Facts In The Dark, Part IV: Clarity

Call me a cynic, but for me, the prototype of all of the “fact-checking” columns in today’s mainstream media was in this piece here:

With the world breathing a collective sigh of relief following the violence-free passage into the year 2000, an international coalition of terrorists issued a reminder Monday that the new millennium does not actually begin until Jan. 1, 2001. “Technically speaking, we are now in the last year of the 20th century,” said Mahmoud al-Habib, a spokesperson for the terrorist organization Hamas. “Since there was no year zero, next New Year’s Eve is the real time to detonate bombs in Times Square and blow commercial airliners out of the sky.” Speaking from a secret bunker in the Kashmir hills, Osama bin Laden agreed. “We were all set to blow up the Eiffel Tower,” bin Laden said, “when one of my suicide bombers pointed out that it should actually be done next Jan. 1, not this one. I suppose we’ll just have to wait.”

Why, of course it’s the Onion.   But it spells out the model for so many “fact-checkers” in the industry; a relentless focus on the finding “gotchas”.

The piece spells out a key pitfall in the whole idea of “Fact-Checking” the news; it’s entirely possible to be right about “facts” and still miss, or even detract from, the truth.  In the example above?  It was, perhaps, a fact that the millennium didn’t begin until 2001, but that missed the point for the fictional terrorists (check the date-stamp on that piece), for whose purposes “crowds on the street” were more the issue than “having the right date”.

And that’s even when the “fact-checker” isn’t being cynical and exploiting the “fact-check” system to serve as a political editorial.

Takeaway:  It’s possible for facts to be true and still divert the audience from a larger, more important truth.

Takeaway Question: If a fact (“The Millennium begins in 2001!”) diverts the user from a larger truth (2000 is when all those crowds were out on the street, tempting the terrorists of the day), does it advance or divert from the story?

The answer, of course, is a question; “Is your story about Calendar Trivia, or Terrorism?”

Indictment

Last week, Jon Cassidy at Human Events wrote as clear an indictment of the “Fact-Checking” system, or at least of as I’ve seen.

And that indictment ran down not only the top-line biases built into “Politifact”, the national über-fact-check organization…

In 2007 [when Politifact was still affiliated with Congressional Quarterly], PolitiFact was checking numbers thrown around in debates, such as whether 300,000 babies annually are born deformed (False: it’s 40,000), or whether Social Security “is solid through about 2040 without any changes whatsoever” (True, in PolitiFact’s view: the system’s not going broke until 2041).

By 2010, PolitiFact was giving False ratings to statements that were true, such as U.S. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky saying that federal workers make an average of $120,000, compared to a private sector average of $60,000. Paul used total compensation figures, which PolitiFact found misleading. The arbiters arbitrarily decided that salary alone is the valid figure, which would be news to the Internal Revenue Service.

By 2012, it was “fact-checking” extremely general statements of personal experience like this one by Paul’s father, Ron Paul, the Texas congressman and GOP presidential candidate: “I had the privilege of practicing medicine in the early ’60s before we had any government” involvement in health care. “It worked rather well, and there was nobody out in the street suffering with no medical care. But Medicare and Medicaid came in and it just expanded.”

Fact-checker Louis Jacobson tried to disprove Ron Paul’s statement, but eventually admitted his limits. It’s the only example we’ve seen of PolitiFact admitting that the truth was too complex or beyond the scope of the Truth-O-Meter treatment.

