Friday, January 27, 2012

Krugman takes over as head of the Truth Police Police

When PolitiFact Bias started out about a year ago, the clear majority of criticism PolitiFact received over its first three-plus years came from the right. Thanks largely to its 2011 "Lie of the Year" selection--the claim Republicans voted to end Medicare--and some energetic pushback from Jon Stewart and Rachel Maddow when PolitiFact dinged them with poor ratings, PolitiFact has started to enjoy criticism from the left in earnest. Economist and partisan hack Paul Krugman has taken it on himself to torment PolitiFact with his scolding, the latest with his New York Times blog item "Finding the Truth."

Krugman knows what a fact checker should do, and he's not afraid to tell PolitiFact:
(T)he point of Politifact and other news-org fact-check things is supposed to be to do this work for readers, so that you don’t have to learn your way around labor-force or trade or crime or whatever statistics every time you have doubts about a political claim.
Happily, there's an element of truth in there amidst Krugman's hacktastic folderol. If PolitiFact presents itself as objective news (it does), Krugman is essentially correct that PolitiFact should simply check what facts it can check and leave the semantic analysis alone.  Semantic analysis, after all, is analysis, and news analysis is a slightly different animal than news reporting. On the other hand, if PolitiFact views itself as a news analysis operation and simply fails to apply to its work the label "news analysis" or the like, then Krugman has no business telling PolitiFact what it is "supposed to" do.  That's kind of like me telling Krugman to stick to economics instead of political hackery.  It might be fun for me to write, but Krugman's free to do as he pleases.  I don't have the moral authority to tell him otherwise any more than he has it to wield on PolitiFact.

Unfortunately, Politifact has lost sight of what it was supposed to be doing. Instead of simply saying whether a claim is true, it’s trying to act as some kind of referee of what it imagines to be fair play: even if a politician says something completely true, it gets ruled only partly true if Politifact feels that the fact is being used to gain an unfair political advantage.
When did PolitiFact lose sight of what it was supposed to be doing? Pretty much right out of the gate.

PolitiFact has always used one of six grades on its "Truth-O-Meter" scale, explicitly taking things like context and misleading presentation into account.  In PolitiFact's first year, it rated poor Joe Biden "Pants on Fire" for calling President Bush "brain-dead."  Did anyone on the planet think Biden meant it as some type of medical diagnosis?  No, I didn't think so.  But PolitiFact treated it that way. PolitiFact hasn't changed much.  After the 2008 election cycle ended, the St. Petersburg Times ended its PolitiFact partnership with Congressional Quarterly and ran PolitiFact with its own staff while working to start up state versions of itself in partnership with other news outlets such as the Miami Herald.  PolitiFact has waffled a bit with its "Half True" rating, and changed the name of "Barely True" to "Mostly False."  It added features like the "Flip-O-Meter."  But in essence, PolitiFact today performs like it did back in 2007 when it started out.

So Krugman could have leveled his criticism against PolitiFact back in 2007.  What stopped him? Oh, that's right.  He's a political hack.  If PolitiFact attacks his sacred cows then Krugman will sharpen his knives and go to work.

The simple fact is that in today’s US political scene, Republicans make a lot more factual howlers than Democrats. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.
By "Sorry, but that's just the way it is" apparently Krugman is telling us he has no intention of pointing to an expert, study or data source in support of the purported fact. Looks like a job for PolitiFact!

Dear Truth-O-Meter,

This week I read yet another political claim that appears dubious. This time the claim came from Paul Krugman.
The simple fact is that in today’s US political scene, Republicans make a lot more factual howlers than Democrats. Sorry, but that’s just the way it is.

Is it a simple fact? On what objective evidence could Krugman have possibly relied?

Thanks, Truth-O-Meter. I'll never forget you for this.


Bryan White


Update 1/28/2012
Hat tip to Jeff Dyberg for pointing out where I substituted "this" for "things."  Corrected. Also added a link or two.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Trusty "NewsTrust" rates PolitiFact

This is just too funny.

A website called "NewsTrust" purports to serve as a guide to good journalism.  Check it out:
NewsTrust helps people find good journalism online.  We rate the news on quality, not just popularity.
It's a grand mission they've set for themselves.

The site reviews a recent story about PolitiFact from the Huffington Post, written by Jaon Linkins.  The reviews don't so much rate the HuffPo story so much as they take hearty swings at PolitiFact.

Enjoy the hilarity of a deep quality assessment:
Linkins does fact checking on Politifact, and finds they are using their bias again to mis-interpret facts.

There's more!
Politifact is ran at the top by Republicans, and seem to force bias into their politically important analysis.
There you have it.

Ideas like NewsTrust have some merit.  People can use some help searching out epistemologically solid sourcing on their information.  The difficulty of assembling an appropriately qualified and sufficiently unbiased group accounts for the main pitfall.

