Monday, May 30, 2011

Nyhan explains Birther reversal--sort of

Awhile back I did some tweaking of political scientist Brendan Nyhan over his prediction that the release of President Obama's long form birth certificate would not significantly dent the proportion of Americans who believe Obama was not American-born.

A Washington Post poll showed a big shift in belief as well as a surprising (to me, anyway) number of self-identified Democrats who doubt Obama was born in the United States.

I figured that left Nyhan with some explaining to do.  And, to his credit, Nyhan has stepped up to the plate to do just that:
So why was this correction so effective when others tend to fail? (PDF) The answers aren't entirely clear yet, but here are some initial thoughts. First, the birth certificate's release was an unusually definitive debunking that became a major news event, so there was saturation coverage of some very strong corrective information.
Nyhan's first possible explanation is interesting given that his past "misperception" studies place little weight on the strength of the debunking material.  Indeed, even the supposed misperceptions are often controversial regarding the degree of truth they hold.

Nyhan ought to have considered the strength of the debunking in this case before putting his doubts in print.  It ended up making him look a tad foolish.  He should also have considered that Obama's failure to release the long form certificate when it was apparently in his power to do so did plenty to help fuel the "Birther" movement.  Of course cutting off a major fuel source will affect the level of belief under such conditions.

Second, no prominent elites on the right contested the validity of the birth certificate, which meant that coverage of its release was almost entirely one-sided.
That fits with my counter-Nyhan argument that the source of contradicting information has much to do with whether we accept a supposedly strong debunking account.  Perhaps it is a failure on my part, but I don't recall Nyhan taking such things into account for purposes of his past research.

Finally, it's possible that support for the myth was soft because poll respondents didn't really believe it but were using poll questions about Obama's religion and place of birth as a way to express disapproval (as some commentators and pollsters have argued).
Such influences on polling, if they exert an appreciable effect on the results, certainly must make it tough for people like Nyhan to do their research.  How is a researcher to know when people are telling the truth about their beliefs?

Nyhan's three would-be explanations all tend to undercut the conclusions he's drawn from his research.  Will this contradictory information correct his misperceptions?  Was the debunking unambiguous enough to shake his beliefs?

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Medicare solvency & kid gloves

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

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
John Bartosek:  editor


"To assess the truth for a numbers claim," wrote PolitiFact editor Bill Adair back in 2008, "the biggest factor is the underlying message."

Adair's fact-checking guideline accords with Adair's "Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter," where he emphasizes the importance of looking at statements according to the underlying message.

Newly crowned DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz made a numbers claim.  PolitiFact fact-checked it.  And we will examine whether PolitiFact made a serious effort to tease out the truth of the underlying message.

"It's the pot calling the kettle black when it comes to who's engaging in Medi-scare," said Wasserman Schultz in an interview on MSNBC on May 25. "The Republicans leading up to the 2010 election actually fabricated what Democrats did to Medicare. In fact, we added 12 years of solvency to Medicare and ensured that it would be better for seniors overall. And what the Republicans have done under Paul Ryan's plan is actually end Medicare as we know it, turn into it into a voucher program. There's no running from that."
Adding solvency?   Add to that making Medicare "better for seniors overall" and we seem to have an underlying message suggesting the PPACA improved Medicare.

PolitiFact found a document from the Medicare Board of Trustees that initially appeared to support Wasserman Schultz's claim of adding 12 years of solvency, solvency meaning that Medicare income (clarification:  plus assets) pays 100 percent of Medicare bills on a yearly basis.

On the other hand, PolitiFact also located a more recent report from the same Medicare Board of Trustees recalculating the extension of solvency down to eight years.  Both reports contained very similar warnings from Medicare's chief actuary, Richard Foster.  Foster's objections received a one-sentence mention in the following paragraph in PolitiFact's story: (bold emphasis added):
We should note those estimates come with a few warnings. The report itself says that projecting health care costs into the future includes many uncertainties. Additionally, the report doesn’t include changes that Congress will likely make to current law, especially the predictable increases in payments to physicians known as the doc fix. Also, the independent chief actuary for Medicare questioned whether the projected cost savings were realistic.
Saying Foster "questioned" the saving is one way to put it, and arguably softens the blow with ambiguous rhetoric.  Here's how Foster said it (Foster's recommended URL activated by me for the reader's convenience):
The financial projections shown in this report for Medicare do not represent a reasonable expectation for actual program operations in either the short range (as a result of the unsustainable reductions in physician payment rates) or the long range (because of the strong likelihood that the statutory reductions in price updates for most categories of Medicare provider services will not be viable). I encourage readers to review the “illustrative alternative” projections that are based on more sustainable assumptions for physician and other Medicare price updates. These projections are available at
Foster appears to question the report's projections in the strong sense of flatly challenging their reliability ("do not represented a reasonable expectation") rather than in the softer sense of having doubt the projections will pan out.  The context provided by PolitiFact offers no clue as to which meaning applies, though the subsequent paragraph from the story misleadingly implies Foster intended the softer sense:
But overall, the board of trustees report is an official estimate for the Medicare program, the reports are put together with a consistent, detailed methodology, and its annual reports are usually referred to by both parties.
Since the report is "official," uses a "consistent, detailed methodology" and the results are used by both parties therefore we ignore the fact that the projections are unrealistic.  Welcome to the wonderful world of PolitiFact fact checking.

So Wasserman Schultz’s number is off by about a third.

Nevertheless, her overall point, that the Democrats’ health reform law added to the overall solvency of Medicare, is correct. The 2011 report included the same warnings that estimating health care savings for the future is an uncertain process, but it also concluded that the financial outlook for Medicare is "substantially improved as a result of the changes in the Affordable Care Act."
Missing the number "by about a third" represents more kid glove treatment.  If 12 years had been the benchmark, then 8 years would be off by about a third.  Where the benchmark is 8 years, the number 12 is off by half (a 50 percent inflation).

On the bright side, Drobnic Holan does identify a underlying message, albeit a slightly different one than I came up with.  Supposedly Wasserman Schultz's point was the improved  solvency of Medicare.

I'd argue that Drobnic Holan has a weak case, here.  If Medicare simply stopped paying for treatment, it would immediately improve the solvency picture for Medicare since Medicare payroll taxes would continue to roll in while disbursements would cease.  Wasserman Schultz's claim is misleading and empty without her associated claim that Democrats made Medicare "better for seniors overall.  As the preceding illustration showed, merely achieving prolonged solvency does not automatically translate into a Medicare program that is better for seniors overall.

Friday, May 27, 2011

A critique of "Two Years Later: The Media Response to Death Panels and Why It’s Still Important"

Note:  This is a response to an article based on the report "Two Years Later: The Media Response to Death Panels and Why It’s Still Important."

Sarah Palin's "death panel" comment from her FaceBook page led to an ensuing controversy in which some people said Palin was correct and some said Palin was incorrect. 

"Two Years Later: The Media Response to Death Panels and Why It’s Still Important," by Matthew L. Schafer and Regina G. Lawrence delves into the competing models for reporting truth claims in the media.  Schafer authored the condensed mass media version of the same name.

