Earlier in the week, I promised a critical analysis of PoltiFact's so called "fact-checking" of FOX News items, specifically the stuff that Jon Stewart mentioned on his show last week as part of a "21-Lie Salute" to FOX News. Before I get to that, I feel I should explain the mindset with which I approached this.
Any truly credible fact-checker should take care to distinguish between facts (statements that can be declared "true" or "false") and opinions (subjective expressions of how someone feels). The distinciton is key in defamation cases. Genuine statements of opinion are not actionable (meaning someone can't sue another for defamation based on the latter's expression of his/her opinions). However, one cannot escape liability simply by disguising a factual statement as an opinion. Perhaps then-Justice William H. Rehnquist put it best:
Thus, unlike the statement, “In my opinion Mayor Jones is a liar,” the statement, “In my opinion Mayor Jones shows his abysmal ignorance by accepting the teachings of Marx and Lenin,” would not be actionable. Hepps ensures that a statement of opinion relating to matters of public concern which does not contain a provably false factual connotation will receive full constitutional protection.
Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 20 (1990). Now then, on to the matter at hand. As I mentioned in my earlier column, PolitiFact rates the accuracy of selected statements with its registered "Truth-O-Meter" rulings. Says PolitiFact, "The goal of the Truth-O-Meter is to reflect the relative accuracy of a statement."
Of the 21 claims Stewart referenced in his comedy bit, fourteen were rated False, which according to PolitiFact means "The statement is not accurate." Five received a "Pants on Fire" rating, which PolitiFact says means "The statement is not accurate and makes a ridiculous claim." The other two were each dubbed "Lie of the Year" by PolitiFact.
The first flaw I want to point out in Stewart's use of PolitiFact to assail FOX News's credibility (or whatever he was trying to do) has less to do with PolitiFact's credibility and more to do with Stewart's deceptive use of their analyses. Many of the "lies" Stewart attributed to FOX News were actually not made by FOX, or at least not just by FOX, according to PolitiFact. Let's start with one of those two "Lie of the Year" awardees.
In a December 16th, 2010, announcement, PolitiFact Editor Bill Adair and reporter/researcher Angie Drobnic Holan published the following:
PolitiFact editors and reporters have chosen "government takeover of health
care" as the 2010 Lie of the Year. Uttered by dozens of politicians and pundits,
it played an important role in shaping public opinion about the health care plan
and was a significant factor in the Democrats' shellacking in the November
Jon Stewart not only listed as one of the "false statements" made by FOX, he said, "That one was all over FOX. They were runnin' wild on that one!"
Sure they were, Jon, sure they were. However, nowhere in the extensive "Lie of the Year" analysis (which you can read in full here) did PolitiFact mention FOX News or even the FOX Network. Adair and Holan did, however, take care to point out specific instances in which the "lie" was uttered elsewhere in the press:
The phrase proliferated in the media even after Democrats dropped the public option. In 2010 alone, "government takeover” was mentioned 28 times in the Washington Post, 77 times in Politico and 79 times on CNN. A review of TV transcripts showed "government takeover" was primarily used as a catchy sound
bite, not for discussions of policy details.
In most transcripts we examined, Republican leaders used the phrase without being challenged by interviewers. For example, during Boehner's Jan. 31 appearance on Meet the Press, Boehner said it five times. But not once was he challenged about it.
PolitiFact also published items attributing the "government takeover” claim to Rep. Robert Hurt (R-Va.), Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch (R), the Republican Party of Florida and Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young (R-Fla.), but I couldn't find a single thing on the web site attributing such a statement to FOX News.
That's just one example. Others require an even more complicated explanation. Consider FOX News contributor and occassioal O'Reilly Factor guest host Laura Ingraham’s remarks on the May 12, 2011, edition of the Factor. Discussing a speech given earlier that day by former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, in which he discussed the historic reform of his state's health care system that has caused him so much grief on the campaign trail, Ingraham said, "Look, I like Mitt Romney. I think he's a really smart guy, and I think he would be a good president. ... On this, I don't get it, though, Bill. I mean, costs have gone up. It's wildly unpopular."
PolitiFact rated Ingraham’s statement False. Actually, the statement it rated "false" was actually not uttered by Laura Ingraham. It was what the site's editors/writers interpreted Ingraham as saying. The item Jon referenced on his program is published on the site under the heading, "Laura Ingraham says Massachusetts health plan is 'wildly unpopular'". On that page, you'll also find that the "claim" PolitiFact actually fact-checked was "The Massachusetts health care plan is 'wildly unpopular' among state residents."
