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Fact Checking the Fact Checkers (cont.)

Oct 8, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 04 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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In these pages last week, The Scrapbook noted that a second academic survey had been done suggesting that PolitiFact—the largest of the major media “fact checking” organizations—is biased against Republicans. The survey, by the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, examined 98 PolitiFact rulings from June 1 to September 11 and found that Democratic statements were rated true twice as often as Republican statements, and Republican statements were rated false or “Pants on Fire” twice as often as Democratic statements. This is actually a slight improvement over a University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs study published in January 2011 that looked at 500 PolitiFact rulings and found Republican statements rated false three times as often as Democrats’.

Obama's Palace Guard

Gary Locke

As it happens, the heads of all the major fact checking operations—from the Washington Post, the Associated Press, FactCheck.org, and, yes, PolitiFact—convened for a panel discussion at the National Press Club last week. The Weekly Standard’s Mark Hemingway, who’s been chronicling fact checking follies, was there and asked PolitiFact editor Bill Adair about this remarkable imbalance.

“I don’t find the numerical count analysis to be particularly persuasive,” Adair said. If he rejects the numerical count, what evidence does Adair have that suggests his organization is fair? “I hear it from both sides. I was at a party over the summer and a guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey, I think that, I really think PolitiFact Virginia has been unfair, they’ve been very biased against Tim Kaine.’ ” Unsurprisingly, The Scrapbook does not find a -se-condhand report of One Guy at a Party to be persuasive.

Rather than discuss the breakdown of PolitiFact ratings, Adair said, “what I’d like to talk about are if you have substantive questions about something we’ve done we’re happy to talk about it.” Well, that’s not really true either. In last week’s issue, Hemingway wrote a detailed takedown of PolitiFact’s -unwarranted assault on the Romney campaign for accusing the president (correctly) of gutting work requirements in the 1996 welfare reform law. PolitiFact has yet to respond to Hemingway’s and other critiques.

Associated Press fact check editor Jim Drinkard tried to defend PolitiFact, suggesting that the Republican primary skewed PolitiFact’s numbers. “[There were] 21 or 22 debates. That is going to produce a certain number of fact checks, and they’re all going to be about Republicans,” he said. But of the two studies he was citing, one concluded well before the primary season and the other was done after Mitt Romney had defeated all his challengers.

FactCheck.org’s Brooks Jackson arrived at a face-saving conclusion for PolitiFact. “It might reflect the fact that one party at that particular time is failing the same standards, the same journalistic standards, more than the other,” he said. But when pressed about the specific numbers, Jackson felt the need to clarify that his organization, unlike PolitiFact, isn’t fact checking Republicans as false over Democrats at indefensible rates. “It’s certainly not three to one on our side,” he said.

All of the fact checkers on the panel swore up and down they were not out to play favorites, but the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. PolitiFact’s credibility has been compromised, and unless they do something about it, their lack of impartiality will be all they are known for.

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