AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

Ignoring the Facts at PolitiFact   

Its off-the-mark conclusions are undermining its credibility. Weds., February 15, 2012.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.     

Nobody is a bigger fan than I am of the rise of the fact-checking movement in contemporary journalism. It's so refreshing to see reporters scrutinizing politicians' statements and allegations, and reaching conclusions rather than settling for the tired, old "he says, she says" approach.

But with those conclusions comes a heavy responsibility: You better be right.

Which brings us to PolitiFact's analysis of Sen. Marco Rubio's assertion that "the majority of Americans are conservative."

PolitiFact, launched in 2007, is a major player in the fact-checking game. The Tampa Bay Times-owned outfit won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the 2008 election and has established franchises throughout the country.

That's why it's so disappointing, not to say baffling, that it screwed up so badly this time. It basically added two and two and came up with eight.

As it assessed the Florida Republican's assertion, PolitiFact turned to the findings of the Gallup Poll, which regularly asks Americans about their political orientation. In 2011, Gallup found that 40 percent considered themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal. It also found that the number calling themselves conservative has never been above 50 percent.

So this one should be easy. According to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, a majority is "a number or percentage equaling more than half of a total." Not even close. The number of conservatives would have to be more than 25 percent higher to be a majority. The verdict on the PolitiFact Truth-O-Meter is "Pants on Fire," right?

But no. PolitiFact called Rubio's gross exaggeration "Mostly True."

Really? Really?

Facts are facts. Rubio said something that is untrue. So you've got to call him on it. If you are a fact-checking operation, that's the only reason you exist.

Bill Adair, PolitiFact's editor and the Tampa Bay Times' Washington bureau chief, compounded the damage with an astonishingly tone deaf and defensive response.

"Our goal at PolitiFact is to use the Truth-O-Meter to show the relative accuracy of a political claim," he said, according to Politico. "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. Forty percent of Americans consider themselves conservative, 35 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal. It wasn't quite a majority, but was close."

Where to begin? First of all, it wasn't anything close to close. Second, in this case there was no question of "relative accuracy." It was just flat-out wrong.

On a roll, Adair threw out this self-serving gem: "[E]ven 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."

OK, thanks for laying out the Gallup data. But no thanks for giving the seal of (semi) approval to a false assertion. That does nothing but deeply undercut the credibility of the PolitiFact operation.

The blunder drew a devastating response from MSNBC's Rachel Maddow, who has assailed the fact-checking outfit in the past. Last month, Maddow called out PolitiFact when it rated President Obama's statement on job creation "half true," when it actually was totally true. PolitiFact based its ruling, it said, on the fact that "he implicitly credited his administration" for creating the jobs. Later PolitiFact raised its rating to "mostly true," even though, again, it was completely, 100 percent, flat-out true.

It seems to me that PolitiFact is complicating its life by getting too caught up in interpretation and implication. It should get back to basics: Is a statement true or false, or somewhere in between? In both of these cases, the answer was clear-cut, but PolitiFact's conclusion wasn't.

In her diatribe Tuesday, Maddow declared it was time to pull the plug on PolitiFact, saying it was "shockingly, shockingly bad" at its appointed task. "PolitiFact, please leave the building," she said."Do not bother turning off the lights when you leave. We will need them on to clean up the mess you have left behind you as you are leaving. PolitiFact, you are a disaster."

I'm certainly not ready to go nearly that far. PolitiFact has done a lot of good work, and it has played a key role in the rise of the fact-checking movement.

But it needs to be much more rigorous about sticking to the facts, and not worrying about the implications, when it reaches its conclusions. These misfires are seriously harming PolitiFact's credibility. And that's something it simply can't afford.