Politifact watch: Our skills are amazingly weak!


Fact-checks and astronaut clown suits: Rachel Maddow was pounding away at Politifact again last night.

This is the fact-check about which she railed. We think Politifact pretty much bungled again. But then again, so did the silly TV host, who still seems upset about the way the site fact-checked an error she made last year.

What claim did Politifact assess in this new presentation? Here it is, just as it appears in big bold print atop the site’s post. This statement is taken from an Obama campaign commercial:
"For the first time in 13 years, our dependence on foreign oil is below 50 percent."
Once again, Politifact found that the quoted statement is just plain flat-out factually accurate. But once again, in its pitiful way, it rated the statement “half true!”

Why the heck does the bungling site keep cranking out such puzzling ratings? If you read their actual post, you will find their explanation, which isn’t exactly half-bad.

In Politifact’s judgment, Obama seems to claim credit in the ad for this improving situation. (“The commercial suggests that the current president deserves credit.”) Politifact judges that this “suggestion” is a rather large stretch.

Does the commercial really suggest that Obama deserves credit? We’d have to say that’s a reasonable inference. In its post, Politifact says the drop in consumption of foreign oil has largely been caused by the recession, not by anything Obama has done. On that basis, they want to flag the commercial’s “suggestion.”

Politifact’s post includes perfectly valid information and judgments. Conceivably, voters might want to know why we’re using less foreign oil; conceivably, voters might want to be told that it isn’t really Obama’s doing. But why does Politifact put a “half true” label on a quoted statement, even as they say that the actual statement is 100 percent factually accurate?

Here as elsewhere, Politifact develops some decent information. But the conceptual scheme behind their ratings is just amazingly weak.

(Given the judgments Politifact reached, "True but misleading" would have been a more sensible rating. Or "True but perhaps misleading.")

Maddow is Politifact’s flip side. Last night, she ranted and flailed, as she typically does, making no real attempt to explain the reasoning behind Politifact’s rating. In this familiar cable way, the clueless chase down the clumsy.

As a people, our intellectual skills are just amazingly weak. Yesterday, we had a similar thought when we read this post about Politifact. The post was written by a very smart person, Paul Krugman. By light years, Krugman has been the liberal world’s most valuable journalist over the past dozen years. But he mind-reads up a storm in his post—and this rumination about fact-checking may not make as much sense as it seems:
KRUGMAN (1/25/12): Now, the point of Politifact and other news-org fact-check things is supposed to be to do this work for readers, so that you don’t have to learn your way around labor-force or trade or crime or whatever statistics every time you have doubts about a political claim.

Unfortunately, Politifact has lost sight of what it was supposed to be doing. Instead of simply saying whether a claim is true, it’s trying to act as some kind of referee of what it imagines to be fair play: even if a politician says something completely true, it gets ruled only partly true if Politifact feels that the fact is being used to gain an unfair political advantage. In the case of Obama’s job statement, Politifact first called it only half true, then upgraded that to mostly true, not because Obama said anything factually incorrect, but because Politifact perceived Obama as trying to imply that he was responsible for the gains.

This is deeply wrong on two levels. First, fact-checking should be about checking facts—not about trying to impose some sort of Marquess of Queensbury rules on how you’re allowed to use facts. Aside from undermining the mission, this makes the whole thing subjective—notice that Politifact wasn’t even analyzing what Obama said, they were analyzing their impression about what he might have been trying to imply. Leave that for the talking heads!
We don’t think this makes as much sense as it might seem. Many statements the voters might want to see fact-checked come loaded with insinuations. You can’t perform a useful fact-check if you ignore that fact. One of Krugman’s commenters offered a current example:
COMMENTER: [Politifact] also rates Newt's statement that "more people have been put on food stamps under Barack Obama than anyone in American history" as "half true" when it's just a simple fact. Of course, he's implying that the president is somehow forcing Americans onto [so-called food stamps] as part of an evil program of socialist enslavement, but the statement remains factually true.
"More people have been put on food stamps under Barack Obama than anyone in American history.” Should Politifact have rated that statement “True,” then ended its fact-check right there?

In our view, that “half true” rating was a bit bungled too. But Krugman's logic seems to suggests that the site should just tell readers that Gingrich’s statement is true.

