Fact-checking the fact checkers
The fact checkers:
Robert Farley: writer, researcher
Bill Adair: editor
As with other entries on Michele Bachmann, we receive an initial tip-off that objective journalism has been set aside:
Rep. Michele Bachmann sparked a new controversy recently when she declared she would provide the bare minimum to census takers because she was concerned about the Census Bureau's partnership with ACORN, a left-leaning group that has become a popular villain for Republicans.The spin from Farley tends to suggest that ACORN is apparently a "villain" for Republicans merely because it leans to the left. A more complete picture emerges if one is aware of ACORN's history in helping to pressure banks into providing high risk loans. Or the aforementioned connection to voter fraud investigations. Or the sharing of donor lists with the Obama campaign.
So the dim view of ACORN is mere partisanship. Farley helps make that clear by echoing ACORN's defense of its voter fraud problems:
(You remember ACORN: Formally known as the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now, it was lambasted in 2008 by many Republicans because its voter registration efforts included some fraudulent names such as Mickey Mouse. ACORN leaders said they discovered the fake names, notified authorities and fired some workers who cut corners. But Republican leaders still say it was a willful effort to manipulate the election to help the group's liberal agenda.)Poor ACORN! It is just a few bad apple employees who have caused those problems! Yet those wascally Wepublicans keep right on attacking them!
Farley does eventually get to the fact-checking phase. I'll skip past the portion of the Bachmann statement that PolitiFact addresses separately and narrow the focus to Farley's eventual subject. Farley quotes Bachmann, in part:
"Now ACORN has been named one of the national partners, which will be a recipient again of federal money," Bachmann said. "And they will be in charge of going door-to-door and collecting data from the American public."Farley takes the above as an unambiguous claim that ACORN will be paid to serve as a national partner. And while it is natural to take Bachmann's statement that way, the statement is slightly ambiguous. And it is probably true that committed ACORN workers will end up as census workers, so Bachmann would be correct in at least a loose sense that ACORN will benefit from federal dollars.
But let's hear Farley tell it:
ACORN is one of about 300 national partners. By using the number of local partners instead of the number of national partners, Farley is able to make ACORN look like one drop in an immense ocean. ACORN may at the same time be the most partisan group on the list, as well as possibly the one best able, in terms of numbers, to steer committed members toward employment with the Census Bureau. If Farley is aware of any of that then he apparently does not want his readers to know about it.
She is wildly wrong with her chraracterization of the Census Bureau's partnership program. Yes, the bureau does partner with organizations to help recruit workers. To date, it has 30,000 such partners.
ACORN is one.
Back to Farley:
Rather than being in administrative control of portions of the Census, then, ACORN could only have substantial numbers of its committed workers collecting Census data. While not overwhelmingly reassuring, that information serves as an appropriate antidote to the most natural interpretation of Bachmann's statement.
According to Census Bureau information provided to Congress on June 1, 2009, "ACORN and other partner organizations simply promote the availability of temporary census jobs, but have no role in the terms or conditions of employment beyond promotion of the availability of temporary jobs. Applicants that are hired by the Census Bureau to work on the 2010 Census are required to go through a background check that includes an FBI name check and fingerprint check so that felons are not hired to work on the 2010 Census."
Partners are also encouraged to donate testing space for the millions of people who will apply for the temporary census jobs. No payments are made for that. And lastly, partners are asked to promote full participation in the census among their members, through newsletters, e-mails, local meetings etc. Again, there's no payment for that.
To the extent Bachmann suggested that the partnership arrangement places ACORN in administrative control of data collection, yes she was apparently wrong. Again, that idea is the most natural interpretation of her words if not the most charitable. As for ACORN workers haing no better shot at employment than anyone else, it seems obvious that if ACORN is able to get more of its members to apply then ACORN may well have more influence on the Census than other national or regional partners.
So let's count the ways Bachmann is wrong:
ACORN will not be "in charge" of going door-to-door and collecting data from the American public, as Bachmann said. The U.S. Census will be in charge of that. Some of the 1.4 million people who get Census-taking jobs may learn about the job through ACORN. Workers who apply to the Census through ACORN have no better shot at the job than those who apply through any of the 30,000 other partners. That's it.
And despite Bachmann's claim, ACORN gets no money for signing on as a partner.Bachmann did not specifically say that ACORN received money for signing on as a partner, of course. Most natural interpretation of her words? Yes, I would say so. But if one thought of Bachmann as "artful," as PolitiFact sometimes describes President Obama, then perhaps one might tend toward a different interpretation.
Once again, she is making a scaremongering claim about ACORN with facts that are ridiculuusly (sic) wrong. So we have to set the meter on fire once again. She earns another Pants on Fire.Ridiculously wrong? It is not clear how PolitiFact draws the line between "wrong" and "ridiculously wrong" in this case.
Apparently the statement in this case is "ridiculously wrong" simply because it is not accurate. If a statement is "ridiculous" merely because somebody at PolitiFact chooses to subject it to ridicule, then the category appears to serve as a subjective judgment.
FALSE – The statement is not accurate.
PANTS ON FIRE – The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim.
Maybe they just wanted to give Bachmann that particular grade again?
Interpreted charitably, Bachmann could have rated a "Barely True." And it is difficult to see how PolitiFact objectively justifies using the "Pants on Fire" rating instead of merely "False" even taking Bachmann less than charitably.
Robert Farley: F
Bill Adair: F
Farley and Adair could have earned passing grades if the assessment of Bachmann had not stooped to spin on more than one occasion. A national partner obviously will have more influence on the Census than a local or regional partner.
This entry provides a timely opportunity to point out againt that PolitiFact's aggregate ratings for a given political figure are pretty much useless. Taking the case of Bachmann again, she has received attention from PolitiFact on five occasions. So one could look at those collected results and think, "Man, that Bachmann has a real problem telling the truth!"
But the individual ratings do not come from a scientific sample at all. They come from what PolitiFact staffers think is newsworthy, and that in turn likely gets influenced by liberal blogs or entities like JournoList.
Those who direct PolitiFact apparently haven't yet realized that by failing to admit how their collected ratings may be misapplied they end up hiding an important fact.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
It is worth pointing out that, during the radio segment that produced her two most recent PolitiFact entries, Bachmann did repeat her claim about ACORN's access to billions in federal stimulus money in a way that should count as misleading.
Not a good day on the radio for Bachmann, however poor the job done by PolitiFact at fact-checking.