Thursday, December 29, 2011

January Artist: The Jelly Jam

The obvious choice for January Artist leading off 2012, given the December release of a new album and my rabid fandom of their music, is The Jelly Jam.

The Jelly Jam is an under-the-radar supergroup featuring guitarist/vocalist Ty Tabor of King's X, bassist John Myung of Dream Theater and Rod Morgenstein of the Dixie Dregs, Steve Morse Band and Winger.

The band plays commercial rock with insanely technical yet subtle twists (the tune "Feeling" serves as an excellent example).  Kind of like nutritious vitamins that taste like candy.  I decided to try allowing the music to play when people visit.  Complain to the proprietor (me) if you don't like that feature.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Bill Adair: You who criticize us are in an echo chamber chamber chamber chamber

Crossposted from PolitFact Bias.

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair served up some delicious irony with his recent defense of PolitiFact's 2011 "Lie of the Year" selection.

That selection was Democrats' claim that Republicans voted to end Medicare.  Liberals and progressives far and wide have condemned the selection, and we at PolitiFact Bias share a degree of sympathy with offended liberals since there is some (not much) truth in the claim.

The deluge of port side criticism has prompted yet another one of PolitiFact's nearly content-free rebuttals under the headline "Fact-checking in the Echo Chamber Nation."

Adair seems blissfully unaware that he's inside the echo chamber.

At a Republican campaign rally a few years ago, I asked one of the attendees how he got his news. "I listen to Rush and read NewsMax," he said. "And to make sure I'm getting a balanced view, I watch Fox." My liberal friends get their information from distinctly different sources — Huffington Post, Daily Kos and Rachel Maddow. To make sure they get a balanced view, they click Facebook links — from their liberal friends.
Adair just told us that he's positioned within an echo chamber oriented left.  He hears opinions from the right when he's out reporting. But to hear what the left is saying he can just hang out with his friends.  A truly centrist Bill Adair may be expected to have discussions with a conservative friend to draw from in writing his story.

This is life in our echo chamber nation. We protect ourselves from opinions we don't like and seek reinforcement from like-minded allies.
Bear in mind Adair just finished hinting that his list of friends is predominantly (if not exclusively) liberal.

If Adair isn't in the echo chamber shoulder-to-shoulder with those he criticizes, then it's more akin to a liberal echo chamber duplex with one common living area.

The paradox of the Internet age is that never before have we had access to more ideas and different thoughts. And yet, many of us retreat into comfy parlors where everyone agrees and the other side is always wrong. Each side can manufacture its truths and get the chorus to sing along. PolitiFact had its latest brush with the Echo Chamber Nation this week. We gave our Lie of the Year to the Democrats' claim that the Republicans "voted to end Medicare." That set off a firestorm in the liberal blogosphere, with many saying that claim was not actually wrong. We've received about 1,500 e-mails about our choice and only a few agreed with us.
Adair borrows a page from President Obama's book of rhetorical tricks.  Sure, "many of us" insist on surrounding ourselves with like-minded opinions.  But Adair's problematic audience response probably comes more from those who expose themselves to contrary opinion yet do not have the ability and/or inclination to sift through the clash of ideas to figure out what's wrong or right from either side.

And blame falls on PolitiFact on this point.  PolitiFact often fails to make a clear case in favor of its decisions, and its 2011 "Lie of the Year" is another good example. Observe Adair's method of treating substantial criticisms in response to the "Lie of the Year" selection:
Some of the response has been substantive and thoughtful. The critics said we ignored the long-term effects of Rep. Paul Ryan's plan and that we were wrong to consider his privatized approach to be Medicare. In their view, that is an end to Medicare. We've read the critiques and see nothing that changes our findings. We stand by our story and our conclusion that the claim was the most significant falsehood of 2011. We made no judgments on the merits of the Ryan plan; we just said that the characterization by the Democrats was false.
You just can't blame the outraged liberals for finding this type of response unsatisfactory.  Adair appears to admit that they have a point.  And then tells them with no reason why--unless it's sufficient to claim non-specific support from Annenberg Fact Check or the Washington Post fact checker--that there's no reason to change the ruling.

We got other silly comments from readers who declared we were "a tool" of the Republicans, Fox News and the Koch brothers. Their reaction is typical these days. To paraphrase George W. Bush, you're either with us, or against us. In reality, fact-checking is growing and thriving because people who live outside the partisan bubbles want help sorting out the truth. PolitiFact now has nine state sites run by news organizations around the country that employ more than 30 full-time journalists for fact-checking. We've inspired many copycat sites around the nation and roughly a dozen in other countries.
Adair says the extremist reactions are "typical."  And in almost the next breath he claims that fact checking is thriving because of the people living outside the partisan bubbles.  The atypical ones account for PolitiFact's success?   Why, if that's the case, did PolitiFact not receive greater email support for its "Lie of the Year" selection?  Is it that hard for Adair to see the writing on the wall from within his echo chamber?

On the whole, Adair's defense is elitist and defensive. The PolitiFact staff is enlightened, thank you very much.  If you don't like their "Lie of the Year" selection then there are plenty of potential readers who live outside the echo chamber.  And it would be nice if a few of those readers would send in some supportive emails (hint, hint).

It seems Adair doesn't know his audience.  


One more area where PolitiFact needs to clean up its act:

Some of our critics wrongly attributed our choice to our readers' poll and said we were swayed by a lobbying campaign by Ryan. But our editors made the choice and the poll was not a factor.
Um--how do we know the poll was not a factor?  Because Adair says so?

Free advice for Adair:  If you want to be able to claim with confidence that the poll plays no role in the editors' selection then keep the editors ignorant of the poll numbers until they're finished making their choice.  And if you do it that way then you can write your defense like this:
Some of our critics wrongly attributed our choice to our readers' poll and said we were swayed by a lobbying campaign by Ryan. But we shield the editors from the poll data to ensure that it will not affect our decision.
Doesn't that sound a lot better?  More convincing? 

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Mother Jones with the bird's eye lowdown on PolitiFact

A Mother Jones story about PolitiFact's shocking selection for its 2011 "Lie of the Year" award works at cross purposes with itself.
Fact-checking, as a genre, probably shouldn't exist. It does largely because of one of the weirder conventions of mainstream journalism, which is to give equal weight to competing claims regardless of whether or not they actually deserve it. Determining the truth or falsity of a given claim is of a lower priority than actually meeting a deadline.
The so-called weird convention arose because journalists recognized that they weren't likely to possess sufficient expertise to accurately decide between two competing views, especially when those competing views came from experts in a given field of study. 

As the story continues with its predictable panning of PolitiFact's 2011 Lie of the Year selection, writer Adam Serwer bears out the difficulty journalists have with accurately determining the facts (bold emphasis added):
Previously, PolitiFact's system for deciding the "Lie of the Year" was through popular vote, which in all honestly [sic] seems like a strange way to decide something like this. Nevertheless, while in 2009 and 2010 the lies of the year reflected choices made by readers, as Steve Benen points out, this year PolitFact decided to go with the third-place choice.
PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" selections always came from a committee of editors, not from the results of the readers votes.  Surwer is correct, at least, about the dubiousness of granting the award based on the votes of readers.  But PolitiFact doesn't do it that way.  The readers vote, no doubt, for entertainment purposes and to give PolitiFact more stuff to write about relating to its annual award.  It's a natural, really.  People tend to have opinions about annual awards ranging from the Emmys to the Miss Universe pageant.  And the popular media exploit that interest to draw readers by letting the readers vote on who they think should have won.

Surwer ought to have stopped himself to double check after supposing that PolitiFact operates akin to "American Idol."

Mother Jones has had a day or two to generate a correction to Surwer's story.  Nothing yet as I move to hit the "publish" button.

Dec. 22, 2011:  Added "[sic]" in first Mother Jones quotation, added "ought to have" in next to last paragraph.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

PolitiFact picks surprise winner for its 2011 "Lie of the Year" award

The claim that Republicans voted to end Medicare receives PolitiFact's Lie of the Year for 2011.

