Thursday, November 12, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Rep. Young and the Obama "go away" (Updated x3)

Another fact-check undermined by the failure to offer a charitable interpretation.

The issue:

I will place focus on the main issue first and deal with a couple of other problems after assigning grades to those responsible.

The fact checkers:

Aaron Sharockman: writer, researcher
Greg Joyce: editor


Charity serves as one of the very basic methods of fair interpretation. When President Obama says that something is less likely than a lightning strike, we give credit for hyperbole unless there is good reason to think otherwise. When Rush Limbaugh says something that might well be a joke, we allow that it may be a joke. PolitiFact has been excruciatingly slow in applying this basic principle.

Florida congressman C. W. "Bill" Young (R) is the latest to experience this amateurish treatment from PolitiFact.

Sharockman's account:
Taking the microphone at Monday's meeting of the Pinellas Republican Executive Committee, Young said that President Barack Obama, during a recent campaign rally for a Democratic candidate running in Virginia, told Republicans to "go away."

"He said, 'For those who oppose our policies, you should just shut up and go away,' " Young said to an overflowing crowd of Republican Party activists and insiders. "Well, we ain't gonna shut up and we ain't going away."
A journalist instantly ought to ask "Where do those quotation marks come from?" Sharockman offers us two separate cases that are presented as direct quotations, with the second one including the first. But what justifies the placement of the quotation marks? The first one we can ignore, since Sharockman may be quoting either Young or Obama and we can charitably assume that the quote is attributed to Young. But the second one is not so easy to explain away.

What about Sharockman's source?

That presents a bit of a problem, unfortunately. Sharockman provides no source. Perhaps he was on location when Young made his statement. In that case, Sharockman would own responsibility for placing the quotation marks.

Under ordinary circumstances, unless the quotation was a known match for something Obama had said, it would be natural to take Young's statement as a paraphrase. And I would expect any journalist to know the difference between a quotation and a paraphrase.

Assuming we have from Sharockman a verbatim quotation of Young, there is only one other way I can imagine justifying placement of quotation marks. They are justified if Young used his hands to signal that he was offering a direct quotation. Second and third digits of both hands extended then partially flexed twice in succession, that is.

Since the mysterious quotation marks have already appeared, let's see how PolitFact treats them:
Let's get one part out of the way: After an exhaustive review of transcripts, newspaper stories and videos of Obama's recent campaign speeches, Obama never said the sentence exactly as Young attributed it to him.
What a waste of time. Not to brag, but I knew exactly what Young was talking about. Note that Sharockman has strongly implied that Young indicated that his was a direct quotation ("as Young attributed it to him"). We still have absolutely no indication that the premise is justified.

Thankfully, Sharockman was able to locate the original statement from Obama via an op-ed from James Taranto. The statement came from a campaign stop in Virginia on behalf of Creigh Deeds.
The Virginia speech focused heavily on the economy and the president's support of a $787 stimulus package. He joked with the crowd that some Republicans are trying to blame him for the country's economic woes.
We've finally found a PolitiFact writer who can detect a joke.
"You've got folks on the other side of the aisle pointing at the federal budget and somehow trying to put that at our feet. Well, let's look at the history. When I walked in, we had a $1.3 trillion deficit. That was gift-wrapped and waiting for me when I walked in the Oval Office," Obama said. "Without my policies we'd have an even higher deficit going forward. The one exception is the recovery package that we had to do in order to get this economy moving again."
Sounds to me like the president admitted to having some responsibility for the federal budget, via the "one exception." Quite an exception, too. A billion times bigger than Sharockman reported it, actually. And enough to push a $1.3 trillion deficit all the way to $2 trillion.

I can't wait for the punch line to this joke.
Obama continued, "So you can't go out there and charge up the credit card, go on ... shopping sprees on things that didn't grow the economy, hand over the bill to us, and then say, 'Why haven't you paid it off yet?' I got that bill from (Republicans). So we've got some work to do. I don't mind, by the way, being responsible. I expect to be held responsible for these issues because I'm the president. But I don't want the folks who created the mess to do a lot of talking. I want them just to get out of the way so we can clean up the mess. I don't mind cleaning up after them, but don't do a lot of talking. Am I wrong, Virginia?"
Some joke, eh? Watching the video will inform as to the president's tone.
The last half of the quote, the "get out of the way," was picked up by the local newspapers covering the speech and spread from there. Conservative commentators like Taranto said it showed Obama's unwillingness to work with Republicans on bipartisan solutions.
That along with further abandonment of the post-partisan leadership style he told voters he would employ. Sharockman continues:
But the broader context shows that Obama's
Chalk up another gaffe to Sharockman and his editor. It wasn't the economy he was talking about. It was the federal budget deficit in particular. And the president's own words acknowledge that he is responsible for adding over 30 percent to the deficit (see update, below). And he wants to spend more to "clean up the mess."

