Saturday, July 30, 2011

PolitiFact, Barack Obama and That-Which-Shall-Not-Be-Named

I thought that PolitiFact was a bit tough on President Obama on a recent fact check item.

The president claimed a majority of Republicans favor addressing the debt problem with a combination of spending cuts and revenues.  That seemed perfectly true, to me.  After all, without some type of revenue coming in, one would have to cut all government spending in order to reduce the deficit or the debt.

Those Grinches at PolitiFact twisted the president's words and interpreted him to mean revenue increases.

Well, yeah, they were very probably right about that.  The president probably did mean increased revenues when he said "revenues." 

Maybe somebody should call the Word Police?

Just minutes ago while fishing for more PolitiFact flubs, however, I noticed something I had previously missed.  Take a look:

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We have two instances side-by-side of the president apparently using "revenues" as a euphemism for "tax increases" or even "revenue increases."  Doubtless the latter performed unacceptably well in focus group tests.  Two instances side-by-side starts to resemble a pattern.

Regarding the PolitiFact items, I suppose the ratings are a wash.  Taking Obama literally should improve both ratings.  But since Obama probably did not mean mere "revenues" literally--instead meaning increased revenues in the form of tax increases or the closure of tax loopholes (for those who draw a distinction between the two), his words tend to lead the audience down the primrose path via euphemism.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Jon Huntsman and the Nevada flat tax

We always try to get the original statement in its full context rather than an edited form that appeared in news stories.
--About PolitiFact

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Louis Jacobson:  writer, researcher
Kevin Landrigan:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


During a recent house party in Belmont, N.H., Huntsman responded to a voter's question about whether the aim of the federal tax system should be to raise revenue or influence behavior.
The "recent" house party occurred on July 4.  PolitiFact published this item on July 28.  The story probably skips mentioning the date because, like another recent fact check item from the New Hampshire newbies, the fact check is unusually late by PolitiFact standards.  Writer-researcher Kevin Landrigan works for the Nashua Telegraph, which is part of the group that will constitute PolitiFact New Hampshire.  Thus it figures that Landrigan probably covered Huntsman's July 4 appearance in Belmont, New Hampshire.  An associated website called "The Lobby" features video of Huntsman in Belmont, though I failed to locate a segment that corresponds to the portion quoted in the PolitiFact story.

But it seems safe to say that Landrigan could have provided the full context of Huntsman's statement.

Do we have enough of the context to accurately gauge Huntsman's meaning?  Probably.  But even so the context ends up arguing against PolitiFact's analysis.

The context as we have it (blue highlights added):
During a recent house party in Belmont, N.H., Huntsman responded to a voter's question about whether the aim of the federal tax system should be to raise revenue or influence behavior.

"That's one of those trick questions, right?'' Huntsman asked.

"Possibly,'' said Bill Goetz, a retired, manufacturing executive living in Belmont.

Huntsman went on to describe his philosophy and pointed to his record in Utah.

"We got a flat tax out of it, we cut income taxes by 30 percent, it was a cost-neutral affair where we took out the deductions, we took out the biases almost completely, some we didn't get out, and you know what? The state came to life in part because of that.''
PolitiFact deals with the highlighted portion.  They pretty much ignore the rest.  Then again, they ignore some of the stuff in the highlighted portion.

Republicans frequently talk a good game about supporting a flat tax, but they often have difficulty getting political support to change the complicated tax laws. So we wondered if Huntsman and the Utah legislature had succeeded in overhauling the state law to the point where it can be considered a flat tax -- and whether they cut income taxes by 30 percent.
There we have the two facts PolitiFact intends to check ...
We then divide the statement into individual claims that we check separately. For example, a Bill Richardson TV ad produced two claims. (We only make Truth-O-Meter rulings on those individual claims. We don't make them in our articles because they often summarize multiple Truth-O-Meter items that had different rulings.)
About PolitiFact
Yeah, well ... never you mind about that.  PolitiFact, you see, manages to botch both parts of this fact check.  So they might as well combine them into one.

Is it a flat tax?

The research arm of the Utah Legislature maintains it was not a flat tax in the purest sense. "Although the new system has a single statutory rate of 5.0 percent, it is not a proportional or 'flat' income tax system. Rather, Utah’s new income tax system remains progressive through tax credits,'' said a January 2010 report of the Utah Office of Legislative Research and General Counsel.

 It's not a flat tax "in the purest sense."  But Huntsman did not present it as a flat tax in its purest sense, so this criticism can't really count against him ("we took out the biases almost completely, some we didn't get out").

Conservative groups give Huntsman high marks for the overhaul and have said they consider it to be a flat tax.
Hmmm.  That can't be relevant, can it?  Between the tax counting as a flat tax short of its purest sense and with Conservative groups counting it as a flat tax, one could almost think that Huntsman spoke accurately.

On the flat tax question, the changes under Huntsman certainly made it a flatter tax than the one it replaced, since the changes he oversaw combined several tax brackets into one. But the tax remains more complicated to calculate than a pure flat tax would be. In fact, Utah’s system of tax credits make the tax somewhat progressive in practice, which is something a true flat tax would not be.
So ... if it's not a "pure" flat tax then Huntsman's claim is ... "Mostly False"?  Even though Huntsman didn't present it as a "pure" flat tax?

Great, let's see how the lyin' Republican does on his other claim:

30 percent?

As for Huntsman's claim that they "cut income taxes by 30 percent," we find that is a significant exaggeration.

He is close to correct if you compare the statutory rate in the top tax bracket before and after the tax system changed. The top rate declined from 7 percent to 5 percent, which is a decrease of 28.6 percent.
In terms of an adjustment to the top marginal rate, that's not significant exaggeration.  It's called "rounding up."

But there are two problems with this measurement. First, it doesn’t address the lower tax brackets. Remember, the lowest rate went up from 2.3 percent to 5 percent. So Huntsman’s 30 percent decrease in the statutory rate didn’t apply to them.
There's one big problem with this supposed problem:  PolitiFact doesn't apply it consistently.
...we were not convinced that Obama had actually intended to make the more detailed comparison
What was it that made Huntsman more convincing on that point?

Which brings us to the second problem with Huntsman’s 30 percent description -- that just looking at the drop in the statutory rate, as Huntsman does, says very little about how a taxpayer actually fared after the change.
The big problem with the second supposed problem is that Huntsman did not "just" look at the drop in the statutory rate.  He specifically and immediately noted that some biases remained in the system.

Huntsman’s 30 percent claim is more misleading. It’s true that the statutory rates in the top bracket declined by almost that much, but the actual reduction in tax dollars paid was far smaller for the overwhelming majority of taxpayers -- usually less than 1 percent of a taxpayer’s adjusted gross income. We think most people hearing Huntsman's comment would believe he was touting a 30 percent cut in what people actually pay at tax time, and the numbers aren’t close to that. So we rate his claim Mostly False.
PolitiFact has assumed for Obama's sake that "tax rates" refers to the top marginal rate.  Minus some convincing justification, Huntsman should receive the same benefit of the doubt as to his intent.  And on the face of it, PolitiFact's contention that "most people" would think Huntsman was talking about a reduction in the tax bill rather than a reduction in the top marginal rate seems ridiculous.  Huntsman asserted that the tax reform was cost neutral.  That means that the costs would remain essentially unchanged for somebody, that somebody depending on Huntsman's intent.  If he means the taxpayer then a small change in the tax bill is exactly what his words lead the listener to expect rather than a significant reduction.  If, on the other hand, he refers to the government, using the term akin to "revenue neutral" then we're left with largely the same logical conclusion.  To keep tax receipts the same the tax bills will collectively have to add up about the same.

