Saturday, May 02, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Bachmann on swine flu: fact check or editorial sneer?

Ordinarily I can leap to the defense of journalists over the charge of political bias. But Bill Adair Adair makes that difficult with his recent PolitiFact story on Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R, MN). The PolitiFact entry checked a fact that did not particularly need checking and used it as a justification for a generalized attack on Bachmann.

Compounding the problem, Adair provided no evidence that he used due diligence in checking the facts and ends up giving a misleading impression about the statement at issue.

Fact-checking the fact checkers

The issue

Bachmann appeared on an Internet program, the PJTV Daily show, with host Allen Barton. While on the topic of swine flu, Bachmann made the following statement:
I find it interesting it was back in the 1970s that the swine flu broke out then under another Democrat president, Jimmy Carter, and I'm not blaming this on President Obama, I just think it's an interesting coincidence.
(PJTV; the quotation occurs at about the 12 minute mark)

The fact checkers

Bill Adair: writer, researcher

Scott Montgomery: editor


Adair's piece oozes with opinion. The contrast between the objective reporting paradigm and Adair's editorial is immediately apparent:
Michele Bachmann, a Republican member of Congress from Minnesota, is known for her controversial remarks. During the fall of 2008, she nearly lost her re-election campaign because she said Barack Obama "may have anti-American views." In a 2009 radio interview, she said incorrectly that six Muslim clerics who were removed from a US Airways flight in 2006 were attending a "victory celebration" for Keith Ellison, a Muslim who was elected to Congress.
Do we need any of this background in order to check the facts on when the swine flu broke out? Of course not. And Adair does not mention Barack Obama's long-time membership at a church from which anti-American sermons were preached with apparent regularity, nor the fact that the six Muslim clerics had been in attendance at an event where Ellison was a featured speaker. Those types of facts might detract from the attack on Bachmann.
So we weren't exactly surprised when we heard her suggest a link between Democratic presidents and the swine flu.
Is Adair's degree of surprise relevant in terms of objectively checking facts? Of course not. It serves as an admission that he checked this set of facts with an existing bias, however.

Adair spends a few paragraphs covering swine flu history such as the 1970s outbreak (starting under President Ford, not Carter) and a fatal case from the 1980s before sweeping to his conclusion:
So Bachmann is wrong about a Democrat being in charge during the 1976 outbreak and she fails to note the swine flu death in 1988. Hmmm. Two swine flu incidents during Republican administrations. By Bachmann's logic, we should find that "interesting."
Yes, Bachmann was wrong about a Democrat being president when the 1970s flu outbreak occurred. And she did not mention the swine flu death in 1988. While that is enough to keep Adair from receiving a flunking grade, the snideness of the latter sentence figures prominently in determining his final grade.

What is this about "Bachmann's logic"? Does a person need logic to find a coincidence interesting, setting aside for the moment the fact that there was no coincidence in the first place? I find antique toasters interesting, but even if I say I find them interesting it does not necessariliy follow that I want others to also find them interesting. A statement of personal interest is not the same as a prescriptive statement. Adair apparently sees the latter, without any evident regard for the principle of favorable interpretation. On the contrary, Adair goes on to turn that principle on its head:
But we don't (find it interesting). It's ridiculous for her to suggest a partisan link with a deadly disease. That's not just a mistake, that's absurdly false. So we'll get out the lighter (after we wash our hands!) and set the Truth-O-Meter ablaze. This one's a Pants on Fire.
Note carefully what Adair does with the above. He found Bachmann's statement appropriately false as to the facts, and then without bothering to make any case for it, whips out Bachmann's grade apparently based on what he sees as Bachmann's underlying argument: that the swine flu coincidence has some basis in partisan politics.

Is his judgment fair, supposing that we forgive his neglect in making a case for his conclusion?

I don't think it can pass as a fair judgment, for the simple reason that Bachmann in the immediate context disavowed placing any blame on President Obama. Adair would have to dismiss what she said in favor of what he supposes her to mean. Adair's missing argument has one thing in its favor, that being the relatively stupid nature of Bachmann's statement even if she happened to be correct. It really isn't interesting if a Democrat was in the White House for two different outbreaks of a similar strain of flu unless there is a partisan tie-in. But that does not grant license for a would-be objective reporter to assume that intent to the contrary of the clear statement of the speaker.

The grades

Bill Adair: D+
Scott Montgomery: D+

Final note

To my knowledge, PolitiFact makes no explicit statement of commitment to traditional "objective" journalism. I have no problem with others doing journalism with a bias, just so long as those reports are not presented as though they are objective. It is not enough, however, for PolitiFact to let its bias in practice announce its lack of objectivity. The tradition of objectivity, strained as it has been for no less than the past 30 years, continues to color public perception of the mainstream press.

If the news outlet is not trying to achieve objectivity then let it state so plainly. I'd suggest "fair and balanced" only that one is already surely copyrighted.

May 4, 2009: Added a missing "n" in Bachmann's name in the midst of a quotation

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please remain on topic and keep coarse language to an absolute minimum. Comments in a language other than English will be assumed off topic.