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Once Again, PolitiFact Struggles to Explain Data Showing They Treat GOP Unfairly

1:42 PM, May 31, 2013 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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I suspect that deep down Adair knows how unconvincing he is, but that he's just hoping that he can kick up enough dirt to distract people from the fact the he's incapable of mounting a real defense of PolitiFact's credibility. Sure enough, liberal website Salon headlined their write up of CMPA's results "Study: Republicans are 'the less credible party,'" as though PolitiFact's editorial judgment is sacred. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Kurt Eichenwald of Vanity Fair calls CMPA's study "flawed" and "statistically silly." Unlike the ridiculous Salon piece, Eichenwald's reasons for skepticism seem to be rooted in both a healthy skepticism of PolitiFact and the limits of social science to draw objective conclusions about subjective political statements. However, Eichenwald seems to misunderstand what the sudy is about. He assumes that the study is meant reveal which political party is more truthful:

PolitiFacts editor Bill Adair says that the comments are selected based on the group’s news judgment. That’s fine for examining the issues of the day, but it hardly lends itself to statistical analysis. If someone’s subjective opinion determines the data set, the statistics are flawed from the get-go.

Then another level of subjectivity is employed: PolitiFact’s judgment on truthfulness. There has been plenty of criticism—from both the left and the right—of PolitiFact’s judgments. While that might be political sour grapes, it means that the group’s determinations are not objectively accepted fact. So now you have two subjective elements—the choice of statements to review and the determination of their accuracy.

Eichenwald's heart is in the right place, but he's looking at it through the wrong end of the telescope—this is media analysis, not political science. CMPA's study is really meant to tell us about the PolitiFact's methodology, not the veracity of politicians. (Though his confusion is somewhat understandable considering outlets such as Salon are misrepresenting the study to grind an ideological axe.) As for Eichenwald's statistical concerns, they might be considerably alleviated knowing that this is not the first study of its kind producing the same result and tallying up PolitiFact's judgments is an ongoing project of the CMPA.

The bottom line is this: PolitiFact consistently calls Republicans liars at two or three times the rate of Democrats, and its individual judgments are regularly erroneous in ways that make it hard not to suspect the organization has a serious problem with political bias. Luckily for PolitiFact, fact checking the fact checkers is often an exceedingly complicated thing to do. And it doesn't help the PolitiFact and media partisans dismiss and misrepresent data that would prompt a responsible organization to engage in a badly needed self-examination.

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