Call it the "blame game" game.
We saw an early warning of this tendency in the form of gauging credit rather than blame. PolitiFact repented of supposedly overplaying the degree to which President Obama took credit for positive changes in job numbers. Obama received an upgrade from "Half True" to "Mostly True" in that case.
We saw it again earlier this week when PolitiFact gave both the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign "Half True" ratings based on blame. Obama adviser David Axelrod tied Romney to Massachusetts' job creation ranking during Romney's tenure as governor. Romney campaign spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom responded by pointing out a positive trend in the Massachusetts ranking under Romney as well as an overall positive picture of unemployment in the state. Did Fehnstrom simply add important context to the situation described by Axelrod or was he giving Romney credit? PolitiFact ignored the former possibility and docked Fehrnstrom down to "Half True" despite accurate statistics.
Later in the week PolitiFact gave us yet another example.
In a new Web ad, the Romney campaign questions how Hispanics in the U.S. have fared under President Barack Obama.To PolitiFact, the above unquestionably shows that the Romney campaign is blaming Obama for the economic plight of Hispanics. PolitiFact communicates this clearly in the conclusion (bold emphasis added):
The ad, titled "Dismal," flashes shadowy faces of Latinos along with text citing rising unemployment and poverty rates in that minority group. The statistics are bookended by clips from Obama’s own Spanish-language ads that say the country is moving in the right direction.
"Really?" the ad asks.
Our rulingIsn't the ad's message much more complicated than simply blaming Obama for the level of Hispanic unemployment?
Romney’s ad correctly states that more Hispanics in the U.S. have fallen below the poverty line since Obama took office: 2.25 million more people through 2010, according to the census.
But the ad’s clear message is that it’s Obama’s fault but experts say it's a much more complicated picture than that. We rate the statement Half True.
The ad shows Obama's claims that the country is moving in the right direction. Is Obama claiming credit for taking the country in the right direction? The Romney campaign ad does not address that question. Instead, it uses the stats on Hispanic poverty rates to question Obama's claim that the country is moving in the right direction.
PolitiFact badly overstates the degree to which the ad blames Obama for changes in Hispanic poverty rates. At most, the ad faults Obama for not doing a better job of improving the American economy, even to the point where the poverty rate among Hispanics would bear out a claim like "We're moving in the right direction."
The Romney campaign hit Obama on a legitimate discrepancy between Obama's claim and the Hispanic poverty rate. PolitiFact's use of blame to drop the rating amounts to grasping at straws, and grasping at straws is an unbecoming behavior for fact checkers.
Fact checking as PolitiFact does it in the above cases remains indistinguishable from deliberate partisan spin.