I'm calling it a surprise, given my effort to handicap the selection back in early December.

I reasoned that PolitiFact would have some impulse to choose a "lie" from the Democrats to help preserve the impression of nonpartisanship, and I discounted statements likely to harm President Obama in the coming election.

Unfortunately, I did a poor job of distinguishing between the result of a poll for readers and PolitiFact's selection for Lie of the Year.  PolitiFact doesn't publish the ordering of its 10 finalists.  It simply announces the winner.

I chose Debbie Wasserman Schultz as the likely winner for Democrats, and I chose the eventual winner to vie with Schultz's statement.  And there was an interesting wrinkle in PolitiFact's reasoning:
As we were concluding our reporting for our Lie of the Year story last week, Ryan announced that he was altering his plan and would retain an option for people to stay in traditional Medicare if they want.

His announcement of a bipartisan effort with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., changes the dynamic in the polarized debate and could increase the likelihood that Congress adopts his approach.
Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, wrote that Ryan "has plausibly inoculated his party against a full-frontal Mediscare campaign. Or at least he gives Republicans a credible rebuttal to neutralize it."

But Ryan's latest tactic doesn't affect our decision on Lie of the Year. The statements made about his original plan were clearly inaccurate, they were repeated by many Democrats and they perpetuated a 60-year tactic in using false claims to scare seniors.
Ryan's "latest tactic" (intriguing choice of words, that) decreases the chance that PolitiFact's selection will affect the coming election.  That aspect of the outcome matches the thinking I used in handicapping the selection.

PolitiFact surprises, however, by choosing an item that many on the political left continue to regard as a perfectly true claim.  And that claim, like the two LOTY winners that preceded it, does have a little more truth to it than PolitiFact's  rating might suggest.  PolitiFact, after all, has never revealed an objective criterion for ruling a statement "Pants on Fire."

The decision is likely to decrease public trust in PolitiFact's findings, particularly for PolitiFact's most devoted fans.

As for the reader vote, there was only one surprise:  that the statement PolitiFact editors chose as their winner finished as high as it did.  I was correct that only one statement from a Democrat finished in the top five.

Dec. 22, 2011:  Corrected link in final paragraph.  Hat tip to Jeff Dyberg for catching the broken link.

Monday, December 19, 2011

PolitiFlub: "the deciding vote"

Usually I find myself highlighting PolitiFact's inconsistencies.  This item highlights a PolitiFact consistency, albeit it's consistent error.

A fresh story from PolitiFact rates Democrat Tim Kaine "False" for his claim that Republican George Allen cast the deciding vote in favor of the Bush tax cuts.  PolitiFact, as it has in the past when Republicans make such claims of Democrats, argues that it simply cannot be the deciding vote unless it breaks a tie in somewhat the same sense as the vice president breaks a tie in Senate voting.

I'm completely sympathetic to the counter argument of the Kaine campaign:
(I)f Allen had voted against the 2003 tax cuts, they would have failed by a 51-49 Senate vote.
Exactly!  And people understand this type of campaign advertisement in that sense.

In this case, at least, PolitiFact applies its misguided principles consistently.  Ineptitude squeezes out bias as the root of the problem.


This PolitiFact item from October 2010 appears to complete the set of items dealing with claims about "the deciding vote."  Kaine joins three Republicans in getting a raw deal on his claim, and joins Scott Bruun in getting a "False" rating for his claim.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Center for Freedom and Prosperity Video: Myths about the New Deal

Hurray! Another video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, this time featuring lovely-yet-traitor-to-her-gender Michelle Fields:

Another good video (might be a tad misleading with some of the quotations), but a note to Michelle Fields: Two weeks of voice lessons might be some of the best money you ever spend. Speak up, girl! Let your voice be heard!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Newt Gingrich and space mirrors

Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

I thought about doing a comparison piece instead of a "Grading PolitiFact" evaluation of this next item.  I decided to do the normal evaluation, but we'll be doing a comparison to PolitiFact's check of a chain email about the Obama administration's Cass Sunstein.

The issue:

clipped from

For comparison:

clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson: writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton: editor

Robert Farley and Bill Adair filled the corresponding roles for the Sunstein item.


Before examining the text of PolitiFact's fact check, let's take a moment to look at the initial presentation of the two items we're comparing.

The top portions seem very comparable.  Gingrich is said to have "suggested" something and Sunstein is said to have "advocated" something.

The middle portions differ.  In Brooks' case, the headline material stick with the narrow description of Brooks, claim, paraphrasing "has suggested" with "once proposed."  The nearby "Truth-O-Meter tells readers what to think of Brooks' claim ("True").  PolitiFact handles the chain email differently.  Instead of paraphrasing the material just above, PolitiFact includes its assessment in the statement.  And we get the "Half True" graphic.  The "then thought better of it" part ends up justifying a rating other than "True."

Now let's follow PolitiFact's little tale about Brooks and Gingrich--both conservatives, so there's something for everyone to like on both sides of the partisan divide.

Brooks cites negatively what he considered half-baked ideas by Gingrich. "For example, he has called for ‘a massive new program to build a permanent lunar colony to exploit the moon’s resources.’ He has suggested that ‘a mirror system in space could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for nighttime lighting of the highways.’"
The space-mirror system seemed so outlandish that we felt compelled to check whether Gingrich really suggested it.
So that's the issue: Did Gingrich suggest the space mirror system Brooks mentions?

In the item we're using for comparison, PolitiFact was checking the claim (quoting PolitiFact) that "President Barack Obama's nominee to be the administration's regulatory czar once advocated a "Fairness Doctrine" of sorts for the Internet, one that would require partisan sites to link to sites with opposing viewpoints."

PolitiFact did not receive a response from Brooks asking for the source of his claim.  PolitiFact surmised the source was Andrew Ferguson in the New York Times magazine.  But Ferguson's account only hints at the notion that the space mirrors were Gingrich's suggestion.  As PolitiFact presented it:
Here’s a portion of what Ferguson wrote:

"Gingrich’s first book, Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future, came out in 1984 and contained the seeds of much of what was to follow. Beneath its cover image — a flag-draped eagle inexplicably threatening the space shuttle— the backbencher Gingrich was identified as chairman of the congressional Space Caucus, a position that inspired a series of ‘space cadet’ jokes that took years to die. Window of Opportunity was co-written by Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, and a science-fiction writer called David Drake.  ...

"In Window of Opportunity, Gingrich introduced himself as a futurist, a role he has played off and on throughout his career. There are problems inherent in futurism, most of them involving the future, which the futurist is obliged to predict (it’s his job) and which seldom cooperates as he would hope. Gingrich has called some and missed some. In 1984, he saw more clearly than most that computers would touch every aspect of commercial and private life, but nobody any longer wants to build ‘a large array of mirrors [that] could affect the earth’s climate,’ warming it up so farmers could extend the growing season."

Because the quotes from Brooks and Ferguson are slightly different, we wanted to look directly at the book ourselves before making our judgment.
It isn't that what Brooks and Ferguson wrote is simply "slightly different."  That's fairly normal with a paraphrase.  The problem that invites deeper investigation is the uncertainty as to whether Gingrich advocated a system of space mirrors.  So it apparently comes down to the book.

In the book, Gingrich proposes (among many other ideas) "five simple steps to a bold future" in space, most unusually a lottery in which randomly selected taxpayers would win a spot on a space shuttle flight. But the floating mirror idea isn’t on this list. Instead, it’s included in Gingrich's recap of a June 1979, NASA-sponsored new concepts symposium in Woods Hole, Mass., "where 30 experts brainstormed a range of pioneering options for NASA worthy of Lewis and Clark."
Just in case the paragraph above obscures PolitiFact's findings, they did not find Gingrich mentioning mirrors when he gave recommendations.  They found the mirrors mentioned when he presented some ideas from a NASA-sponsored brainstorming session. 