Schafer concludes that the media bore considerable responsibility for the supposedly false belief in Palin's "death panels" simply by repeating the phrase, along with the arguments for and against:
Thus, the dilemma for reporters playing by the rules of procedural objectivity is that repeating a claim reinforces a sense of its validity — or at least, enshrines its place as an important topic of public debate.  Moreover, there is no clear evidence that journalism can correct misinformation once it has been widely publicized.  Indeed, it didn’t seem to correct the death panels misinformation in our study.
 What to do, then?  Suppress "death panel" mentions in the news?  Apparently so:
Journalists should verify information.  Moreover, they should do so without including quotations from those taking a stance that is demonstrably false.  This creates a factual jigsaw puzzle that the reader must untangle.  Indeed, on the one hand, the journalist is calling the claim false, and on the other, he is giving inches quoting someone who believes it’s true.
Schafer's recommendation might prove palatable if fact checking organizations dependably reached objective conclusions.  They don't, and Schafer's choice of Palin's "death panel" phrase helps illustrate the point.

In his summary, Schafer claims that (Annenberg Fact Check) debunked Palin's claim about death panels:, a project of the Annenburg (sic) Public Policy Center, would also debunk the claim, and later Politifact users would later vote the death panel claim to the top spot of Politifact’s Lie of the Year ballot.
The supposed debunking does not at all debunk Palin's death panel statement.  Later in his story, Schafer and Annenberg Fact Check acknowledge that Palin made no reference to any particular feature of the health care reform legislation.  The fact check in question rabbit-trails into Palin's critique of Obama's claims about end-care physician counseling.  Palin made clear in that reply that her "death panel" comment was aimed at government rationing of health care services.  Fact checks by PolitiFact and Annenberg Fact Check ignored that original context of Palin's remarks.

Thus we find a fundamental flaw in Schafer's thesis.  We can't assume the accuracy of the media, therefore it makes little sense to simply believe what the media tell us.  That goes for supposed fact checks the same as anything else.  Yet how is one to question a media account that simply ignores a controversy?  Schafer effectively advocates an informational power grab by the establishment media.  Proclaim the "truth," and marginalize those who question the received account by ignoring their protestations as irrelevant.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (Georgia): Herman Cain confuses the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence?

Is the statement significant? We avoid minor "gotchas"’ on claims that obviously represent a slip of the tongue.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Willoughby Mariano:  writer, researcher
Jim Denery:  editor
Jim Tharpe:  editor


I've heard Herman Cain speak on occasion over the years, as he often serves as a guest host on the Neal Boortz radio program.  On the radio, I've heard him incorrectly state on at least one occasion that passages in the Declaration of Independence occur in the Constitution.  Now PolitiFact claims he did the same thing during his announcement speech for his presidential run.  Is Cain confused?

"We don’t need to rewrite the Constitution of the United States," Cain said. "We need to reread the Constitution and enforce the Constitution."

"And I know that there’s some people that are not going to do that. So, for the benefit for those that are not going to read it because they don’t want us to go by the Constitution, there’s a little section in there that talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"You know, those ideals that we live by, we believe in, your parents believe in, they instilled in you. When you get to the part about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, don’t stop right there, keep reading.

"’Cause that’s when it says that when any form of government becomes destructive of those ideals, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. We’ve got some altering and some abolishing to do."

Cain’s exhortation sent your PolitiFact Georgia team scrambling for a closer look at the U.S. Constitution.
That last line is pretty funny.  The PolitiFact Georgia team did not immediately realize that "life, liberty and pursuit of happiness" does not occur in the Constitution?  That certainly inspires confidence.  Though perhaps it was meant as a snarky way of pretending to assume that Cain must know what he's talking about.  Either way, it reflects poorly on PolitiFact Georgia.

Getting past that, it's clear that the line isn't in the Constitution.  So what does it mean?  Is it a significant statement?  Does Cain believe the line is in the Constitution or did he misspeak?

Constitutional history scholar and University of Pennsylvania professor Richard R. Beeman came to our assistance via email. That phrase is in the second paragraph of the preamble of the Declaration of Independence, which was written in 1776, 11 years before the Constitution was drafted during the Constitutional Convention of 1787.

Beeman agreed with Cain that we don’t need to rewrite the Constitution and it’s more important that Americans read it.

"It might be a good thing if Mr. Cain would undertake that task," Beeman said.
Snark from PolitiFact's expert source?  Say it isn't so.  Did Beeman assume that Cain did not simply misspeak?

We asked Cain’s campaign to respond. A spokeswoman said he sometimes mentions the Constitution and Declaration of Independence at the same time.

"Quite often, he references them together when speaking of his appreciation for the work of our Founders," she said.
I'd like to see the whole of that response.  The bit above falls short of saying Cain misspoke.  But it accurately states what Cain was doing during his speech.  The quotation from PolitiFact left out part of the relevant context (transcript mine):
You know, the founding fathers did their job.  And they did a great job at it.  And they kept it simple.

They wrote the Declaration of Independence.  They designed and wrote the Constitution of the United States of America.  And one of the other things that's part of our vision, is that we don't need to rewrite the Declaration.  We don't need to rewrite the Constitution of the United States--rewrite it, we need to reread the Constitution and enforce the Constitution.  We don't need to rewrite, let's reread.

And I know that there are some people who are not going to do that, so for the benefit of those that are not going to read it because they don't want us to go by the Constitution, there's a little section in there that talks about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  You know, those ideals that we live by, we believe in, your parents believed in, they instilled in you.  When you get to the part about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness don't stop there, keep reading.  Because that's when it says when any form of government becomes destructive of those ideals it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it.

We've got some altering and some abolishing to do.
In context, Cain was talking about both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  So does that mean that he knew the two clauses he apparently attributed to the Constitution were actually in the Declaration of Independence?  Not necessarily, but there's a pretty easy way to figure that out.  Not that PolitiFact shows any interest in following that proper course:
(C)onfusing the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence is no small mistake, especially for a candidate for president, said Donald E. Wilkes Jr., a University of Georgia law professor.

The Declaration is a statement of beliefs. The Constitution is the supreme law of the land.

"No court makes a legal decision based on the Declaration of Independence," Wilkes said.
Though I'm not a University of Georgia law professor, I'm going to partly contradict professor Wilkes.  Confusing the Declaration of Independence with the Constitution is a small mistake when one merely misspeaks yet well knows the difference.  Though certainly the minor error may be magnified by irresponsible reporting in the media as well as by comments from intellectual elites who have ignored the broader context.

PolitiFact rules Cain "False."

As noted via epigraph, the Truth-O-Meter, according to principle, does not rate obvious slips of the tongue.  That's why then-candidate for president Barack Obama was not rated from his statement about campaigning in all 57 states.  It is not reasonable to believe that Obama thinks there are more than 50 states.

Likewise, it is not reasonable to believe that Herman Cain thinks "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" occurs in the Constitution.

Why not?

Because Cain talks about the founding documents frequently.  He has correctly attributed those statements frequently over time, and it's easily verified.

Iowa (go to 3:24):

Cain talking about the Declaration of Independence at a high school:

Given the broader context, totally ignored by PolitiFact, it is plain that Cain committed a minor error of misstatement.  He knows the source of the words as well as Obama knows the number of states.

If PolitiFact did not bend its principles then the supposed principles are so ambiguous as to be effectively meaningless.

The grades:

Willoughby Mariano:  F
Jim Denery:  F
Jim Tharpe:  F

Cain's from the Atlanta area, so Mariano, Denery and Tharpe (all of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution) have added reason to know Cain knows the origin of the words he referenced.

