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Sunday, February 26, 2012

PolitiFact should stick to facts, not political analysis

By GARY VINCENT

Reader Advocate

“Facts are stubborn things,” John Adams wrote in a letter to Jonathan Sewall in 1759.

But facts are also slippery things, it seems. PolitiFact, the national fact-checking operation run by the Tampa Bay Times, has been finding that out recently.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning effort, which was joined by The Telegraph and other New Hampshire newspapers to fact-check statements made here during the New Hampshire primary, has been showing that fact-checking is not as straightforward as it seems.

The national PolitiFact got into hot water over the State of the Union speech, when it decided to fact-check this statement by President Barack Obama: “In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than 3 million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.”

Given the depth of the recession, 3 million new jobs over the time Obama has been in office is not enough for a robust recovery. But he didn’t say it was. Nor did he, in the sentence above, claim anything other than that “businesses” have created jobs.

PolitiFact rated the statement “half true.” But the statement is, according to the facts, 100 percent true. So why the rating?

PolitiFact said: “In his remarks, Obama described the damage to the economy, including losing millions of jobs ‘before our policies were in full effect.’ Then he describes the subsequent job increases, essentially taking credit for the job growth. But labor economists tell us that no mayor or governor or president deserves all the claims or all the credit for changes in employment.”

That may be an important point – that the president is not responsible for the full output of the economy – but to use it to justify the “half true” ruling here only leaves you scratching your head about “fact-checking.”

What really was done here was political analysis. To try to say that it is just straight fact-checking does violence to, well, the facts. A number of critics made these points but apparently had little impact on PolitiFact.

A similar flap erupted in February when PolitiFact “fact-checked” a speech by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

What Rubio said was: “The majority of Americans are conservatives.” What else would you expect him to say at the year’s premier gathering of conservatives?

PolitiFact rated this statement “mostly true.” What?

The facts are that a 40 percent plurality of Americans identify as conservative, not a majority. And that is not a temporary state; the Gallup polling organization has never found a majority, or more than 50 percent, of Americans identifying as conservative. As in the State of the Union speech, the actual facts are clear.

So how to justify the ruling?

PolitiFact’s response was: “Our goal at PolitiFact is to use the Truth-O-Meter to show the relative accuracy of a political claim. In this case, we rated it Mostly True because we felt that while the number was short of a majority, it was still a plurality. … It wasn’t quite a majority, but was close.”

But we are talking about facts, aren’t we? And facts don’t seem to have any room for close but not quite.

Look at the statement again. It turns out that the vaunted Truth-O-Meter’s goal is to show the “relative accuracy” of a political claim. By that standard, we could have a thermometer that reads freezing cold at 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Relative to the temperature in hell, that is.

Snark aside, the point is that once you swap accuracy for “relative accuracy,” the readers are entitled to ask, in every case, “relative to what?”

Apparently, PolitiFact decides that for itself in each case, and there seems to be no guarantee they are showing accuracy relative to the actual facts.

Even more of a problem for PolitiFact is that it was a different story when Ron Paul claimed that “The majority of the American people believe we should have a gold standard and not a paper standard” for currency.

But a national poll showed 44 percent of Americans support a gold standard, and 44 percent is not a majority, so PolitiFact rated Paul’s statement “false,” even though it was, in fact, 4 percent closer to a majority than Rubio’s.

On this point, PolitiFact’s Bill Adair noted : “We don’t expect our readers to agree with every ruling we make. We have published nearly 5,000 Truth-O-Meter ratings and it’s natural that anyone can find some they disagree with. But even if you don’t agree with every call we make, our research and analysis helps you sort out what’s true in the political discourse.”

Well, sure. But that could be said of any honest political analysis piece. Maybe they need to add a statement to the Truth-O-Meter like that on new cars: “Your mileage may vary.”

It’s all more proof that there is no substitute for critical thinking applied to as many facts as can be gathered. There are no shortcuts in the search for truth.

Gary Vincent spent 21 years in newspapers before leaving for a career in high tech. The longtime Hudson resident isn’t an employee of The Telegraph and is free to act independently. Readers are encouraged to bring any issue to his attention at readeradvocate@nashuatelegraph.com.