Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Grading PolitiFact: President Obama and Romney's alleged outsourcing

HALF TRUE – The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:
(clipped from

PolitiFact finds "Half True" the statement from the Obama campaign that "Romney Outsourced call center jobs to India."  According to PolitiFact's statement of principles (see epigraph), the statement is "partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context.

The fact checkers:

Molly Moorhead:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


I think I was drawn to this story out of a sense of wonder.  How can one obtain a "Half True" for a non-compound proposition?  For "Beavis and Butt-head broke the window with a rock" we have a compound proposition.  Beavis broke the window with a rock.  Butt-head broke the window with a rock.  If one of the two cartoon characters didn't break the window one could still consider the statement half true.  But no direct route to that kind of half truth exists for "Romney outsourced call center jobs to India."

Let's observe the experts at work.

The Obama campaign pointed us to news accounts of a budget issue in 2004, the second year of Romney’s term. The Democratic-controlled Massachusetts legislature sent Romney a budget with an amendment that "would prohibit Massachusetts from contracting with companies that ‘outsource’ the state's work to other countries," according to the Boston Globe.
Okay, we can see where this is going.  Romney vetoes the proposed legislation, leaving in place the status quo and allowing a company contracting with the commonwealth of Massachusetts to outsource jobs.

By analogy, Butt-head failed to confiscate from Beavis a rock that Beavis could throw at a window.  Since Beavis subsequently broke the window with the same rock, it is half-true that Butt-head broke the window.

Maybe we're missing something?

At the time Massachusetts had a $160,000 a month contract with Citigroup to process debit cards for food stamps. Citigroup outsourced its customer service call center to a facility in India.

A small but important detail: the state didn’t outsource the work -- a state contractor did.
So back to our analogy, somebody definitely broke the window with a rock.  Beavis did it, but Butt-head could have prevented it.  So, when somebody says "Butt-head broke the window with a rock" it is (by analogy) a small but important detail that Beavis was the one who broke the window with the rock.  Which brings us to "Half True," apparently.  Perhaps a larger and even more important detail might have caused the claim to drop as low as "Mostly False," such as Daria breaking the window with a baseball bat instead of Beavis breaking it with a rock.


Our ruling

Obama’s ad charges that "Romney outsourced call center jobs to India."

The Obama campaign's wording suggests a broader, more deliberate policy when the state was sending some work overseas. But in choosing to veto the bill, Romney let the arrangement continue. The statement leaves out important information. We rate it Half True.
The barely coherent summary matches the barely coherent logic preceding it.

PolitiFact ends up drawing a very rough sketch of its reasoning, but apparently the writer and editor was misled by placing an improper emphasis on the fact that jobs were outsourced to India.  The point of the ad is not that jobs were outsourced to India.  The ad stresses Romney's responsibility for that outsourcing.  If Romney had outsourced jobs to China rather than India then one could reasonably take the original claim as "Half True" since the point of the ad holds true:  Romney did the outsourcing.

Unfortunately for PolitiFact, the "small but important" detail is big and very important in this case.  It's very misleading to use language depicting Romney as directly responsible for outsourcing jobs when in fact he simply left intact a policy permitting contracting parties to outsource jobs.  The claim of the ad is literally false but with a germ of truth:  Jobs were outsourced and Romney could have prevented it by signing the legislation.  The closely related underlying argument that Romney outsourced jobs is likewise only supported by a germ of truth.

For comparison:
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Even if one thinks of Romney as a butt-head, he didn't break the window.  The greater part of the ad's message is false.

The grades:

Molly Moorhead:  F
Bill Adair:  F

June 15, 2012: Thanks to Matthew Hoy for highlighting this story on Twitter and via his Hoystory blog.  Hoy adds to the story with a eye-opening parallel.

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