This was a minor "gotcha" on a minor slip of the tongue from Cain.  PolitiFact's principles ought to have prevented this fact check.

Third party payment by any other name still smells as stinky

Rep. Paul Ryan explains the basic problem with our current Medicare system (third party payment) without naming it:

Many Republicans are concerned about the difficulty of messaging for Ryan's approach. People like the idea of paying for other people's health care, especially when they can do it with other people's money.

The Republicans are gambling that people will wake up to the truth before we drive off the cliff.

Hat tip to Hot Air.

Monday, May 23, 2011

To what lengths will PolitiFact go to suppress the truth?

I've posted a number of times about PolitiFact's FaceBook "Matrix," where participants in the discussion thread can live in a reality separate from that of the others by virtue of what groups can view their comments.

Days ago, before I got around to checking out the fine details of PolitiFact's supposed source for a story about conservative pundit and radio talk show host Laura Ingraham, I left a message challenging the PolitiFact version:
Pam Phillips wrote:

***It's very diligent of Politifact to actually look up some polls. No way did Laura Ingraham bother; she just said what she wants to believe. I call that Pants On Fire.***

Most likely Ingraham did not say what PolitiFact claims. That is, that RomneyCare is unpopular in Massachusetts. It really doesn't matter how popular RomneyCare is in Massachusetts. What matters to Romney's bid for Republican nomination is its popularity with conservatives. PolitiFact provided no material from the "O'Reilly Factor" transcript to substantiate its claim that Ingraham was talking about the system's popularity in Massachusetts. And none of you who made comments noticed to the point of saying something about it? You trust PolitiFact that much? To simply believe minus the evidence?

It's extremely likely that Ingraham was talking about RomneyCare's popularity among Republicans. The truth will come out eventually.
To me and my small circle of FaceBook friends, it looked like this:

 To the rest of you it would look much more like this:

Color me deeply amused.

But the truth is now out there.  It's just a matter of people finding it.  And realizing that they're not going to get it consistently from PolitiFact.

Friday, May 20, 2011

More fun with PolitiFact's FaceBook "matrix"

I've posted before about the quirky results one obtains with the discussion area at PolitiFact's FaceBook page.

Here's another example of a post apparently made invisible to all save the friends of the one making the post.

Generic FaceBook account view:

 Account used to post comment:

As a debate forum, PolitiFact's FaceBook page is a joke.  These results I find inexplicable based on my admittedly limited experience with an organizational FaceBook account.  Probably PolitiFact has employed customizations that put them all or mostly in charge of what appears and to whom on their FaceBook page.  In other words, the discussion is most likely deliberately censored.

Answering Ken's question:
Here's why, Ken.

With property there is a thing called "mineral rights" that most folks don't get. That's something that governments retain control over. So, you can look at it like the government in most cases reserving oil resources to itself (not to mention that land not owned privately is claimed by the government. So, you've got the problem of getting resources that people need to the people who need it, such as Ken Jones. You could let the government do it (many nations do that). But that means the investment money and capital need to come from taxation. And liabilities such as oil spills are automatically the financial responsibility of the taxpayers assuming the government is willing to clean up its own messes (government's sometimes aren't so willing). In the United States we let private companies bring those resources to those who need it, using the profit motive to provide the incentive. Take away the profit and you lose the incentive. The government charges for leases and such, but obviously if the lease cost reaches a certain high point no private company will show interest. As a result, it is in the interests of our government to provide very adequate incentives for oil companies to take the oil from government lands and turn it into energy that you can use to get to work and connect to the Internet.

Our government takes its biggest share of the proceeds at the pump rather than by charging oil companies for the leases and such. Either way, we all foot the bill.

So, that's why it's private enterprise to provide tax breaks and loopholes to oil companies. If the government were simply doling out cash to oil companies (which isn't the case, so far as I can tell) then we'd have a problem. The smart people in government recognize that oil companies provide a crucial service, and to a reasonable person a middling profit margin isn't so very disturbing.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

PolitiFact's push poll (Updated)

Push polls are not really polls at all; their object is not to measure public opinion, but to manipulate it by providing as many “respondents” as possible with hypothetical, sometimes blatantly false information, about candidates, political parties or initiatives.
Election Law Journal
The third-rate fact checkers at PolitiFact published a push poll yesterday.

Are they trying to make it easy for me to prove they're biased?  I'm literally astounded by some of the things they do.  I couldn't have been more surprised if a magical plesiosaur pointed out the way to Candy Mountain.

Okay, so it was set up as a quiz rather than a poll, but other than that the structure was the same.  Writer Angie Drobnic Holan (who ought to know better) reviewed for readers a couple of (skewed) PolitiFact ratings noting the similarities between RomneyCare and PPACA, the latter also known as ObamaCare.  No mention is made of differences between the two through that point unless we count the different names.

Drobnic continues from there:
Both leave in place the major insurance systems: employer-provided insurance, Medicare for seniors and Medicaid for the poor. They seek to reduce the number of uninsured by expanding Medicaid and by offering tax breaks to help moderate income people buy insurance. People are required to buy insurance or pay a penalty, a mechanism called the "individual mandate." And companies that don't offer insurance have to pay fines, with exceptions for small business and a few other cases.
She moved on from talking about the similarities to talking more about the similarities.  Apparently RomneyCare and ObamaCare are so similar that there's not much point in mentioning differences, if any.

After having the similarities impressed on us, we're supposed to take a quiz to see if we can even tell the difference between the two.  We get ten descriptions which apply either to RomneyCare or ObamaCare.  One is a poll result rather than a feature of the bill, leaving us with nine relevant points of comparison.

The first concerns the individual mandate, an obvious and well-known similarity between the two plans.  The second concerns employer penalties for failing to carry insurance--another fairly well-known feature the two plans have in common.  The third mentions tax credits for those who have trouble paying for health insurance.

Notice a trend?  We're a third through the nine relevant points and the focus is strongly on the similarities.

The fourth and fifth touch on two different ways the plans expand Medicaid coverage.  The first mention of a difference of any significance comes in terms of a similarity (expanded Medicaid coverage).

The sixth mentioned a poll showing people split on favoring one of the health care plans.  The plan was ObamaCare, as it turned out, and Drobnic helpfully achieved an even 41 percent in favor with 41 percent against without mentioning the substantially higher percentage within the latter figure who "strongly oppose" ObamaCare.  The later explanation does make clear that RomneyCare is relatively popular in Massachusetts, but the overall message remains one of equivalency.  Massachusetts is, after all, a predominantly liberal state.

The seventh was a tax credit for small businesses designed to provide an incentive for the purchase of employee health plans.  This represents the second difference of some significance, as apparently no such provision exists in RomneyCare.

The eighth was a gimme.  It talked of "experience" showing that the plan would not lower the cost of insurance premiums.  Those who do not realize that ObamaCare has no real track record yet might consider the statement to apply to either plan.  And it's a pretty good prediction for ObamaCare, but PolitiFact insists that it applies to RomneyCare alone.  Perhaps that's based simply on the past experience angle.

