Richert has committed a straw man fallacy.  She misrepresents what Inhofe said and proceeds to attack the position she invented for Inhofe.  Though she mentions "greater concentrations of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases" in her conclusion, that claim appears out of the blue and lacks any support whatever in the remainder of her text.


The grades:

Catharine Richert:  F
Greg Joyce:  F

Straw men ought to be strictly forbidden in fact checking.  And key claims such as that appearing in Richert's final paragraph ought to receive evidential support.


Afters:

I sympathize with the difficulty journalists experience in covering the climate change issue.  Not only does the science present an intellectual challenge, but the hacked e-mails badly fray the journalists' traditional safety net:  expert sources such as scientists and peer-reviewed journals.

I would hesitate to offer a grade on the issue Richert tried to cover.  Interpreted charitably, Jackson may have a reasonable claim to the effect that the EPA policies have solid support apart from the CRU data.  Likewise, Sen. Inhofe may have a reasonable claim in challenging a less charitable way of interpreting Jackson.  That is not to say that either one is necessarily correct even given the most charitable interpretation.

For what it's worth, I do count myself as a skeptic of anthropogenic global warming.  I do not find the current science convincing, and the protective attitude of global warming scientists/advocates toward their data sets doesn't help.

A fact check performed without the proper tools is hardly worth the time.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Vertigo in the left wing echo chamber

I had trouble believing that Richard L. Connor's guest column for Congressional Quarterly was not a parody.

Titled "Liberal Bias?  Show Me," the column purported to provide evidence that ought to give pause to those who assert the existence of a liberal media bias.  The column is amazing in its failure to perceive the obvious.

Connor cited the last Sunday's New York Times as the anecdotal antidote.
Wrote (Frank) Rich, "Obama's speech, for all its thoughtfulness and sporadic eloquence, was a failure at its central mission. On its own terms, as both policy and rhetoric, it didn't make the case for escalating our involvement in Afghanistan. It's doubtful that the president's words moved the needle of public opinion wildly in any direction for a country that has tuned out Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq alike while panicking about where the next job is coming from."
Connor disagreed with Rich in that the opinion of conservatives improved following Obama's speech.  But apparently it did not occur to him that Rich was manifesting a liberal bias by panning Obama for not having a liberal enough position on Afghanistan.  Rich is an opinion writer, of course, but come on, Mr. Connor.
Wrote a New York Times reporter: "The president conceded that there was 'a deep ambivalence about military action today,' which he said was rooted in 'a reflexive suspicion of America, the world's sole military superpower.' But he offered a forceful defense of the United States, saying that the lessons of history should ease those suspicions."
It will be hard for my conservative friends to twist those quotes.
Why should conservatives, even those who befriend Connor, want to twist the quotes?  I'm fine with leaving the quotations as they are, though I still struggle to figure out how quoting Obama accurately somehow absolves the Times of the charge of liberal bias.

Obama may sometimes take positions to the right of that favored by left-tilted reporters.  Obama's opinion does not mitigate media bias, however.  We simply expect the media bias to sometimes manifest itself through disapproval of such positions.  And we see a hint of that in the report, as it is said the president "conceded" the type of ambivalence about America that one might stereotypically expect of a liberal reporter.
Thomas L. Friedman weighed in lightly by acknowledging he believes Obama has made a mistake in Afghanistan but offering advice on what could happen to give us a chance of success there.
Perhaps if Obama had taken a position slightly to the left, Friedman would not need to be so hard on him.  No leftward bias there!
Maureen Dowd took a meat cleaver to the White House social secretary Desiree Rogers for believing she is somehow almost as important as the man who hired her, the president.
How dare Rogers place herself near the same level as the wonderful leftist president!

Though perhaps if Rogers had outspokenly taken political positions to the left of Obama's, the Times could afford to show some sympathy.
Dowd also criticized the administration for claiming Rogers cannot be subpoenaed to testify before Congress about her role in the Salahi debacle. There are those in Washington who do not believe this transgression is important but it was. It was a major security breech for those entrusted to guard the president.
And we must protect our leftist president, of course.  Even if he occasionally governs to the the left of what we prefer.

Connor appears not to get it at all.  It isn't that a liberal bias will silence any criticism of Democrats.  The bias is not that overt, and I judge that it is very rarely intentional.  The rose-colored glasses do not entirely alter the image.  They just make the blues, greens and yellows stand out a bit less.