…as well as the absurdities of its performance once you get into the weeds with specific stories:

If a conservative advocacy group runs an ad saying Obamacare could cost “up to $2 trillion,” an honest fact-checker would look up the government’s own estimate and see that, indeed, the Congressional Budget Office puts the cost at $1.76 trillion for just the first few years…

…The Congressional Budget Office estimates that Obamacare “represents a gross cost to the federal government of $1,762 billion,” or $1.76 trillion, over the next decade, and that the costs will grow over time. Yet PolitiFact still managed to dismiss that bedrock number as something to be dismissed. In critiquing an advertisement that attacked the program’s costs, PolitiFact editor Angie Drobnic Holan wrote that “the $1.76 trillion number itself is extreme cherry-picking. It doesn’t account for the law’s tax increases, spending cuts or other cost-saving measures.” On paper, the Obama administration projects that new taxes and Medicare cuts will offset the new program’s costs for a while. But that doesn’t change the cost of “up to $2 trillion.” That would make the statement True, of course. Incidentally, the CBO’s 10-year cost figures will be closer to $3 trillion in a few years, if current forecasts prove accurate.

Read the whole article.  And remember it next time someone waves “Politifact” in your face.

Takeaway:  Journalists – really, journalism itself – depend on having some sort of trust from their consumers.  It starts with the little things – did they get the who, what, when, where, why and how correct – and in the bigger things, like “not slanting their coverage to suit some other agenda”.   See Dan Rather.

Meanwhile, Here At Home

I’ve always had a fair amount of regard for MPR News, which is perhaps counterintuitive for a Minnesota Conservative.  While a very close, and admittedly very partisan, listen reveals the odd bit of bias among the reporters and their editorial process, I think it’s fair to say that MPR News makes a game effort at playing the news straight (that is, of course, as distinct from MPR’s and “American Public Media’s” non-news programming, which is designed to afflict the comfortable and comfort the upper-middle-class liberal).

But I have had some questions about MPR News’ “Poligraph” feature this past week (and, let’s be honest, for years).  While I think Catherine Richert does a broadly acceptable job of balancing her “fact-checking”, I’ve taken a closer look at some of her pieces this week.  And I wrote her to ask some quesitons, which led to an interesting interchange between her and her boss, Mike Mulcahy and I.

Richert (as she herself noted in the comment section yesterday) responded, pointing out “Polograph’s” “about” section (which I also posted yesterday), and adding:

As you’ve probably noticed, we check one Democrat and one Republican every week, and occasionally a member of the IP. Once in a while, we switch the schedule up and check two members of the same party in one week. When that happens, we check two members of the other party the following week.

That was good to learn, actually.

 Both the Hernandez and Klobuchar claims from last week meet several of our criteria. Both were “checkable” statements, both were made in debates, which are significant news events, and both are central to major campaign issues.

And that was even better to learn.

And next, we get to the beef:

 Hernandez is adamantly opposed to the bank bailout, which highlights the GOP’s broader campaign theme that government has become too intrusive.

That’s correct.  We talked about this on Tuesday.  I called the fact-check “Obtuse” because while Tony wasn’t literally to-a-point accurate (the bailout didn’t cause unemployment all by itself), he spoke to a larger point that even Richert’s sources agreed with – that government intervention is fouling up the economy.

Question:  As in the “Millennium” example: does analyzing Hernandez’ ad-lib as an absolutely literal statement (“did the bailout literally cause our unemployment rate?”) rather than a general statement of economic principle (“did bailouts harm or help the economy”) or political princple (“are bailouts the right thing to do?”) bring us closer to, or farther from, the larger truth?  That the results of Obama’s (and Bush’s) interventions in the economy are, even if you’re completely non-partisan, mixed at best?

And Klobuchar has made bipartisanship a cornerstone of her political persona; her claim about how many bills she has sponsored with Republicans underscores that part of her campaign message.

And as I pointed out on Wednesday, that’s true in and of itself; it showed Klobuchar’s “bipartisanship” – according to one measure, at least.  It proved that the numbers gave to support her own assertion were in fact correct.  So if your question was “does Amy Klobuchar give out correct numbers to prove her assertions”, she passed with flying colors!

But if your question was “Is Klobuchar really bipartisan?”, there was much more to it; her voting record is 94% Democrat (as Richert noted), and in the leftmost third of the Democrat caucus; put another way, she’s the 17th most-liberal Senator out of 100.

