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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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So why does Adair have no explanation for this? Confronted with actual data, a.k.a. "facts," is he really dismissing the critique PolitiFact disproportionately rules against Republicans because Democrats come up to him at parties and complain? Sure looks that way.

If he's confident in his organization's evaluations why not just say, "We strive to be fair, but the results seem to show Republicans tell falsehoods more often"? I suspect that the reason he doesn't stand behind the aggregate results of the PolitiFact rulings is because he knows that it looks bad. It would cause people to start taking a closer look at the specifics of PolitiFact rulings to see whether this remarkable result is warranted.

Which brings me to my final point regarding Adair. When he says, "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." That's not my sense of it at all. I've written several articles citing chapter and verse of why PolitiFact rulings are either tendentious or flat out erroneous, and PolitiFact is downright unresponsive beyond dismissive references to "partisans" at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

For instance, Adair began his presentation today with a video of Jon Stewart confronting Herman Cain with the PolitiFact's charge that Mitt Romney's welfare reform ads are deceptive—after confronting Cain, Stewart actually does a victory dance to drive home the point that he's caught Cain in a lie.

Yet, this is an issue that PolitiFact has not only gotten wrong, but been thunderously wrong about it. Indeed, I just wrote four thousand words unpacking the Obama administration's recent waivers to the work requirements in welfare reform, relevant statistical analysis, and the anti-welfare reform statements of the top welfare policy makers in the Department of Health and Human Services. It turns out that the Romney campaign is making a pretty credible argument, and PolitiFact is most certainly not. And not only that, PolitiFact's rulings on the matter are wrong to the point that PolitiFact is now in direct conflict with a ruling one one of the key issues made by Adair's fellow panelist Glenn Kessler. (Compare here and here.) PolitiFact has now given two "Pants on Fire!" rulings to the Romney campaign—and a related "true" rating to Bill Clinton—based on dubious sources and little understanding of welfare policy. I haven't seen PolitiFact respond to myself, the Washington Post, or Heritage Foundation policy expert Robert Rector—the "intellectual godfather of welfare reform" who wrote the law's original work requirements. Rector has repeatedly and quite publicly called out fact checkers on the issue. 

But wait! We're just getting warmed up! All of the panelists responded to me. Glenn Kessler was perfectly reasonable throughout the whole panel, even mentioning that welfare reform was more complicated than other fact checkers on the panel were making it out to be. Kessler wisely steered clear of the PolitiFact wreckage, only proffering that he gets a roughly equal amount of criticism from all sides of the political spectrum. He did, however, make this unintentionally illuminating observation:

The only thing I can say more broadly is that I do think that, and I don’t know if this is your experience, that Democrats tend to be more angry about and more upset about some of the things that I write, I guess that’s because they kind of believe the myth of the liberal media.

Huh. If Democrats believe the "myth" of the liberal media and Republicans have been on record for years as believing the media are liberal, at what point does this cease to be a myth?

For his part, Drinkard began the inevitable circling of the wagons by accusing me of overlooking relevant facts:

Another thing I would say is that nobody mentioned this but we’re in a year which has been dominated by a primary season where only one party had a primary. And they had 21 or 22 debates. That is going to produce a certain number of fact checks, and they’re all going to be about Republicans.

I responded:

Well yeah, but the studies I cited were from last year in January and then from June through September, so, I mean, the primary wouldn’t have been in effect.

According to the timing, neither study would have really been impacted by the primary. Oh and the George Mason study on PolitiFact also found the following result. It is revealing and also goes a long way toward ruling out the presidential primary affecting the results:

The same pattern holds for statements made directly by the presidential candidates and their campaigns. A majority of the Obama campaign’s statements (55%) were rated as true or mostly true, compared to one out of four statements (26%) by the Romney campaign.

Again, why can't any of these professional fact checkers offer up a plausible excuse for why PolitiFact finds Republicans tell falsehoods at two to three times the rate of Democrats? I think it's fair to say that FactCheck.org's Brooks Jackson seemed mildly annoyed with my impertinence on this point, and basically came around to the only conclusion that is both face-saving and obvious. Unfortunately, even Jackson seemed to have difficulty believing this conclusion isn't improbable: 

Jackson: I think the Weekly Standard would agree that when you look at civil rights for example the goal should be equality of opportunity, not equality of result. So I think you have, if you are seeing, and I don’t know that the figures you gave me are accurate, if you are seeing criticisms of one-side or another, it might reflect the fact that there is a Republican primary going on, or 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. You can infer if there are more criticisms of one side than another, and I think this varies all the time, this is the actual fact of it, but that [doesn't] mean there is any bias on our part. That’s just a false logic.

Hemingway: At a rate of three to one? I mean, you believe...

Jackson: I don’t know that it’s three to one, and I don’t know…

Hemingway: ...well I’m citing the Minnesota School of [Public] Affairs.

Jackson: ...and I don’t know if some of those are complaints about Republicans criticizing other Republicans. It’s certainly not three to one on our side.

So then, Jackson raises the possibility that the disproportionate "false" rulings for Republicans accurately reflect that they lie more than Democrats. But pressed on this, he suddenly feels the need to clarify that his organization, unlike PolitiFact, isn't fact checking Republicans as false over Democrats at indefensible rates. This is not exactly a vote of confidence in PolitiFact.

I guess the results here are as predictable as they are ironic. Try and talk to fact checkers about facts involving their own work, and the result is trying to nail Jello to a wall. The panel wrapped up shortly after my question, and a gentlemen who's name I wish I'd caught came up to me and said, "Did you notice they answered your question the way that they complained political campaigns responded to them?" Oddly enough, I did.

I also noticed that last week, Gallup reported "U.S. Distrust in Media Hits New High."  But don't worry, Adair informed everyone at the panel this morning that this is going to be the year that everyone notes that fact checking took hold in the public consciousness. I wouldn't want to suggest a correlation between these two things, lest I again be accused of "false logic." But after yesterday's performance at the press club, perhaps you'll agree that more "fact checking" may not be what we need to restore faith in the fourth estate. 

*Correction: I originally identified the Associated Press's Drinkard as the source of this quote.

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