Where's the advocacy?

PolitiFact (bold emphasis added):
Here’s how Gingrich summarized the idea:

"The climate group at the Woods Hole conference suggested that a large array of mirrors could affect the earth’s climate by increasing the amount of sunlight received by particular areas, citing recent feasibility studies exploring the possibilities of preventing frosts in Florida or enabling farmers in high altitudes to plant their wheat earlier.

"A mirror system in space could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for nighttime lighting of the highways. Ambient light covering entire areas could reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in the darkness. Mirrors could be arranged to light given metropolitan areas only during particular periods, so there would be darkness late at night for sleeping."

Brooks’ portrayal glosses over the fact that Gingrich was primarily reciting proposals made by participants at a NASA-sponsored forum. Still, Gingrich cited them approvingly.
I have Gingrich's book before me as I write.  The relevant passage occurs in Chapter 2:  "Americans and the Greatest Frontier."  PolitiFact's reporting about the book is perfectly accurate and complete, except I can't figure out the justification for the claim "Gingrich cited them approvingly." Clearly Gingrich found the ideas coming out of the brainstorm session exciting.  That's reason enough to put them in a book.  But can we justify an equivalency between that and specific advocacy of the space mirror idea?

Where's the advocacy?  PolitiFact admits that Gingrich was "primarily" citing the proposals of others.  We get no objective evidence of the type of advocacy Brooks suggests.

Still, we didn’t want to stop with a look at whether Brooks framed the issue fairly. We also wanted to know whether this was ever a mainstream idea -- and whether it’s technologically feasible.
These issues are irrelevant to whether Brooks' claim is true.  They are relevant to Brooks' apparent underlying argument that Gingrich's supposed suggestion of putting mirrors in space is crazy.

Of course, that kind of sidesteps the concept of a brainstorming session (come up with ideas regardless of merit) and ignores the prestige, if any, of the participants at NASA's symposium.  Apparently the space mirror idea came from climate scientists.  Some people have suggested space mirrors could help alleviate problems associated with global climate change.

PolitiFact's story acknowledges the global warming connection through the testimony of one science expert, though it concludes with a kicker quotation from another supposedly neutral expert:
Raymond S. Bradley, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts, put it simply: "This is not a mainstream idea. It is one of the dumbest ideas I have heard of."
Bradley doesn't sound like the sort of person who would fit in well at a brainstorming session.

But all this window dressing aside, where's the advocacy?

Our ruling
Gingrich co-wrote his book more than a quarter century ago, and since he doesn’t appear to have reiterated the call for floating mirrors in recent years, we can safely assume the idea is no longer at the top of his policy agenda. But did cite the idea approvingly in his book, so we rate Brooks’ statement True.
Funny.  The gracious snarkmeisters at PolitiFact can assume the idea is "no longer at the top of Gingrich's policy agenda."  This after their story failed to turn up any evidence that the idea had ever been anywhere on Gingrich's policy agenda.

We reach the end of PolitiFact's analysis without any solid evidence that Gingrich ever advocated the idea of placing giant mirrors in space for any reason at all, yet David Brooks warrants a "True" rating?

No, I haven't forgotten the comparison to Cass Sunstein:
Yes, Sunstein acknowledges this was an idea he once threw out there — albeit, in his words, "tentatively." But he now thinks it's a bad idea. So the chain e-mail/article is correct that Sunstein once suggested it. But contrary to the headline, it's a position he no longer holds, as he has since said strongly and repeatedly. Once true. No longer. That leaves us at Half True.
Readers may notice a discordant thread in the above conclusion.  PolitiFact's own headline material does not match in substance the World Net Daily headline associated with the story about Sunstein.  The fact check was of the chain email.  While PolitiFact did not provide a copy of the email, it's at least clear that the claim PolitiFact highlighted in its headline material is a true claim.  The entire justification for dropping the chain email claim apparently comes from the World Net Daily headline.  Applying that standard to PolitiFact, their story fact checking the claim about Sunstein is "Half True."

PolitiFact provided no evidence that Gingrich had advocated a system of space mirrors.

PolitiFact found that Sunstein definitely had advocated a type of fairness doctrine for the Internet.

Gingrich did not write to withdraw his space mirror proposal as Sunstein did with his Internet fairness doctrine, but the most obvious explanation for that comes from the fact that Gingrich didn't advocate putting up space mirrors in the first place.

Yet the claim about Gingrich received a "True" rating ("The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.") while the claim about Sunstein received a rating of "Half True" ("The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.")

It isn't relevant that Gingrich never specifically advocated the idea right through to the present day?


The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Robert Farley and Bill Adair receive honorary failing grades for the bait-and-switch technique they used to justify the "Half True" rating on the Sunstein claim.  People in glass houses ...

Thursday, December 08, 2011

The meta-savviness of Brendan Nyhan

Political scientist Brendan Nyhan is back--not that he ever went away--with another of his patented faux-objective assessments of the U.S. media's relationship with its audience.

Nyhan's fundamental trouble remains his difficulty in assessing the aquarium habitat while always swimming in the tank with the rest of the fish.

His pet issue in his story is the tendency of news reports to continue to use "he said/she said" accounts of political disputes:
The first obligation of journalists is to the truth. As such, it is important that reporters set the record straight when ads like these are misleading their audience. The problem, however, is that many national reporters—and the state reporters who increasingly emulate them—have been sucked in by the cult of the savvy. For these journalists, producing meta-level analysis of the effectiveness of deception as a campaign tactic is more important than correcting the factual record for readers.
I, for one, do not see why Jay Rosen's description of the journalistic "cult of savvy" would be incompatible with the solution Nyhan recommends:
A better approach would be for reporters to characterize the accuracy of ads in their own voice and to invoke non-partisan experts like PolitiFact. In some cases, it may even be possible to find credible sources on the side of the candidate airing the misleading ad who are willing to state the truth.
So journalists will let readers in on their supposedly specialized knowledge regarding the truth of political claims.  And then what?  The cult of savvy will proceed to meditate on the effects its findings should have on the reader, no doubt abundantly citing Nyhan's flawed research in the process.  Both steps leave ample room for the cult of savvy to direct the journalistic approach.  Glenn Greenwald, for example, pointed out the tendency at PolitiFact to use expert sources from both sides of an issue. The main difference with the traditional he said/she said approach is that PolitiFact not infrequently ends up making an arbitrary decision as to which expert opinion carries the day.

If the journalists taking that step are both expert and not ideologically biased, then fine.  But who buys either proposition?

Apparently the meta-savvy Brendan Nyhan buys it, as he refers to PolitiFact as "non-partisan experts."

Give me a break.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Say what?

The blog I share with Jeff Dyberg has a Google profile page:

"PolitiFact has not filled out their profile yet."

As interesting as it might be to let PolitiFact fill out our profile page, if it ever gets filled out we'll probably do it ourselves.

December Artist: The Grip Weeds

Thanks to a timely new Christmas album, the Grip Weeds return to the sidebar at Sublime Bloviations.

If you like the Beatles or the Who or just the late 60s/early 70s rock sound then check them out to the right.

No video from the Christmas album yet, so here's an older one for the song "Don't You Believe It."

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Florida): Rick Scott and "the law of the land"

Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

PolitiFact's reader vote for "Lie of the Year" is underway. Because of many cases like the one we're about to examine, I submitted the above principle of the "Truth-O-Meter" as my write-in suggestion for "Lie of the Year" for 2011.  Go here to add your write-in vote to mine.

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Becky Bowers:  writer, researcher
Aaron Sharockman:  editor


PolitiFact does provide the relevant context of Gov. Scott's remarks.  Let's go there right away:
Randy Schultz, the paper's editorial page editor, noted that Florida had not worked to implement Obama's health care law, then asked: "Will you implement the law if the Supreme Court upholds all or part of it?"

Scott replied: "If it's the law of the land, we'll be ready."

Post editorial writer Rhonda Swan commented that the state has rejected millions in federal grants designed to help the state prepare. So, she asked, how would the governor pay for implementation?