It's quite the accomplishment by PolitiFact to ignore so much of the context of Huntsman's words with so little context to work from.

Yes it's a flat tax except in some absolutist sense and yes the top marginal tax rate was cut by (approximately) 30 percent.  The "Truth-O-Meter" rating of Huntsman is a rip off.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Kevin Landrigan:  F
Bill Adair:  F

The label "journalists reporting badly" applies.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

A reconsideration

I've put myself on record repeatedly defending PolitiFact staffers from the charge of intentional bias in their work.

I've said that I consider intentional bias unlikely for a number of reasons.  But there's one persistent evidence that makes me question my stance in defending PolitiFact writers and editors on that point.

They don't seem interested in fixing obvious mistakes.

Take the recent example of a "Obameter" rating from President Obama.  The "Obameter" supposedly rates whether the president keeps his campaign promises.  In an earlier entry I documented how PolitiFact far over credited President Obama in delivering on this promise:
"Barack Obama and Joe Biden will establish a 10 percent federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to require that 10 percent of electricity consumed in the U.S. is derived from clean, sustainable energy sources, like solar, wind and geothermal by 2012."
No change at all was made to the Renewable Portfolio Standard, yet PolitiFact rated the promise as kept because the energy industry happened to exceed 10 percent usage of the energy sources listed in the president's promise.

This is an unambiguous error and continues to stand in need of correction.  I had visits from St. Petersburg Times computers immediately following the publication of my criticism, so it is overpoweringly likely that PolitiFact staffers are aware of the criticism.  Yet the story has received no correction.

How do I continue to defend PolitiFact staffers as to their moral integrity when they refuse to fix such an obvious error?

The best I can do in defending their morality is to assume that they do not perceive the need for the correction.  Yet that makes them appear unfit to engage in fact checking in the first place.

I don't like where this is going.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"It is a change we don't make lightly"

Big news came down from PolitiFact today.  The fact checking organization will change its "Barely True" rating on its "Truth-O-Meter" to "Mostly False."

PolitiFact editor Bill Adair explains:
Today, Barely True becomes Mostly False.

It is a change we don't make lightly. The Truth-O-Meter has been the heart of PolitiFact since we launched the site four years ago, and we were reluctant to tinker with it.
If the powers that be at PolitiFact show such reluctance in making this minor cosmetic change then it sends a strong signal that PolitiFact will remain unwilling to make the substantial changes it would have to make to avoid its ongoing branding as the mainstream cousin to the partisans at Media Matters.

And I can't help but react with a wry smile when PolitiFact makes this change while leaving intact a long-running discrepancy in the descriptions of its ratings.  The "Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter" page describes "Half True" as  "The statement is partially accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context."  At "About PolitiFact" another version of "Half True" reads "The statement is accurate but leaves out important details or takes things out of context."

Between the new definition of "Half True" and the change from "Barely True" to "Mostly False" where both have the same definition, which is the more significant change?

But don't look for PolitiFact to reconcile its differing definitions with any fanfare.  There is still a reputation to protect.  Look for PolitiFact to (again) break the pledge it made about what it would do when it makes a mistake:
We strive to make our work completely accurate. When we make a mistake, we correct it and note it on the original item. If the mistake is so significant that it requires us to change the ruling, we will do so.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: President Obama and routinely raising the debt ceiling

TRUE – The statement is accurate and there’s nothing significant missing.
MOSTLY TRUE – The statement is accurate but needs clarification or additional information.
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:
(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Robert Farley:  writer, researcher
Martha Hamilton:  editor


For PolitiFact and its Truth-O-Meter, the difference between "True" and "Mostly True" rests on whether an accurate statement needs additional clarification or information.

In a televised address to the nation on July 25, 2011, to discuss the pending deadline on the debt ceiling, President Barack Obama made his pitch for a "balanced" approach to reducing the deficit -- one that includes spending cuts as well as revenue increases from tax increases for wealthier Americans.

With the debt ceiling issue caught in a political deadlock over how to reduce the deficit, Obama noted that raising the debt ceiling has been a relatively routine exercise for decades.
There's the rub.  President Obama speaks in the context of a battle over deficit reduction.  The United States faces a two-pronged threat to its credit rating.  One from the failure to address profligate spending (debt) and the other from a government default (to one degree or another) in the wake of a failure to raise the debt ceiling.  What does the president say?

"Understand –- raising the debt ceiling does not allow Congress to spend more money," Obama said. "It simply gives our country the ability to pay the bills that Congress has already racked up. In the past, raising the debt ceiling was routine.  Since the 1950s, Congress has always passed it, and every President has signed it. President Reagan did it 18 times. George W. Bush did it seven times. And we have to do it by next Tuesday, August 2nd, or else we won’t be able to pay all of our bills."
Did the U.S. face a drop in its credit rating from overspending under Reagan or George W. Bush?  If not, aren't we missing a crucial piece of context?  Is it proper, in other words, for a raise in the debt limit to occur routinely when the nation is under the threat of a drop in its credit rating if it doesn't stem the growth of its debt?

Mr. Obama, in his address, only gave the subtlest of hints of any threat to the U.S. credit rating (correction:  from the first of the two aforementioned prongs).  Indeed, I am probably generous to credit him with giving any hint at all.  I challenge any reader to detect it.

Here, we are looking at Obama's claim that, "President Reagan did it 18 times. George W. Bush did it seven times."
A strict focus on the numerical claim might serve to excuse the lack of critical context in the president's remarks.  On the other hand, PolitiFact's editor Bill Adair tells us "the biggest factor is the underlying message" for a numbers claim.  And PolitiFact appeared to identify Obama's underlying message early in the story ("Obama noted that raising the debt ceiling has been a relatively routine exercise for decades").  Obama sends the message that nothing should stop Republicans from reaching a quick agreement on this routine issue.

With its fact check, PolitiFact confirms that debt ceiling increases occurred routinely in the past as Obama said.  So does Obama get a "True" for leaving out nothing important?

We would be remiss if we failed to note that Obama opposed one of those increases to the debt ceiling under George W. Bush and criticized Bush for a lack of leadership.
Fortunately for Obama, he is not remiss in PolitiFact's eyes for omitting that fact from his remarks.  Whew!  Close one!

Having cleared that minuscule hurdle we can join PolitiFact in leaping to the conclusion:
Typically, the party that controls the White House has had to take the difficult vote to raise the limit, while the other party was free to criticize. An analysis of the past 10 years of votes on the debt limit from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center shows the vote usually splits along partisan lines, with the president's party voting in support.

Nonetheless, Obama is correct that raising the debt ceiling has been an issue repeatedly tackled by Republicans and Democrats alike. President Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times and George W. Bush did it seven times. We rate his claim True.
"True."  That means that Obama leaves out nothing significant.  It is not significant that he opposed raising the debt limit while he was in the Senate.  It is not significant that the nation faces the threat of a credit downgrade in the absence of a change in course regarding the increasing debt.

They're kidding, right?

The grades:

Robert Farley:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Liberals are great

Just sayin'.

(clipped from

I don't see Jeremy Towle's Facebook post above unless I view the page while not logged in or through a different account because Jeremy apparently has me blocked.  And that's funny.  But it's not the funniest part.

This is:


I don't have the precise times available, but what I do have indicates that the two Facebook actions above took place at roughly the same time.  Liberals are great.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Piquing PolitiFact: What definition of "Half True" is used at PolitiFact Ohio?