What type of "realist" is President Obama?

I am ever amused/confused by the rhetoric surrounding President Obama's foreign policy.

I just ran across Abe Greenwald's piece about Obama's move to neo-conservatism, apparently reflected in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Obama recognized the potential necessity of using force to confront bad actors.

The recognition that the use of force is a necessary tool of diplomacy is traditionally called "realism."

Pundits such as E. J. Dionne know what they are talking about when they call Barack Obama a "realist."  But I often wondered if dovish Democrats knew what "realist" meant in terms of foreign policy when they extolled Obama's realism compared to President Bush's approach to foreign policy.  I suspected that they would have favored foreign policy liberalism.

So, does the average political liberal realize that if Obama is a foreign policy realist then he's closer to the traditional Republican position than to the one they probably favor?

It's hard to say, but I think I detect some of the confusion in a newspaper story appearing in the wake of Obama's speech:

Nobel Speech Places Obama Within Realist-Liberal Tradition

Uh, OK.

That's a bit like Obama's coin-flip tendencies falling within the heads-tails tradition. Or his footwear tendencies placing him within the shoes/no shoes tradition.

Neoconservatism, as a foreign policy approach, borrows elements from reallism and liberalism.  It is, as a result, within the realist-liberal tradition.  If Obama's foreign policy approach likewise borrows from both of the main recognized foreign policy approaches, we should try to note with interest how his approach truly differs from neoconservatism.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Bobby Jindal and a national record for the New Orleans Saints (Updated)

Do we really need to check politicians' conversational statements about football?


The issue:

"I'm predicting (the Saints) will go not only undefeated, but all the way through the Super Bowl -- something that's never been done before."
Bobby Jindal on Monday, December 7th, 2009 in a radio interview

Gov. Jindal predicts Saints will be first to go undefeated and win Super Bowl


The quotation of Gov. Jindal is accurate.  Nor was it taken out of context.



The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor



Analysis:

We may never solve the mystery as to why this statement was of issue to PolitiFact.  Second-guessing PolitiFact's judgment, on the other hand ...

We already have a sufficient account of Jindal's statement above, so we merely need to let writer Robert Farley explain himself:
Clearly, Jindal, who has been talked about as a presidential contender, has not seen the annual -- some would say obnoxious -- champagne celebration by some members of the 1972 Dolphins after the last undefeated NFL team falls. Led by coach Don Shula and quarterback Bob Griese, that Dolphins team laid claim to the first and only "perfect season," going 14-0 in the regular season and then going on to win the Super Bowl.
Farley's initial statement seems to reveal the PolitiFact judgment at the outset.  "Clearly" Jindal has not seen the 1972 Dolphins toasting other teams' initial loss of the season.

But is that really the case?

Farley thinks so, and after a few comments about the Dolphins he executes summary judgment:
But with the Saints still only 12-0 (they'd need to win four more regular season games and three playoff games to finish perfect), we think this smack talk from former Dolphins running back Mercury Morris, uttered when the New England Patriots made a run at a perfect season in 2007, is perhaps more appropriate: "Like I said, don't call me when you're in my town, call me when you're on my block and I see you next door moving your furniture in."

We're all for hometown boostering, especially from a guy like Gov. Jindal who said he suffered through the Saints' many bad years too, but we're all about the facts here, and he fumbled this one. We rate his statement False.
Poor fumbling presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal!  Is that why this issue is important to PolitiFact?

But let's do some quick math with Farley's numbers.

The Saints have 12 wins as it stands.  Farley says with four more they will finish the regular season undefeated.  That makes a total of 16.  The Saints would have a bye for the first round of the playoffs, but would still have to win three more in the playoffs to take home the Super Bowl title.  That would make a total of 19 wins.  Farley's story fails to mention it explicitly, but the Dolphins journey to the Super Bowl consisted of a 17-0 record, including an undefeated 14 game regular season.

No NFL team has gone undefeated through the regular season and the playoffs since the regular season expanded to 16 games.  Jindal certainly failed to make that clear in his statement.  However, since the difference in the season totals is spectacularly obvious to pro football fans, shouldn't one consider that Jindal was implicitly talking about that unprecedented feat?