"It's my job, if it's the law of the country, to be ready when it's the law," Scott said. "... When it's the law of the land, we'll implement the law."

"Where will you find the money?" Swan asked.

"It'll be part of our budget," Scott said.

Swan continued to press, finally asking: "Why not take the money that the federal government is offering now so you can be prepared?"

"Because it's not the law of the land," Scott said. "I don't believe it'll ever become the law of the land."
The fact check starts out lost and never finds its way.  It is apparently assumed throughout the story that Scott believes that no part of the PPACA stands as the law of the land regardless of the implementation dates specified in the law.  That is, until PolitiFact stumbles over the likely answer and promptly moves on to other things (bold emphasis added):
(D)oes the governor really mean to argue that he's turning away money to prepare for provisions of the law to go into effect because they haven't yet gone into effect?

Randy Barnett, a Georgetown law professor involved in the Supreme Court challenge to the health care law, offered another interpretation of Scott's statement.

The governor took an oath to support the Constitution. So he might take the stance that the law, "though properly enacted, is contrary to the Constitution and therefore not a valid and binding law," Barnett said.
The answer to the question in bold seems like an abundant and obvious "yes."  Yet PolitiFact can't seem to get the story to deal with the most obvious meaning of Scott's statement.

When PolitiFact gets around to its "Truth-O-Meter" rating of "False," we finally see a hint of the reasoning PolitiFact may have used--but only a hint (bold emphasis added):
The Governor's Office argues the law's not "the law of the land," because several significant provisions haven't yet taken effect. But that misses the point. It's telling that the governor has resisted implementing all parts of the law, not just those slated to take effect later or that have raised constitutional questions.
Scott can argue it's not a good idea, but it's incorrect for him to claim it's not the law. We rate his statement False.
Scott has a good argument that provisions that have yet to take effect are not the law of the land.  If a mandatory seat belt law is passed in 2010 but goes into effect in 2013 I am not violating any law today by not wearing my seat belt.  The law has not taken effect and it is accurate to say that it is not the law of the land in 2011 that I must wear the safety belt.

And though this seems very clearly analogous to Scott's meaning, PolitiFact refuses to see it, even to the point of huffing that Scott "misses the point."  With all due respect to PolitiFact, Scott's allowed to determine his own point.

And then there's this interesting nugget (bold emphasis added):
It's telling that the governor has resisted implementing all parts of the law, not just those slated to take effect later or that have raised constitutional questions.
Like what?

No, seriously:  Like what?

PolitiFact offers no example.

Read the timeline for implementation of the PPACA and try to figure out what aspects of the law Florida must comply with now.  The timeline appears to include no mandatory requirements for the state government of Florida.

I located one aspect of the law that Florida actively resists, a fixed medical loss ratio for insurance companies including Medicaid, but that resistance has not consisted of a simple refusal to implement the law but rather negotiation with federal agencies regarding a phasing in of the requirements.

With no example of Florida blowing off the federal law, the PolitiFact story features a great big hole.  The thin rationale for ignoring Scott's likely meaning could pass for nothing, leaving us with a perfectly reasonable way to understand Scott's meaning:  Florida will only comply with the law when it must.  And that only happens when the PPACA, as Scott put it, is the law of the land.

PolitiFact offers no reasonable evidence to support finding Scott's statement "False" yet finds it "False" anyway.

The grades:

Becky Bowers:  F
Aaron Sharockman:  F

Handicapping PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" (Updated x2)

It's that time of year again.  PolitiFact has released its finalists for the non-coveted "Lie of the Year" award.

Congressional Republicans have introduced dozens of bills on social issues and other topics, but "zero on job creation."
I give this one no shot at winning.  It's just not going to resonate with PolitiFact's readers, first because liberals may well think it true and second because it was a type of Facebook spam.  It would be the equivalent of giving the award to a chain email.
The stimulus created "zero jobs." 
This is a fine choice to finish in the top five.  Liberals pretty much have to believe that the stimulus worked or else admit that their signature policy in response to the "Great Recession" was a flop.  Attacking the claim that the stimulus created zero jobs helps serve that purpose.  And it's easy to ignore the fact that the claim was very probably referring to net jobs.  Claims like this one, juxtaposed with White House claims about the ARRA, help point out the emptiness of the administration's claims.  Who cares how many jobs it creates if the overall result if a net loss in jobs?  That reflects a failed policy.
President Obama "went around the world and apologized for America."
This claim by Mitt Romney also has a great chance to finish in the top five, especially if liberals regard Romney as a likely bet to win the nomination as the Republican presidential candidate. This "Pants on Fire" rating is notable because one of the experts PolitiFact consulted on the story flat out supported Romney.
Says the vaccine to prevent HPV can cause mental retardation.
Though liberals have a thing for Michele Bachmann, this statement has no chance of winning unless it is perceived as a key reason why Bachmann had no staying power in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.  I don't see it that way, but then again I'm no liberal.
Scientists are "questioning the original idea that man-made global warming is what is causing the climate to change. … (It is) more and more being put into question."
Global warming remains a hot-button issue with liberals, so Rick Perry's statement about global warming has an excellent shot at ending in the top five.
"What I have done -- and this is unprecedented ... is I've said to each agency ... 'look at regulations that are already on the books and if they don't make sense, let's get rid of them.'"
This claim seems like tossing a bone to conservatives.  Obama is to some extent to conservatives as Bush was to liberals, or as Bachmann is today--the easy target.  But who really thinks this faux pas was significant regardless of how much precedent accompanied Obama's review policy?  I certainly don't.  Don't look for this one to receive many votes.  It occurs as a finalist to symbolize PolitiFact's fairness.
By advocating new requirements for voters to show ID cards at the polls, Republicans "want to literally drag us all the way back to Jim Crow laws."
Debbie Wasserman Schultz actually does fill the Bachmann role for the Democratic Party.  She's rapidly forging her own legend of rhetorical excess.  And since this one's a doozy it does stand a decent chance of hitting the top five.  Conservatives will vote for this partly based on Wasserman Schultz's overall history and figure she's deserving.  Democrats can feel comfortable throwing her overboard because they can condemn her rhetoric without making their policies look bad.
"Seniors will have to find $12,500 for health care because Republicans voted to end Medicare."
This claim also has a good shot at hit at hitting the top five for some of the same reasons cited for Wasserman Schultz's contender status.  On the downside for PolitiFact, Republicans can make it an election issue and potentially move votes.
Abortion services are "well over 90 percent of what Planned Parenthood does."
Senator Jon Kyle's statement on abortion is about as important as Obama's "unprecedented" review policy, but Kyl could do well in the voting depending on how much liberals perceive abortion a a lightning-rod issue this election season.  But I'll be surprised if this one ranks in the top five either among PolitiFact editors or among PolitiFact's readers.
"I didn't raise taxes once."
This one's true in the Clintonesque sense!  Obama raised taxes more than once and so can truthfully claim that he did not raise taxes (just) once.  This statement is likely to vie with Wasserman Schultz's to serve as the lone liberal representative in the final top five.  Journalists may resent Obama's implicit challenge to their willingness to call him on a statement like this one.
These predictions are just for fun, representing my sense of how the results will turn out.  Readers should not make bets based on this information as though it is gambling advice.

It's occurred to me that Obama can't win.

Even though his statement about not raising taxes at all is about as baloniful as anything, making Obama the winner of a "lie of the year" award would serve as campaign fodder in next year's election.  A nearly perfect way for PolitiFact to distance itself from a growing reputation for ideological bias in its rulings?  Yes--but can they tolerate the political cost to the Obama campaign?

I don't see it happening.  Surprise me, PolitiFact.

Wasserman Schultz is the way to go if you don't want to pick a third straight conservative.

