Saturday, March 27, 2010

Was PolitiFact's Pulitzer deserved? Pt. 7

The fact-check site PolitiFact was awarded its 2008 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting based on 13 submissions to the Pulitzer committee.  In this post I evaluate the sixth of the submissions based on hinted-at guidelines for judgment of journalism's highest standards such as accuracy and fairness.

The seventh story concerns Barack Obama's birth certificate, and there is much to like in the story written by Amy Hollyfield.  Hollyfield includes information that serves to correct bad information on quite a few points and for the most part communicates the information concisely.  I'm inclined to grade the entry favorably but with a few caveats.

The version of the story posted at the Pulitzer site does not rate the truth of any particular claim.  If Hollyfield was testing the claim that Obama was born in Hawaii, then the case is reasonably settled in the affirmative.  If, however, the entry was intended to put an end to all reasonable questions associated with Obama's birth certificate, then the story fails in that task.  The version of the story posted at carries no Truth-O-Meter rating for a particular claim, either, for what that's worth.

My first caveat concerns a minor issue of fairness:
It started as a whisper, a trickle of nagging doubt.

"As a concerned citizen, I'm wondering if there isn't something fishy going on with the Obama certificate."

"I have serious doubts about the purported 'birth certificate' you were sent."

"Something doesn't smell right."

Soon, e-mails and blog posts were flying. As the pace quickened, the tone sharpened.

"You should be apologizing ... for your misinformation regarding BO bogus birth certificate, that you claimed was genuine!"

At full throttle, the accusations are explosive and unrelenting, the writers emboldened by the anonymity and reach of the Internet.

And you can't help but ask: How do you prove something to people who come to the facts believing, out of fear or hatred or maybe just partisanship, that they're being tricked?
It isn't the responsibility of reporters to prove anything.  All they need to do is report.  It isn't even obligatory--to the contrary--for a reporter to muse in print regarding the motives of those who might doubt their stories.  The story could have done without that last paragraph, and in particular could have done without "out of fear or hatred or maybe just partisanship."  It wasn't needed, and to some extent feeds the notion that Republicans generally fear and hate Obama, some to the extent that they glom on to doubts about his citizenship.

My second caveat comes from the first and third quotations.  There is something fishy going on with Obama's birth certificate and it doesn't smell quite right.  But Hollyfield's story doesn't mention it at all.

Fishy:  Obama released a Hawaiian "Certification of Live Birth," but has never released a copy of his Hawaiian "Certificate of Live Birth."  The latter provides more information than the former.  That the campaign has not released it in the face of the types of questions mentioned in the PolitiFact story is somewhat hard to explain unless the more detailed document has information on it that Obama would prefer to keep private.  Or  unless the state of Hawaii will not give a copy of it to anybody at all including Mr. Obama.  Assuming Obama is hiding information, it might involve something mundane like listing the president's name as "Barak Hussein Muhammed Obama."

What specific information might the certificate include?  That is uncertain, as Hawaii apparently had a number of methods available to officially record the birth of a child.  Find an example of one "Certificate of Live Birth" from near newborn Obama's time here.  Compare it with the image of Obama's "Certification of Live Birth" linked on the Pulitzer site version of the PolitiFact story.

Caveats aside, I can grade Hollyfield's effort a 7 on a 0-10 scale where 10 represents the highest standards of journalism and therefore slightly Pulitzer-recommended if taken merely as a fact-check of whether Barack Obama was born in Hawaii.

As a fact-check of the fishiness surrounding the overall record of Obama's birth, I'd give Hollyfield a 5.  But I'll grant benefit of the doubt and regard the story in the former light.

March 27, 2010: Reworded the first sentence of the third paragraph for clarity, and added a sentence to the third-to-last paragraph. 
Feb. 3, 2011:  Revised language that refers to the subject matter as the sixth story from PolitiFact's Pulitzer list.  Mishandling of file folder resulted in the loss of the original evaluation of the sixth story and the subsequent misidentification of the seventh story as the sixth.



  2. The above article is very informative. There is another later version of investigation by that covers the things you addrsssed:

    Obama's birth certificate: Final chapter. This time we mean it!

    The reason, I'm sure, the long article didn't have a truth-o-meter was that it didn't cover only one topic or statement by several. It was a different form than their truth-o-meters, but an article. They have a whole section of articles. Their website isn't just about truth-o-meters.

  3. Halo Lin Dar,
    The version of the birth certificate story is much more complete than the PolitiFact version, which is no surprise to me (I've often said that the Annenberg group does the better job of the two).

    AFAICT, it remains unresolved whether Obama could obtain a copy of the certification of live birth. The fact that some people have copies of the long form suggests that it may be possible.

    And, bottom line, the main focus of my post was to comment on the job PolitiFact did with its fact check. Subsequent fact checks offering new information tend to strengthen the case that the original fact check was lacking.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.


Please remain on topic and keep coarse language to an absolute minimum. Comments in a language other than English will be assumed off topic.