Bottom line: Fact-checkers will often want to address insinuations which are lodged within statements. In these recent bungles, Politifact has developed its information reasonably well. But then it creates ridiculous bungles by the way it hands out its ratings.

(For ourselves, we would rate that "food stamps" claim by Gingrich this way: “Highly misleading,” or "True but highly misleading." But Politifact insists on using some gradient of “true” in its ratings. This is a very bad idea. Most successful disinformation isn't "false;" it's skillfully misleading.)

We're sorry, but what follows is true: Our modern journalistic culture is just amazingly unintelligent. Our analytical skills are virtually non-existent. When partisan fury is thrown in the stew, things go from bad to worser. Krugman’s mind-reading is a bad sign, and he has long been our most valuable player (and our smartest).

Last night, Maddow performed her first half-hour in an astronaut suit. She spent her second half-hour reminding us that she had done it.

We’re frequently in the hands of clowns. Do you think we can get there from here?

Say hello to your millionaire clown, the one in the astronaut suit: Pitifully, this was Maddow’s attempt to explain why Politifact chose that rating. The corporate-owned millionaire entertainer was clowning hard, as usual:
MADDOW (1/26/12): Seriously? This is PolitiFact. This is why PolitiFact is fired. Apparently, they think they have inferred a causality claim by virtue of the fact that the president said this true thing and that somehow makes this true thing not true anymore or something.

Under the same logic, if the president went outside and gave a speech in the rain and said, “Thanks for coming, I appreciate your being here because it`s raining,” PolitiFact would fact-check whether or not it was raining and find it half true even though it was, in fact, raining, because somehow raining implied to PolitiFact that the president was claiming to be El Nino.
Maddow was no longer wearing her astronaut suit as she offered that stupid-ass clatter. Had she been wearing two big orange shoes, the costuming would have fit.


  1. What we have here is a version of the blind men seeking to describe an elephant by touch alone. Each blind man is accurately describing a part of the elephant but not the whole.

    Mr. Somerby doesn't disagree with Maddow's conclusion in any major way. He objects to the way she reached that conclusion.

    He defends Politfact's logic even though they reached a dubious conclusion.

    Mr. Somerby needs to inform us what classroom he was ever in charge of where he criticized correct answers while rewarding wrong answers

  2. Where did the real anonymous come from, and who do you work for?


  3. The trouble with "more people have been put on food stamps under Barack Obama than anyone in American history" is that it suggests, thanks to the word "under", that putting more people on food stamps is an Obama policy or policy goal.

    It would be more accurate to say "during the Obama presidency". The implication may still be misleading -- has anyone in the Republican party noticed that the economy during this period has been the worst in 70+ years -- but it at least it's factually accurate.

    However, as Gingrich phrased the matter, "accuracy" can't be determined without knowing his intent, given the ambiguous language used.

  4. Mr. Somerby seems to be a champion of the intelligence of the "average" guy, but at the same time, seems to think we're too dumb to figure out whether a "true" statement is "slightly misleading" or "highly misleading," and we need someone smarter than us to tell us.

    Here's a hint: If Newt wants to say there are record numbers of people on food stamps now, my reaction is, "Well of course. We've gone through one hell of a recession. That's what food stamps are for."

  5. Words that denote, or at least connote, subtle but very important shades of meaning -- true, accurate, correct; false, lying, inaccurate, correct; misleading -- get so conflated and jumbled by people like those at Fox, PolitiFox, the NYT and by the MSNBC so-called liberals (Rachel, for instance, loves to call every inaccurate statement a "lie," ignoring the role of intention and knowledge in the connotations of "lie") that none their evaluations is worth paying any attention to. You'd have thunk that "journalists" might have some sophistication about these distinctions, though.

  6. I started watching, but after a minute of Maddow in a space suit, the stupid started affecting me so viscerally I switched over to a Law and Order rerun!! LOL Out of all the annoying things Maddow does, this struck me as one of the worst.

  7. I'm beginning to think Somerby's primary motivation for continuing to write is pure envy. I haven't seen his material appear in any collective media effort.
    Plus, he bitches constantly that people don't reflect enough on media v Gore, but desperately hypes his upcoming book on the subject. It's really turned me off a once decent blog.

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