Last month, PolitiFact selected its "Lie of the Year." Given PolitiFact's dubious record of singling out Republicans for lying far more often than Democrats, you probably could have guessed the winner of this particular sweepstakes was a Mitt Romney campaign ad:
It was a lie told in the critical state of Ohio in the final days of a close campaign -- that Jeep was moving its U.S. production to China. It originated with a conservative blogger, who twisted an accurate news story into a falsehood. Then it picked up steam when the Drudge Report ran with it. Even though Jeep's parent company gave a quick and clear denial, Mitt Romney repeated it and his campaign turned it into a TV ad.
And they stood by the claim, even as the media and the public expressed collective outrage against something so obviously false.
"Public expressed collective outrage"? That's essentially wishcasting on the part of PolitiFact, nor are they accurately representing what Mitt Romney said in the ad. In fact, here's PolitiFact's original "fact check" on the matter:
[Mitt Romney] Says Barack Obama "sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China" at the cost of American jobs.
Ok. Now here's what the Reuters reported earlier this week:
Fiat (FIA.MI) and its U.S. unit Chrysler expect to roll out at least 100,000 Jeeps in China when production starts in 2014 as they seek to catch up with rivals in the world's biggest car market. ...
"We expect production of around 100,000 Jeeps per year which is expandable to 200,000," [Chrysler CEO Sergio] Marchionne, who is also CEO of Chrysler, said on the sidelines of a conference, adding production could start in 18 months.
So, yes, it's confirmed that Jeep will be producing cars in China. According to the Toledo Blade last November:
Currently, Jeeps sell in more than 120 countries around the world, including China. They're nearly all built in factories in the United States.
By expanding Jeep production to China, instead of increasing Jeep production in the U.S., it's safe to say Jeep (or more properly, Fiat, which now owns Chrysler) is choosing to create more jobs overseas instead of in America where taxpayers bailed the company out.
Now one could argue—and I suspect many pro-free trade, pro-globalization conservatives would make this argument—that expanding production overseas is good for Jeep, and what's good for Jeep in the long-run is ultimately good for the jobs they sustain in the U.S. job market. And if you dig deep into the PolitiFact ruling, that's their essential objection to Mitt Romney's ad: It implies that it would be better for Jeep to create more jobs in the U.S. in the short-term, instead of expanding overseas production. So in the end, PolitiFact's beef with the Romney ad was an entirely argumentative disagreement about what course of action Jeep should take, not a factual objection to Romney's true statement that Jeep was going to start building cars in China. However, disagreeing about the implications of manufacturing Jeeps in China doesn't justify calling Romney a liar for accurately stating Jeeps would be manufactured in China. PolitiFact didn't even dispute that, and even conceded the "Lie of the Year" was built on a "grain of truth." Rather, PolitiFact explicitly argued producing Jeeps in China is a good thing:
The production of cars in China is a sign of Chrysler's growing strength in overseas markets. It would like to build Jeeps in China to sell in China. It is not outsourcing American auto jobs.
Further, PolitiFact criticized the Romney ad for something it didn't say. Romney's ad never said Jeep was "outsourcing" existing jobs. Again, a fair reading of the ad would be that it implied that Jeep was choosing to create new jobs overseas rather than in the U.S. And if we're going to get technical, what PolitiFact reported about Jeep wasn't accurate. Here's PolitiFact quoting a Chrysler spokesman in their "Lie of the Year" ruling:
"Let’s set the record straight: Jeep has no intention of shifting production of its Jeep models out of North America to China," Ranieri wrote, adding, "A careful and unbiased reading of the Bloomberg take would have saved unnecessary fantasies and extravagant comments."
But that turns out not to be entirely true! As the Detroit News reported earlier this week:
[Chrysler CEO Sergio] Marchionne said he will keep "the pillar cars of the Jeep (brand) in the United States. Wrangler is one. The Grand Cherokee is another. These are things that need to be protected because they represent the best and the essence of Jeep. If you tell me I cannot make a Patriot somewhere else, I might as well go out of the market."
To recap, Jeep Patriots—oh irony, you capricious sprite!—that were heretofore exclusively produced in America and sold overseas are now going to be made and sold overseas. So there is one Jeep model that is in fact shifting production "out of North America to China," contrary to what Jeep's spokesman asserted at the time.
On that note, we all know that "fact checking" is kabuki journalism, but would it have killed PolitiFact to act like real reporters for five seconds and express some richly deserved skepticism about Jeep's carefully worded denials about producing cars in China? It was obvious that since the company had received a taxpayer bailout largely engineered by an incumbent president up for reelection, that it was not in Jeep's interest to upset the Obama campaign applecart. Michael Dorstewitz at BizPac Review points out that Jeep was pretty clearly engaged in obfuscation:
When the controversy first erupted, Italian-born Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne was unequivocal in denying that Jeep had plans to move any of its operations to China. That was on Oct. 30, one week before the presidential election.