Update 2:

I missed adding one significant Democratic Party claim to the list.  With this update I'm also trying to fix the problem with the unusual font size and appearance.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

PolitiFlub: Scott Walker vs. the unions

Just a reminder:  I exercise selection bias in deciding which PolitiFact items to critique.  By no means do I read all of them.  I look at ones I think are likely to contain errors based on their subject matter.  I tend not to have any difficulty finding errors, and I expect that if I looked at more of the items I'd find many more errors.

I don't have time for do a detailed critique of every PolitiFact item in which I find flaws.  But sometimes I have to point out a significant mistake even if I don't do the full critique.  That's what "PolitiFlub" items are for.

This item concerns a spectacular offense against the principle of charitable interpretation, committed by PolitiFact Wisconsin.  PolitiFact took issue with Walker's description of his clash with Wisconsin's public sector unions:
He focused sharply on labor unions, which fought legislation by Walker and Republican lawmakers to curtail collective bargaining and force  public workers to contribute more toward pensions and health care. That push, which became law, attracted massive and prolonged protests in Madison.

"I asked the unions to pay into their own health care insurance (just as their Wisconsin neighbors do) and they said I was being unreasonable," Walker’s letter said. "I requested that they contribute toward their own pensions (just as their Wisconsin neighbors do) and they screamed it was unfair."
What was the problem?

In PolitiFact's eyes, Walker made it look like he was asking the unions to agree to the changes in pension and health care contributions:
(T)he portrayal of "asking" the unions rewrites history, leaving the misleading impression there was give and take with labor.
Why is this a PolitiFlub?  Isn't PolitiFact obviously correct?

Shame on you if you think so.

PolitiFact conveniently overlooks that "ask" and "request" and their permutations are routinely used where the associated behavior represents a demand.

"I ask that you all take your seats."

"With this tax hike we're simply asking the filthy stinkin' rich to pay their fair share."

Still think I'm kidding?
5. to demand; expect: What price are they asking? A little silence is all I ask.
And, yes, the word "request" works the same way:
The principle of charitable interpretation must receive evenhanded application in fact checking to ensure fairness.  Every subject, without exception, is entitled to charitable interpretation.  Skipping the step according to whim or bias leads to the straw man fallacy and other errors.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Another embarrassing juxtaposition for PolitiFact

Oy vey.

A little over two weeks ago, I panned a PolitiFact Florida fact check that found "Mostly False" the claim that one can register to vote without proving citizenship.

Just now I stumbled over a parallel fact check from PolitiFact Wisconsin.  Apparently state Rep. Donna Seidel claimed that a new Republican-backed law would allow persons without firearms training to receive a state permit to carry a concealed weapon.

In the Florida case, a person registering to vote needs to sign an affidavit affirming possession of legal citizenship status.  That's it.  That's the proof requirement unless one registers through the "motor voter" program.

In Wisconsin, the law continues to require firearm training but does not specify the amount of training required.  Here's how PolitiFact Wisconsin summarized it:
States typically do one or more of the following: certify the training organization, their instructors or their courses; mandate specific topics for training; set a minimum number of hours; require the instructor to sign the training certificate.

Wisconsin now requires none of those.
The finding?  They ruled Seidel's statement "True" without reservation.  The justification for the ruling provides an amazing comparison with the reasoning applied by PolitiFact Florida with respect to voter registration:

PolitiFact Wisconsin:
The law is still on the books requiring an instructor-led training course, but it’s hard to prove that someone skipped it. So the door is open to "untrained" individuals getting a permit.
PolitiFact Florida:
Individual supervisors of elections do have the ability to determine if an applicant is an U.S. citizen, Cate said, though it would be difficult for a supervisor to ascertain citizenship.
In the former case the difficulty of proving the lack of qualification serves as a key point supporting the Democrat's statement.  In the latter case, the difficulty of proving the citizenship of a registered voter is apparently completely ignored as a reason contributing to the truth of the claim.

If a Wisconsin Democrat raises concerns about untrained persons carrying firearms, PolitiFact sees a problem with a soft standard for proving training status.

If a Florida Republican raises concerns about illegal immigrants registering to vote, PolitiFact finds hardly any problem with a comparable standard of proof.

Despite the similarity of the claims and the related set of facts, the Democrat receives a "True" while the Republican receives a "Mostly False" from the Truth-O-Meter.

And doesn't that fit pretty well with the liberal preferences for easy voting and stricter controls on firearms?

The "PolitiFact heuristic"

A thoughtful college student wrote a pretty good blog post about the usefulness of PolitiFact ratings.

Peter William Hurford overall does a handy job of pointing out the limited conclusions we can legitimately draw from "Truth-O-Meter" ratings, but ends up offering PolitiFact a bit too much credit.

The problem stems from an early assumption:
Enter PolitiFact. PolitiFact is a website located at that aims to “fact-check statements by members of Congress, the White House, lobbyists and interest groups”. Run by the St. Petersburg Times, an independent newspaper, PolitiFact elaborates on their history and promises “that no one is behind the scenes telling us what to write for someone else’s benefit. We are an independent, nonpartisan news organization. We are not beholden to any government, political party or corporate interest. We are proud to be able to say that we are independent journalists. And for that, we thank Nelson Poynter.”

Thus we probably have enough information to establish PolitiFact as reasonably trustworthy, and a sufficiently reliable source of information that we can draw upon it to approximate knowledge about the trustworthiness of candidates in a heuristic.
PolitiFact reliable?

Credit Hurford with using the language of caution ("probably" "sufficiently reliable"), but his premise about PolitiFact's reliability is a judgment call resting on little more than a presumption of PolitiFact's competence and fairness.

An abundance of anecdotal evidence shows PolitiFact failing journalistic standards as well as its own standards while strongly suggesting that PolitiFact exhibits the leftward ideological tilt we might expect from the typical aggregation of journalists.  Cases like one I wrote about hours ago, where two very similar fact checks essentially gave a pass to the lone Democratic Party entity involved would doubtless give a reasonable person like Hurford pause if he was aware of their existence.

I should emphasize again that Hurford's reasoning is mostly solid.  He does a good job of pointing out the types of conclusions the findings at PolitiFact would fail to reasonably support.  But at the bottom line, the "PolitiFact heuristic" is probably less useful than Hurford's earlier example of heuristic reasoning:  trusting elite opinions.

And an informed voter may well be more likely than the writers and editors at PolitiFact at identifying statements that discredit a candidate.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Another shifting standard at PolitiFact

Remember the terrible job PolitiFact did fact checking the Florida Democratic Party's claims about Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum's supposed vote for his own pay raises?

No?  Well, I'm not so surprised.

PolitiFact Florida revisited the issue yesterday and did a decent job of explaining the pay raise process that made the claim about McCollum so dubious.  Not to worry, Florida Democratic Party.  I'm sure your "True" rating is permanently ensconced in PolitiFact's Hall of Records.  And it's far too late to erase any political damage your ad did to McCollum that year.

This time it's Republican against Republican, with Republican senatorial candidate George LeMieux making a similar claim about Connie Mack's voting record.  LeMieux received a "Half True" rating.

LeMieux is a dirty lyin' scoundrel.  The Florida Democratic Party is pure as the driven snow.

Time for me to write another futile letter to PolitiFact ...
Dear Amy Sherman (cc Aaron Sharockman),

Thanks for doing a credible job with your story on congressional pay raises.  I sincerely appreciate seeing you do such a nice job on it.

On the downside, your inconsistency at PolitiFact just cracks me up.  Another PolitiFact team did a parallel fact check of a very similar claim about Bill McCollum back in 2010 and found it true without reservation.  That claim was made by the Florida Democratic Party, for what that's worth.

Will you dare demand a revision of that item, shedding on it some of the light from the superior reporting this time around?  It's a bit late to help out McCollum, of course, whose reputation took the damage from PolitiFact's earlier fact check, but it might ease a conscience or two.
 Ball in PolitiFact's court.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Fatally flawed design

An MIT grad student has designed software that would highlight suspicious sentences as a type of fact-checking help.