And it's a big pitfall, if NewsTrust is any indication.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

PolitiFlub: Udderly confused by EPA's milk regs


(link to story at

That's President Obama from yesterday's State of the Union Address.

(clipped from

The latter rating came from PolitiFact Virginia almost a full year ago.

On the face of it, one can imagine a reconciliation of the two rulings.  But it's doubtful if you've looked at the one for Obama after evaluating the one for Griffith.

The best part of it is that PolitiFact may have flubbed both rulings.  The EPA was leaning toward an exemption for homogenized milk.  But the exemption would not have covered raw milk, which should have left Griffith's claim at least partly true.  And if raw milk received no exemption from the EPA then Obama's claim is approximately half true as well.  A raw milk spill would still be treated just like an oil spill even after President Obama supposedly eliminated the rule that required a milk spill to be treated like an oil spill.

Welcome to the wonderful world of PolitiFact fact checking.

Update:  Looks like the EPA did get around to exempting all milk products from the rule. Griffith was still partially correct at worst, and President Obama did not eliminate an EPA rule.  Rather, Obama's EPA exempted milk from a rule that remains in effect.  And Obama's statement obscures the administration's vacillating actions on the issue:
"The Obama Administration pulled back the rule in January of 2009, then reissued it in November, and to large degree it was the same rule," Schlegel said.

The muddying of the bloodying of PolitiFact

Columbia Journalism Review is at it again, fishing me in with a mention of "PolitiFact."  This time it's Trudy Lieberman, hitting PolitiFact a tad late for its most recent "Lie of the Year" selection while trying to convince us that Republicans really did vote to end Medicare.

Though it's fair to say there was a shred of truth to the Democrats' claim, the arguments for it representing the unvarnished truth leave a great deal to be desired.

Lieberman, a CJR contributing editor as well as a fellow for the Center for Advancing Health and  a member of the Board of Directors for the Association of Health Care Journalists, charges that PolitiFact primarily failed with its "Lie of the Year" because it failed to adequately explain Medicare's complexity:
The fact is Republicans by supporting Ryan’s voucher plan did essentially vote to end Medicare. The Dems who didn’t like that idea should have been more precise in their statements, saying instead “Republicans voted to end Medicare as we know it” or “voted to end Medicare as a social insurance program”—a point that Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, made in PolitiFact’s critique.

PolitiFact and others should have left it there and devoted space to the larger issue. Medicare may be wildly popular, but it is not well understood by most people—be they beneficiaries, politicians, or journalists. Deconstructing how this complicated and misunderstood program works and the historical context for proposed changes would go a long way to helping the public evaluate the arguments from both Democrats and Republicans. For more than a year, Campaign Desk has urged journalists to fill that void.
Good luck understanding Lieberman's rationale for thinking Republicans voted to end Medicare:
There’s no doubt that the voucher plan contemplated by Ryan—and now his new sidekick, Oregon senator Ron Wyden—will eventually change Medicare from a social insurance scheme, where everyone who paid into the program is entitled to a benefit, into private insurance, where the sellers must bow to the profit incentive.
The Ryan-Wyden alternative would not constitute a social insurance scheme?  Why not?  The new plan is sponsored and subsidized by the government.  Lieberman doesn't say why, other than to assure us there's "no doubt" about it.

At a basic level I agree with Lieberman, however.  Explain Medicare to people.  Explain how the changes in national demographics combined with the advance of medical technology make the current system absolutely unsustainable.  Lacking a reform such as that proposed by Ryan, there are two main methods for keeping the system from going destructively into the red.  One is to reimburse health care providers so little (a prominent feature of ObamaCare) that it reduces the supply of health care providers.  As the number of providers shrinks, fewer patients receive services in a timely manner.  A certain number die prior to obtaining expensive treatments.  That's savings.  Second, the government can explicitly limit the number and types of services it makes available.  That also accounts for savings, this time via explicit rationing.

Both methods were what Sarah Palin had in mind when she referred to Obama's "death panel," by the way, summing up principles expressed by economist Thomas Sowell in the process.

Skip the issue of cost as Lieberman does in her CJR column and shortchange the nation on its health care conversation.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Piquing PolitiFact: Building a straw man with which to attack Mitt Romney?

A recent fact check of Mitt Romney has drawn criticism from two of the experts cited in the story, in addition to Politico and the Huffington Post (find summary and links at PolitiFact Bias).

I'm not doing many "Grading PolitiFact" posts because of some research projects involving PolitiFact, but I took time out to submit a fact check suggestion to PolitiFact:

Dear Truth-O-Meter, 

It is said PolitiFact rates those who make political claims. I ran across a political claim a moment ago that seems highly questionable and I'm wondering if you would please consider fact checking it. 