Consider the reaction of a fan to the PolitiFact story, posted at the MSN/FOX Sports site:
clipped from msn.foxsports.com


Skinnerness



Report Abuse
Skinnerness
12/9/2009 8:26:03 PM
What a dou**e. What jyndal meant was that a perfect 19-0 season has yet to be reached. No offens to Dolphins fans but that team had less games to play....

blog it

I expect that reaction would typify the opinion of serious NFL fans, name-calling aside.

Farley's story gives the most reasonable explanation no apparent consideration.  That alone is sufficient to flunk the responsible staffers, even ignoring the grade they offered Jindal.



The grades:

Robert Farley:  F
Greg Joyce:  F



Update:

Snopes.com calls "the annual ... champagne celebration by some members of the 1972 Dolphins after the last undefeated NFL team falls" false.

Consider the "F" grades given to Farley and Joyce solidified.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Glenn Beck and the White House visits

Sometimes PolitiFact concerns itself with the literal truth of a statement.  Sometimes the focus falls on the underlying argument.  Sometimes both receive attention.  Perhaps a throw of the dice determines which happens.  Maybe it depends on whether the PolitiFact staffers like the person involved.

The issue:









The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor


Analysis:

The problems started as soon as I began going through Louis Jacobson's source list.  I take it as the first order of business to establish the context of a quotation.  Note that the deck claims that Beck made the statement on "his Fox News Channel show."  The source list mentions "television":

clipped from www.politifact.com
Glenn Beck, comments on his television show, Dec. 3, 2009

blog it

The link led to a transcript of Beck's radio program, part of Premier Radio Networks set of syndicated programming.

Jacobson was a bit sloppy, then, but we are after the context.   First, the quotation as presented by Jacobson:
"You've got to ask yourself what the hell happened to this country," Beck said. "If I would have told you instead that the most frequent visitor of the White House, over the secretary of state and everybody else, is a labor union president [Stern] who has repeatedly said workers of the world unite ... would you have believed it?"
And here is the version from Jacobson's listed source (red emphasis added):
That I'm going to be one of the ten most fascinating people in 2009, you've got to ask yourself what the hell happened to this country. If I would have told you instead that the most frequent visitor of the White House, over the Secretary of State and everybody else, is a labor union president who has repeatedly said workers of the world unite; and we know we've got a lot of illegal members, illegal aliens in our membership, and who chief guy said, yeah, but we also represent American workers, end quote, that he would be the most frequent visitor at the White House, would you have believed it?
Jacobson appears to have taken some liberties with the quotation, but I'll save that issue for dessert.

The quoted portion occurs in the midst of an extended list of stories from 2009.  The Web page used by Jacobson featured an explanatory sidebar:

clipped from www.glennbeck.com
Glenn came up with a list of things that if he told you a year ago, you would never believe they'd ever come to fruition. The list is staggering, but it's only a partial list because it's what Glenn, Stu and Pat came up with just chatting in the office this morning. Listen to the list Glenn produced and help add to it by sending us any glaring omissions using the form below...

blog it

That, then, is the context.  Reading only the PolitiFact account would not impart this information.

Beck had followed the White House visitor log story at least since his Fox News television program on Nov. 3.  Though I cannot currently reproduce it, I received the impression that the Nov. 3 television appearance embed appeared on the page with the transcript of the Dec. 3 radio program, perhaps as background information.

Jacobson:
We found the source of Beck's claim. When the White House released its first batch of visitor logs on Oct. 30, 2009, as part of a pledge to bring more transparency to the White House, Stern's name did indeed appear 22 times, more than anyone else listed, including Clinton, who was listed three times.
Beck had made clear at least by Nov. 3 the source of his claim.  But despite finding that Beck's statement was true for the White House's initial release of visitor log material, PolitiFact gave Beck a "False" rating on the Truth-O-Meter.  What gives?
Stern led the pack for the first data release, which covered visits from Jan. 20, 2009 to July 31, 2009. But he was surpassed by several other individuals in the second release, which updates the data through Aug. 31, 2009 (and which was made public more than a week before Beck aired his comment).
Jacobson goes on to discuss a number of ways in which new data have placed the initial release in a proper context.  For example, Secretary of State Clinton had made many more visits to the White House than were reflected in the log.  Jacobson makes some good points, but how would any subsequent information reasonably make Beck's statement worse than barely true, based as it was on a fair summary of the first log release?
So, while Beck did pass along a widely reported finding as he made his point about Stern, the data it was based on was incomplete and out of date by the time of his show, and ultimately the conclusion he drew was incorrect. We rate his statement False.
 Not exactly a detailed explanation, is it?

