Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Glenn Beck and the White House visits

Sometimes PolitiFact concerns itself with the literal truth of a statement.  Sometimes the focus falls on the underlying argument.  Sometimes both receive attention.  Perhaps a throw of the dice determines which happens.  Maybe it depends on whether the PolitiFact staffers like the person involved.

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Greg Joyce:  editor


The problems started as soon as I began going through Louis Jacobson's source list.  I take it as the first order of business to establish the context of a quotation.  Note that the deck claims that Beck made the statement on "his Fox News Channel show."  The source list mentions "television":

clipped from
Glenn Beck, comments on his television show, Dec. 3, 2009

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The link led to a transcript of Beck's radio program, part of Premier Radio Networks set of syndicated programming.

Jacobson was a bit sloppy, then, but we are after the context.   First, the quotation as presented by Jacobson:
"You've got to ask yourself what the hell happened to this country," Beck said. "If I would have told you instead that the most frequent visitor of the White House, over the secretary of state and everybody else, is a labor union president [Stern] who has repeatedly said workers of the world unite ... would you have believed it?"
And here is the version from Jacobson's listed source (red emphasis added):
That I'm going to be one of the ten most fascinating people in 2009, you've got to ask yourself what the hell happened to this country. If I would have told you instead that the most frequent visitor of the White House, over the Secretary of State and everybody else, is a labor union president who has repeatedly said workers of the world unite; and we know we've got a lot of illegal members, illegal aliens in our membership, and who chief guy said, yeah, but we also represent American workers, end quote, that he would be the most frequent visitor at the White House, would you have believed it?
Jacobson appears to have taken some liberties with the quotation, but I'll save that issue for dessert.

The quoted portion occurs in the midst of an extended list of stories from 2009.  The Web page used by Jacobson featured an explanatory sidebar:

clipped from
Glenn came up with a list of things that if he told you a year ago, you would never believe they'd ever come to fruition. The list is staggering, but it's only a partial list because it's what Glenn, Stu and Pat came up with just chatting in the office this morning. Listen to the list Glenn produced and help add to it by sending us any glaring omissions using the form below...

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That, then, is the context.  Reading only the PolitiFact account would not impart this information.

Beck had followed the White House visitor log story at least since his Fox News television program on Nov. 3.  Though I cannot currently reproduce it, I received the impression that the Nov. 3 television appearance embed appeared on the page with the transcript of the Dec. 3 radio program, perhaps as background information.

We found the source of Beck's claim. When the White House released its first batch of visitor logs on Oct. 30, 2009, as part of a pledge to bring more transparency to the White House, Stern's name did indeed appear 22 times, more than anyone else listed, including Clinton, who was listed three times.
Beck had made clear at least by Nov. 3 the source of his claim.  But despite finding that Beck's statement was true for the White House's initial release of visitor log material, PolitiFact gave Beck a "False" rating on the Truth-O-Meter.  What gives?
Stern led the pack for the first data release, which covered visits from Jan. 20, 2009 to July 31, 2009. But he was surpassed by several other individuals in the second release, which updates the data through Aug. 31, 2009 (and which was made public more than a week before Beck aired his comment).
Jacobson goes on to discuss a number of ways in which new data have placed the initial release in a proper context.  For example, Secretary of State Clinton had made many more visits to the White House than were reflected in the log.  Jacobson makes some good points, but how would any subsequent information reasonably make Beck's statement worse than barely true, based as it was on a fair summary of the first log release?
So, while Beck did pass along a widely reported finding as he made his point about Stern, the data it was based on was incomplete and out of date by the time of his show, and ultimately the conclusion he drew was incorrect. We rate his statement False.
 Not exactly a detailed explanation, is it?

And there is a deeper problem with Jacobson's assessment, leading us back to the context of Beck's remarks.

Beck was summarizing a list of stories from the past year.  In that context, it was fair for Beck to ignore subsequent data on the White House logs.  The story on Oct. 30 was the story on Oct. 30, and Beck's list simply pointed to various stories to provide historical perspective on the "change" wrought by the Obama administration.  In that context, Beck cannot be reasonably rated worse than "Mostly True."  Yet PolitiFact rated him "False."

As it happens, Beck has made similar statements about Stern's visits in a variety of other contexts.  Perhaps one of those contexts would support the Truth-O-Meter rating given to Beck.  But not this one.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Greg Joyce:  F

The PolitiFact team did some good work providing context for the meaning of the White House visitor log data.  But flubbing the context of the Beck quotation forbids the granting of a passing grade.



Time to toy with a couple of minor issues from the story.

I do not expect PolitiFact to provide an objective point of view for its fact checking.  But traditional journalistic standards ought to make the editors at least consider labeling their efforts to distinguish them from objective journalism.  Check out the first paragraph from Jacobson:
Fox News Channel host Glenn Beck recently found another rhetorical weapon to use against President Barack Obama: White House visitor logs.
That is not objective reporting.

Jacobson is establishing a narrative about Beck that provides a frame for the the subsequent story.  Beck, states the narrative, is a character who seeks rhetorical weapons "to use against President Barack Obama."  That is an editorial opinion, and it has no business in objective news reporting.  Period.

I pointed out in the main text above how Jacobson took liberties with his quotation of Beck.  I had hoped to access the audio to help distinguish between the transcript from Beck's site and the way Jacobson chose to present it.  Alas, it is protected through the fact that Beck charges for archived material.

Though some doubt remains, Beck's version ought to receive the benefit of the doubt because Jacobson cited Beck's site as his source.  In addition, Jacobson offered no rationale for applying "you've got to ask yourself what the hell happened to this country" to the Stern quotation instead of to Beck's appearance on the cover of Time.

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