A PolitiFact case study

We took a look at the phenomenon of political fact-checkers in “Who will fact check the fact checkers?” The post drew attention to Mark Hemingway’s Weekly Standard cover story “Lies, damned lies, and ‘fact-checking.’” Hemingway traced the rage for political fact-checking back to PolitiFact:

Launched in 2007, PolitiFact purports to judge the factual accuracy of statements from politicians and other prominent national figures.

A statement is presented in bold type at the top of the page, usually accompanied by a picture of the speaker. Off to the side is a “Truth-O-Meter” graphic depicting an old-school instrument gauge. The Truth-O-Meter displays a red, yellow, or green light depending on whether the statement is rated “true,” “mostly true,” “half true,” “mostly false,” “false,” or “pants on fire!” (To drive the point home, on the website the “pants on fire!” rating is accompanied by animated flames.) Below the Truth-O-Meter is a short explanation from PolitiFact’s editors justifying their rating.

The feature quickly gained popularity, and in 2009 the St. Petersburg Times won a Pulitzer Prize for PolitiFact, endowing the innovation with a great deal of credibility. “According to the Pulitzer Prize-winning PolitiFact .  .  . ” has now become a kind of Beltway Tourette syndrome, a phrase sputtered by journalists and politicians alike in an attempt to buttress their arguments.

If the stated goal seems simple enough​—​providing an impartial referee to help readers sort out acrimonious and hyperbolic political disputes​—​in practice PolitiFact does nothing of the sort.

Now comes Tom Bruscino to provide “A PolitiFact example.” Bruscino was solicited by PolitiFact’s Louis Jacobson to assess Mitt Romney’s assertion that “Our navy is smaller than it’s been since 1917. Our air force is smaller and older than any time since 1947.” Bruscino is assistant professor of history at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and the author, most recently, of A Nation Forged in War: How World War II Taught Americans to Get Along.

It seems obvious that the powers-that-be at PolitiFact were looking for a predetermined answer. Bruscino’s response shows a judicious assessment of the questions posed, including the question of overall context. Bruscino finds the assertions essentially accurate while the overall context renders them difficult to assess.

PolitiFact finds no such ambiguity. The Truth-O-Meter finds Romney’s “Pants on Fire,” because while the numbers are basically accurate, the context makes Romney’s claim a lie. Jacobson refers to Romney’s statements as “meaningless,” “glib,” “preposterous,” and “ridiculous.”

While crediting Jacobson with performing “a remarkable bit of research in a very short period of time,” Bruscino found the questions posed to be leading and comments:

To be frank, I’m a little surprised by that wording ["meaningless," "glib," "preposterous," and "ridiculous"], especially in writing for a site that strives for objectivity.

My opinion, for what it is worth, is that since Romney’s base statement was factually accurate when it came to most numerical metrics, it would seem that he could be given credit for a half-truth, even if the context complicates the matter.

In any event, that is how PolitiFact worked in this case. Just in case you are interested.

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