And there is a deeper problem with Jacobson's assessment, leading us back to the context of Beck's remarks.

Beck was summarizing a list of stories from the past year.  In that context, it was fair for Beck to ignore subsequent data on the White House logs.  The story on Oct. 30 was the story on Oct. 30, and Beck's list simply pointed to various stories to provide historical perspective on the "change" wrought by the Obama administration.  In that context, Beck cannot be reasonably rated worse than "Mostly True."  Yet PolitiFact rated him "False."

As it happens, Beck has made similar statements about Stern's visits in a variety of other contexts.  Perhaps one of those contexts would support the Truth-O-Meter rating given to Beck.  But not this one.


The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Greg Joyce:  F

The PolitiFact team did some good work providing context for the meaning of the White House visitor log data.  But flubbing the context of the Beck quotation forbids the granting of a passing grade.


*****


Dessert:

Time to toy with a couple of minor issues from the story.

I do not expect PolitiFact to provide an objective point of view for its fact checking.  But traditional journalistic standards ought to make the editors at least consider labeling their efforts to distinguish them from objective journalism.  Check out the first paragraph from Jacobson:
Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck recently found another rhetorical weapon to use against President Barack Obama: White House visitor logs.
That is not objective reporting.

Jacobson is establishing a narrative about Beck that provides a frame for the the subsequent story.  Beck, states the narrative, is a character who seeks rhetorical weapons "to use against President Barack Obama."  That is an editorial opinion, and it has no business in objective news reporting.  Period.

I pointed out in the main text above how Jacobson took liberties with his quotation of Beck.  I had hoped to access the audio to help distinguish between the transcript from Beck's site and the way Jacobson chose to present it.  Alas, it is protected through the fact that Beck charges for archived material.

Though some doubt remains, Beck's version ought to receive the benefit of the doubt because Jacobson cited Beck's site as his source.  In addition, Jacobson offered no rationale for applying "you've got to ask yourself what the hell happened to this country" to the Stern quotation instead of to Beck's appearance on the cover of Time.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Krugman crunches (and bakes) the numbers

Paul Krugman, Nobel laureate and NYT contributor, thinks cap and trade is really neat.  Part of his justification for saying so raised my eyebrows:
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that by 2050 the emissions limits in recent proposed legislation would reduce real G.D.P. by between 1 percent and 3.5 percent from what it would otherwise have been. If we split the difference, that says that emissions limits would slow the economy’s annual growth over the next 40 years by around one-twentieth of a percentage point — from 2.37 percent to 2.32 percent.
The problem is that the effects of cap and trade hit gradually.  Averaging the pain of the measure using years for which it assessed very little in taxes misleads the reader.  Note, for example, the summary of reduction targets for carbon emissions:
  • 3 percent cut by 2012
  • 17 percent cut by 2020
  • 42 percent cut by 2030
  • more than 80 percent cut by 2050
Most of the pain occurs in the second half of the total 40 years.  I have yet to locate a concise summary of the tax implications, but mostly likely those are also substantially backloaded.

Monday, December 07, 2009

"In the Know": Better late than never on "Climategate"

The St. Petersburg Times finally ended its relative silence on Climategate.  On Dec. 5, the Times published most of a good account appearing in The Washington Post.

Knowing that space considerations often affect how much of given story will appear in a newspaper, and being the busybody that I am, I located for readers the portion excluded from the version they would have read in the Times:
"We're simply not tracking where the heat is going," said Trenberth, who heads the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder.


The diversity of opinion on this topic, however, wasn't evident late last month, when a group of 26 climate researchers issued a report called "The Copenhagen Diagnosis," summarizing scientific advances since the last major U.N. climate report in 2007.

"Has global warming recently slowed down or paused?" the report said. "No."
Those three paragraphs occurred at the end of the original Post version.