The ninth referred to the establishment of an outcomes research board featured in ObamaCare.  This is the first major difference between the two, though it is described in entirely innocuous terms throughout the story despite the fact that it was roundly criticized from the right for its similarity to Great Britain's NICE.  And even NICE sounds pretty nice until you hear about some of the ways they meddle in patient care.  Conservatives think the outcomes research feature in ObamaCare is intended as a rudimentary NICE, poised to blossom into the real thing as the federal health care bureaucracy burgeons.  PolitiFact makes it sound nice, but not NICE at all.

The tenth touches the tip of the iceberg for the most significant differences between ObamaCare and RomneyCare:  the taxes.  The PolitiPush poll mentions an increase in the Medicare payroll tax applied to families with earnings over $200,000 and for individuals earning over $250,000.  The increase from 1.45 percent to 2.35 percent applies only after the aforementioned income thresholds, which isn't how PolitiFact described it.  PolitiPush also mentions a 3.8 percent hike on investment income.  Find the balance of the iceberg here.  PolitiFact couldn't mention them all because there simply wasn't room in a quiz of this kind.

The ordering of the quiz questions seems designed to establish the impression of strong similarity.  The differences may have been chosen with an eye toward public acceptance, though to be fair the taxes mentioned were among those expected to generate the greatest revenue.  The fees imposed on insurance companies warranted no mention in the PolitiPush poll.

Did we miss anything?  Well, yeah.  There's the IPAB, the continued federal government crush of unfunded mandates on the states and a set of regulations that may end up putting private insurance companies out of business in the United States.

Push polls like PolitiFact's suppress certain information on the publisher's behalf while leading the person answering the questions toward a set of desired beliefs.

What possessed PolitiFact to publish something like this?  Disgusting.

Update (1/14/2012):

A PolitiFact story on Mitt Romney from Sept. 5, 2011 helps show that PolitiFact was well aware of the purpose of its push poll:
Previously, we’ve concluded that the Massachusetts plan and the Obama plan are similar. We even did a quiz: Romneycare & Obamacare -- can you tell the difference?
They're so alike that PolitiFact even did a quiz (to communicate to people the similarity).


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Newt Gingrich and the "food stamp president"

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

The issue:
(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


This fact check reminds me of the job the same PolitiFact team (Jacobson, Adair) did on conservative pundit Laura Ingraham on the same day.

Sometimes it doesn't matter what you say.  It just matters what fact PolitiFact wants to check.

Here we go again:
On the May 15, 2011, edition of NBC’s Meet the Press, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich defended his earlier characterization of President Barack Obama as "the most successful food stamp president in American history."

Host David Gregory first showed a clip of Gingrich’s earlier comment, made at a Georgia Republican Party dinner.
As with the Ingraham fact check, the beginning's not half bad.  And the similarity persists with the subsequent decline:
"You want to be a country that creates food stamps, in which case frankly Obama's is an enormous success," Gingrich said in the recorded excerpt. "The most successful food stamp president in American history.  Or do you want to be a country that creates paychecks?"
Gregory went on to ask Gingrich if his statement had "racist overtones."  Journalists are great.

Gingrich waved off that question.

Gregory responded, "What did you mean? What was the point?"

Gingrich replied, "That's, that's bizarre. That -- this kind of automatic reference to racism, this is the president of the United States. The president of the United States has to be held accountable. Now, the idea that -- and what I said is factually true.  Forty-seven million Americans are on food stamps.  One out of every six Americans is on food stamps."
From there, PolitiFact zeroed in the the 47 million figure and went about its fact check.  This time they remembered to check the underlying point, which they identified as Gingrich blaming Obama for the record number of people receiving food stamps.

I wish I was kidding.

PolitiFact's approach to the fact check is profoundly wrongheaded.  Note the exchange between Gregory and Gingrich immediately subsequent to the portion PolitiFact used:
MR. GREGORY:  Well, what did you mean?

REP. GINGRICH:  Well, it's very simple.  He has policies--and I used a very direct analogy.  He follows the same destructive political model that destroyed the city of Detroit.  I follow the model that Rick Perry and others have used to create more jobs in Texas.  You know, Texas two out of the last four years created more jobs than the other 49 states combined.  I'm suggesting we know how to create jobs.  Ronald Reagan did it.  I was part of that.  We know how to create jobs.  We did it when I was speaker.  And, and the way you create jobs is you have lower taxes, you have less regulation, you have litigation reform.  When the New York Stock Exchange puts its headquarters at Amsterdam, Holland and, by the way, follows 40 other companies in the last year; when General Electric pays zero in taxes; there's something fundamentally wrong with the current system.  The Obama system of the National Labor Relations Board basically breaking the law to try to punish Boeing and to threaten every right-to-work state.  The Environmental Protection Agency trying to control the entire American economy by bureaucratic fiat.  The Obama system's going to lead us down the path to Detroit and destruction.  I think we need a brand-new path.  It's a path of job creation.  And one of the central themes of this campaign is going to be paychecks vs. food stamps.
msnbc transcript
If PolitiFact paid attention to "the full context, the comments made before and after it, the question that prompted it, and the point the person was trying to make," it's certainly difficult to tell from the finished work.  The PolitiFact story offers no hint of Gingrich's full answer to Gregory's repeat of the question.

We're not going to address the racial implications but decided to check Gingrich's main comment. We see two points to investigate. First, are Gingrich’s numbers accurate? And second, is it fair to blame Obama for today's high use of food stamps?
PolitiFact does not address the racial implications.  I'm speechless.

It's fair to check Gingrich's figure of 47 million on food stamps.  But Gingrich does not blame Obama for the number of people on food stamps.  Rather, he used food stamps as an "analogy" (metaphor's more like it) to Obama's approach of relying on government action rather than private initiative.  It isn't that Obama gave out food stamps, it's that he did not pursue successful job-creating policies.  PolitiFact somehow must have missed Gingrich's explanation while hastening to figure out if Obama is to blame for the number of food stamp recipients.

As it turns out, the SNAP program has 44.2 million beneficiaries, so Gingrich was a bit high with his number.  Gingrich likely conflated food stamps with poverty, since the numbers he used match the numbers used in news reports for the latter.  Be that as it may, the number of recipients Gingrich mentioned represents an inflation of 6.3 percent and PolitiFact makes no big deal of that degree of inaccuracy.

PolitiFact's subsequent foray into the blame game misses the point, as noted above, so we'll skip to the end to see how it turns out:
Gingrich was close on the numbers of Americans receiving SNAP benefits. In addition, the number of beneficiaries is at a record level, and it has risen every month of the Obama presidency. On the other hand, Gingrich oversimplifies when he suggests that Obama should be considered "the most successful food stamp president in American history," because much -- though probably not all -- of the reason for the increase was a combination of the economic problems Obama inherited and a longstanding upward trend from policy changes. On balance, we rate Gingrich’s statement Half True.
One cannot rightly rate something "on balance" when the evaluation itself is unbalanced.

Gingrich's analogy does not even require record-setting numbers of food-stamp recipients.  His point, as he stated, was the nature of Obama's approach to job creation.

(chart clipped from

With the unemployment rate high along with the number of food stamp recipients, it's hard to argue with Gingrich's point.  Calling it "racist" might be the most effective defense.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Bill Adair:  F

If this PolitiFact team could miss the obvious context of Gingrich's statement, I have even more confidence that they succeeded in similarly botching the Ingraham fact check.  In the latter case I have yet to locate the missing context.

