PolitiFact Bias: the Smoking Gun

I could not resist this one. Colleague Bob Stone, better known as “Ethics Bob,” has jousted with me over the Tampa Bay Times’ “fact check” web page, PolitiFact. Though far from the worst of the newspaper fact check features, PolitiFact is routinely biased leftward, and sometimes worse than biased. Bob, and some other worthy visitors here, rise to PolitiFact’s defense whenever I smite it, though it deseves to be smought, or smitten, or whatever. Here is a ringing example of why Politifact drives me crazy, and a ridiculous display of biased reporting.

You may recall that  when she was House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi used military aircraft to travel to and from her home district in California, costing taxpayers millions of  dollars. This became a Tea Party rallying cry (as well it should have), and was taken as symbolic of the profligate Democratic Congress. John Boehner, the current Speaker, pledged during the 2010 campaign that if he took over, he would fly commercial. He reiterated the pledge after 2010’s red tide gave him the gavel.

PolitiFact decided to check his pledge, and what did they find? He’s kept it. The military has no record of him using military transport, the House disbursement records don’t indicate any use of military flights, and nobody has said that he has. Yup, sure enough, he’s flying commercial. So, naturally and fairly, PolitiFact’s verdict on the question of whether Boehner has kept his promise to the voters is— it’s impossible to tell! 

“We will continue to seek more concrete records of Boehner”s travels and follow this pledge. If readers see him flying commercial — or on a military jet — please let us know. For now, the evidence is enough to move the needle to In the Works.”

“In the Works”… as in, ‘”there’s no evidence that he’s been lying yet.”  As in…

Q: “Is Mitt Romney beating his wife?”

PolitiFact: “Can’t say so far, but we’re still investigating.”

Q: Is Newt Gingrich an undercover agent of Iran?

PolitiFact: “Nothing yet…the answer is “In the Works.”

Q: Did Dick Cheney conspire to bring down the Twin Towers?

PolitiFact: “Still looking! It’s too early to say.”

Now there’s an objective fact-checking operation that we can all count on for objective, fair, unbiased analysis! A Republican makes a pledge and follows through on it; nobody has suggested that he is cheating and no facts can be found that suggests he is, and PolitiFact:

  • Chooses Boehner’s pledge for special scrutiny, inherently raising suspicion, and
  • After finding nothing at all to show that Boehner isn’t doing exactly what he said he would do,  refuses to state the obvious and unavoidable conclusion, which is that yes, he has kept his pledge to voters;
  • Instead, it leaves the matter hanging as if it is still in doubt, calling for independent watchdogs to keep an eye out for the tell-tale smoking gun, and announces that the jury is out. apparently until some evidence incriminating Boehner arrives.

For the record, Fact-Check.Org is a professional, unbiased, independent and reliable fact-checking operation. It is, truth the tell, the only one.


Pointer: Jim Treacher

Source: PolitiFact

Graphic: The Average American

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.

9 thoughts on “PolitiFact Bias: the Smoking Gun

  1. Ah, how can I resist taking the bait? PolitiFact has a range of evaluating promises, from “Promise kept” to “Promise broken.” They apparently use “In the works” to mean not not finished or, in this case, not determined.. They explain their research into the Boehner pledge–I’d call that transparency. They haven’t been able to find records of Boehner’s airfare purchases. The House disbursement report has nothing that would show that Boehner has flown commercial, or military either. So PolitiFact hasn’t completed their research. No smoking gun here.

    Personally, I like factcheck.org and PolitiFact.

  2. PolitiFact’s research is generally pretty good. It’s their final proclamations–“rulings,” to use their self-important term–that are often absurd. But they’re equal-opportunity incompetents. There are literally dozens of absolutely true statements that get rated as “half true” because someone might conceivably infer something that isn’t provable. Similarly, there are dozens of cases where the implication is obvious, and misleading, but the statement gets rated as “true” because, literally, it is. There’s no causal link, but one is certainly implied. Both these phenomena cut both ways, politically.