In the know, baby.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

A thread on probabilistic causation

I think I have a workable model of libertarian free will, though I haven't made much progress on a planned graphic illustration.  I stumbled across a thread at "The Garden of Forking Paths" that focuses on one of the critical issues facing libertarian theories of free will.

The list of contributors is intimidating with respect to the number of letters per contributor.

For what it's worth, Fritz Warfield's response to the original post resonates for me.

In part:
"It's then a matter of pure chance whether or not that subsequent event occurs. If it does, then, in a plain sense, nothing causes it."
What does "pure chance" mean so that the first claim in the quote is true? And what is the "plain sense" in the second sentence of the quote?

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Was the PolitiFact Pulitzer deserved? Pt. 2 (Updated)

PolitiFact was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its election coverage in 2008, based on 13 submissions evaluated by a Pulitzer Prize jury.  With pt. 2 in this series I evaluate the second listed submission from PolitiFact.

The second PolitiFact story on the Pulitzer list was Robert Farley's "E-mail on Clinton twists the facts."  Farley did little to untwist the facts and may have added a few twists.

To begin with, Farley's approach lacked focus.  He took claims from a number of sources (a chain e-mail, Dick Morris, Carl Bernstein) and used a fresh set of claims to gainsay the first set--yet without demonstrating that the second set of claims held greater currency than the first set.  Why is journalist Carl Bernstein chopped liver compared to eyewitnesses who favor Clinton politically?  As a result, Farley ends up checking facts beyond those mentioned in the original e-mail and obscures their origin and reliability.

Though the Pulitzer Prize Web site features Farley's story in its entirety, it lacks additional relevant information that may be found at the story's source location.  That is, Farley's list of sources:
  • FrontPageMag.com, "Bill Crafts Hillary's Bio," by Dick Morris, Aug. 9, 2007
  • Snopes.com, Black Panthers, last updated Jan. 24, 2008
  • Living History, by Hillary Rodham Clinton, 2003
  • A Woman in Charge, by Carl Bernstein, 2007
  • Rewriting History, by Dick Morris and Eileen McGann, 2004
  • Interview with Paul Bass, a journalist and co-author of Murder in the Model City, Feb. 8, 2008
  • Interview with attorney David Rosen, a junior member of the defense team for Bobby Seale, Feb. 7, 2008
  • Interview with Mike Avery, a former staff lawyer for the ACLU who worked on the Black Panther case, Feb. 7, 2008
Which of these sources stands head and shoulders over the others in terms of authority?  I'd say none, though Snopes.com has a pretty good reputation.  The Snopes material does relatively little to help settle the conflicting claims of the other sources.  It seems that Farley simply found a version of events he liked (primarily based on a fresh set of interviews) and went with that version.  And perhaps Farley chose the best version of events.  But his story fails to deliver up the reasoning he used in making that determination.

Let's examine a portion of Farley's gospel account:
Here's the history.

In 1970, eight Black Panthers, including its national chairman Bobby Seale, were brought to trial in New Haven, Conn., on charges of murdering a fellow member, Alex Rackley, who was suspected of being a police informant. He was not a federal agent.
Apparently Rackley was an informant (see update, below).  But not for the police.  The Black Panthers operated across the United States and were monitored by the FBI.  I located a case from the early 1980s where the summary of events identified Rackley as a government informant:
In the late 1960's and early 1970's, the FBI had a continuing investigation of the Black Panther Party ("Panthers"), an organization which advocated violent revolution. In May, 1969 Alex Rackley, a government informer and Panther member, was found murdered. Fourteen members of the Panthers, including its national chairman, Bobby Seale, were arrested, charged and tried for the murder in New Haven, Connecticut.
(Williams v. Federal Bureau of Investigation)
I do not know whether status as an FBI informant fully justifies calling a person "a federal agent."  But it does seem to justify using the term in a looser sense.  Rackley seems to have represented the FBI as its eyes and ears within the Black Panther organization, at least until he was murdered.

Presenting Rackley merely as a Black Panther suspected of being an informant favors one side of the argument.  Presenting Rackley as a "federal agent" minus additional information favors the other side.  As is so often the case, the truth seems to rest in the middle ground.  Farley ended up on one side.

Farley handles biographical details like Clinton's courtroom attendance and Robert Treuhaft's Communist connections in similar manner, accepting contemporary witness accounts as true while downplaying information that appears to lend the offending e-mail at least a patina of truth.