May 18, 2011:  Went with "Gingrich waved off that question" rather than "Gingrich waved off that comment" and altered tense in a number of places.  Restored the gone-missing quote of the final paragraph from the PolitiFact story and added a hotlink to my review of the Ingraham story.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

WaPo's Fact Checker weighs in: Did harsh interrogation help nab bin Laden?

The press treatment of waterboarding has interested me for some time, so naturally the fact check to determine whether waterboarding helped pin down bin Laden's location piqued my curiosity.

The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler picked up with a minor war of words between former Bush administration attorney general Michael Mucasey and Sen. John McCain.  I'll start with Kessler's conclusion and work back from there:
We do not have enough information to make a definitive judgment. But it appears that Mukasey is straining to make a connection between the killing of bin Laden and the harsh interrogation techniques that appears, at best, tangential. Otherwise, he would not have had to resort to verbal sleight of hand to make his case. McCain, by contrast, appears to clearly connect the dots from the courier to bin Laden, citing information derived from conventional techniques.

At the same time, while the enhanced techniques may not have provided the Rosetta stone to bin Laden’s whereabouts, Mukasey may be right when he asserts that valuable leads in the broader war against al-Qaeda were derived through these techniques.

We probably will never know whether the same information -– or more accurate information -- could have been obtained through conventional interrogation. The use of these techniques also harmed the U.S. image overseas — another question U.S, policymakers will have to balance in the future.
Kessler did a better job than I thought at first.  The first paragraph of his concluding section made it appear that he had largely bought McCain's view and discounted Mukasey's.

Marc Thiessen's book "Courting Disaster" makes clear the role of enhanced interrogation.  It is not used to elicit information from a detainee but rather used to make detainees cooperate with "conventional techniques."  Thus every piece of information will occur as a result of using "conventional techniques."  But not every piece of information gathered using conventional techniques would necessarily obtain all the information accrued after using enhanced techniques.  In particular, the detainee might delay in revealing information minus the use of enhanced interrogation.  But it's hard to say if such delays might have obscured the trail to bin Laden.

Kessler might have been clearer about the role of enhanced interrogation, but his conclusion is substantially correct.

Tom Perdue and the Goofy Sayings Department

Tom Perdue, a veteran GOP operative in the state, predicted Georgians would support Gingrich “mostly because it’s a poor cow who doesn’t kick her own calf. It’s an old farm saying. Even if the calf has a deformity, the mama cow keeps care of her calf.”
And as experienced farmers know, a cow cares for its calf by kicking it.

Okay, I don't get it.  How does this get past the editor?  Even assuming that Perdue misspoke and uttered the word "kick" instead of the word "lick," how does it not occur to anybody that kicking a calf is an incredibly counterintuitive way to care for a calf?

Chances are Perdue uttered the phrase correctly.

Journalists are great.

Probing PolitiFact's mostly useless corrections policy (Updated x3)

More often than I mention it here, I send messages to PolitiFact staffers alerting them to problems in their stories.  Typically I receive no reply and nothing is done about content errors.  But they're pretty good about fixing spelling errors if I happen to mention one of those.

In relation to a PolitiFact story involving conservative pundit Laura Ingraham--one I reviewed very recently--I sent the following message:
Dear Misters Adair and Jacobson,

The story on Laura Ingraham published on May 16 contains a substantial hole and a likely error.

The hole comes from the story's failure to provide context or background material sufficient to judge the context of Ingraham's statement.  In other words, there is absolutely nothing in the quotation of Ingraham that would indicate she was talking about RomneyCare's popularity in Massachusetts.  As such the presentation of the story conflicts with PolitiFact's aim of providing readers the tools to determine whether to agree with the "Truth-O-Meter" rating or not.

The goal is to help readers judge for themselves whether they agree with the ruling.
--Bill Adair

If you at PolitiFact are serious about that goal, it is incumbent on you to provide sufficient context for the reader to judge whether or not you have taken the statement from Ingraham out of context.

If you cannot provide material from the original conversation that shows that the context is what you claimed, then you should strongly consider that you have made an error.  The "Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter" describes what you would do if an error occurred.

Bryan White

As always, any reply not accompanied by "off the record" or the like is subject to publication.  Thanks for you (sic) time.
I sent the message to editor Bill Adair as well as to writer/researcher Louis Jacobson, as per the recommendations in the "Principles" document.

Now we wait to see what happens.

Hat tip to Jeff Dyberg for correctly noting that "one" is supposed to have an "e" at the end.  Correction accomplished. 


As of May 19, 2011 at 3:00 p.m. the Ingraham story had not changed and I have received no communications from either Adair or Jacobson in reply to my message.  Though, as in the past, the message appeared to generate visits from the St. Petersburg Times and from a frequent visitor in the Washington D.C. area (where Adair is based).  So much for the principles of PolitiFact?  Stay tuned.

Update 2:

As of May 21, 2011 at 4:00 p.m. the Ingraham story had not changed and I have received no communications from either Adair or Jacobson in reply to my message.  The story continues to lack any internal evidence that PolitiFact interpreted Ingraham's words according to the context in which she stated them.  This reinforces the impression that either PolitiFact cares little for its stated principle of helping readers determine the facts based on the evidence rather than via PolitiFact's decisions, or else PolitiFact cares more about the damage to its reputation as a result of admitting significant error.

Update 3:

An examination of the O'Reilly Factor transcript bears out my suspicion that it contained nothing to indicate Ingraham was talking about RomneyCare's popularity in Massachusetts.

Now we're left to wonder why Jacobson and Adair, knowing all along that the transcript contains nothing supporting their assumption, decline to issue a clarification or correction.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Misfiring at Laura Ingraham (Updated)

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

The goal is to help readers judge for themselves whether they agree with the ruling.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

image clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


PolitiFact provides another case to slip into the file for claims a person didn't make but PolitiFact wanted to check the claim anyhow.

On the May 12, 2011, edition of the Fox News Channel's’ O’Reilly Factor, host Bill O’Reilly and conservative commentator Laura Ingraham discussed a speech on health care given earlier that day by possible Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
That was the good part of the fact check.  Everything's in order so far.

Romney’s speech was designed to draw distinctions between the Massachusetts health care plan passed when he was governor and the national health care law signed in 2010. In a separate item, we analyzed whether Romney was justified in calling the national law a "government takeover."
PolitiFact has been harping on the "government takeover" thing for some time.  It seems doubtful at this point that they can afford to backtrack from it even to the point of trying to address the many criticisms leveled at their finding.  It's true that Romney was drawing distinctions between RomneyCare and the Democratic PPACA.  But the reason for that is worth mentioning:  PPACA is wildly unpopular with the Republicans Romney needs to court in order to win the Republican nomination.

Here, we’ll look at a comment Ingraham made regarding in-state public opinion about the Massachusetts plan.

"Look, I like Mitt Romney," Ingraham said. "I think he's a really smart guy, and I think he would be a good president. ... On this, I don't get it, though, Bill. I mean, costs have gone up. It's wildly unpopular."

We wondered whether the Massachusetts system was in fact "wildly unpopular" with Bay State residents.
I haven't left anything out through this point of my analysis.  Put the quotations end-to-end and you've got the entire PolitiFact story through the third paragraph quoted just above.  We have a hole in this story.  It is the hole represented by PolitiFact's stated aim of helping readers judge for themselves whether to agree with the PolitiFact ruling.

