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."Compare the forgiveness of Edwards' absolutism with the hard line taken on John McCain:
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.
The statement: "I have never asked for nor received a single earmark or pork- barrel project for my state."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.
--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.
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.