A political fact check operation presented Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney as saying the following: 

The U.S. military is at risk of losing its "military superiority" because "our Navy is smaller than it's been since 1917. Our Air Force is smaller and older than any time since 1947." 

The quoted snippets are accurate enough, but please check the "because." Romney in the immediate context talked of administration proposals to cut military spending. Isn't that the chief reason Romney is suggesting as the risk to U.S. military superiority? 

Thank you oh-so-much, Truth-O-Meter.

I suspect that PolitiFact will triple down on its rating of Romney (either that or turtle and wait for the furor to die down), but in the unlikely event the editors decide to retract, a fact check of their own item might serve as a partial antidote to the high-handedness that pervades PolitiFact's typical response to criticism lately.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Disagreeing with Jay Rosen

Jay Rosen's a good press critic, and I liked his work even more after I found him writing while atop one of my traditional soapboxes.

But I think he's mostly wrong in his opinion about the competing methods of handling truth claims. 

Rosen wrote about the issue after a remarkable New York Times piece that asked readers if the paper should employ vigilante zeal in fact checking:
Something happened in our press over the last 40 years or so that never got acknowledged and to this day would be denied by a majority of newsroom professionals. Somewhere along the way, truthtelling was surpassed by other priorities the mainstream press felt a stronger duty to. These include such things as “maintaining objectivity,” “not imposing a judgment,” “refusing to take sides” and sticking to what I have called the View from Nowhere.
I'm not going to call Rosen entirely wrong. I've encountered persons in the journalism profession who see themselves almost like the Watcher from the Fantastic Four comic books. The Watcher was a figure of great power who was pledged to merely record great events without interfering. There are journalists who feel it is their duty to report every bit of news regardless of resulting harm. I could write a lengthy blog post about that, but for now I'll just concede that Rosen identifies at least part of the problem.

I think Rosen misses a more obvious explanation, one that better explains the facts. Journalists today are an educated class. And this shift falls pretty much in the 40-year window Rosen identifies. Traditional journalists knew that they possessed a broad lack of expertise. When confronted with complex or controversial issues, journalists responded economically: They punted. In other words, journalists found an expert or two, presented those views and left the rest up to their readers. Yes, this method preserved the appearance of objectivity--as Rosen notes. More importantly, it kept journalists from having to figure out aspects of the story they were unequipped to evaluate in terms of both time and education.

Consider PolitiFact's handling of many economic claims surrounding the effects of the economic stimulus bill. Are the journalists at PolitiFact experts on economics? They are not. They survey a group of experts, find a majority of Keynesians in that group and tend to confirm issues of fact according to a Keynesian paradigm. The reader is typically none the wiser.

PolitiFact's handling of such stories illustrates the key pitfall in journalists' vigilante attitude toward truth:  It makes journalists more likely to try to handle issues of fact they are not prepared to evaluate.

If journalists can stay safely in the shallow end of the pool of epistemology, then, fine, practice a vigilante attitude toward truth.  Traditional journalists uncomfortable with that approach need to clearly articulate a strong rationale for their opposition.  Doing so will help make it more clear to the truth vigilantes where they can safely swim in that pool.

Monday, January 02, 2012

WaPo's Glenn Kessler offers cold comfort with fact check summary

Criticism of the fact checkers at PolitiFact represents the dominant theme of this blog, but Glenn Kessler's summary of the Washington Post's year in fact checking at least shows that PolitiFact isn't alone in its reckless approach to fact check reporting.

Quantifying opinion then reporting the aggregated results as if they reflect on the political figures involved?  Check:
Democrats fared slightly better than Republicans in terms of Pinocchios. They have an average of 2.32 Pinocchios per statement, compared to 2.49 Pinocchios for Republicans. As we noted at the six-month point, some of the GOP presidential contenders (We are looking at you, Rep. Bachmann) were largely responsible for inflating the Republican score.

The average Pinocchio rating of the political candidates is constantly updated by our Pinocchio tracker. Obama, with a vast White House staff to vet his statements, at the moment is basically tied for the lowest average with his nearest rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. Romney also has a large campaign staff who help vet his statements, so it should not be a surprise that these two politicians have the best Pinocchio ratings.
Misunderstanding the reason why such aggregated results mean virtually nothing apart from representing a measure of selection bias?  Check:
Some readers have complained that the “average Pinocchio rating” is a bit absurd because it is completely dependent on a random selection of statements that we vet. This is true; it is inherently arbitrary. But we would also argue that over time one can get a broad sense of how accurate a politician is, and so that makes the average ranking is [sic] a rough but imperfect guide.