It's going to appear shortly.


(clipped from

I should have saved the image from the first time I tried to post the nearly identical message.  It's possible that I did something that kept it from posting, but as far as I can tell I followed the exact same procedure this time and received the message that my reply was received and would appear shortly.

Perhaps the idea is to delay the appearance of my comment until the discrepancy can be fixed.

Good luck with that.  I took note of it quite some time ago and I've been posting about it occasionally on the 'Net for weeks.

A number of comments do a nice job of pressing editor Robert Higgs for needed explanations.  One even brought up Eric Ostermeier's study suggesting selection bias at PolitiFact.  Higgs' reply to that one is hilarious:
I don't know enough about how the Minnesota study was done to talk about it. It's (sic) focus was, our national counterpart. Feel free to contact them via email. If you send them questions, you'll likely get a response.

What I can tell you about PolitiFact Ohio is that in our first year we did 81 Truth-O-Meter rulings on statements from Democrats and 103 from Republicans (more on the GOP side principally because Kasich is governor and there's twice as many Republicans in power as Democrats).

The average grade for Democrats: Half True

The average grade for Republicans: Half True
Some say the Texas Rangers have a better team batting average than the Seattle Mariners.

What I can tell you about it is that right now both teams are in the American League.

The Seattle Mariners are batting roughly .250.

The Texas Rangers are batting roughly .250

Higgs isn't saying anything.  The "average" when there are only six positions on the scale is a very rough approximation, just like rounding the Rangers' batting average down from .272 and the Mariners' battering average up from .226.  Is a difference of .46 statistically significant?  You betcha.  It's huge.

The question is, does Higgs buy his own explanation or does he really not know any better?  Either option is a bit scary.

The reply has appeared.  Now we'll see if it lasts.

Correction 7/25/11:  Used strikethroughs to improve the sense of the final paragraph.

Grading PolitiFact: Obama, Reagan and the debt

Words matter -- We pay close attention to the specific wording of a claim. Is it a precise statement? Does it contain mitigating words or phrases?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Angie Drobnic Holan:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


What a contrast to the PolitiFact piece on Mitt Romney I published yesterday.

The Romney story seized on a minor detail supporting an accurate underlying point.  The Obama story focuses on the minor point while ignoring a highly doubtful underlying point.  Both men phrased their minor points sloppily but Romney gets condemnation while the president gets a pass.

Let's get into the specifics:
With much glee, Democrats have seized on old audio recordings of President Ronald Reagan talking about the debt limit. House Democrats have even posted a snippet on YouTube.

Here's what the Gipper had to say on the matter back in 1986:

"Unfortunately, Congress consistently brings the government to the edge of default before facing its responsibility. This brinkmanship threatens the holders of government bonds and those who rely on Social Security and veterans benefits. Interest rates would skyrocket, instability would occur in financial markets, and the federal deficit would soar. The United States has a special responsibility to itself and the world to meet its obligations. It means we have a well-earned reputation for reliability and credibility -- two things that set us apart from much of the world."
So far so good.  The quotation is legitimate.  The question is the use to which it is applied.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, invoked Reagan when he answered a question from NPR on why negotiations to increase the debt ceiling have taken so long.

Obama said it was more than just one thing.

"You've got some members of the Republican Party who've been downplaying the consequences of default. The irony is, you know, Ronald Reagan, I think, when he was president, repeatedly talked about how irresponsible it would be to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be impaired in any kind of way. I think that there is some politics. And compromising with me, among some Republican leaders, is bad politics for them," he said on July 21, 2011.
Reagan supposedly said it would be irresponsible to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be impaired in any way.  Remember Obama's phrasing, because PolitiFact supposedly pays close attention to the specific wording of a claim.

And let the spin begin:
Intrigued by the audio files going around the Internet, we decided to fact-check Obama's statement that Reagan repeatedly talked about avoiding debt limit showdowns.
Those paying close attention to the specific wording of Obama's Reagan argument note the absence of the words "debt," "limit" and "shutdowns."  The PolitiFact team is ignoring Obama's specific wording and replacing it with their own very liberal (using the term advisedly) paraphrase.  Obama said Reagan was against subjecting U.S. credit to a threat "in any kind of way" if we pay attention to what Obama said.  That could certainly include the debt ceiling, but let's refrain from jumping to that conclusion just yet.

Reagan made the comments quoted above in a radio address to the nation on Sept. 26, 1987. But Reagan also laid out other principles for Congress in that address: cut spending, leave the defense budget alone, don't raise taxes. (Read the entire address via the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.)
Reagan's address made it clear that he would sign the bill sent to him by Congress because he believed it was necessary to raise the debt limit.  Reagan's statement did not castigate Democrats prior to the passage of a bill designed to raise the debt ceiling.
Looking for more examples of Reagan "repeatedly" warning about the debt ceiling,we also ran across a letter Reagan wrote in 1983 to then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker, R-Tenn., asking for help. (The Washington Post posted the letter to its website.)
PolitiFact accurately describes Reagan's letter as encouraging Baker to pass an increase in the debt limit.

But is that the same as warning against harming the full faith and credit of the U.S. government "in any kind of way"?

PolitiFact unaccountably fails to mention the key difference between the scenario today and the situations during Reagan's presidency:  As things currently stand, the U.S. credit rating may be harmed regardless of raising the credit ceiling.

That's right.  Moody's, among others, has warned that the U.S. faces a review of its credit rating if it merely fails to demonstrate a significant attempt to rein in its rapidly growing debt:
The U.S. government’s Aaa bond rating will come under pressure in the future unless additional measures are taken to reduce projected record budget deficits, according to Moody’s Investors Service Inc.
Unlike the 1980s, the current milieu presents a threat of a credit rating hit even if the debt ceiling is raised.  Only a middle ground involving a significant cut to runaway spending and a higher debt ceiling would address Reagan's supposed concern with "any kind" of threat to U.S. credit.

That doesn't sound so good for the president.  We need PolitiSpin from PolitiFact:
Interestingly, we also found statements from Reagan supporting changes to the tax code that increased revenues. That's a major sticking point in today's negotiations between Obama and Republicans. In a lengthy 1982 speech, he noted that some people called the bill he favored "the largest tax increase in history." But Reagan said it was tax reform, not a tax increase.
Note that PolitiFact has already admitted that its first citation of Reagan included his insistence on no new taxes.  Now Drobnic Holan and Adair make Reagan into Robin standing as ally to the tax-increasing Batman Obama.

By all means, read the 1982 speech.  PolitiFact reports Reagan's words inaccurately.  He described the bulk of the revenues as tax reform but also admitted to allowing new taxes for cigarettes and telephone service.  But he reminded people that in light of earlier tax cuts they were still paying less and that the tax increase involved a 3 for 1 deal:  $3 in spending cuts for every $1 increase in taxes.  Is that the deal Obama has proposed?

