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
The fact checkers:
Aaron Sharockman: writer, researcher
John Bartosek: editor
This item immediately caught my attention because of the ambiguity. What does Grover Norquist's statement mean? What was the original context? PolitiFact seemed to figure it out easily and quickly:
"FYI," he wrote. "Withheld union dues fund half of Dem (Democratic) campaigns in Florida."Is it "an awfully big number"?
That's an awfully big number. So, FYI, we decided to check it out.
On its face, Norquist's statement appears to refer to half the total number of political campaigns of Democrats in Florida. For some as-yet-unknown reason, PolitiFact takes it to mean that withheld union dues provide half the funding for all Democratic campaigns in Florida.
The difference in those two understandings is very substantial. Use the wrong understanding and the wrong fact gets checked.
Astonishingly (or not, if you follow PolitiFact like I do), once PolitiFact failed to hear back from Norquist or his spokesperson, PolitiFact simply assumed that he was talking about withheld union dues providing half the funding for all Democratic political campaigns in Florida.
Let it be noted that even if those deductions provide every penny of Florida Democratic campaign funds, Norquist is not going to earn a "True" rating simply because his statement could easily represent the idea that at least some funding for half the total number of Democratic political campaigns in Florida came from union dues withheld from paychecks. PolitiFact tends to penalize when statements lend themselves to misunderstanding.
The subsequent fact check goes out of its way to cut Norquist break after break, for example by dealing with all union contributions to Democratic campaigns in Florida rather than those that came from paycheck deductions. No charitable technique (aside from the discarded technique of charitable interpretation) makes the PolitiFact understanding of Norquist remotely accurate.
Apparently it never occurred to the team responsible for the story that Norquist's statement was amenable to a different interpretation than the one they gave it. Moreover, Norquist's wording apparently seemed to them a completely appropriate way to describe a scenario where half of funding of Democratic campaigns in Florida came from withheld union dues. They don't even bother paraphrasing it into greater clarity (yellow highlights added):
In both cases, not chump change. But hardly half of what the candidates raised.I guess it depends on what "half of state Democratic campaigns" means.
Norquist said union dues fund half of Democratic campaigns in Florida. While unions predominantly donate to Democrats, according to research from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, there's no evidence union dues fund anywhere close to half of state Democratic campaigns.
This claim is way off. We rate it Pants on Fire!Most likely PolitiFact's interpretation of the claim is off by a mile, and even if it doesn't plainly mean something other than what the PolitiFact team thinks it does it is ambiguous to the point that assuming the meaning for purposes of a fact check is inadvisable/foolhardy.
This is yet another flub that is extremely difficult to understand apart from echo-chamber institutional bias at PolitiFact. Nobody thought the statement might be talking about something other than half of all the funds received by Democratic Party campaigns?
It's kind of hard to believe.
Aaron Sharockman: F
John Bartosek: F
Journalists reporting badly.
Took a stab at doing the fact check my way (based on the most natural understanding of Norquist's claim).
I looked for matches between campaign contributors and the state of Florida's list of agencies permitted to accept funds withheld from paychecks with an exclusive emphasis on public employee unions.