Friday, November 20, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Orrin Hatch: Tolstoy v. health care bill

"There you go again." --Ronald Reagan

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson: writer, researcher
Bill Adair: editor


PolitiFact has developed a chronic problem with literary interpretation. Orrin Hatch is merely the latest to receive bludgeoning via the tin ear.

We note the issue from the title. Hatch supposedly says that the Senate version of the health care bill is longer than Tolstoy's "War and Peace"--a famously long novel. We have the deck blurbs, but let's add Jacobson's version also:
Republicans have been comparing (War and Peace with the Senate bill) to make the point that the Democratic plan is big and will lead to a bloated bureaucracy. In a Nov. 19, 2009, news release, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said that the 2,074-page bill was "longer than Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace."
Note two things from this.

1. Jacobson has identified what PolitiFact sometimes calls "the underlying argument": The bill is big.
2. Jacobson uses a Hatch press release as his source, and that press release in turn refers to an appearance by Hatch on Fox News. Jacobson actually quoted a paraphrase of Hatch. Here is the press release version:
Hatch noted the 2,074-page legislation, which he said was longer than Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” would also allow federal dollars to go to insurance plans that cover abortions.
Hatch's statement as uttered on Fox:
Keep in mind this is a 1,074--2,074 page bill. That's larger than, uh, the novel "War and Peace."

The paraphrase in the press release is fair, but it introduces an ambiguity. There is a difference between saying 2,074 pages is larger than "War and Peace" and saying that the bill itself is larger than "War and Peace." Hatch's original statement closely matches the former. The press release version could pass for the latter if one was not familiar with Hatch's phrasing.

And Jacobson opts for the less accurate reading:
The Oxford World's Classics paperback edition of War and Peace weighs in at 1,392 pages, according to By that measure, the 2,074-page Senate bill would indeed be longer.

But using pages as the benchmark is misleading. The page layout of a Senate bill is much different from a novel. The bill uses much larger type, on 8.5-by-11-inch paper. The margins are larger and there are wider spaces between the lines. On balance, then, fewer words fit on a page of the Senate bill than fit on the page of the paperback novel.
We see from "using pages as the benchmark is misleading" that Jacobson views the issue as the respective sizes of the literary works and not merely a comparison of their length in terms of pages. And even more to the point, in what way is it misleading with respect to Hatch's underlying argument? Communicating the fact that the Senate bill is big requires no complicated measurements of either "War and Peace" or the Senate bill. Jacobson identifies the point and then proceeds to ignore it.

Jacobson then regales the reader with a superfluous analysis of the "best" way to compare the length of two respective works. Without getting into that argument, I would suggest a third method that Jacobson apparently does not consider: The amount of reading it would take to understand the work. Bills coming out of Congress tend to have numerous sections that refer in turn to passages in other bills. Thus it would arguably take much longer to read and comprehend the Senate health care reform bill than to read and understand "War and Peace."

But really the point is just that the Senate bill is long.

Once Jacobson has forgotten the underlying argument, the eventual result is inevitable:

So while Hatch is right if you simply count pages, when you use a more accurate comparison -- the number of words -- War and Peace is actually longer. In other words, he is right by one measurement, but not by the best measurement. So it turns out that Democrats aren't as wordy as a Russian novelist. Who knew?

We find his claim Barely True.

Remember PolitiFact treating President Obama's claim that a Model T got better gas mileage than the average SUV sold in 2008?
We agree that the two cars are totally different. But Obama was careful in the way he phrased his statement: "The 1908 Model T earned better gas mileage than a typical SUV sold in 2008." As long as you don't consider any factors other than mileage, he's right. We rate his statement Mostly True.
Good thing for Obama that PolitiFact could not be bothered to pick out the best way to compare fuel economy. Orrin Hatch might have hoped that PolitiFact would consider no factors other than the number of pages.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson: F
Bill Adair: FF

Editor Bill Adair rates the never-before-used double F because he bears responsibility for the overall inconsistency displayed in the ratings.

Orrin Hatch's staff bears a share of the blame for introducing an ambiguity into the press release. But Jacobson should know to go the primary source of the quotation. This is basic in reporting.

Nov. 22, 2009: Apologies to Louis Jacobson for consistently misspelling his name as "Jacobsen." Corrections have been rendered.

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