But there's a problem:
Schultz is careful to clarify: His software is not designed to determine lies from truth on its own. That remains primarily the province of real humans. The software is being designed to detect words and phrases that show up in PolitiFact’s database, relying on PolitiFact’s researchers for the truth-telling. “It’s not just deciding what’s bullshit. It’s deciding what has been judged,” he said. “In other words, it’s picking out things that somebody identified as being potentially dubious.”
So the software is next to useless.

Hasn't Schultz heard of Annenberg Fact Check?  Still biased, but not the joke that is PolitiFact.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Mitt Romney's Obama ad and talking about the economy (Updated x2))

Context matters -- We examine the claim in the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
PolitiFact delivered on the above principle this time--after a fashion.

The issue

On occasion I'll provide an expanded clip of PolitiFact's visual presentation of the story to help emphasize the way our supposed fact checkers mislead the audience.

This is another of those times.

(clipped from
PolitiFact sends the message that it is beyond merely false that Barack Obama said "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


This is an amazingly inept effort by PolitiFact.

You've been warned.

On the eve of a presidential trip to New Hampshire on Nov. 22, 2011, Mitt Romney’s campaign released an ad targeting President Barack Obama. In the ad, the Romney campaign used a quote that prompted an immediate counterattack from the Obama camp, which argued that it had been taken out of context.
Wait a minute.  The Obama camp complained about the quotation being taken out of context?  So Obama actually said what Romney claimed he said?   What about the headline and deck material making it look the opposite?  What about that "Pants on Fire" rating when PolitiFact's rating system until recently had a category for accurate statements that take things out of context ("Half True")?

What's going on here?  Jacobson had better come through with a spectacular explanation for this one.

The 60-second ad, called "Believe in America," is designed to contrast "candidate Obama from 2008 with President Obama of today," highlighting "his failures in between," according to the Romney campaign.

The ad contrasts a 2008 campaign speech by Obama with text on the screen that criticizes Obama’s economic record, including, "Greatest Jobs Crisis Since Great Depression," "Record Home Foreclosures" and "Record National Debt."

The ad then has a clip of Obama saying, "If we keep talking about the economy, we’re going to lose."
PolitiFact fails to make clear that every one of Obama's words come from that same 2008 campaign speech. And the Romney ad prefaces the quotations with the year in which they were made:  2008.

Here's the ad:

The ad contains nothing to cue the viewer that Obama was speaking about the 2012 election in the last clip.  Paying attention to the context, the viewer is left to figure out what Obama was talking about in 2008.  Obviously Obama isn't talking about his own re-election prospects on Oct. 16, 2008--not in those words.  Obama hadn't been elected at that point. The election didn't take place until November of that year.

PolitiFact somehow fails to see it:
The clear implication is that Obama believes that his economic record is so bad that he will lose in 2012 unless he can steer the conversation away from the economy.
Why would Obama have any beliefs at all about his economic record as president way back in 2008?  This supposed "clear implication" occurs only if the viewer either ignores the context or has an unaccountably difficult time taking obvious clues from the context.  We're not in Sherlock Holmes territory, here.

But PolitiFact rolls with it:
But the Obama camp, among others, immediately charged that the clip was taken out of context. Was it?

Here’s what Obama said in the October 2008 speech, which came about two weeks before he defeated Sen. John McCain:

"Even as we face the most serious economic crisis of our time, even as you are worried about keeping your jobs or paying your bills or staying in your homes, my opponent's campaign announced earlier this month that they want to ‘turn the page’ on the discussion about our economy so they can spend the final weeks of this election attacking me instead," Obama said in the speech. "Sen. McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.’"

So the comment is drastically different than the way it's portrayed in the Romney ad. Obama was actually saying that his opponent’s campaign three years earlier had said, "If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose." That context is not included in the Romney ad -- and leaving it out sends a profoundly different message.
1)  The claim from the Obama camp that the quotation was taken out of context deserves its own fact check. 

2)  PolitiFact is correct that Obama was referring to something said by the McCain campaign.

3)  PolitiFact is incorrect that omitting the context sends a profoundly different message.   I will illustrate.

Let's make it a 35 second ad instead of a 30 second ad, adding in the full quotation from Obama, and let PolitiFact explain it just like before:

The ad contrasts a 2008 campaign speech by Obama with text on the screen that criticizes Obama’s economic record, including, "Greatest Jobs Crisis Since Great Depression," "Record Home Foreclosures" and "Record National Debt."

The ad then has a clip of Obama saying, "Sen. McCain's campaign actually said, and I quote, ‘If we keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose.’"

What is the message of the ad with the context included?

No doubt someone could complain that in our augmented version Romney makes it look like McCain is saying that Obama can't get re-elected on his economic record.  But we can even make it a 45 second ad, including context sufficient to ensure that every viewer understands that McCain was talking about the economy in 2008 and the GOP prospects for the presidential election and it still doesn't change the point of the ad.

The point of the ad is that if it wasn't proper to run on the economy in 2008 then it's even worse to run on the economy in 2012, with many economic indicators far worse than they were in 2008.

And the fact that Obama mockingly brought up what the McCain campaign said pretty well confirms that Obama did not think the 2008 economy was good election material for the incumbent party.  Is Obama supposed to think otherwise in 2011-2012 with unemployment over 8 percent, the housing market still a shambles and an anemic growth rate?

That's the point of the ad.  It doesn't change with the context added.  And the fact that it doesn't change with the context added means that the quotation was not taken misleadingly out of context. 

PolitiFact, of course, fails to see it that way:
Our ruling

We certainly think it’s fair for Romney to attack Obama for his response to the economy. And the Romney camp can argue that Obama’s situation in 2011 is ironic considering the comments he made in 2008. But those points could have been made without distorting Obama’s words, which have been taken out of context in a ridiculously misleading way. We rate the Romney ad’s portrayal of Obama’s 2008 comments Pants on Fire.
Kudos to PolitiFact for at least admitting the real point of the ad is legitimate despite missing the real point.  Only viewers completely unable to appreciate the significance of Obama's remarks from 2008 could miss the real point of the ad.  The real point flies whether McCain said it of himself, whether McCain said it of Obama or whether Obama said it of himself.

In a situation like that no additional context is needed.  The Romney campaign was justified in omitting it.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Bill Adair:  F

What can you say about a team that wrote a knee-jerk response to the Romney ad?  What can you say about a team that produced a presentation that makes it appear false that Obama said something that Obama did say?  What can you say about a team that corrupted the Truth-O-Meter's supposed grading system in favor of its subjective knee-jerk response?

They're journalists reporting badly.


ABC News serves up a handy reminder that PolitiFact isn't the only impossibly inept news source out there.  ABC ran the following under the headline "Mitt Romney ad misquotes President Obama":
Mitt Romney’s inaugural TV ad of the 2012 campaign aired today in New Hampshire just as President Obama traveled to the state, but the ad immediately came under fire from Democrats and fact-checkers for incorrectly quoting Obama.

The White House, the Democratic National Committee and Obama’s re-election campaign accused the Romney campaign today of unfairly twisting the president’s words.
We have people reporting the news who do not know what is and what is not a misquote.

It's stuff like this that makes it plain to so many, regardless of a want of an easy scientific proof, that the leftward tilt of media ideology results in left-tilted news reporting.

Update 2:

Jim Nolte at Big Journalism evaluated the Romney ad the same way I did, and he published first:
Watch Romney’s ad again. The point wasn’t “look at what Obama said!” The point was that the statement about talking about the economy is true when it comes to Obama.  You could add the full context and it might even hit Obama harder because of the obvious irony. Moreover, campaigns do this kind of thing all the time.

But don't expect PolitiFact to pay any attention to the criticism unless it is picked up and amplified by its primarily liberal fan base.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Hope 'n' change at PolitiFact (Updated x2)

I keep hoping that criticism will influence positive change at PolitiFact, the fact checking arm of the St. Petersburg Times (soon changing its name to the Tampa Bay Times).