Attorney Barbara Olson wrote about Hillary Clinton's collegiate career, including her involvement in the Black Panther trial.  The book was not among those referenced.


Verdict:  On a 0-10 scale where 10 represents the highest journalistic standards, I rate this one a five.


Update:

Paul Bass, author of "Murder in the Model City" and one of the sources interviewed by PolitiFact, sent a courteous e-mail challenging my trust in the court document identifying Alex Rackley as an FBI informant.  Bass made a good case:
Judge Winter wrote the decision you referenced. The decision at hand had nothing to do with whether Rackley was an informant. It had to do with whether Williams should get files about FBI monitoring of radical groups, especially concerning actions they took to protest the murder trial. That case involved no investigation by any court of the question of Rackley being an informant. It was irrelevant. Winter was merely writing a background paragraph summarizing the record.
Usually summaries such as the one provided by Winter involve agreed-to facts that directly concern the case.  As Bass pointed out, Williams v. the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not concerned with the facts surrounding Rackley's murder.  Therefore, Bass was very probably correct that the case carries no significant weight in determining whether Rackley was an informant.

Further, Bass concluded "I think PolitiFact was right."

I will not duplicate a common PolitiFact error in taking "Rackley was not an informant" as an absolute statement.  Not every statement that appears absolute is intended as one.  Bass concurred that Rackley could have been an informant--as could anyone.  The lack of evidence, including the lack of suitable foundation for the Black Panthers to suspect one of their own, justifies saying that Rackley was not an informant.

Though I maintain my criticism that PolitiFact produced relatively poor evidence for its conclusions, I revise my verdict upward to a six.  And I would not grade my blog post prior to the update as high as that.

In the Know: Climategate fallout

The St. Petersburg Times updated its reporting on the Climategate scandal this week.

The story again avoids the term "Climategate" and successfully avoids giving its readers much useful information about the scandal itself.

The St. Petersburg Times ran a portion of a story from The New York Times.

The former version consists of four paragraphs and no byline.  The gist of the scandal occurs in the third paragraph:
The e-mail exchanges among several U.S. and British scientists appear to reveal efforts to keep the work of skeptical scientists out of major journals and the possible hoarding and manipulation of data to overstate the case for human-caused climate change.
That one paragraph is just about all one would know about the scandal by reading the Times.

The Pittsburg Post-Gazette published a lengthier version of the same story under John M. Broder's byline.

So who's more "In the Know" in this case?

Obama on Afghanistan: first impressions

In terms of raw news, I was somewhat pleased with the president's commitment of additional troops to the war in Afghanistan.  But somewhat nervous about what political strings might be attached.

Leading up to President Obama's Tuesday speech, I had been struck by the tenor of news coverage.  I hear quite a bit of news on the radio via FOX and via Salem Radio Network news.  It seems to me that both, but particularly SRN, have presented the president's delay in terms of him exercising control and oversight of the military.  In other words, the president is a "take charge" kind of guy.  That presentation ramped up on Sunday and Monday, as the news reports talked about the president being poised to give his orders to the army.  That particular term, "orders," seems to have featured prominently in news coverage.  I do not recall any war decision from President Bush offered in those terms, either by the president or the press. 

I might as well test my recollection with a quick Google search ... which is inconclusive as I ponder what search terms would produce useful results. 

I finally went with "X issues orders to military leaders."  Zero Web results for Bush, but a smattering of hits for Obama.

Does the difference in phrasing stem from the White House, the press, or a combination of the two?  Both presidents said they were issuing orders with respect to troop increases.  One of the two had his statements translated that way in the press.

I did not hear Obama's speech straight through.  What I heard had him still implicitly assigning blame to Bush and distinguishing himself from his predecessor by emphasizing the degree of consideration he brought to the process and by noting that this commitment is not open-ended.
I have made it clear to the prime minister and Iraq's other leaders that America's commitment is not open-ended. If the Iraqi government does not follow through on its promises, it will lose the support of the American people. And it will lose the support of the Iraqi people.
 Oops.  Wrong speech.

