Pulitzer Prize-level work: We hate to say it, but Rachel Maddow has done some good reports this week.
If you omit the first and last moments in the segment, one such report involved the latest fail by Politifact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning site. To watch Maddow’s report, click this.
As we continue, let’s ask ourselves a basic question: What type of intellectual skill is found at the Pulitzer level?
In the report in question, Politifact was evaluating this statement by Marco Rubio: "The majority of Americans are conservatives." Rubio did make the quoted statement at CPAC, although Politifact’s full report leaves this point in some doubt.
Rubio said it. Is his statement true? After some opening bafflegab, Politifact got to work. As usual, the fact-checking site put no name and no date on its work:
POLITIFACT: The Gallup Poll has been regularly asking Americans about their political ideology since 1992, and they compile the results of many polls each year and release an annual report.From that, you might almost think that Rubio’s quoted statement was false. For those accustomed to working with numbers, forty percent is not a majority. From that passage, it’s rather clear that a majority of respondents in 2011 didn’t identify as conservative. And 2011 is the most recent year for which Politifact has data.
For 2011, Gallup found that the largest group of Americans identify as conservative, at 40 percent. Another 35 percent identify as moderate, while 21 percent identify as liberal.
That trend has fluctuated a bit over the years, with moderates sometimes slightly outnumbering liberals. But liberals have consistently numbered much less.
This isn’t the biggest deal in the world. But the statement does seem to be false.
Soon, Politifact seemed to drive the point home: “In Gallup’s poll, the number [identifying as conservative] has never crossed the 50 percent threshold,” the fact-obsessed web site said.
Forget about the most recent year. There has never been a year when 50 percent of Americans said they were conservative! But at Politifact, facts like these didn’t make Rubio’s statement false! In the judgment of the Pulitzer Prize-winning org, Rubio’s statement is “Mostly True!” Just watch as the judges reezun:
POLITIFACT: Rubio said that the majority of Americans are conservative. A respected ongoing poll from Gallup shows that conservatives are the largest ideological group, but they don’t cross the 50 percent threshold. So we rate his statement Mostly True.No, conservatives aren’t a majority—but they are the largest group. So the statement is mostly true!
Truly, that’s pathetic work. We'd love to see Politifact rate that famous old bungled headline:
DEWEY BEATS TRUMAN? Mostly true! He got 45 percent!
This is one of the weakest reports we’ve ever seen from Politifact. At one point, the unnamed writer explained the thinking behind his or her undated judgment. We’ll repeat a bit of text from above. Truly, this is sad:
POLITIFACT: For 2011, Gallup found that the largest group of Americans identify as conservative, at 40 percent. Another 35 percent identify as moderate, while 21 percent identify as liberal.Let’s translate: Technically, Rubio would be more accurate [sic] if he had something different! If he had made an accurate statement, his statement would be correct!
That trend has fluctuated a bit over the years, with moderates sometimes slightly outnumbering liberals. But liberals have consistently numbered much less. (See Gallup’s chart for the clear contrast.)
We have two nits to pick with Rubio’s statement, though.
First, he said a majority of Americans are conservatives. In Gallup’s poll, the number has never crossed the 50 percent threshold. Technically, he would be more accurate if he said a plurality of Americans are conservative.
He would have been right if he’d said something different. So his statement is mostly true!
(Please note: In that passage, Politifact describes the fact that Rubio’s actual statement is false as a "nit to pick.”)
This report is truly pitiful work. Right from its opening paragraphs, it’s a genuine D-minus effort. And here’s the point we want you to ponder: This work was published by a Pulitzer Prize-winning news org!
We know what you’re thinking: Maureen Dowd won a Pulitzer too! And she’s the one who wrote those disgraceful columns in 2004 about Dr. Judith Dean’s mousy wardrobe.
That said, we often ask you to ponder the depth of the press corps’ intellectual breakdown. In truth, you live in a deeply broken world—in a broken intellectual culture.
Update—a poll grows in Brooklyn: In this post, Kevin Drum locates a poll which could be taken to support the claim in question. He says this lets Rubio off the hook.
Sort of. As Drum notes, the poll in question is highly specialized in several ways. Since there's no great way to answer a question like "what percent of the public is liberal/conservative," this was always a fairly shaky type of statement for Politifact to tackle.
But tackle it they did, in the manner they did, and their analysis doesn't make a lick of sense, even on its own terms. It was dumb of them to act as if the annual Gallup survey represented an absolute measure of such a question. But that's just one more part of the story here—their lack of intellectual skill.
If this is Pulitzer Prize-level work, just think how the average scribe reezuns!