PolitiFact also used Reagan biographer Lou Cannon to support Obama's point.  Cannon's contribution is sufficiently represented in the conclusion to the story:
Obama said that Reagan "repeatedly talked about how irresponsible it would be to allow the full faith and credit of the United States to be impaired in any kind of way." We found two examples and a Reagan expert said they typified his approach to the federal debt. Reagan talked about other things more, like keeping taxes low and funding defense. But his remarks on the debt ceiling are real and apparently heartfelt. We rate Obama's statement Mostly True.
1)  Note the logical break between Obama's interpretation of Reagan and PolitiFact's two supposed examples.  As we saw above, neither example addresses "any kind of way" U.S. credit might face a threat.  They address only the credit ceiling.
2)  Cannon, rather than agreeing that Obama presented Reagan accurately in context, says the two examples accurately represent Reagan.  Those examples have Reagan acting in a way that preserves the U.S. credit rating while fighting to cut spending and keep taxes low--not a good match for the Obama administration's role in the debt ceiling debate.
3)  As noted at the outset, the PolitiFact team ignores the specific wording of Obama's claim and replaces it with spin.  The situations now and then are different.  If Reagan was concerned with any threat to the U.S. credit rating then he would all the more champion spending cuts where making the spending cut helped avoid the possibility of damaging the U.S. credit rating.

Obama tried to cite Reagan in support of the Democratic Party's position on the debt ceiling situation.  Obama's specific wording misrepresented Reagan and Obama's underlying point finds no significant support in Reagan's position when the latter is considered in context.

Another disgraceful performance by PolitiFact.

The grades:

Angie Dronic Holan:  F
Bill Adair:  F

At the risk of sounding like Vicini, I find it inconceivable that the same editor could handle the Romney story and this one and not find something deeply amiss.  The tag "journalists reporting badly" applies.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Mitt Romney and Obama's dictator tour

In deciding which statements to check, we ask ourselves these questions:
  • Is the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable? We don’t check opinions, and we recognize that in the world of speechmaking and political rhetoric, there is license for hyperbole.
  • Is the statement leaving a particular impression that may be misleading?
  • Is the statement significant? We avoid minor "gotchas"’ on claims that obviously represent a slip of the tongue.
  • Is the statement likely to be passed on and repeated by others?
  • Would a typical person hear or read the statement and wonder: Is that true?
--Principles of PolitiFact and the Truth-O-Meter

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Josh Rogers:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


Context is a wonderful thing.  Even PolitiFact shows signs of realizing it:
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
Following PolitiFact's example, let us examine the claim in the available context (blue highlights added):
(W)hen Romney was asked about Iran during a town hall in Wolfeboro, N.H., on July 5, 2011, he noted that it is "the national sponsor of terror groups across the globe" and lamented that the U.S. doesn’t do a better job of promoting itself abroad.

"The President, when he was running for office, said he was going to engage Iran, and engage North Korea. Remember in his first year he was going to visit Kim Jong-ll and Ahmadinejad and Assad and Chavez – the worst actors in the world. And how did that work out?"
What was it about the highlighted portion that drew PolitiFact's interest?

Was the statement rooted in a fact that is verifiable?  Sure, at the very least in the same sense that one may verify whether it "rained cats and dogs" by checking for a mixture of feline and canine DNA in rain gauges.  In other words, it may be verifiable but whether it's worth verifying depends on Romney's meaning.

Does the statement leave a misleading impression?   Yes, removed from its context as we see it in the PolitiFact headline material PolitiFact makes it seem as though Romney accuses President Obama of breaking a pledge to go visit four renowned dictators.  But kept in its context the statement is unlikely to mislead.

Is the statement significant?  In its original context the statement does not appear significant.  The audience was unlikely to believe that Obama specifically pledged to meet with Kim Jong-ll, Ahmadinejad, Assad and Chavez, let alone meet with them specifically in their own countries.  Taken out of context, the statement is significant in that it may be used to damage Romney politically.

Is the statement likely to be passed on and repeated by others?  PolitiFact excluded, no.  Romney made the statement on July 5, 2011 and nobody appears to have taken note of it until PolitiFact blew the whistle about two weeks later.

Would a typical person hear or read the statement and wonder: Is that true?  The typical person reading the statement out of context might wonder if it is true.  The same person reading the statement in its original context probably would not.  Why not?  Because Romney does not emphasize the statement.  Romney emphasizes Obama's conciliatory attitude toward unfriendly nations and the lack of results for that approach.  It isn't important to Romney's point whether Obama literally said he would visit each of the foreign leaders.  That said, Obama's willingness to meet those tyrannical world leaders is a well-known aspect of his election campaign.  Politically aware persons would likely know the historical reference point without explanation.  Surely that is true of the unidentified reporter from whom we receive Romney's words.

Again:  What was it about Romney's statement that made PolitiFact decide to rate it?

Could it be the ease with which the statement may be taken out of context and used to discredit Romney?
To check whether Romney was right, we explored two questions: Did Obama actually say he was going to meet in the first year of his presidency with North Korean leader Kim Jong-II, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez? And did Obama say those meetings would take place in the leaders' home countries?
It's fine for PolitiFact to point out what Obama actually said.  But it's not okay for PolitiFact to ignore the context and fail to give Romney credit for his point. 

Obama was asked whether he was willing to meet each of the despotic leaders without preconditions during his first year in office.

"I would," he replied.

The resulting fact check gives us a comedy of pompous expert statements courtesy of two experts on diplomacy along with PolitiFact's tendentious explication.

The tendentiousness:

First, when he was in that town hall meeting in Wolfeboro, Romney didn’t say Obama said he was "willing to meet " the leaders; Romney said Obama "was going to."  Those are two very different things in the precise language of diplomacy. And Romney didn’t use the word "meet," as Obama and McCain did. Instead, he substituted "visit."

The pomposity:
"There is a big difference between visiting a capital and being willing to meet with another government, another government’s leaders -- so it would be unfair to suggest that’s what Obama said. He didn’t say that, and in international politics and diplomacy the difference is quite important," says R. Nicholas Burns, a professor of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Burns was Ambassador to Greece under President Bill Clinton and Ambassador to NATO under President George W. Bush.
There's no need to regale us with the political difference between meeting here versus meeting there since it misses Romney's point.  On top of that, if Obama insisted on meeting here rather than there then he attaches a precondition to the meeting when the question stipulated he would not.  Perhaps we'd better stick with simply denying that Obama committed to going through with the meetings he said he was willing to have?

In fairness to Burns and Kurt Volker and as I do not possess the context in which they gave their answers, I will not rest much blame on either man for the appearance of pomposity.  That effect may result more from the way PolitiFact elicited and presented their expert opinions.

The PolitiFact ruling:
There is a small amount of truth in Romney's claim, but his wording exaggerates what Obama really said. When asked if he would be willing to meet with the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea -- "without precondition, during the first year of your administration, in Washington or anywhere else" -- Obama said he would. But in the language of diplomacy, that is significantly different than saying he "was going to visit" them, which is how Romney characterized it. We find his statement Barely True.
In context, Romney's statement is essentially true.  PolitiFact apparently failed to consider the possibility that Romney's language was the type of hyperbole that serves to ridicule.  PolitiFact has reason to know the technique, since it used the first paragraph in a recent story to do the same thing to Republican presidential candidates.

It takes practice to offer charitable interpretations to those who differ with us ideologically.  Hopefully PolitiFact will eventually acknowledge the importance of charitable interpretation.  And then promptly undertake some productive practice sessions.

Don't hold your breath.

The grades:

Josh Rogers:  F
Bill Adair:  F

What's that, again?

The Cleveland Plain Dealer's PolitiFact Ohio operation celebrated a birthday this month.

Bureau chief for the Plain Dealer Stephen Koff offered up a bizarre line in his celebratory column:
Here's to the 56 True ratings over the last 12 months. Here's to the 32 claims that PolitiFact Ohio rated False on the fanciful Truth-O-Meter.
The fanciful Truth-O-Meter.   I suppose Koff means to say the PolitiFact folks gave their system a fanciful name, as in "the fancifully named Truth-O-Meter."

