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Only Fact Check, Never Explain

Asked about evidence of partisan bias, fact checkers struggle to defend themselves.

1:19 PM, Sep 27, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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Hemingway: I want to pick on Bill [Adair of PolitiFact] a little bit just because the data is more readily available for him than it is with the other fact checkers. You talked about that website and you said you’re not sure what the indices tell you. [NOTE: Adair had previously referenced a liberal website that quantifies PolitiFact rulings] Well, I’m curious about that because they’ve done a few studies because Politifact rulings are fairly easy to quantify. The University of Minnesota School Humphrey School of Public Affairs study last year found that Politifact rated Republicans false at a rate of three to one over Democrats, and more recently a George Mason University study from I think June through September found that Politifact rated Republicans false at a rate of two to one. Now, it’s also true that Politifact targets Republicans overwhelmingly for evaluation, regardless of how they come down on the rulings. So that to me, say, when Romney pollster Neil Newhouse suggests fact checkers have a partisan agenda that they bring to the table is what he was suggesting. I think that’s why he was saying he wasn’t going to let the [Romney] campaign be dictated by the fact checkers not because he didn’t think he was going to go whole hog on an [dishonest welfare reform] ad that was effective. Don’t Republicans have a pretty legitimate grievance there if they’re being unfairly singled out you know overwhelmingly by the number of times that they’re being targeted by fact checkers compared to Democrats?

Adair: Well, I’m not sure I agree that they’ve been unfairly singled out, didn’t the [George Mason] studies show that we had checked roughly the same number of Democrats as Republicans or something? I don’t know, I saw the press release. You know I don’t find the “hey, you gave my team...” [complaints persuasive] because 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,” the Democrat. And then like a week or so later the Virginia Republican party came out and said Politifact Virginia is unfairly targeting the Republicans. And you know, I think the nature of what we do is disruptive to the status quo. I think we are easier to analyze because of our unique structure, but I don’t find the numerical count analysis to be particularly persuasive. Now 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. We make a mistake, we correct it, but I think, you also have to reflect this is journalism, we’re not social scientists, we are not randomly selecting things.

Ok, a mea culpa here. I was speaking extemporaneously here and Adair is right, the George Mason study did find that PolitiFact only checked the statements of Republicans slightly more than Democrats. "PolitiFact checked the assertions of Democrats slightly more often than those of  Republicans (54% vs. 46% of all statements)," according to the study. But that makes what PolitiFact is doing even worse! If you're fact checking a roughly equal a number of statements by each party, and you find one party lies twice as often, wouldn't that be revealing? To be more specific, here's what the George Mason study, which tabulated PolitiFact rulings between June 1 and September 11, concluded:

However, PolitiFact rated Democratic statements as “mostly true” or “entirely true” about twice as often as Republican statements -- 42% true ratings for Democrats vs. 20% for Republicans.

Conversely, statements by Republicans were rated as entirely false about twice as often as Democratic statements – 29% false ratings for GOP statements vs. 15% false ratings for Democrats. (This includes categories labeled “false” and “pants on fire.”)

And yet, Adair just refused to answer the question of why his organization overwhelmingly finds Republican statements false. It's not just the George Mason study, either. Again, the University of Minnesota analyzed "more than 500 PolitiFact stories from January 2010 through January 2011 finds that current and former Republican officeholders have been assigned substantially harsher grades by the news organization than their Democratic counterparts. In total, 74 of the 98 statements by political figures judged 'false' or 'pants on fire' over the last 13 months were given to Republicans, or 76 percent, compared to just 22 statements for Democrats (22 percent)."

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