I freely admit that my analysis of PolitiFact tends toward the latter type of bias. Sure, I'll defend candidate-for-president Barack Obama if PolitiFact grades him "False" simply for employing hyperbole. But ordinarily I will take the most interest in PolitiFact when it fumbles the truth on the issues I hold dear.
There it is, right there on the table. I have a political bias.
Chances are you'll never see any type of admission like that from PolitiFact. The mainstream press has a vested interest in hiding its political bias in favor of presenting itself as the dispassionate voice of truth and impartiality. And that, indeed, is how PolitiFact markets itself.
Under the surface, however, it is likely that PolitiFact writers read lefty blogs along with sites like the unabashedly liberal Media Matters for America. The analysis on this O'Reilly piece serves as an evidence of this category of journalistic bias.
Fact-checking the fact checkers
The fact checkers:
Angie Drobnic Holan: writer, researcher
Bill Adair: editor
First things first: What makes this story newsworthy for a political fact-check site? Even one which has declared for itself an expanded purpose?
PolitiFact admits to using reader feedback to guide it to topics of interest. That serves as great news if you're a liberal who regularly follows the work of an organization like Media Matters for America. Or News Hounds. Both published on this O'Reilly issue before PolitiFact. Both of these partisan sources claim that O'Reilly denied that he called Tiller "Tiller the Baby Killer" except where he reported that pro-life groups had given Tiller the name.
It makes sense to start with O'Reilly's column on Tiller's murder--the one referred to in the PolitiFact headline:
It took just minutes after the report of Tiller's murder for the far-left loons to hit the websites. Postings on the Daily Kos and The Huffington Post immediately blamed me and Fox News for inciting Tiller's killer. Even though I reported on the doctor honestly, the loons asserted that my analysis of him was "hateful."Take note, for we may revisit O'Reilly's words.
Chief of among the complaints was the doctor's nickname, "Tiller the baby killer." Some pro-lifers branded him with that, and I reported it. So did hundreds of other news sources. But the bigger picture here is the glorification of Tiller.
Liberals are criticizing conservative talk show host Bill O'Reilly for his harsh comments about Dr. George Tiller, who was shot to death while attending church on May 31, 2009, in Wichita, Kan.Note that the first paragraph accepts the harshness of O'Reilly's words as a premise, or at least lends itself to that interpretation. I suspect Drobnic and Adair might accept this as a mistake, in retrospect. Probably Drobnic intended to present O'Reilly's supposedly harsh rhetoric as simply an allegation from liberals to whom she refers.
Their argument is that O'Reilly repeatedly named Tiller as a late-term abortion provider and called him a "baby killer." That publicity contributed to Tiller's death, they say. Anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder, 51, has been charged with Tiller's murder.
To her credit, Drobnic steers clear of whether O'Reilly contributed to Tiller's death. Unfortunately, without that angle this issue probably holds even less interest. What fact are we checking other than O'Reilly's supposed report about himself?
Drobnic picks up on her chosen issue:
O'Reilly responded to his critics in an opinion article posted on BillOReilly.com and in the conservative journal Human Events. He began by saying that Tiller "did not deserve his fate" and was "an American citizen entitled to protection."And we skip ahead just a bit to reach the key passages:
Drobnic says that O'Reilly said that liberal groups were targeting him unfairly. But note that her evidence from O'Reilly's op-ed is talking about whether or not O'Reilly was "harsh" (supposedly "hateful," by O'Reilly's telling). The last two sentences constitute the key point at issue for PolitiFact, and it should be noted right away that the two statements appear absolutely true from the evidence Drobnic presents. Pro-lifers branded Tiller as a "baby killer" and O'Reilly did report it.
O'Reilly said that liberal groups were targeting him unfairly.
"Even though I reported on the doctor honestly, the loons asserted that my analysis of him was 'hateful,'" O'Reilly wrote. "Chief of among the complaints was the doctor's nickname, 'Tiller the baby killer.' Some pro-lifers branded him with that, and I reported it. So did hundreds of other news sources."
O'Reilly went on to criticize media outlets for glorifying Tiller in order to silence those who oppose abortion, especially late term abortion.
One might pause to wonder: How does PolitiFact take a literally true statement and rate it "False," as happens in this case? Typically literal truth will result in some in-between rating, such as "Barely True," "Half True" or "Mostly True." Or should, if PolitiFact was remotely consistent.
The key, of course, comes from the interpretation of O'Reilly's words. Media Matters took the statement as a denial from O'Reilly that he had attached "baby killer" to Tiller except when he reported that name as used by others.
Just one problem: It is not so easy to take O'Reilly's words that way. Not without at least considering the statement as the type of "artful" rhetoric that seems to get President Obama off the hook as often as not.
And then we have the context.
In addition to pointing out that media outlets all over the country reported that pro-life groups had called Tiller "baby killer," O'Reilly emphasized that his reporting was truthful.
Could that not have encompassed the fact that Tiller performed late-term abortions on fetuses that are fairly called by the term "baby"?
Back to Drobnic:
We wanted to see what O'Reilly had said about Tiller, to see if O'Reilly was indeed being criticized for his reporting on other groups' characterization of Tiller as he said.Is that what O'Reilly said? Or is it simply a questionable inference made public by left-leaning bloggers? From the available evidence is it not manifestly the latter?
Drobnic goes on to document various statements from O'Reilly where he used the term "baby killer" in proximity to Tiller's name without attributing it to others. But it bears repeating that O'Reilly did not claim anything to the contrary. Rather, a charitable interpretation has O'Reilly downplaying his repeating of the supposedly harsh rhetoric by pointing out that it appeared abundantly in print, while also implicitly insisting that he would be accurate and truthful in calling Tiller a "baby killer."
Certainly it is possible to read O'Reilly less charitably. But evidence should be required for the acceptance of a less charitable reading, and Drobnic fails to deliver.
Given her dubious premise, the conclusion follows:
These instances and others we reviewed clearly show that O'Reilly was not reporting the views of others, but was expressing his own views on the doctor. O'Reilly said in his column that "Some pro-lifers branded" Tiller a baby killer, "and I reported it," as if he were reporting the views of others. But the transcripts show O'Reilly repeatedly referred to Tiller as a baby killer without attribution. So we find his statement that liberal groups are targeting him for his reporting of what others said to be False.1) Drobnic errs in failing to offer O'Reilly the most favorable interpretation of his statement.
2) After the first failing, Drobic errs again in failing to note that O'Reilly's statement is literally true even if his supposed underlying argument fails to hold water.
It should have been impossible to grade O'Reilly worse than "Barely True," but somehow it happened anyway.
I did not bother looking for evidence that Drobnic indulged in literary borrowing from Media Matters or News Hounds. I trust she is too professional for that. However, I count it very likely that PolitiFact followed liberal blogs on this story. In the past Media Matters has even been listed as a source at PolitiFact. I think Media Matters probably remains a source, but no longer merits mention since that reflects ill on PolitiFact's objectivity. As if there was such a thing.
Angie Drobnic Holan: F
Bill Adair: F
I did a little bit of Google research and, sure enough, PolitiFact often used Media Matters as a source in 2008. The practice appears to have stopped prior to the start of the new year.
Striking Media Matters from the list of sources would serve as a sign of improvement if Media Matters was no longer used as a source.
I have my doubts as to the latter.