No, a random selection is exactly what you want if the average Pinocchio rating is used to establish politicians' trends for veracity.  And that's exactly what we don't get from either Kessler or PolitiFact.  Both choose items of editorial interest.  Thus the selection of items is not "arbitrary" in the random sense but rather "arbitrary" because the editors serve as arbiters of what facts to check.

And Kessler's last sentence in the same paragraph is a howler, plain and simple.

The logic of the sentence construction appears to suggest that because WaPo's fact checker argues for the utility of the results therefore the results possess that utility.  Any truly reasonable argument supporting Kessler's conclusion somehow failed to make it into the story.

Kessler helps illustrate the peril of relying on journalists for fact checks.

NFL 2011: Summing up the Buccaneers

Not good.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers suffered through a miserable 4-12 season just one year after narrowly missing the playoffs with one of the NFL's youngest teams.

What happened?

Part of the problem stemmed from roster risks the team took entering the season. 

First, the Bucs parted ways with Cadillac Williams, who signed a free agent contract with the St. Louis Rams in the off season.   That left the Bucs with LeGarrette Blount, Earnest Graham and untested Kregg Lumpkin to tote the pigskin.  Blount serves as an ungainly third down back at this point in his career.  Graham was the best backup option before an injury ended his season.  It may be more than a coincidence that the Bucs failed to win another game after Graham's injury.

The Bucs also allowed middle linebacker Barrett Ruud to depart in free agency.  That move disappointed relatively few Tampa Bay fans, as Ruud had acquired a reputation among fans for making a sure tackle after the runner had gained good yardage.  But the Bucs replaced Ruud with rookie Mason Foster, who ended up playing like a rookie.  Tampa Bay's linebacker corps ended up a major weakness during 2011.  Having Ruud probably would have helped.

The Bucs lost on those roster risks, but they don't come close to fully explaining the porous defense and turnover-prone offense.

Quarterback Josh Freeman threw almost four times the number of interceptions he threw last year.

The defensive line improved its pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but other teams usually ran on the Bucs at will, often breaking runs of 10-20 yards or even longer.

The offensive and defensive problems complemented one another for the worse.  The offense found many ways to cough up the football, and the defense excelled at giving up an early score, which would put pressure on the offense to throw the ball. 

All in all, it made games tough to watch this season.  So what about next season?

Josh Freeman and coach Raheem Morris won me over with their performance the first two years.  But this third season forces scrutiny on Morris' coaching ability.  He served as defensive coordinator for a defense that often just couldn't compete.  And he was using players he says he likes.  So something's deeply wrong.  My take:  The defensive line and defensive backfield have talent.  The linebackers have athletic ability but aren't getting the job done.  The defense needs better tackling across the board.  Straighten out the defense and the offense will probably turn the ball over less frequently.  That probably means personnel moves at linebacker and safety if Cody Grimm and Tanard Jackson can't stay healthy and/or clear of league suspensions.

It's not an easy call, but in ownership's shoes I give Morris another year to establish whether 2010 or 2011 was the fluke.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

PolitiFact 2011: A review

PolitiFact Bias has now spent approximately a full year highlighting criticisms of the PolitiFact fact checking brand.

Our hopes that PolitiFact would improve its performance in light of outside criticism have gone largely unfulfilled.  Perhaps the biggest improvement was the reconciliation of two differing definitions of the "Half True" rating, but that modest accomplishment occurred without any announcement or acknowledgment at all from PolitiFact.  By contrast, PolitiFact wrote extensively about its momentous change in calling its fourth rating from the top "Mostly False" rather than "Mostly True" even though the definition remained the same.

Here's a rundown of the issues that should keep discerning readers from trusting PolitiFact:

1)  PolitiFact persistently ignores the effects of selection bias.  It simply isn't plausible that editors who are very probably predominantly liberal will choose stories of interest on a neutral basis without some systematic check on ideological bias.  PolitiFact, for example, continues to publish candidate report cards as though selection bias has no effect on the report card data.

2)  PolitiFact continues to publish obviously non-objective stories without employing the journalistic custom of using labels like "commentary," "opinion" or even "news analysis."  Readers are implicitly led to believe that stories like an editorial "Lie of the Year" selection are objective news stories.

3)  PolitiFact continues to routinely apply its principles of analysis unevenly, as with its interpretation of job creation claims (are the claims assumed to refer to gross job creation or net job creation?).

4)  PolitiFact has yet to shake its penchant for snark.  Snark has no place in objective reporting (see #2 above).  Unfortunately, PolitiFact treats it like a selling point instead of a weakness, and PolitiFact's intentional use of it has apparently influenced Annenberg Fact Check to follow suit.

There is a silver lining.  PolitiFact's methods produce perhaps the best opportunity yet to objectively measure mainstream media bias.  Some of those projects will be published at PolitiFact Bias over the coming year, with the study specifics available through Google Docs.