“I feel obliged to unambiguously restate our position: Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China,” he wrote in a letter to employees, according to NBC News. “Jeep assembly lines will remain in operation in the United States and will constitute the backbone of the brand. … It is inaccurate to suggest anything different.”
However, Marchione dodged the issue. The Romney ad never said that the Jeep brand was going to move to China — it only said that Chrysler was going to build Jeeps in China.
Nonetheless, PolitiFact dubbed the Romney ad the “Lie of the Year” and described it as “a lie told in the critical state of Ohio in the final days of a close campaign.”
Now I'd be confounded by PolitiFact's total inability to handle basic empirical matters if their motivation wasn't so transparent. Their "Lie of the Year" write-up reads like a gleeful vindication of the Obama campaign. No really, they use the word "gleeful":
If the Jeep ad was intended to confound the Obama campaign, the reaction was the opposite: gleeful outrage.
Obama’s campaign fired back with its own ad, which crowed that "Chrysler itself has refuted Romney's lie. The truth? Jeep is adding jobs in Ohio." Surrogates on the campaign trail, notably former President Bill Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden, mocked the ad as audiences roared with laughter.
For the Obama camp, it was a twofer: They got to remind voters in Ohio and all over the country that Romney had opposed the auto bailouts and also portray him as desperate.
Obama himself brought it up in a campaign appearance in Cincinnati the Sunday before the election, casting it as a character issue.
"And so when you’re thinking about this choice, or you’re talking to your friends and neighbors about this choice, you’ve got to remind them it’s not just about policy, it’s also about trust. Who do you trust?"
If we're really going to be scrupulous about who we trust, the fact that the "Lie of the Year" is nothing more than sophistry aimed at tearing down a Republican presidential candidate says volumes about PolitiFact's credibility.
UPDATE: Several people have written in to object on the grounds that when the Romney campaign first started making the accusation against Jeep, Mitt Romney said the following in a stump speech, which does muddy the waters a bit:
I saw a story today that one of the great manufacturers in this state Jeep -- now owned by the Italians -- is thinking of moving all production to China. I will fight for every good job in America.
Emphasis added. Obviously, when it's framed that way it's not true. However, remove the word "all" from Romney's comment and it's perfectly unobjectionable. (According to CBS News, Romney's inaccurate characterization of what Jeep's move to China may have resulted from a confusingly worder Bloomberg story that was later clarified.) In fact, after Romney said this, his campaign, while reticent to directly concede that Romney's statement was erroneous, clarified the point they were trying to make:
The campaign did not respond to those questions but insisted that "the larger point that the Gov. made is that rather than creating jobs here, the foreign owner, handpicked by President Obama, is planning to add jobs overseas - which is still true." Romney did not mention the report at a campaign event in Ames, Iowa this afternoon.
In fact, that's exactly the argument that I point out PolitiFact ignored. Further, PolitiFact's "Lie of the Year" is not that Romney lied in his stump speech. PolitiFact knows it's thin gruel to hang their accusation on a single word in a Romney speech. Which is why their headline is "Lie of the Year: the Romney campaign's ad on Jeeps made in China," and that's why I confined my critique to the ad. The ad aired after Romney was called out for his misleading comment and the ad itself is much more carefully worded.
But if we're going to insist that a single stump speech comment is damnable assessment of one's motivations, then here's my nomination for "Lie of the Year":
“Sometimes they just make things up. But they’ve got a bunch of folks who can write $10 million checks, and they’ll just keep on running them,” he said. “I mean, somebody was challenging one of their ads — they made it up — about work and welfare. And every outlet said this is just not true. And they were asked about it and they said — one of their campaign people said, ‘We won’t have the fact-checkers dictate our campaign. We will not let the truth get in the way.’”
Mr. Obama was referring, as many other critics of the Romney campaign have, to a comment that its pollster, Neil Newhouse, made to reporters at the Republican convention on Tuesday, dismissive of those faulting the campaign’s television ads. What Mr. Newhouse actually said was, “These fact-checkers come to those ads with their own sets of thoughts and beliefs. We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
Mr. Newhouse did not say, “We will not let the truth get in the way.”
Again, emphasis added. So when a Romney campaign aide quite accurately noted that fact checkers bring "their own sets of thoughts and beliefs" to their critiques, Obama defended fact checkers by lying about what the Romney campaign said in the process of accusing them of lying. Strangely enough, PolitiFact did not bother objecting to the president's dishonesty here.