But since that is not what Koff wrote, we critics of PolitiFact may well wonder if his statement represents some type of Freudian slip:
1. not based on fact; dubious or imaginary
The second definition is almost as good:
2. made or designed in a curious, intricate, or imaginative way
Isn't it curious that the principles of the Truth-O-Meter mention absolutely nothing about charitable interpretation?

Isn't it curious that PolitiFact offers two different definitions for one Truth-O-Meter rating?

So what are you saying, Mr. Koff?  Double meaning, maybe?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Grading PolitiFact:: Mitt Romney and free hospital care

Does PolitiFact feel that it must equivocate on the statements of Republicans as a service to its readers?

Sometimes it seems that way.

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Dan Gorenstein:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


PolitiFact claims among its principles the standard practice of considering a claim in its original context.  Truth-O-Meter ratings take into consideration, we are told, the point the claimant had in mind.

Judge for yourself.

Responding to a question about health care at a Wolfeboro, N.H., town hall, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney defended the health care law he signed in Massachusetts, saying it was partly a response to people who took advantage of a federal law that allows them to get free emergency coverage.
Emergency coverage?

PolitiFact makes it sound like Romney is saying that the federal government has obligated itself to provide insurance coverage to at least some people in Massachusetts.  But Romney was talking about the well-known, if poorly understood, provision in federal law that requires most hospitals to provide emergency room treatment regardless of patients' ability to pay.

PolitiFact quotes Romney:
"We found that because of federal law, federal law requires that hospitals treat people whether or not they can pay. So someone (who) doesn’t have health insurance -- they can go to the hospital and get free care. And we found a growing number of people were dropping their insurance and going to the hospital if they got real sick."
Romney's point?  A growing number of people in Massachusetts were using the federal law as a free insurance policy.

So ... where should PolitiFact put its focus?
In this case, we wondered if Romney was accurately describing the federal law and whether it truly equates with free care.
There's still time at this point in the story for PolitiFact to properly consider the context along with Romney's point.  But the phrase "truly equates with free care" puts up a bit of a red flag.  The term "truly" often occurs in the company of a fallacy of equivocation.

PolitiFact proceeds to describe how the law works.  Yes, hospitals receiving funding through Medicare must "'provide a medical screening examination' for an emergency condition 'regardless of an individual's ability to pay.'"

PolitiFact adds:
If the patient’s symptoms qualify as an emergency, the law says "hospitals are required to provide stabilizing treatment for patients."

So what does "stabilizing treatment for patients" mean in practice?

Matt Fenwick with the American Hospital Association says it means "your condition has been stabilized. (Medical providers) have done everything they can do to make sure your condition is not getting any worse."
Some of our gentle readers may think that receiving a medical screening examination and/or stabilizing treatment as described above reasonably qualifies as "free care."  But PolitiFact would not have Romney mislead you like that:
Our ruling

Romney said that federal law "requires that hospitals treat people whether or not they can pay. So someone doesn’t have health insurance they can go to the hospital and get free care."

Experts told us that one aspect of Romney's argument has some validity: Many people rely on emergency rooms for care when they have nowhere else to go, which is expensive and a burden on the health care system and the larger society. And hospitals sometimes provide more free care than the law requires.

But Romney is wrongly suggesting more extensive treatment is required by federal law. He implies that hospitals are required to provide more free care than is actually mandated. In fact, the law just requires stabilizing treatment in an emergency. We rate his claim Barely True.
Romney "is wrongly suggesting more extensive treatment is required by federal law"?  No, there's nothing in the context to suggest that.  Romney's statement is ambiguous about the extent of free care mandated through Medicare hospitals by the federal government, and that ambiguity is appropriate for two reasons.   First, Romney doesn't need specificity in order to make his point about the costs to taxpayers.  Any degree of free care that constitutes the financial impact he pictures in his statement makes his statement true.  Second, people understand that free emergency room care does not cover every medical problem.  Probably nobody in Romney's audience was misled on that point apart from any journalists present.

Romney is correct that federal law requires hospitals to offer health care regardless of the patient's ability to pay.  If PolitiFact wants to fill in the details of law to clarify what Romney's talking about, that's fine.  But Romney's point does not require that type of detail.  Nor does Romney say anything to imply a level of free care beyond what exists in fact.  Again, we have PolitiFact seizing on an ambiguity and socking it to the Republican based on an uncharitable (and unreasonable) interpretation.

The grades:

Dan Gorenstein:  F
Bill Adair:  F

Grading PolitiFact: Gingrich, Dodd-Frank and 20 percent

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

Jon Greenberg:  writer, researcher
Bill Adair:  editor


This fact check by PolitiFact may end up perfectly accurate.  Unfortunately, the PolitiFact team failed to provide material sufficient for the reader to make a sure judgment other than through simple trust of PolitiFact and author Jon Greenberg.

Let's have a look:
With the 2012 election in their sights, Republican candidates spend most of their time trying to prove that President Barack Obama and the Democrats will make the economy worse.

Presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich recently used this tactic in discussing housing and the new law to regulate the financial industry known as the Dodd-Frank Act. In a June 13, 2011, appearance in Concord, N.H., Gingrich said that Dodd-Frank "establishes a mandatory 20 percent down payment to buy a house. So at a time when housing prices have dropped worse than the Great Depression, we’re now going to have a law that guarantees there’s no housing market for a generation?" Gingrich said this was just one of many reasons to scrap Dodd-Frank entirely.
First-paragraph snark?  Check.  There's nothing like a little snark to project the aura of objectivity.

Partial quotation?  Check.

This Greenberg fellow will fit right in with PolitiFact.

If Republican candidates really spend most of their time trying to prove that Democrats will make the economy worse, then PolitiFact certainly wouldn't need to go back in time a month for this supposed example.  Even more interesting than the dated example is the lack of context for the quotation of Gingrich.  The sidebar citation leads us to (shocka!) a month-old story by this same Jon Greenberg.

Here's how Greenberg represented Gingrich in that story (yellow highlights added):
He criticized the Dodd Frank act on many fronts, including its impact on housing. “ It establishes a mandatory 20% down payment to buy a house,” he said. “So at a time when housing prices have dropped worse than the Great Depression, we’re now going to have a law that guarantees there’s no housing market for a generation?

That assertion is questionable. The Mortgage Bankers Association’s analysis of the law makes no mention of such a rule. The law does require that borrowers prove that they have sufficient income to repay a loan.
Greenberg gave us all but one word of the quotation from his original story and we're still left with no surrounding context and nothing regarding the question (if any) that prompted Gingrich's comment.

Was Gingrich talking about the text of Dodd-Frank specifically?  Maybe.  Probably.  But with respect to offering the reader the tools to confirm PolitiFact's judgment (see epigraphical PolitiFact principle), this story falls short.  It comes down to trusting Greenberg.  Yeah, the guy who gave us first-paragraph snark.

As it turns out, Dodd-Frank empowered regulators to determine a down-payment threshold for a certain class of home mortgages.   Under Dodd-Frank, banks must retain a portion of the value of the mortgages they issue.  But some mortgages would qualify for an exemption from that treatment.  And for those types of exceptions the Obama administration regulators voted to establish the 20 percent down payment requirement.

Gingrich appears to say that all mortgages must meet the 20 percent requirement (trust Greenberg?).  And Gingrich appears to say that the regulation comes from Dodd-Frank.  The latter, depending on how Gingrich presented it, may have a grounding in the truth, albeit indirectly.