In this case, we don't have enough context to know whether the PolitiFact ruling is correct.  But we do have enough evidence to place the ruling in extreme doubt.

PolitiFact leads toward the quotation of Ingraham by saying her statement was "made regarding in-state public opinion" about the plan.  But there is absolutely nothing in the context of the quotation that backs up that claim.

PolitiFact repeats the presumptive context in framing the goal of the fact check.  Is it true, as Ingraham supposedly said, that RomneyCare is wildly unpopular in Massachusetts?

PolitiFact eventually grades Ingraham "False" on that question.

The broader context argues very strongly against PolitiFact's interpretation of the Ingraham quotation.  As noted above, Romney's speech occurs in the context of him entering the race for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.  It really doesn't matter in that context whether Massachusetts likes RomneyCare or not.  Romney can win the national election without Massachusetts.  And Ingraham would be foolish to place any particular importance on Massachusetts public opinion as to that issue.

Ingraham would have an excellent point if she was talking about the unpopularity of RomneyCare among the Republicans who vote in primary elections.

It must be presumed, pending the presentation of conclusive evidence, that PolitiFact has badly blown another fact check.  At the very least, this one represents an epic fail with respect to the goal of providing readers the tools with which to reach the truth of the matter.  Instead, we get the snap judgment of the worthless "Truth-O-Meter."

I have yet to locate video, audio, or transcript of the relevant portion of the O'Reilly program from May 12.   I hope to update this item if the material surfaces, or if I get around to accessing the Lexis-Nexis database PolitiFact used to obtain the Ingraham quotation.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Bill Adair:  F

Thanks to Jeff Dyberg for noting that I omitted the "ly" from "supposedly."  The oversight is hereby rectified. 

Update (5/23/11)

Accessing the Lexis-Nexis database confirms PolitiFact's error.  But it doesn't explain PolitiFact's reluctance to correct the record.

In service to the idea of free speech, I'm reproducing the entire relevant portion of the O'Reilly Factor transcript for May 12 (yellow highlights indicate portion quoted by PolitiFact):
O'REILLY: Mitt Romney made a big speech today in Michigan. You know, and obviously he's going to run for president and he has the health care thing tied around his neck. Go.


MITT ROMNEY (R), POTENTIAL PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Pundits around the nation are saying that I should just stand up and say this whole thing was a mistake. That it was just a bone-headed idea and I should just admit it. It was a mistake and walk away from it. And I presume that a lot of folks would conclude that if did I that that would be good for me politically.

There is only one problem with that. It wouldn't be honest. I, in fact, did what I believed was right for the people of my state.



But, do you admire him for saying, listen, I thought that this was the right thing to do that's why I got behind it. I'm not going to repudiate it now even though it didn't work.

INGRAHAM: Well, I was one of the pundits who told him to just nix the whole Romney care idea in Massachusetts. So I guess I'm one of the people he is talking about.

Look, I like Mitt Romney. I think he's a really smart guy and I think he would be a good president. I think a lot of the people who might be running would be a good president.

On this, I don't get it though Bill. I mean costs have gone up. It's wildly unpopular.

O'REILLY: Well, he's not saying -- he's not saying it turned out well. All he is saying is that he thought it might.


INGRAHAM: I know. But Bill, it's -- right. I know he thought it might. But just say, look, I more than anyone know that this -- going down this road is a disaster. I tried, I tried my best. It didn't work. Ok?

O'REILLY: Yes. That's what I would say.

INGRAHAM: I don't want us going down this road.

O'REILLY: That's what I would say.

INGRAHAM: Yes, I know. He is still trying to finesse it a little bit. I understand why he's doing that. He doesn't want to do a total mea culpa. But I think it makes common sense to do that.

O'REILLY: It's not really a mea culpa. It's -- look, we tried to do our best on it. We thought it might work. It didn't work. I learned my lesson and he is calling for the repeal of Obama care.

INGRAHAM: Yes. Which actually, Bill, good point, that's the most important thing right now.

O'REILLY: Yes, it is. It does leave a lot of conservative Republicans confused about him. That's what it leaves.

INGRAHAM: I just think he can clear cut, it's better. And I get why he is doing it but I think it's still going to dog him, unfairly or fairly.


O'REILLY: All right. Laura, thanks very much.
As I had surmised based on the broad context of the conversation, Ingraham said nothing to indicate she was talking about RomneyCare's popularity in Massachusetts.  Likewise, nothing about the conversation with Bill O'Reilly indicates Ingraham was talking about the program's popularity in Massachusetts.

PolitiFact made it up.

It is not reasonable to assume that Ingraham was talking about RomneyCare's popularity in Massachusetts.  In running for the Republican nomination, Romney requires support from Republicans, not from the state of Massachusetts.

And speaking of Republican opinion of RomneyCare:
A majority of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in Massachusetts would like to see the 2006 health care law enacted by then-Gov. Mitt Romney and the state legislature repealed and replaced with something else, according to a new survey by Magellan Strategies for NH Journal.
NH Journal

The chutzpah of Bill Adair

Despite the detailed and voluminous criticism of PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" for 2010, PolitiFact continues to assert that the PPACA does not represent a government takeover of health care.  Not even a little bit of a government takeover of healthcare.

A story about Mitt Romney using the phrase "government takeover" from last week again rated the claim "Pants on Fire," and though the story noted the criticism the rating received, the story does not address the criticism.

This morning PolitiFact editor Bill Adair wrote a brief story decrying the brazenness of those who repeat the suppose lie, and his story doesn't even bother to acknowledge the past criticism:
PolitiFact has repeatedly rated that False or Pants on Fire and selected it as our 2010 Lie of the Year. But the line still gets repeated, most recently by likely presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
The rationale PolitiFact placed behind its ruling was always flawed, and the failure to address criticism only magnifies the failure.

For the umpteenth time, people understand "government takeover" to mean increased federal government control of health care.  PPACA clearly increases federal government control of health care. 

Get a clue, PolitiFact.

Grading PolitiFact: President Obama and the border surge

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
--PolitiFact editor Bill Adair

The issue:

(image clipped from

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


Twice as many border patrol agents today as in 2004?  Sounds like another numbers claim.  Therefore, the most important thing in the fact check will be the underlying message.  Let's watch for it:
In a speech on immigration reform in El Paso, Texas, President Barack Obama boasted about an unprecedented number of border security agents along the U.S. border with Mexico, but he said critics probably still won't be satisfied.

"Under Secretary Napolitano’s leadership, we have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible," Obama said in his May 10, 2011, speech. "They wanted more agents on the border. Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history. The Border Patrol has 20,000 agents –- more than twice as many as there were in 2004, a buildup that began under President Bush and that we have continued."
PolitiFact detects one underlying message by noting that President Obama "boasted."  The president wants some credit for the increase ("... a buildup that began under President Bush and that we have continued").  The president also appears to argue--and PolitiFact notes this as well--that the state of the increase meets conditions set by Republicans for proceeding with comprehensive immigration legislation.  Neither underlying message appears to figure in PolitiFact's final rating.

Here, we decided to focus on Obama's claim that "the Border Patrol has 20,000 agents -- more than twice as many as there were in 2004."
Hmmm.  Interesting decision.  I guess that excludes consideration of the underlying messages?  The most important thing?