    To be honest, I’ve pretty much stopped paying attention to their “Promise kept/broken” or “True/Pants on Fire” distinctions because so much seems to depend on which of their editors (and there are now a bunch of subsidiaries, too)slaps the final judgment on a piece, and on whatever whim happens to strike him or her at the time.

    A demonstrably true statement that Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts ranked 47th in the country in job creation, for example, was called “Half True” because it might not have been his fault. A claim by Newt Gingrich that President Reagan raised federal revenue by $800 billion a year (the actual figure might have been as high as $188 billion, and, of course, wasn’t necessarily due to Reagan’s policies) was also rated “Half True,” even though it isn’t anywhere near the truth. The list goes on and on. Both Republicans and Democrats are treated too well; both Republicans and Democrats are treated too harshly. I doubt that there’s one case in five for which I agree with their conclusion.

    For what it’s worth, I think your analysis of the Boehner pledge is precisely right: if you don’t have the information, don’t publish yet. If there’s no evidence that Boehner hasn’t kept his promise, then even raising the issue, implicitly suggesting the possibility of his breaking his pledge, is unfair.

    But it’s not bias, it’s ineptitude. Hanlon’s Razor every time.

  3. Your article isn’t completely accurate. Politifact didn’t check military records to see if Boehner was using military transport, I did at Hoystory.com. I’m the one who submitted the FOIA request, not Politifact. When Politifact issued its “In The Works” ruling it hadn’t bothered to check Air Force records.

    In fact, that was my criticism of Politifact: It failed to follow the model that Judicial Watch had used to discover Pelosi’s malfeasance which had in turn prompted Boehner’s promise in the first place.

    • I saw your story about an hour before you posted this comment, Matt, and thanks for the clarification (though I didn’t write that Politifact had checked the military records.) My criticism is that it’s a “when did you stop beating your wife?” story with no facts that justify it being published at all. Presumably the Pelosi investigation was prompted by more than a wild guess. Boehner made a pledge—in the absence of any hint that he broke it, what’s the investigation for? And in the absence of any evidence uncovered, whether it was thorough or not, why not conclude that “as far as we know, he’s kept his pledge, and there is no reason to doubt him”?

      Your beef is that having undertaken an investigation, Politifact did a lazy and lousy one. Good point. But it isn’t mine.

  4. “In fact, following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the House sergeant-at-arms, the Defense Department, and the White House agreed that military planes should be made available to the speaker of the House for national security reasons, and the first speaker to use such a plane was Dennis Hastert (R-IL) in 2001. ”


  5. Jack, thank you for this site. I like the idea of Not being anonymous when giving an opinion because I think putting your true name on comments leads to more civility and responsibility.

    I don’t understand your statements:
    Q: “Is Mitt Romney beating his wife?”
    PolitiFact: “Can’t say so far, but we’re still investigating.”
    Q: Is Newt Gingrich an undercover agent of Iran?
    PolitiFact: “Nothing yet…the answer is “In the Works.”
    Q: Did Dick Cheney conspire to bring down the Twin Towers?
    PolitiFact: “Still looking! It’s too early to say.”

    Are these actual questions being investigated, or were you just giving hypothetical examples?


    • Boy, I thought it was pretty clear that those were absurd examples of what Politifact was doing in the Boehner case: raising innuendo and suspicion by asking a question about possible wrongdoing without any justification, and then saying that there weren’t enough facts to render a verdict. The Politifact verdict of “In the Works,” as if there’s a genuine question to be investigated when there isn’t, is outrageous, thus “”In the Works”… as in, ‘”there’s no evidence that he’s been lying yet.” As in…

      …and then the segment you quoted.

  6. So this is over a year past the post, but you just linked back to it so I’m claiming justification. “Smote.” They deserve to be “smote.”

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