Too bad Greenberg skimped on the context, though I should note that PolitiFact's lone expert (a journalist) disagrees that Dodd-Frank could be the origin of the 20 percent requirement:
"It's totally incorrect to say that Dodd-Frank came up with the 20 percent down payment standard," said Ken Harney, a real estate columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. "It just could not be further from the truth.  So whoever says that is just misinformed."

Harney notes that after the firestorm of protest, regulators extended the comment period for rule making. Harney’s assessment?  This is "a proposal that I think has no chance of becoming reality."
Though Greenberg downplays the rule as "just a proposal," the fact is the Obama administration was poised to enact it as a part of its execution of the Dodd-Frank law.  And if it would not hurt the housing market significantly, partially supporting Gingrich's claim, then why so much bipartisan resistance?
WASHINGTON – U.S. Senators Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Mary Landrieu, D-La., and U.S. Congressmen John Campbell, R-Calif., and Brad Sherman, D-Calif., today hosted a news conference calling on federal regulators to revise their proposed 20 percent down payment requirement for Qualified Residential Mortgages. The lawmakers reiterated that the regulators’ proposed rule would shut out responsible homebuyers and further cripple the housing market.
Assuming that Greenberg has represented Gingrich's claim fairly, it seems as though Gingrich's claim does have some truth to it.  Federal regulators under the Obama administration and ostensibly exercising authority granted them under Dodd-Frank voted to institute a 20 percent requirement for a certain class of mortgages.  And that proposal drew bipartisan condemnation based on the damage it might cause to the housing market.

Obama's administration favors policies that make that economy worse.  Fortunately for those suspicious (racist?) types, Greenberg waves them away.  Move along.  Nothing to see here.

As a result of Greenberg's initial snark, his story ends up misleading the reader.  The raw information provides a good bit of evidence of economic incompetence in the Obama administration.  But the story conveys the impression that it contains nothing to show that Obama or Democrats do anything at all to harm the economy.  A close examination of the evidences shows the reverse.

Welcome to the wonderful world of PolitiFact fact checking.

The grades:

Jon Greenberg:  F
Bill Adair:  F

The story accomplishes the agenda of minimizing the appearance of economic cluelessness in the Obama administration.  And even assuming that Greenberg presented Gingrich's statement fairly Gingrich may well have warranted a "Barely True" rating.  The PolitiFact team also fails based on its failure to provide sufficient context for Gingrich's statement.


PolitiFact is in the process of expanding its operation to New Hampshire.  New Hampshire, of course, is the home of New Hampshire Public Radio--Jon Greenberg's employer.

It's all too easy to imagine the genesis of this story.

BA:  Hey, Jon!  It's great to welcome you as part of the PolitiFact team!
JG:  Thanks, Bill!  I've got to say I'm very enthusiastic about this partnership.  I've found the PolitiFact approach to fact checking inspiring.  Your story about how you realized you were reporting things you knew were untrue struck home with me.  As a matter of fact, I recently did a story where I questioned a politician's statement.  I was actually thinking of you while I did the story.
BA:  No kidding!  What was the story about?
JG:  Oh, it had to do with Newt Gingrich.  He made some crazy claim last month about the Dodd-Frank bill and I knew he was full of it.
BA:  Hey, you know what?  We can use that story in PolitiFact National to kind of get your feet wet with our system.
JG:  Really?  Great!
BA:  Great!

In other words, it wasn't really about Gingrich.  He apparently made the claim only once that we know of and did not continue to repeat it.  It didn't get picked up and recirculated. Old news, as they say.  This was about giving Jon Greenberg a pat on the back a month after he published his original story.

Gingrich merely receives the harm from the relatively frivolous fact check.  Selection bias?  You bet.

Disclaimer:  Any resemblance between the above dialog and an actual conversation between Bill Adair and Jon Greenberg is purely coincidental.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Grading PolitiFact (New Jersey): Burying Michael Doherty's underlying point

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

The issue:

(clipped from

The fact checkers:

Bill Wichert:  writer, researcher
Caryn Shinske:  editor


PolitiFact appears to have the goods on Doherty.  It sure seems like he got the numbers wrong:
Doherty referred us to a fact sheet prepared by the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Inc., showing that 7,021 prenatal clients were served nationwide in 2009. Based on that figure, Doherty determined there were, on average, about 140 prenatal patients per state.

Here’s the problem: the fact sheet said "clients," but Doherty referred to "visits" on the Senate floor.
Oops.  Big mistake.  One client might have more than one visit.

When we checked with Michele Jaker, executive director of Planned Parenthood Affiliates of New Jersey, she said Planned Parenthood centers provided a total of 40,489 prenatal visits across the country in 2009, which is the latest data available.
That's 5.77 visits per client, for those who like to see the numbers crunched.  And Doherty ends up underestimating the correct number by a walloping 83 percent.  What can save Doherty from receiving a "Truth-O-Meter" grade of "False" or worse?

The underlying point, maybe?  PolitiFact editor Bill Adair does call the underlying point the most important thing about a numbers claim, after all.  And there's some good news for Doherty in this fact check.  He's pretty much on target with the underlying point:
But for his overall argument that Planned Parenthood sees few prenatal patients, Doherty is right.

According to the same fact sheet, "other women’s health services," which includes prenatal care, only accounted for 10 percent of all services provided by Planned Parenthood nationwide in 2009.

According to figures provided by Jaker, prenatal clients represented about 0.6 percent of the 91,617 patients served by New Jersey centers in 2009.
In the context of overall services provided by Planned Parenthood, in fact, Doherty's error would shrink to a negligible level.  And since "the biggest factor" in grading a numbers claim is the underlying point, Doherty should fare okay.

Eh.  Not so much, as it turns out.

The senator said Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide many prenatal visits, saying the figure was "about 140 visits for each state in the entire country." That figure is way off, because Doherty was using the number of clients. The actual number would be more like 800 visits per state.

Figures provided by Planned Parenthood confirm that prenatal care represents a small part of the services offered, but since the senator’s figures were inaccurate to such a large degree, we rate the statement False.
Depending on the subject and/or the PolitiFact team doing the evaluation, the underlying point isn't always the most important thing.  Sometimes the underlying point doesn't appear to matter at all to the Truth-O-Meter's mighty objective needle.

Fancy that.

The grades:

Bill Wichert:  F
Caryn Shinske:  F

PolitiFact needs to decide as an organization what role the underlying point plays in a fact check.  And then stick to it.

Friday, July 15, 2011

PolitiFlub: Effortless promise-keeping by the president

Sometimes I can't believe my eyes when I read various PolitiFact stories.

Today provided a great example. PolitiFact rated as "Promise Kept" President Obama's pledge to require 10 percent of U.S. electicity is comes from renewable energy sources by 2012:
"Barack Obama and Joe Biden will establish a 10 percent federal Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) to require that 10 percent of electricity consumed in the U.S. is derived from clean, sustainable energy sources, like solar, wind and geothermal by 2012."
PolitiFacter Catharine Richert updated the item in 2009, noting that the House version of the cap and trade bill might end up fulfilling the president's promise.

Which brings us to 2011 and a new update by intern David G. Taylor.

Taylor informs us that the president has kept his promise.  If that seems against all odds given the eventual fate of any and all cap and trade bills recently, hang on for Taylor's explanation:
We spoke with the Christina Kielich of the U.S. Department of Energy press office. She told us that the United States receives approximately 11 percent of its electricity from renewable sources. This breaks down to about 6 percent from hydroelectricity, 3 percent from wind, and approximately 1% each from solar, biomass, and geothermal. Thus, in 2011 - one year head of Obama"s promise, the United States has already reached more than the 10 percent renewable level.
Obama kept his 10 percent promise because the U.S. exceeded 10 percent in fact.