There were 20,745 border patrol agents as of April 9, 2011; 17,659 of them stationed along the southwest border with Mexico, according to data provided by Steven Cribby, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

That's up from 17,499 border patrol agents at the end of September 2008, four months before Obama took office (an 18 percent increase).
One wonders how and why we measure from a September 2008 baseline.  The latter paragraph seems intended to justify Obama's claim to credit for continuing the increase.  But there is reason to suspect PolitiFact's version of the history.  The suspicions stem from presidential budget proposals (part of the PolitiFact list of story references).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Speaker Gingrich shrinks unemployment?

To assess the truth for a numbers claim, the biggest factor is the underlying message.
--PolitiFact editor Bill Adair

The issue:

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Eric Stirgus:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


The same old story just keeps getting older with PolitiFact, namely a failure to offer charitable interpretation and an inconsistent commitment to evaluating numbers claims primarily in relation to the underlying point.

Here we go again:
The former Georgia congressman made it official in a campaign video on his website, as he had signaled earlier in the week. Gingrich promoted his credentials by touting a list of accomplishments in his four years as House Speaker, which began in January 1995 and ended in January 1999.

Those accomplishments included cutting unemployment, which was at 9 percent in April 2011 and one of the nation’s biggest problems.

"Unemployment came down from 5.6 percent to under 4," Gingrich, a Republican who now lives in Virginia, said in the video.
Viewing Gingrich's statement in context places it in a slightly different light (yellow highlights indicate portion quoted in the PolitiFact story):
As Speaker of the House, I worked to reform welfare, balance the budget, control spending, to cut taxes to create economic growth – unemployment came down from 5.6% to under 4
Grammar time:  "unemployment came down from 5.6 percent to under 4" is not subordinate to "As Speaker of the House."  Rather, the finishing clause is constructed to imply an effect from the things Gingrich claims to have done "as Speaker of the House":  working to reform welfare, balance the budget, control spending and cut taxes to create economic growth.  It's certainly possible to question the implied cause and effect relationship, but it is unfair to Gingrich to mangle the understanding of his syntax.

Yet PolitiFact does exactly that without apparently blinking an eye.

The facts as PolitiFact gives them support the charitable and reasonable understanding of Gingrich's claim, though he is vulnerable to the charge of employing a mild ambiguity and for making a dubious argument via implication.

The underlying point also relates to that implication:  The things Gingrich did as Speaker of the House helped the economy.  The PolitiFact trio of Jacobson, Stirgus and Hamilton ignores the underlying point.

The dark cloud of their collaboration did produce a silver lining, however:  We have more data with which to reconstruct the PolitiMath theorem of mathematical accuracy.  Ignoring PolitiFact's uncharitable assumption that Gingrich used the wrong figure and the possibility that PolitiFact punished Gingrich based on the judgment that he could have easily used the correct figure, Gingrich received a "False" rating for a figure that was off by about 10 percent.  (Update:  It occurred to me belatedly that the reduction number--not the destination number--is probably the better one to represent Gingrich's supposed imprecision.  That figure was off by about 33 percent)

Recall that Barack Obama once received a "Mostly True" rating for a figure that was off by over 80 percent, albeit the president was substantially rescued through an appeal to his underlying point.

The underlying point, after all, is the most important aspect of a numbers claim.  Sometimes.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Eric Stirgus:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

All three flunk for failing to recognize the most likely interpretation of Gingrich's statement while also failing to pay attention to the most important aspect of a numbers claim.

Unrepentant: PolitiFact doubles down on 2010 "Lie of the Year"

When PolitiFact announced its 2010 "Lie of the Year" was the Republican claim that the Democratic health care reform bill represented a "government takeover" of American health care, it came under a considerable amount of criticism.  PolitiFact never answered the criticism, and on Friday the 13th, May 14, 2011 PolitiFact rated Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney "Pants on Fire" for a similar claim.

It's worth noting that Romney phrased his version as an opinion:
"When I ask people what they dislike most about the president’s plan, what I typically hear is they say, ‘Obamacare represents a government takeover of health care, and I don’t like it.’ And I think they’re right."
But PolitiFact apparently regards itself as immune from expressing its own opinion when it claims that the opinions of others represent false claims.  PolitiFact continues to publish its stories without an "opinion" or "news analysis" label.

The content of the claim is more important, of course.

PolitiFact continues to take the position that a government takeover cannot take place if private insurers remain in business, heedless of the fact that sufficient regulation has the same effect on business behavior as government ownership.

Note the thin response to Romney's explanation of "government takeover":
When we asked Romney’s camp to explain their use of the term "government takeover," spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom said, "It seems pretty obvious that under Obamacare, the federal government takes on a vastly expanded role in health care. Whether you call it a ‘takeover’ or a ‘power grab,’ the effect is the same -- it shifts power and responsibility from the states to Washington and suffocates the nation under a massive, byzantine bureaucracy fueled by a half trillion dollars in higher taxes."

But we find flimsy evidence for such a strong claim. The government's expanded role in health falls far short of being a government takeover. As we said in our Lie of the Year announcement, analogies about strict government regulation provide some helpful illustrations. The Federal Aviation Administration imposes detailed rules on airlines. State laws require drivers to have car insurance. Regulators tell electric utilities what they can charge. Yet that heavy regulation is not described as a government takeover.
First, PolitiFact labels Romney's statement a "strong claim."  But it's actually a relatively modest claim (witness his explanation) couched in strong terms.  Thus PolitiFact finds itself ignoring Romney's explanation in favor of straw men and an anemic argument by analogy.  It is irrelevant whether anyone actually describes federal regulation (particularly new government regulation) of aviation as a "government takeover."  It is only relevant whether the term reasonably describes the government increasing its effective control of an enterprise and whether the phrase misleads the audience.

PolitiFact's credibility will continue to ebb so long as it responds to a wave of good criticism by failing to respond appropriately with either a rebuttal to the criticism or a change in behavior.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Hyperbole? What's that?

Professionals in the fact checking business ought to know hyperbole when they hear it, or at least ought to consider it as an explanation for some statements that do not seem to add up when taken as literally true.

Regarding the fact checking professionals at PolitiFact, there stands considerable doubt.  This anecdote from a recent journalism symposium at Haverford College illustrates the point (bold emphasis added):
Amy Hollyfield, the government and politics editor for the St. Petersburg Times who runs the paper’s fact-checking website, detailed a recent national story that Politifact helped to break. During the recent budget debates, Senator John Kyl (R-Arizona) claimed on the floor of the Senate that “well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does” is abortions. Politifact checked this figure with Planned Parenthood’s own records and found that, in fact, 3% of its services are abortion-related. When CNN sought comment from the Senator regarding Politifact’s fact-checking, a Kyl staffer responded that “his remark was not intended to be a factual statement.” Hollyfield laughed as she told the story, but said that stories like this one are why her organization exists. “That’s what our mission is,” she said, “to hold politicians accountable.”
Hollyfield, who ought to know better, is apparently among those who take "not intended to be a factual statement" as something akin to "not telling the truth."  As noted here at Sublime Bloviations, the explanation from Kyl's office is consistent with a statement employing hyperbole.

Why would PolitiFact totally ignore that explanation?

Unexpectedly ...

The Tampa Bay Rays sit in first place in the AL East as I type.