Question:  Which is the more important question, if the goal of ones’ fact-checking is to inform people about the upcoming election: “Does Amy give out valid numbers?”, or “Is Amy’s contention that she’s bi-partisan accurate?”

I’d maintain that while the latter question’s answers are dependent to some extent on one’s political perspective, that that question is the real story.

As I noted yesterday, my most important question – after learning and noting their “ping-pong” format of hitting a statement by both major parties every week, more or less – is “how does a statement get picked for analysis?”  I noted a couple of Betty McCollum statements – one on her views of the Ryan budget, one on the funding for the Stillwater bridge project.  Let’s stick to the former for right now.  It’d seem this fits Richert’s description of Poligraph’s criteria;  it’s “checkable” (I checked it!), it took place at a significant news event (the same debate that Hernandez’ statements came from), and it’s a central part of her campaign (raise taxes, oppose the Ryan budget).

So I asked – why did MPR pick, as the “Democrat” question in the weeks’ ping-pong of statements from both parties, Klobuchar’s self-serving but accurate statement about her bipartisanship, as opposed to McCollum’s completely fact-free statement about the Ryan Budget?

Because that speaks to my second question, way up above – about how a “fact-checker” whose integrity isn’t trusted is just barking in the wind.

Now, it’s entirely possible that MPR News’ management doesn’t see the incongruity; I’ll cop to the fact that my perspective is one that it finely tuned to find bias, and that fine-tuning sometimes warps the perspective.  All that’s a given.

But I thought it was a legitimate question:  for the single, sole, weekly “fact-check” of a Democrat, by what rationale was a self-serving innocuity like Klobuchar’s statement selected (and a very tightly-focused validation given)) over an out-and-out untruth like McCollum’s?

Because given…:

  • the growing, documented tendency of “journalistic” “fact-checking” organizations like Politifact, Factcheck and Snopes to operate from a standpoint of political bias, and…
  • the fact that we are in an election where peoples’ votes are going to be swayed by the impressions they get from the news, and the “Journalism 101”-level fact that things like ledes and “MISLEADING” graphics tend to be remembered more than the deep-down details about a story, and that…
  • looking at both of the stories from this week’s selection of “Facts” checked at that level would lead one to think “Tony Hernandez lied about the bailout, Amy Klobuchar told the truth about being bipartisan, and there’s apparently no news about Betty McCollum”…
  • …while allowing that I’m looking at one week’s worth of Poligraph stories in a near vacuum, focusing on a couple of debates and statements of particular importance to me.   I’ll stipulate that that could very well skew my own perception.  I’m more than willing to be set straight on this.  I say that as a matter of intellectual honesty, not because I necessarily believe I’m wrong.
…I’d suspect it’d be a question a serious news organization would ask itself.

Question:  Did Poligraph’s stories about Hernandez or Klobuchar bring the news consumer closer to the real story – the candidates’ views on the economy and their “bipartisanship”?  Or did they answer the questions by asking the wrong questions, thus missing the forest for the trees? Or did they, like the “Terrorists” “fact-checking” at the top of the post, obscure rather than clarify the issue for someone seeking the truth?

Folllow-up question:  Does MPR’s choice of “facts’ to “check” make you trust their judgment and perspective on covering political news more, or less?

4 thoughts on “Facts In The Dark, Part IV: Clarity

  1. This is a well-researched, well-crafted argument which concludes MPR’s fact-checking is skewed. You make the mistaken assumption they CARE about factual integrity. They are paid handsomely (with partial taxpayer subsidy) to present the world in harmony with liberalism.

    These people cannot be persuaded, they can only be defeated and made insignificant.

  2. I second Stinky’s acknowledgement that you have made a well-researched, well-crafted argument. James Taranto at the Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web has been shooting these “Fact-Check” farces down as well noting that they are really not much more than opinion made by focusing on one tree while ignoring the forest.

  3. Is the debate to pull taxpayer funding from public radio/TV still ongoing, or have the libs managed to demagogue their way into our wallets in perpetuity?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.