Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Grading PolitiFact: Cass Sunstein, free speech and overshadowing headlines

Hypocrisy, thy name is PolitiFact.

Fact-checking the fact checkers

The issue:

According to PolitiFact, a chain e-mail alleged that President Obama's nominee for regulatory czar once advocated a type of "Fairness Doctrine" for the Internet. PolitiFact apparently provided no access to the text of the e-mail, instead conducting an examination of what we are told was the inspiration for the e-mail.

The headline of the PolitiFact entry appears to be a quotation of the e-mail in question.

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley: writer, researcher
Bill Adair: editor


Farley does an OK job of getting most of the basic facts right before bungling the conclusion.

Yes, it turned out that Sunstein had advocated a type of "Fairness Doctrine" for the Internet. Case closed and the claim in the e-mail is true. Right?

Not so fast.

The World Net Daily story notes that Sunstein "rethought" the proposal as "too difficult to regulate" and "almost certainly unconstitutional," but that caveat is made later in the article and is overshadowed by the headline, which says "U.S. regulatory czar nominee wants Net 'Fairness Doctrine.'"

Yes, Sunstein acknowledges this was an idea he once threw out there -- albeit, in his words, "tentatively." But he now thinks it's a bad idea. So the chain e-mail/article is correct that Sunstein once suggested it. But contrary to the headline, it's a position he no longer holds, as he has since said strongly and repeatedly. Once true. No longer. That leaves us at Half True.

Note what Farley has done, here.

The headline of the PolitiFact entry presented us with a particular claim, posted as the headline:

"Barack Obama's nominee for 'regulatory czar' has advocated a 'Fairness Doctrine' for the Internet" that would require links to opposing opinions.

That headline implicitly notes that Sunstein does not necessarily continue to advocate the Internet policy ("has advocated").

Just below and to the right of that headline we find the PolitiFact rating of "Half True," apparently a judgment of the claim in the headline.

But check the first of the two Farley paragraphs quoted above. The PolitiFact rating applies to the World Net Daily headline: "U.S. regulatory czar nominee wants Net 'Fairness Doctrine.'"

The World Net Daily headline does imply that Sunstein continues to hold the controversial view he had earlier espoused. The headline for the e-mail that is supposedly the subject being rated does not make the same claim.

Thus, PolitiFact ends up making the same type of factual error they attributed to World Net Daily: having a story that fails to match the headline.

And we are supposed to trust this kind of fact checking?

The grades:

Robert Farley: D
Bill Adair: F

Usually I give the same grade to the editors as to the writers/researchers. In this case, I'm giving Farley the benefit of a tiny doubt on the supposition that he may have thought he was evaluating the World Net Daily claim instead of the e-mail claim. The responsibility for finding clarity on that point stops with Adair.

Additional note:

I look forward with anticipation to attacks on Sunstein from the political left as they begin to recall that Sunstein offered a defense of President Bush's views of his constitutional powers under Article II. This guy is a political lightning rod!

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