Well, a positive change occurred at PolitiFact recently.

Unfortunately, it was of the "one step forward, two steps back" variety.

For some time I've carped about PolitiFact's inconsistent standards, and in particular its publishing of two different standards for its "Half True" position on the "Truth-O-Meter."

The recent change probably stemmed from a message I sent to an editor at the paper's city desk (sent Nov. 9):
PolitiFact has created a problem for itself through inconsistency.  During the site's earlier years a page called "About PolitiFact" gave information about how the "Flip-O-Meter" and the "Truth-O-Meter" supposedly operate.  The page includes a description of each of the "Truth-O-Meter" rating categories.

More recently, editor Bill Adair posted an item called "Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter."  The problem?  The definition for "Half True" is different than the one PolitiFact posted for well over a year prior.  Compounding the problem, PolitiFact has kept both versions online through now.

1)  The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
2)  The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

I'll be interested to see the eventual remedy.  Which items over PolitiFact's history went by which definition? Was a change made in Feb. 2011 or before without any announcement?  How can PolitiFact legitimately offer report cards and "Truth Index" ratings if the grading system isn't consistent?  Those are questions I'd imagine readers would have if they realized PolitiFact is using two different definitions for the same rating.  I don't expect you to answer them for my sake (not that I would mind if you did). 

Good luck to all sorting this one out.
The eventual remedy is apparently to simply change the longstanding definition at "About PolitiFact" to match the newer one at "Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter" without any fanfare--indeed, without any apparent notice whatsoever.  I detect no admission of error at all and no acknowledgment that PolitiFact changed its standard.

The move seems consistent with the desire of the mainstream press to avoid doing things that "undermine the ability of readers, viewers or listeners to believe what they print or broadcast."

Sadly, I'm not at all surprised.

On the positive side, the definitions are now consistent with one another.

On the negative side, PolitiFact either created a past illusion where Truth-O-Meter ratings used the old system or else created a fresh illusion that past ratings follow the new system.  And went about it in about the least transparent way possible.


Good luck to PolitiFact retroactively changing the dozens (perhaps hundreds) of places on the Web that republished the original definition of "Half True."

(Clipped from; click image for enlarged view)

Contact PolitiFact Wisconsin.  They didn't get the memo yet.  And PolitiFact Texas has the same problem.

It's not the crime, it's the coverup.

Update 2:

It's also worth remembering PolitiFact's agonizing decision to change "Barely True" to "Mostly False."

"It is a change we don't make lightly," wrote Bill Adair.

How do you like that?  A change in the wording of a rating gets a reader survey prior to the change and an article announcing the change.  A change in the definition of a rating--a much more substantial change--gets the swept-under-the-rug treatment.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Video: Blue Angels with Dixie Dregs soundtrack

What's not to like?   I can't resist posting this.

Is Steve Morse slightly stoked at having his music used for this video? Morse is, after all, a pilot.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Video: "The European Fiscal Crisis and Lessons for America"

Yes, it's time for a flirtation with "rule 5" blogging, featuring yet another economics instruction video from the Center for Freedom and Prosperity.

I like the line about the "safety net" turning into a hammock.

Hat tip to Hot Air.

Friday, November 18, 2011

PolitiFlub: Who gambles the most?

Argh.  Perhaps Media Matters is better than PolitiFact after all.

The latest improbable flub from PolitiFact involves the question of gambling demographics.

PolitiFact examines a statement supposedly from John Stemberger.  Here's the headline blurb:

The largest number of gamblers are "from the poorest segments of the population."  

John Stemberger on Thursday, October 20th, 2011 in a website
However, it turns out that the portion in quotes was in turn quoted by Stemberger from another source (bold emphasis added):
The blog post from Oct. 20, 2011, uses partial quotes from Wayne Grudem, a theology professor at Phoenix Seminary in Arizona and author of the book Politics According to the Bible:

"My own judgment is that large commercial gambling outlets such as casinos and state-sponsored lotteries bring much more harm to a society than the benefits they generate (such as tax revenue)… First, it is socially harmful (and fiscally regressive) because the largest numbers of gamblers comes from the poorest segments of the population. Second, (it) leads to an addiction to gambling … and this addiction destroys marriages, families … and increases societal breakdown. Third, studies have shown that where gambling businesses are established, crime rates increase."
Every bit of the information PolitiFact is checking, as a matter of fact, comes from quotations of Grudem.

But there's more.

PolitiFact is good enough to link to the page in Grudem's book from which the material ultimately came.  But PolitiFact does not provide what may be a key part of the context of Grudem's claim, and ignores that potential key element in its reasoning.

(S)erious objections can be brought against gambling, or at least commercial gambling as a business.  A number of studies have shown that gambling brings negative effects in a society, and these must be seriously considered.  First, it is socially harmful because the largest number of gamblers comes from the poorest segments of the population, who make unwise decisions and trap themselves deeper and deeper in debt. Second, the existence of gambling businesses leads to an addiction to gambling on the part of a certain percentage of the population, and this addiction destroys marriages, families, and any hope for career advancement ...
Note that Grudem is sourcing his objections to an unnamed "number of studies."  So, if we keep each of the successive statements in context, the fact check ought to be about whether those studies say what Grudem claims they say (compare Jon Stewart).

Yet the fallout lands on John Stemberger without even apparently considering the studies to which Grudem alludes.  Though it's worth noting that Grudem apparently does not cite the studies specifically, fact checkers thereby obtain no excuse for ignoring the original context of the claim.

As bad as the failing makes PolitiFact appear, it gets even worse.

Note the wording of the claim from Grudem:  "the largest number of gamblers comes from the poorest segments of the population."  Though Grudem refers to segments plural, PolitiFact proceeds to interpret it in the singular.  That interpretation leads to what may represent a straw man version of Grudem's argument.

Note the response elicited from one of PolitiFact's expert sources:
"In my opinion this is a poorly worded and misleading statement," said David Just, an economics professor at Cornell, who has studied poverty and lotteries. "By no means does this group constitute the majority of those playing the lottery. Those in poverty are just 16 percent of the U.S. population."
It's possible that Grudem had a poverty-level demographic in mind.  But is an assumption warranted?

PolitiFact simply fails to handle the material objectively.  Stemberger did not make the statement attributed to him other than by quoting his source.  Grudem deserves the fact check if anyone, and PolitiFact takes his statement out of context and applies to it something less than the charitable interpretation.


I'm still shaking my head over the opening paragraph:
In the ongoing war about gambling in Florida, some critics have turned to the Bible to state their case.
Some critics may have turned to the Bible to make their case, but it doesn't have much to do with this fact check, which concerns a criticism of the lottery based on economics and harm to society.

The paragraph doesn't belong in this story.  Good grief.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

More D'OhbamaCare

The story "Another ObamaCare Glitch" by Jonathan H. Adler and Michael F. Cannon, appearing in the Wall Street Journal, identifies yet another problematic aspect of President Obama's signature piece of legislation:
Even if ObamaCare survives Supreme Court scrutiny next spring, its trials will be far from over. That's because the law has a major glitch that threatens its basic functioning. It's so problematic, in fact, that the Obama administration is now brazenly trying to rewrite the law without involving Congress.
It seems the PPACA requires state-run insurance exchanges to provide premium assistance but contains no provision for the federal version where states elect not to organize an exchange.

Adler and Cannon provide plenty of details about the can of worms thus opened, so read the whole article.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The EPA should regulate airplanes

While researching a PolitiFact fact check, it occurred to me that the Environmental Protection Agency ought to regulate airplanes.  Not the emissions from airplane engines, but the airplanes themselves.

