Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Grading PolitiFact: Approving a "Julia" misdirection

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
Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to PolitiFact for its ability to tease a grain of truth out of a highly misleading presentation.

On with the evaluation.

The issue:
(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Becky Bowers: writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


The Obama campaign released a Web-based audiovisual presentation designed to play up the contrast between President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

Note that Romney threatens Julia's idyllic life story.  That's the context.

The cartoon "The Life of Julia," compares the candidates' impact on Julia at a dozen points in her life.  At age 23, she’s shown reading a newspaper with the headline, "Equal pay 4 equal work." She’s starting her career as a Web designer.

"Because of steps like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Julia is one of millions of women across the country who knows she’ll always be able to stand up for her right to equal pay," the graphic says.
The "Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act" is very probably widely misunderstood.  It would more accurately go by the name of "The Lilly Ledbetter Exemption From Statute of Limitations Concerns For Fair Compensation Suits."  Admittedly the latter is quite a mouthful.  In a nutshell, the Act doesn't provide for equal pay.  It allows people to sue for existing equal pay rights years after the alleged discrimination took place, shifting a very difficult burden of proof onto an employer.  And in that context, the phrasing from the Obama Campaign is practically Clintonian in its weaselly use of words (take a bow, campaign staff):  Julia "Knows she'll always be able to stand up for her right to equal pay" because the statute of limitations doesn't apply.  Of course the majority of people seeing the ad probably have no idea that's what it means.  And sometimes PolitiFact is concerned about campaign materials that create a distorted view of reality.  But not this day.

PolitiFact notes the intended contrast:
Romney, on the other hand, "has refused to say whether he would have vetoed or signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act," the graphic says.
Horrors.  Seriously, it's a fear-based message.  Women are supposed to fear that Romney would threaten equal work for equal pay.  PolitiFact often brings its most heated criticism to fear-based messaging.  But not this day.

Toward the good, PolitiFact properly starts tracking the key message:
We wondered: Did Romney refuse to say whether he would have vetoed or signed the act? And what would that mean for Julia?
What would it mean for Julia if Romney refused to say whether he would have vetoed or signed the act?  That's the key to the ad.  The ad tries to create worry about rights to equal pay regardless of gender if Romney wins the presidency.  The implication is that Romney represents some type of threat.

For the sake of expediency, let's assume that PolitiFact suitably confirms that Romney "refused" to say whether he would have vetoed or signed the act.  We'll follow the key point of the ad instead of the factoid that supposedly supports the ad's implication.

Romney did refuse to say whether he would have signed the bill. But he also said he supported "equal pay for women" and had "no intention of changing that law."
PolitiFact infers, rightly I think, that Romney's reference to "that law" refers specifically to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.  He wouldn't change it, he says.  So what is the consequence for Julia if Romney refuses to say whether he would have signed it?

PolitiFact concludes:
The Obama campaign said Romney "has refused to say whether he would have vetoed or signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act." That’s essentially what happened in Romney’s ABC News interview in April, but the claim leaves out some details that matter to Julia.

The relevant point for Julia isn't whether Romney would sign the bill — it's already the law — but his decision not to change it. Romney also said he  "certainly support(s) equal pay for women," and has "no intention of changing that law."

Still, the Obama campaign is correct that he dodged the question, so we rate the claim Mostly True.
Amazing, no?  The main point of the ad was without merit, but since it is trivially true that Romney refused to say whether he would have signed the bill, PolitiFact rules it "Mostly True."

PolitiFact doesn't always use this standard.  Just ask Mitt Romney.

Romney recently released an ad pointing out that unemployment for American youth is double that for the rest of the population.  PolitiFact found it true but irrelevant since the unemployment rate is nearly always approximately double for that demographic.  Apparently it's not supposed to matter even if the unemployment rate for the general population is high.  Romney ended with a "Half True" rating.

Is the Romney ad more misleading than the Obama presentation?  Seriously?

The grades:

Becky Bowers:  F
Bill Adair:  F

PolitiFact discounted the context of the ad where it counted.

I'd love to see a journalist ask Bill Adair to coherently explain why the Romney rating is lower than the Obama rating.  Though I suppose I can ask him myself, since I'm 99 percent certain he drops by for the occasional visit.

How about it, Mr. Adair?  You have my email address.  Drop me a line and explain why Obama receives the "Mostly True" while Romney gets the "Half True."  What's the objective dividing line between the two cases?  I'll publish it in full if granted permission.

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