So, before doing its analysis, PolitiFact made two assumptions about Ingraham's statement: (1) that she was referring specifically to the "Massachusetts health care plan," and (2) that she was saying it is (not was) is "wildly unpopular" among state residents. (So, I guess that's actually three assumptions.) The first may be fairly inferred, given context and the subject matter of their conversation, but I personally think it's a bridge too far to declare that Ingraham was only referring to Romneycare's popularity among Bay Staters. Even if that is what she meant, though, PolitiFact had no way of knowing what she was thinking. The entire analysis should have been disregarded.
That brings me to PolitiFact's 2009 Lie of the Year: "Death panels."
Some of you gramatically astute folks probably seized on the obvious: "Death panels" is not a statement. Actually, the original "statement" that PolitiFact rated was, like the thing about Romneycare being "wildly unpopular" among state residents, a mutation of what someone actually said. Back in August of 2009, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin posted the following on her Facebook page:
The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's ‘death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care.
The statement that PolitiFact rated "Pants on Fire!" read as follows:
Seniors and the disabled "will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society,' whether they are worthy of health care."
Now, it's plainly obvious that Palin was not making a definitive accusation about any part of the Democrats' health care reform bill, but the use of the phrase "death panel" - something ostinsibly absent from the American lexicon prior to Palin's notorious post - became commonplace in the health care debate that continued through the end of the year. HOWEVER, attributing the origin of the phrase to FOX News was way out of line. Palin was not hired by FOX News until January of 2010, according to the network, so even if she did unequivocally assert that "death panels" were part of the Democrats' "nationalized health care plan," the claim still would not have originated with FOX. Again, this is not an error on PolitiFact's part; it's Stewart's misuse of PolitiFact's analysis.
I'll do one more for now, just because I'm getting tired. PolitiFact rated this statement, which it attributed to FOX News legal vixen Kimberly Guilfoyle, false:
If you log into the government's Cash for Clunkers web site (cars.gov) from your home computer, [then] the government can "seize all of your personal and private" information, and track your computer activity.
As PolitiFact acknowledges, what Guilfoyle actually said was: "They are jumping right inside you, seizing all of your personal and private information, (crosstalk) and it's absolutely legal. . . ." Guilfoyle was talking to Glenn Beck on his FOX News show. When Beck pulled up the Cars.gov web site on his computer, he told his viewers, "I go in and I say, 'I want to turn in my clunker.' The dealer goes to Cars.gov, and then they hit 'submit transaction.' Here it says 'Privacy Act and Security Statement,' and it's like, oh, it's the Privacy Act of 1974. Whatever. I agree." Beck then read the warning statement that appeared out loud. PolitiFact verified the language that appeared and included it in the post dubbing Guilfoyle's statement a falsehood:
"This application provides access to the DOT CARS system. When logged on to the
CARS system, your computer is considered a federal computer system and it is
property of the United States Government. Any or all uses of this system and all
files on this system may be intercepted, monitored, recorded, copied, audited,
inspected, and disclosed to authorized CARS, DOT, and law enforcement personnel, as well as authorized officials of other agencies, both domestic and foreign."
Despite acknowledging the context of Guilfoyle's words and her clear reliance on the language that appeared on the Cash for Clunkers web site, PolitiFact rated her "claim" false because, they say, "we think anyone who saw the July 31 program — in which she claimed 'seriously, they can get all your information' — would be left with the clear impression that anyone who logged into the cars.gov site was opening their computer to Big Brother. And that's False." (BTW, Jon Stewart got the mangled version of Guilfoyle's claim that PolitiFact fact-checked wrong. On his program, he listed the statement as "Cash for Clunkers will give government complete access to your home computer." Now that claim would be false, but Jon Stewart's allegation that such a statement was ever made by anyone at FOX News deserves a "Pants on Fire" rating.)
So, it seems Jon Stewart owes FOX News another apology. He may also want to apologize to PolitiFact for trying to use their work in an attempt to ridicule/discredit one of the few reputable news organizations left in this world.
I'll have more to say on this later, but tomorrow is July 4th, and I've got some big plans. Also, some idiot just set off a bunch of fireworks somewhere near my house, and now my dogs won't leave me alone, which makes it hard for me to get any work done.