This notion stems from the definition of air pollution that EPA and the courts have used to justify shoehorning carbon dioxide into the regulated pollutant category (bold emphasis added):
While greenhouse gases and their impacts have been a matter of concern for years, these gases were not definitively determined to be an air pollutant covered by the CAA until the Supreme Court resolved that issue affirmatively in 2007. In addressing this issue, the Court looked to the definition of “air pollutant,” which is defined as “any air pollution agent or combination of such agents ... which is emitted into or otherwise enters the ambient air.” Massachusetts v. EPA, 549 U.S. 497, 506 (2007) (“Massachusetts”).
Airplanes enter the ambient air with every takeoff, unless we're supposing the mere manufacture of a plane causes it to enter the air (albeit grounded).  It seems like the statutory text would foreclose any exclusion of airplanes from the EPA's regulatory sphere.  Certainly planes regularly cause human endangerment via crashes and skydiving accidents (not to mention the heightened risks to human life associated with warplanes!), so it makes complete sense for the EPA to require permits of plane owners.

Just sayin'.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Florida): Alan Hays, proof of citizenship and voting

Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter
If anything about an anecdote can strongly suggest an ideological bias, it is the complete ease with which PolitiFact can ignore its supposed principles.

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Amy Sherman:  writer, researcher
Aaron Sharockman:  editor


Words matter.  Here are the words Alan Hays used during the committee meeting, via the PolitiFact story (bold emphasis added):
"Before we design a district anywhere in the state of Florida for Hispanic voters, we need to ascertain that they are citizens of the United States. We all know there are many Hispanic speaking people in Florida that are not legal, and I just don't think that it's right that we try to draw a district that encompasses people that really have no business voting anyhow. If we know registered voters are people who have proven their citizenship then that's a completely different story, but I'm not aware of any proof of citizenship necessary before you register to vote."
Hays says he isn't aware of any proof of citizenship necessary in Florida, before one can register to vote.

Watch the PolitiFact twist:
Hays said you don't need to prove that you're a citizen in order to cast a ballot.
Words matter?

If words matter then we should expect PolitiFact to note the difference between saying one does not know of a requirement and saying that no requirement exists.  If PolitiFact subjected its own claim to the "Truth-O-Meter"--and the thing actually worked like it's supposed to--I don't see how it could rate higher than "Mostly False."

It seems that words matter at PolitiFact's discretion.  That is, according to subjective criteria.

Fact checking a dubious paraphrase rather than the subject's actual words already constitutes justification for failing grades, but even apart from this blunder the fact check takes an astonishingly errant course.

Is it necessary to prove citizenship in order to register to vote in Florida?

PolitiFact takes up the question by initially examining the motor voter registration system, perhaps reasoning that the emphasis is appropriate given the popularity of that mode of registration:
Floridians can register to vote a variety of ways -- but the most common registration method is at driver's license offices. In 2010, more than 270,000 people registered to vote at driver's license offices. The second-most common method was what the state division of elections calls the "other" category, which includes registering in person at supervisors of elections offices.
Motor voter registration apparently does require proof of citizenship:
In Florida when drivers apply for a driver's license, they must provide proof that they are in the country legally. U.S. citizens could show a passport or a proper birth certificate to verify their citizenship. Immigrants who are not U.S. citizens would have to provide the proper visa.
But for non-citizens who wish to vote, the motor voter identification requirements represent no real barrier:
But what if someone walks into a supervisor of elections office and asks to register to vote?

In those cases, people registering to vote must sign an oath on a registration application attesting that they are qualified to vote and that all the information on the application is true. (Usually at driver's licenses offices applicants who want to apply to register to vote don't have to sign that particular form since the office already has their signature as part of the driver's license application process.)

The application includes a question: Are you a citizen of the United States? If you answer no, the form says "you cannot register to vote."

We asked state Division of Elections spokesman Chris Cate if the state does anything to verify citizenship.

"The answer is no," he said. "The law doesn't require someone to provide proof of citizenship when they register. If they swear, attest and sign under oath that their information is accurate and that they are a citizen we will accept their voter registration."
Voter registration through an elections office, then, basically utilizes the honor system.  If you say you're a citizen then you can register to vote regardless of whether you couldn't provide proof of citizenship when you received your driver's license.

Game over?  It may look like it, but the story continues with a description of the torments waiting in Hell (felony charges, anyway) for non-citizens who lie on their registration form.

It isn't relevant.  Whether or not the state metes out punishments to those it isn't even seeking who have improperly registered, they're allowed to register without proving citizenship.

Then there's this puzzling statement from PolitiFact:
Individual supervisors of elections do have the ability to determine if an applicant is an U.S. citizen, Cate said, though it would be difficult for a supervisor to ascertain citizenship.
Huh?  I'd like to see that unpacked.  Supervisors of elections have the authority to verify citizenship but verifying citizenship is difficult?  That's my best guess at translating the meaning.  And it isn't very reassuring in that form.

But PolitiFact still isn't finished.

It turns out that election experts Ion Sancho (FEC filings here) and Emogene Stegall say there's no problem with non-citizens voting:
Sancho said the idea that illegal residents are voting is "laughable it's so wrong."

"We are not seeing any problem with illegal citizens voting in the U.S. anywhere, not just in Tallahassee or Florida. It's a canard that illegal individuals are registering and voting. ... Voting requires putting your name and address on an official document and that is not something undocumented individuals tend to do."

The local elections supervisor in Hays' own district, Lake County, sees it the same way.

"We've never had a problem with illegal voting in Lake County, no way,'' said Emogene W. Stegall, who has served in the county's election's office for 40 years.
PolitiFact interviews "impartial experts."  Or Democrats.  Apparently either will do.

Opinions from Sancho and Stegall are not necessarily wrong simply because they are liberals.  Simply observe that their opinions are accompanied by the very thinnest of evidences, the best of it being Sancho's claim that undocumented individuals tend not to put names and addresses on official documents.

Seriously, what's the harm in putting a name and address on voter registration if elections supervisors do not attempt to verify citizenship?  Do these two have any data in support of their expert opinions?

What does the Truth-O-Meter conclude?
Our ruling

Sen. Hays said that Florida doesn't require "any proof of citizenship necessary before you register to vote." There is a kernel of truth here: According to the state Division of Elections, state law doesn't require new voter applicants to prove their citizenship in some physical sense. They simply must sign a sworn statement attesting that they meet the voting requirements -- including being a citizen.
Again setting aside the, ah, liberal interpretation of Hays' statement, why is there simply a "kernel of truth" to the proposition that it isn't necessary to prove citizenship in order to register to vote in Florida?  PolitiFact subsequently mentions caveats, so let's look there for our answer:
First, willfully lying on a voter registration form about your citizenship status can lead to a felony conviction.
Failing to bring your vehicle to a complete stop at a stop sign can lead to a traffic citation.  Enforcement is really the key, isn't it?  The state admits that it has no active enforcement mechanism attached to the voter registration system other than the easily circumvented identification requirements associated with the motor voter program.
Second, the most common way to register to vote in Florida is during the process of obtaining a driver's license -- in 2010, 57 percent of those who registered to vote in Florida chose that method. And during that process, people are asked to verify their citizenship.
Is this a joke?

If registration through the driver's license program isn't a necessary requirement to register to vote then the identify checks associated with that program are not required in order to register to vote.  It's basic logic.  And it is already admitted that one can go straight from the driver's license office to the supervisor of elections and register on the honor system.
Lastly, we have to consider the experiences of two actual supervisor of elections, who said there is no widespread problem of illegal immigrants registering to vote.
We have no evidence that either of the helpful liberal supervisors of elections base their claims on empirical data.
For those reasons, we rate this claim Mostly False.
 Those were rationalizations, not reasons.

The fact check attributed a claim to Hays that Hays did not make and then used a ridiculous set of excuses to obscure the truth of the made-up claim.

I'm sputtering trying to think of condemnatory language equal to the task of lambasting PolitiFact over this fact check.

The grades

Amy Sherman:  F
Aaron Sharockman:  F

Both members of the team could have earned failing grades simply for making up the claim attributed to Hays.  But this duo when beyond the pale by ignoring clear evidence that the claim they graded "Mostly False" was essentially true.

We have yet another instance of a PolitiFact team earning the label "journalists reporting badly."