So let's grant that about 70 percent of the deficit was inherited, and forget that the Democrats controlled Congress dating from 2007 following the 2006 election. That leaves us with Obama criticizing Republicans who think he is inflating the deficit.

Sharockman has one paragraph left. Can he somehow apply this to Young's statement?
That's a far cry from Young's report of Obama's statement -- "For those who oppose our policies, you should just shut up and go away." Young's statement is much more sweeping and dismissive than anything the president said. We rate Young's claim False.
Sharockman offers us hogwash.

Young gave a fair paraphrase of Obama's statement. Republicans have particularly resisted policies that they believe will further increase the deficit. Obama has pointed to those policies--in spite of the price tags they bear--as the solution to present economic woes and as the long-term solution to the deficit problem.

It is utterly preposterous to rate Young false.

The grades:

Aaron Sharockman: F
Greg Joyce: F

The tag "journalists reporting badly" applies.


Additional analysis:

Doubtless The St. Petersburg Times styles itself as an objective news source, at least with respect to reporting not clearly labeled "opinion" or "news analysis."

And what of PolitiFact, which resides under the Times' wing?

Take another look at Sharockman's work:
Back in his Florida district, U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young decided to toss some red meat at the feet of a group of eager Republicans.
Is "red meat" drawn from an objective point of view? How about "eager Republicans"? This is the type of writing we normally see in an op/ed column.

More from Sharockman:
When Young relayed Obama's message, some people in the audience gasped.

Could the president have said that?
Sharockman creates the implication that people in the audience gasped in apparent disbelief that the president would say such a thing. But a gasp of outrage might be just as likely from Republicans eager for red meat. No?

Certainly Sharockman has some built-in plausible deniability on this one. He can claim that it was objectively observed that some in the audience gasped. And then claim that he tried to objectively address the question as to whether the president had spoken as Young claimed he did.

But the thing is, the gasp from the crowd is an irrelevant detail when it comes to evaluating the claim. And the juxtaposition of the two statements makes it appear that Sharockman has made an editorial judgment regarding the reason for the gasps.

This, over the long haul, represents one of the big problems at PolitiFact. The operation sits under an implied banner of objective journalism. On top of that, PolitiFact proclaims its interest in getting to the fact of the matter.

The uneasy mix of editorially loaded language and the public projection of objectivity partly explains why I regularly compare PolitiFact to the left-wing hacks at Media Matters. But Media Matters at least publishes the fact that it is a partisan operation. In contrast, PolitiFact improbably pretends to be in the business of objective journalism.

I don't see how PolitiFact can keep its current format--even with a tighter reign on editorializing--and rightly wear the "objective" label. The typical PolitiFact entry must be an editorial judgment because determining a "Truth-O-Meter" rating usually demands exactly that type of judgment.

PolitiFact should at least take to labeling its work something other than objective reporting.

Update 2:

Correction: My summary of the budget implications of the stimulus package was a bit off. The stimulus amount only impacts the deficit for the full $787 billion if that amount is spent during the same fiscal year. That will not be the case, despite Obama's claims that it had to be enacted without much delay.

It is also possible to claim that an effective stimulus bill would increase revenue and thus shrink the overall effect of stimulus spending on the deficit.

Bottom line, my initial summary was sufficiently accurate to drive the point that Obama's policies give him a substantial stake in the deficit.

One can reasonably quibble with my math in other respects as well, but the basic point stands.

Update 3:

At long last I have located a video of Rep. Young's speech.  The video does provide some justification for taking Young's statement as an attempt to quote the president--but not to the point of overlooking the fact that it was a fair paraphrase.

The video notably fails to provide support for Sharockman's editorial interpretations of the event.  The audience doesn't look "eager" for red meat.  They look like a Presbyterian church meeting of slightly above average enthusiasm.  The sounds made in response to Young's Obama tale don't sound particularly like gasps; they do convey the impression that the audience disdained the president's sentiment.

See for yourself:

Hat tip to TampaBLAB for posting the YouTube video.  That's where I found it, esconced in unsympathetic commentary.  TampaBLAB also posted Rep. Young's response to criticism:

Here we go again.

In a speech Monday discussing how President Obama’s policies were dividing the country, I referred to Obama’s political speech on behalf of his candidate for Governor in Virginia, who by the way lost in a major landslide, in which he said, those who disagree with his policies should “go away.” But the St. Petersburg Times Politifact with a large headline claimed my statement was false. They say that Obama actually said that we should “get out of the way.” But in my mind whether he said “go away” or “get out of the way,” his message to those who disagree with him is still the same. The Times Politifact even quotes a Wall Street Journal columnist who heard the same speech I heard and concluded “Obama’s petulant demand that his critics shut up and get out of the way.”

Either way, I meant what I said -- we’re not going to shut up and we’re not going to go away!
Kudos to TampaBLAB for putting all the evidence on the table, even if the analysis was predictably partisan.

Jan 27, 2011:  Corrected spelling of Aaron Sharockman's name in the paragraph preceding the video clip.  Also fixed a typo where I had substituted "they" for "that."

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