It's early, of course.  But even so, the Rays have performed better than I expected.

I can honestly claim that I thought the Rays might contend for the playoffs this year.  That expectation, however, was built on a strong performance at DH by the now-absent Manny Ramirez.  Ramirez, of course, retired abruptly after testing positive for a substance banned by MLB.

Evan Longoria's oblique strain helped shrink my expectations for the Rays.

Here's a thank you to some of the players responsible for making the 2011 Rays just as exciting to watch as the 2010 version.

Sam Fuld sparked the team offensively to help put a stop to the 8-game skid that began the season.

Johnny Damon likewise provided an spark after Ramirez departed, and provided veteran leadership when it was needed.  That makes it easier to forget his past sins (former member of Red Sox and Yankees).

The starting pitching has exceeded expectations with the exception of Jeff Nieman, who has struggled.  James Shields has recaptured and improved on the winning ways he exhibited a few years ago.  I stick with my preseason (unpublished) prediction that Jeremy Hellickson will earn more victories than Matt Garza, whom he replaced in the starting rotation.  Hellickson leads that contest 3-2 as I write.

The bullpen has far exceeded expectations.  Entering the season I thought it would be a major liability.  So far it hasn't turned out that way.

Matt Joyce looks like an everyday outfielder.  Joyce leads the AL in batting average as I write.

Ben Zobrist seems to have ironed out whatever problem plagued him at the plate last year.  Zobrist leads the team in home runs and rbi.

Casey Kotchman has filled the defensive void at first base while doing much to dispel the impression that he has a minor-league bat.

Did I miss anyone?

Could be.  B. J. Upton has shown flashes at the plate reminding me of the days when I thought his bat would endure as one of the best in the league (I'm relieved to see that my praise was a bit more cautious than I remembered).

Because of all the changes to the Rays lineup and because every team in the AL East seemed to improve itself, I figured the Rays anywhere from second place to last.  I'm happy to revise that prediction.  I don't think first place is impossible any longer.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Power Line and the Pelosi Paradox

"The Amazing Criswell"

The Amazing Criswell was a dimestore prophet who parlayed his act into a series of appearances in the films of Edward D. Wood Jr., the latter widely recognized as one of the worst film directors of all time.  The following snippet from the script of the film "Ed Wood" will help explain why the image of Criswell leads off this review:

               Hey Cris, how'd you know we'd be
               living on Mars by 1970?  How'd you
               know it wouldn't be 1975, or even

               I guessed.

               I don't understand.

               I made it up.  It's horseshit!

The issue:

Now for a more customary image:

Though PolitiFact credits the statement to "various posts on the web," all four owe (and offer) credit directly to John Hinderaker at the Power Line blog.

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


We note at the outset that the headline and deck material (image copied above) are accompanied at the PolititFact site by the "Truth-O-Meter" graphic set at "Half True."

Let's get the explanation from PolitiFact:
On May 2, 2011, the conservative PowerLine blog posted a quote it said came from Pelosi in 2006. Others followed, including Michelle Malkin’s blog, Fox Nation and Commentary magazine. Here’s the PowerLine version:

"(E)ven if (Osama bin Laden) is caught tomorrow, it is five years too late. He has done more damage the longer he has been out there. But, in fact, the damage that he has done is done. And even to capture him now I don’t think makes us any safer."
The "PowerLine version" is the same as all the other versions, of course, because they are all the Power Line version.

The blog paired that with a statement that Pelosi -- the former House speaker and now the House minority leader -- released shortly after President Barack Obama announced bin Laden’s death to the nation on May 1:

"The death of Osama bin Laden marks the most significant development in our fight against al-Qaida. I salute President Obama, his national security team, Director Panetta, our men and women in the intelligence community and military, and other nations who supported this effort for their leadership in achieving this major accomplishment. … (T)he death of Osama bin Laden is historic."
Again, the blogs that reproduced Power Line's side-by-side comparison of Pelosi quotations used exactly the same version.  On with the fact check:
PowerLine went on to argue that her seemingly different sentiments may have been colored by the fact that the White House in 2006 was occupied by a Republican (George W. Bush) and in 2011 by a Democrat (Obama).

"It is unfortunate that many public figures are unable to view events otherwise than through a partisan prism," PowerLine argued. "Osama bin Laden's operational significance had undoubtedly dwindled over the years, and al-Qaida, after nine years of relentless attacks, is a shadow of its former self. But bin Laden's death is obviously an important and helpful milestone in the long war against radical Islam. …
PolitiFact uses the root term "argument" in a broad sense.  Hinderaker doesn't bother offering trying to convince anybody of anything.  He quotes Pelosi and then offers a direct assessment.  Hinderaker does not state his premises and inferences directly.

PolitiFact presents Pelosi's quotation in context, stating that Pelosi at the time was charging Republicans with failing to implement all of the 9-11 Commission recommendations.  PolitiFact says "bloggers" quoted Pelosi accurately:
We think the bloggers are accurate in reporting Pelosi’s 2006 quote. She did indeed say that taking out bin Laden wouldn’t make the U.S. any safer, though we should also note that, from the context, it’s clear that she thought bin Laden should be pursued regardless.

The bloggers’ reporting of the second Pelosi quote -- the one from after bin Laden’s killing -- is incomplete, however. The final sentence of Pelosi’s statement reads, "Though the death of Osama bin Laden is historic, it does not diminish our relentless pursuit of terrorists who threaten our country" (emphasis added). In other words, the full text of what Pelosi said on May 1 communicates a more nuanced view, and one that’s less in conflict with her 2006 statement.
As to the former paragraph from PolitiFact, it would have been interesting to hear Pelosi describe why bin Laden should be pursued if it wouldn't make us safer.  Would the pursuit occur solely for the purpose of retributive justice?

As to the latter of PolitiFact's paragraphs, is the omitted portion of Pelosi's statement important to Hinderaker's point?  PolitiFact claims, without any developed argument, that the missing context makes for "a more nuanced view" "less in conflict" with her earlier statement.

How much conflict does Hinderaker need to make his point?  And can PolitiFact sustain its point without determining Hinderaker's need?  PolitiFact appears to concede that the two statements conflict to at least some degree.

Ultimately, we think the bloggers overstated the degree to which Pelosi’s 2006 and 2011 comments were contradictory.
To what degree did "the bloggers" overstate the degree to which Pelosi's two statements contradict each other?  As noted above, Hinderaker simply makes a short assessment after quoting Pelosi directly and (according to PolitiFact) accurately.  Hinderaker does not mention contradiction, paradox or compatibility.  We only see that type of thing only in the headline used in the Fox news aggregation ("Pelosi Caught Flip-Flopping Big Time on Bin Laden").

How does PolitiFact know that Hinderaker overstated the degree of contradiction?  They guessed.  They made it up.  It's horseshit.

Hinderaker's point about an ideological prism stands perfectly well with any degree of disagreement between Pelosi's two statements.  In the former case, Pelosi seemed prepared to minimize the significance of bin Laden's death if accomplished by the Bush administration.  In the latter case, Pelosi spared no superlative in lauding the accomplishment of the Obama administration.  Wasn't that clearly Hinderaker's point?  And didn't he obviously convey the point without exaggerating the discrepancy?

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

We have another case where if somebody doesn't quite state the fact PolitiFact wants to check they'll be happy to pretend otherwise.