I am not the first to note that Obama's speech contains a strategic paradox.  We cannot afford to let Afghanistan slip backward.  Nor can we afford an open-ended commitment to keeping Afghanistan from slipping backward.  By giving Gen. McChrystle three quarters of the requested troops and by setting a three year time frame for the counterinsurgency strategy, the president offered our enemies a roadmap to frustrating our efforts.  Make it more expensive than Obama projects, and claim the resulting victory.

Though the first year of Obama has left me a bit astounded by the degree to which he has abandoned bipartisan pretensions, I will hold out the hope that he offers the time frame primarily to motivate the government of Afghanistan.  If they flop at the critical moment, Obama will extend the commitment.

Stressing allies while offering hope to the enemy still seems wrongheaded to me, however.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Was the PolitiFact Pulitzer deserved? Pt. 1

As a long time critic of the PolitiFact fact checking operation, I was annoyed that PolitiFact was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for its 2008 reporting leading up to the election.

The Pulitzer committee supposedly awards prizes to examples of journalism reflecting the highest standards of journalism.  An inquiry regarding those standards ended up directing me to the definition of categories provided at the Pulitzer Web page.  Though it is not stated explicitly, it is implied that the high standards represent honesty, accuracy and fairness on top of more purely artistic and literary considerations.

It took months, but the Pulitzer site eventually identified the works for which PolitiFact received its Pulitzer Prize.  I have resolved to second-guess the Pulitzer jury by examining in turn each of the thirteen works that collectively earned the award.

The first such work from the list was a page from January 2008 featuring five "Truth-O-Meter" ratings for some of the major presidential hopefuls (three Democrats and five Republicans).

The page relies in turn on numerous sub-stories for its accuracy and fairness, and I am perfectly willing to operate under the assumption that PolitiFact writers and editors would never intentionally misinform their readers.  It is not practical to examine each contributing story in detail, and I doubt that the Pulitzer jury bothered with that in any case.

The page does represent one area of concern, however:
With the Florida primary three days away, we have collected five of our most revealing rulings for each of the major candidates.
The above statement from the comments introducing the individual rulings unavoidably constitutes an opinion.  Traditional "objective" journalism strongly discourages opinion except where it is labeled as such.  PolitiFact wantonly flirted with a journalistic taboo.

That opinion does lead to some potentially fruitful examinations of the individual claims.  Is it really highly significant that John Edwards pledged to use his presidential power to take away Congress' health care benefits when he has no such powers?  Edwards could either be mixed up about presidential powers or he could be making one of the easiest campaign pledges a presidential candidate could make.  Granted, the "Pants on Fire" grade Edwards received goes along with "ridiculous" claims under the PolitiFact system.  Edwards' claim certainly was ridiculous whether he misunderstood presidential powers or simply made a literally truthful yet empty pledge.

More seriously, the Pulitzer jury apparently overlooked a major flaw in the fairness of the reporting, one that was relatively obvious even without examining the underlying details:
The statement: "John Edwards never - has ever from the beginning of his political career has never taken PAC money or the money of Washington lobbyists. Ever."
Joe Trippi, senior campaign advisor to John Edwards, on Sept. 20, 2007, in a television interview
The ruling: Edwards accepted $14,900 from employees at lobbying firms through June 2007. Given the absolute ironclad statement, we rule it Half True.
Compare the forgiveness of Edwards' absolutism with the hard line taken on John McCain:
The statement: "I have never asked for nor received a single earmark or pork- barrel project for my state."
--John McCain, Jan. 6, 2008, in a debate in Manchester, N.H.
The ruling: We find three examples of McCain seeking pork-barrel projects for Arizona, which puts a few blemishes on an otherwise stellar record against pork.
Though it does not appear in the text of "the ruling," PolitiFact found McCain flatly "False" for having some dubious examples of pork spending on his record.

It certainly appears that PolitiFact gave Edwards an easier ride than McCain on this point of comparison.

Verdict:  Based on this story, the Pulitzer jury had reason to fault PolitiFact for its fairness.  On a scale of 0-10 with zero representing the greatest offense against journalistic standards, 10 representing the highest attainment of standards, and six representing a neutral grade with respect to Pulitzer worthiness, I give this entry a five.  It counts slightly against PolitiFact's worthiness for the 2008 prize, in other words.


*****

Hat tip:  I may not have taken special notice of PolitiFact's treatment of Edwards' statement were it not for the comments of Jeff Dyberg at PolitiFact's FaceBook site.