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Romney to PolitiFact: There You Go Again

Bold new fact checking truthiness: "The numbers are accurate but quite misleading" and "TRUE BUT FALSE."

5:17 PM, Apr 11, 2012 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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The Romney campaign is none too happy with PolitiFact at the moment, issuing a blistering response to a recent fact checking item on a campaign talking point. As a response to Democrats' "war on women" rehetoric, the presumed GOP presidential nominee's press secretary pointed out that under Obama's presidency, women account for 92.3 percent of the job losses. This kind of statement—a bold claim involving an actual statistic—is catnip to media fact checkers. One would hope that the campaign double-checked their math. PolitiFact reruns the numbers:

Romney’s campaign pointed to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics employment figures from January 2009, when Obama took office, and March 2012, for all employees and for female employees.

Here they are:

* Total Nonfarm Payroll Jobs:

January 2009: 133,561,000
  
March 2012: 132,821,000

Net loss: 740,000 jobs.

* Total Female Nonfarm Payroll Jobs

January 2009: 66,122,000

March 2012: 65,439,000

Net loss: 683,000 jobs.

They then divided the net loss among women by the total net loss and came up with 92.3 percent.

That seems pretty straightforward. Given that PolitiFact says Romney's numbers check out, how the heck did PolitiFact then conclude Romney's statement is "mostly false"? Well, they did what fact checkers habitually do whenever they find something factually correct but politically disagreeable—kick up a bunch of irrelevant contextual dirt and lean on some biased sources. Which is why PolitiFact's own language here is absurd: "We found that though the numbers are accurate, their reading of them isn’t" and "The numbers are accurate but quite misleading." I would also note that my friend Glenn Kessler, the fact checker at the Washington Post, evaluated the same claim and deemed it "TRUE BUT FALSE." I do hope that if media fact checkers expect to retain any credibility to evaluate basic empirical claims, they're aware that this kind of Orwellian doublespeak is going to make them a laughingstock.

So what are PolitiFact's actual objections?:

First, Obama cannot be held entirely accountable for the employment picture on the day he took office, just as he could not be given credit if times had been booming. Second, by choosing figures from January 2009, months into the recession, the statement ignored the millions of jobs lost before then, when most of the job loss fell on men. In every recession, men are the first to take the hit, followed by women. It's a historical pattern, [Princeton Economist Betsey] Stevenson told us, not an effect of Obama's policies.

Would giving Obama a few months of buffer on the jobs number necessarily result in a dramatic improvement in the 92.3 percent statistic? I doubt it, and in any event, it has no bearing on the literal truth of the Romney campaign statement, which they admit is "accurate." As for the idea that women's job losses must be balanced out by considering the previous job losses by men, the Romney campaign makes two good points:

First, why should it matter that men had already lost millions of jobs? Was it now women's "turn"? Is this part of the President's conception of "fairness" that he talks about so frequently? If the data showed the opposite (i.e. that women had been disproportionately hurt prior to the President taking office), we imagine you would have used that as an indictment of [Romney for President Press Secretary Andrea Saul] by arguing that the trend was inherent to the recession and predated the President.

Second, by choosing to dive deeper into context, you take on an obligation to do so effectively. If you want to advance the claim that the President is not responsible for the start of his term, and that it was the women's "turn" to lose out late in the recession, then you need to test that hypothesis by looking to the start of the so-called recovery ­ when these factors should no longer be relevant. And yet, if you had taken the time to look at job growth since the recession ended in June 2009 (with the President's stimulus now in effect), you would have found exactly the same picture. Since that time, less than one-eighth of the economy's meager job creation has gone to women.

That's bad enough, but the campaign has another significant beef with how PolitiFact sources their claim here. Remember Betsey Stevenson, the professor who insisted that women losing jobs under Obama were at the mercy of a historical employment trend? About her:

Much more inexplicably, Betsey Stevenson, who you identify simply as "a business and public policy professor at Princeton University," was until recently the chief economist for Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. She also authored a recent opinion piece for Reuters entitled "The Case for Obama's Jobs Program." I have no way of knowing whether Politifact was aware of this and failed to disclose it, or whether she failed to identify her role in the Administration. ­Frankly, I am not sure which would be worse.

On a final, fitting note, Ms. Stevenson has a Twitter account and on April 6 tweeted "This recovery has not been good for women." Those forty-two characters are far more accurate than anything that you wrote.

Oof. For what it's worth, the Romney campaign notes that another critical source in the article, Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution, has donated twice to Obama. (I've previously dinged the Post's Kessler for failing to identify obviously biased sources in fact checking items.)

Finally, it's worth remembering that PolitiFact has a demonstrable record of bias against Republicans. A study by the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public affairs concluded:

A Smart Politics content analysis of 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).

Expect more dubious "fact checking" directed at Romney as the presidential campaign heats up. 

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