In case it isn't clear what is going on here, Taylor is substituting a new promise for the old promise.  The old promise was that the president would require 10 percent of U.S. energy to come from renewable sources.  The new promise is that the U.S. will produce at least 10 percent of its energy from renewable sources.  The latter promise is a tad like my personal promise that the sun will come up tomorrow.  When the sun appears, my promise is kept.  Did I do anything to help it along?  Not at all.

As bad as it would be to credit the president with keeping a promise which required nothing of him, the real problem stems from the fact that Obama's promise was one of action.  He would establish a requirement.  Taylor's story provides no evidence of the establishment of any sort of requirement.

The promise was not kept, yet PolitiFact counts it otherwise.


This is at least the second time that PolitiFact editors have failed interns by not catching fairly obvious flaws in their stories.  The other I have in mind was Lukas Pleva.  Both interns are doubtless talented otherwise the plum internship opportunity would not fall within their respective grasps.  Both deserve better from PolitiFact.

As both Taylor and Pleva doubtless have too much class to blast their gift-horse to its teeth, I'll be happy to do so on their behalf from my less-beholden position:  PolitiFact, you blew it and you've harmed these interns with your lapse in oversight.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Grading PolitiFact: Tim Pawlenty and the Iowa Marriage Pledge or something

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
Martha Hamilton:  editor


This piece by PolitiFact serves well to illustrate the liberal bias of the media with respect to social issues.

During a July 10, 2011, appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, host David Gregory asked Republican presidential candidate Tim Pawlenty about the origins of homosexuality.
So far, so good.  The origins of homosexuality constituted the topic.  And PolitiFact delivered in presenting Pawlenty's remarks in the company of their surrounding context:
MR. GREGORY:  Let me ask you about social policy.  You've notably said that you're a big fan of Lady Gaga, and even the song "Born This Way." There's a lot of debate about a gay marriage pledge in Iowa.  And related to that, I wonder, do you agree with some of those who are behind that, that being gay is a choice?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, I have two teenage daughters who listen to Lady Gaga, so I'm subjected to it.  And it has some good qualities to it.  But as to, as to gay marriage, I'm in support of traditional marriage as between a man and a woman.  I have not supported the issues of allowing gay couples to have the same benefits and public employment as traditional couples.  And so this is an issue in Iowa and across the whole country.  But I've stood in favor or traditional marriage and traditional relationships in that regard.

MR. GREGORY:  Is being gay a choice?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, the science in that regard is in dispute.  I mean, the scientists work on that and try to figure out if it's behavioral...

MR. GREGORY:  Right.

GOV. PAWLENTY:  ...of if it's partly genetic.

MR. GREGORY:  What do you think?

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, I defer to the scientists in that regard.

MR. GREGORY:  So you, you think it's not a choice.

GOV. PAWLENTY:  Well, there is no...

MR. GREGORY:  That you are, as Lady Gaga says, you're born that way.

GOV. PAWLENTY:  There's no scientific conclusion that it's genetic.  We don't know that.  So we don't know to what extent, you know, it's behavioral, and that's something that's been debated by scientists for a long time.  But as I understand the science, there's no current conclusion that it's genetic.
MSNBC transcript
PolitiFact reproduced as much of the context as I provided above, and that's commendable.  Unfortunately, the PolitiFact team proceeded to ignore the context for purposes of the fact check.

Before examining PolitiFact's failures in that respect, however, we will benefit from teasing apart David Gregory's interview questions along with Pawlenty's responses.

Note that Gregory asks his initial question in this section by saying it relates to the Iowa marriage pledge.  The marriage pledge has nothing in it about homosexuals choosing their orientation.  If Pawlenty takes Gregory seriously that his question relates to the marriage pledge then the question does not have to do with homosexuals choosing their sexual orientation.

Gregory also stipulates that "some" of those behind the marriage pledge think homosexuality is a choice, and that is the immediate lead-in as he asks Pawlenty if he agrees with those unnamed persons.  But if Gregory means to ask that question then it relates to the marriage pledge only tangentially.  That would mean that Gregory told a half-truth in saying his question related to the marriage pledge.

As a result, Pawlenty finds himself in the position of trying to figure out what Gregory is really asking him.  Does the question relate directly to the marriage pledge or is Gregory asking him say whether he thinks people choose their sexual orientation?

In the end, Pawlenty's answer is about as clear as Gregory's question.  But PolitiFact never bothers with the ambiguity even though some of their expert sources point it out:
...Peter Sprigg, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council -- a leading think tank for social conservatives -- agreed with the distinction between orientation and behavior. He suggested that fuzzy definitions of "sexual orientation" explain why the two camps sometimes talk past each other.

"Part of the problem is that the term ‘sexual orientation’ is somewhat ambiguous," Sprigg said. He suggests that it is sometimes used to cover three separate elements -- attractions, behaviors and self-identification.

"What I generally say is that I don‘t believe that same-sex attractions are a choice, but behaviors and self-identification are," he said. "If Pawlenty had wanted to be more subtle, he could have asked Gregory what he meant" by being gay.
Indeed, Gregory's question was ambiguous.  And Pawlenty compounded the problem with his reference to the potential "behavioral" origins of homosexual orientation.

In addition to confusing his question by claiming it related to the Iowa marriage pledge, Gregory repeatedly presented Pawlenty with a false dilemma.  Science and logic do not force any choice between genetics and choice with respect to homosexual orientation.  The choice, at worst, is between genetics and other factors such as environment and personal choice.  This is not to say, as Pawlenty points out, that genetics can't play a role that is less than absolute in determining sexual orientation.

I don't know what Pawlenty had in mind when he talked of "behavioral" factors.  PolitiFact assumed he meant that homosexuals choose their sexual orientation.  Such assumptions are not the stuff of objective journalism.  The objective journalist tries to clear up the ambiguity in order to render a judgment as to the facts.  Failing that, the objective journalist declines to rule on the facts.

We end up with a situation where Gregory failed in his role as a journalist to obtain an unambiguous answer to his question.  And PolitiFact pretended otherwise.
We're not fact checking whether being gay is a choice, but whether scientists are "in dispute" over whether it is or is not.
Pawlenty repeatedly emphasized the dispute over whether homosexual orientation arises from genetics.  Despite his references to "behavioral" factors it simply isn't clear that Pawlenty buys the dilemma sold to him by Gregory.

The fact check from this juncture probably misses the point.  One can take Pawlenty out of context to interpret him as saying that scientist are in dispute whether homosexuals choose their sexual orientation.  But considering the context, Pawlenty is more likely saying that scientists dispute the role of genetics in determining sexual orientation.

If one supposed that journalists serve their ideological agenda, this case fits right in.  David Gregory hammers Pawlenty with a false dilemma.  Pawlenty resists the false dilemma but approaches the appearance of accepting it through his choice (two times) of the term "behavioral."  PolitiFact jumps on the ambiguity and has Pawlenty claiming that scientists dispute whether homosexual orientation is a choice.

The context argues against PolitiFact.  PolitiFact has again sacrificed its principles to its ideology.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

Try to stick to objective judgment next time, you two.  Do some follow up with the speaker when ambiguity lingers.


David Gregory:  F

Objective journalists avoid confronting their interview subjects with questions that represent a false dilemma.

