Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why Republicans Pay Little Mind to Politifact

Are you not interested in politics? Ok then, skip over this post entirely.

There has been a lot of discussion on the Twitterverse and conservative sites on whether Politifact is something we should trust. First, over at Hot Air, we have this. Now, Politifact often has some good analysis. Their actual, typed, analysis often admits things that their simplified ratings does not.

For example, here's the ultimate conclusion paragraph analyzing the assertion that "(Paul) Ryan would 'outlaw in vitro fertilization -- seriously.'"
UltraViolet has a point that the bill Ryan backed could significantly alter the way in vitro fertilization is practiced. However, the group exaggerates when it says the bill in question would "outlaw in vitro fertilization." The bill doesn’t outlaw the procedure directly -- whatever impact it has would likely require action by states, which many states may be unwilling to undertake. And while the bill likely outlaws specific practices that have historically been considered important for practicing in vitro fertilization, it would not ban the procedure itself. 
I left out the last sentence that carries Politifact's ruling. From reading that, you'd assume that the ruling was false, or at least, mostly false, right? Nope! Half true.

In this reasoning, Politifact acknowledges that Romney's stats are correct. However, Politifact would prefer us to use seasonally adjusted numbers to get a lower number. Thus, even though the numbers are right, mostly false! You might remember another case where the Romney campaign put out accurate numbers, only to be told by Politifact that they were liars. Why? Because the numbers need to be recontextualized.

Ah, OK. You say, so maybe Politifact just holds politicians to a higher standard. Except, it doesn't. The Obama campaign said that Romney paid a certain percentage in taxes. Mattering on how you measure it, that is true. So, clearly, we should go with "Mostly False," like we got when Romney makes a statement but you can recontextualize the numbers to make it false, right? Nope! Half true. Politifact even helpfully explains why: "While we believe that including payroll taxes in the calculation offers a more accurate picture of what the American public pays the IRS, it's also true that the Obama ad didn't specify which measurement it was using." So, again, the Obama campaign is given the benefit of the doubt where the Republican is not.

When the Obama campaign elects to use an old, no longer operative plan, to make a claim that something could happen, despite Politifact acknowledging that it is being deceptive and trying to confuse voters, mostly true! I guess Romney should have used some weasel words when talking about his actual statistics: "Some measurements might say," instead of "By using this methodology, we came up with this." Geesh Romney, why can't you obfuscate more? Then you could be mostly true too!

The Obama campaign recently sent out a tweet saying that Ryan would outlaw all abortions. To prove this as true, Politifact cited to a law being noodled about. The conclusion in their written text: "Neither side in this debate, though, claims the measure would immediately outlaw abortions." Their conclusion about the Obama campaign's claim, even though they also note that Ryan would allow abortions to save the mother's life? Half true!

So, you get that, right? If what you say has an element of truth to it, though not being entirely accurate, but it is said rudely, you get a half true for not being perfectly clear, but at least having some element of truth there. Unless you are Romney. Then, adding a word in that makes your claim slightly outlandish, even if, again, your numbers are perfectly accurate, makes your statement mostly false. Of course, since they still seem to be of the opinion money can be used in two different places at once, that might be part of the problem.

Ok, ok, you say. Maybe using the word robbed was the problem. Maybe inflammatory accusations get closer scrutiny for exact wordiness. So, clearly, when Politifact rules on this claim:
But we do know that Romney personally approved over $70 million in fictional losses to the IRS as part of the notorious "Son of Boss" tax scandal, one of the largest tax avoidance schemes in history.
 And comes to this conclusion:
What we don’t know is whether the board or the audit committee specifically discussed the tax shelter itself, either before it was used or when it delivered the promised tax savings. ... Romney was head of Marriott’s audit committee at the time. Experts disagree on whether the corporate board would have known about the deal and had the chance to question it. The company neither confirmed nor denied that the board approved the transaction. At some point, the board would have approved filings that included the fraudulent losses, but it’s unclear whether Romney specifically favored the tax move.
Clearly, we're going to get a rather harsh finding. They are accusing Romney of a crime here! They are saying he defrauded the government! And they can't prove it! Nope. Half true.

Perhaps the best way to understand this is to take a look again at some big, well known lies. The ad saying Bain and Romney killed a woman? False, because of innuendo without proof. Harry Reid also using innuendo without proof that Romney didn't pay his taxes? Pants on Fire. I guess, though, when the Obama campaign enters into using innuendo without proof, suddenly a claim jumps to being half true (see above!)

Now, as a final example, let's take a perfectly true statement from Ryan. Senate Democrats have not passed a budget in X days. Instead of Politifact simply going to the Senate and determining how long it has been since they passed a budget, rating it true, moving on, they instead twist themselves so that they can say it was "Mostly True."

So, do you see the reason that Republicans might be a little iffy about trusting Politifact? Even on cases where it says that a statement is untrue, misleading or that the Republican's claims are dead to rights, they still weasel a way to make a finding as damaging as possible, while protecting the falsehoods coming from the Obama campaign.

This may not even be intentional on Politifact's side. But, it is consistent inconsistency, which should raise red flags for any journalist. Politifact needs to pause, step back, and find some consistent way of measuring statements. Because, right now, it certainly seems to be doing so in a hackish, sloppy way that is really hurting their brand.

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*Edited for clarity and to close up some spacing.

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