Grading PolitiFact: Sarah Palin and snack inflation

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
Martha Hamilton:  editor


During her recent interview with Newsweek, definite maybe Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin talked inflation.  And PolitiFact was there:
The article explained that Palin has "become conversant on the subject of quantitative easing" -- a Federal Reserve bond-buying plan. The effort was designed to bolster a weak economy, but critics say it risks encouraging inflation. (We rated her on a related statement last November.)

In the July 10, 2011 Newsweek interview, Palin illustrated the issue with an anecdote about her husband: "I was ticked off at Todd yesterday," she said. "He walks into a gas station as we’re driving over from Minnesota. He buys a Slim Jim—we’re always eating that jerky stuff—for $2.69. I said, 'Todd, those used to be 99 cents, just recently!' And he says, 'Man, the dollar’s worth nothing anymore.' A jug of milk and a loaf of bread and a dozen eggs—every time I walk into that grocery store, a couple of pennies more."
Indeed, it's about inflation.  What fact are we checking, PolitiFact?
A reader asked us to look into whether Slim Jims have, in fact, been swept up in a huge inflationary spiral recently.
Uh, what?  A reader decided which fact to check?
We’ll start by noting that Palin used an anecdote to draw broader conclusions. That’s not necessarily a no-no, but it should be taken with a grain of salt. (Or, perhaps, 430 mg of salt, the amount of sodium in a 0.97-ounce original Slim Jim.) Even if Palin’s anecdote is true, it may not support her larger points about food inflation and the dangers thereof.
I encourage the reader to go back and review Palin's statement.  Do it.  I'll wait.

Done?  Good.  It isn't at all necessary to take Palin's Slim Jim story as an illustration of inflation.  The main reason for doing that, in fact, comes from context provided by the Newsweek reporter.  The reporter appears to have provided a skewed take on Palin's words.

Think about the story seriously for a moment.  She's mad at her husband.  That has a great deal to do with inflation, right?  Even though the pair eats "that jerky stuff" fairly routinely, Palin doesn't realize that prices vary depending on where the purchase is made?  Seriously?  I suppose that could fit with a preconceived narrative that Palin is a dunce, but bear with me.  The key, I think, is the punch line the story, provided by Todd Palin.

That's right.  I said punch line.

I think the story is pretty obviously humorous.  Sarah's mad at Todd and gets on him for spending over two dollars for a Slim Jim.  The high price is plausible, as the PolitiFact story appears to allow.  Todd's excuse?  The shrinking dollar.  The story was probably intended as a humorous and personal way to get to Palin's observations about inflation.  Not Slim Jim prices, but the upward creep for basics like milk, bread and eggs.  I count it as a misinterpretation to think Palin was suggesting the high price Mr. Palin paid for his Slim Jim snack was representative of food inflation.

But let's look at Slim Jim prices anyway:
"Our iconic Slim Jim Giant Sticks are priced around $1.30," Paulsen said.
That seems up a bit from the traditional $0.99 price.

Why would that be?
ConAgra and other food producers have had to raise prices as higher costs for ingredients and other raw materials cut into profits. This quarter, the company's consumer foods segment saw costs rise 9 percent.

ConAgra said it expects higher costs to remain a challenge and will raise prices further. The company said those moves will begin to pay off in the second half of the year.

"We have made it crystal-clear that we are serious about increasing our net pricing to help mitigate this much higher input cost inflation," ConAgra CEO Gary Rodkin told investors Thursday. "We have made it very clear that we are not going to go backwards on pricing and if that means that we need to make some modest tradeoff on the volume in the near term, we are willing to do that."
That item was dated toward the middle of last month.  ConAgra makes the Slim Jim product line.

Teresa Paulsen, a ConAgra spokeswoman, said that "we admire Mr. Palin’s taste and appreciate his support," but added that "we haven’t raised the price significantly on any Slim Jim products."
Huh.  Do you think we're getting the whole story from Paulsen?
ConAgra, General Mills, Kellogg’s and Kraft recently raised prices for many of their wares. In December ConAgra, which makes Slim Jim meat snacks, among other delicacies, reported a 16% decline in second-quarter profits. Like other food makers, ConAgra is experimenting with smaller packages sold at the same price.
Jan 20, 2011
It's surprisingly hard to pin down the suggested retail price history for Slim Jim snacks.  But it does appear that Slim Jim has adjusted prices upward and that Paulsen weasels a bit on the term "significantly"--perhaps using it relative to the price increase implied by an uncharitable interpretation of Palin's story.

Cut to the bottom line:  The difference between 99 cents and $2.69 need not represent an inflationary difference for Palin's husband's comment about the weak dollar.  From there the story segues to serious talk of inflation on everyday items.  The evidence suggests that inflation has affected the prices of Slim Jim products, the comments of its spokesperson notwithstanding.

Not too surprisingly, PolitiFact fails to see i that way:
So where does this leave us? Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that the Palins are correct and they recently paid two and a half times more for a Slim Jim than they used to. If that’s the case, it wasn’t because ConAgra raised the suggested price. It could have been because they bought from a particularly expensive retailer, or they could have been choosing a different and more expensive flavor of Slim Jim without realizing it.
Rather, if the Palins paid what they claimed for a Slim Jim it wasn't entirely because of a rise in the suggested retail price.  It is likely that ConAgra has increased the price during the past year.  Thus, Palin's statement would be partly true and in line with PolitiFact's description of its "Barely True" rating or the more recent flavor of its "Half True" rating--especially since the underlying point about rising food costs is accurate.

Again, PolitiFact doesn't see it that way:
Still, even if Todd Palin paid more for his snack food fix, it doesn’t support Sarah Palin’s argument that food prices are skyrocketing. Food prices -- an always-volatile sector -- are indeed going up, and that may or may not be a worry for the longer term. However, food prices are not rising by anything approaching 169 percent. Her anecdote offers spice, but not a lot of meat. We rate it False.
PolitiFact sees an argument implied in Palin's anecdote.  PolitiFact ignores alternate interpretations such as the one I've suggested that make the implied argument irrelevant to Palin's point.

PolitiFact's approach is hardly objective.  Rather, it fits the pattern often seen in skeptical arguments where a statement is attacked according to its weakest interpretation--a form of the straw man fallacy.

In this case I cheerfully admit that I do not know for sure what Palin intended to say.  The evidence, in conjunction with the principle of charitable interpretation, suggests the explanation I put forward.  The best practice for fact checking, I believe, will always involve consideration of a plausible charitable interpretation along with offering the benefit of the doubt.  It would be just as consistent, admittedly, to always opt for the uncharitable interpretation.  PolitiFact chooses the mushy middle ground, setting itself up again to having its ratings swayed by the subjectivity of its team members.  Bottom line, the "False" rating can only stand by unfairly ignoring Palin's underlying point.  Food prices are going up because of inflation.

The grades:

Louis Jacobson:  F
Martha Hamilton:  F

The failing grades follow from the failure to employ the principle of charitable interpretation along with an apparent failure to research product pricing by ConAgra (other than perhaps accepting a spokesperson's ambiguous statement as an assurance that Slim Jim prices did not change).  Slim Jim prices probably went up during the past year, and that information should have appeared in the story.

In this case, PolitiFact appeared to go along with the agenda of the reader who asked for the fact check.  The person requesting the fact check shalt not narrow the focus to the point of excluding the point the person was trying to make, or else PolitiFact is compromising its standards (see epigraph above).


The price of milk, graphically presented.