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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jon Stewart, PolitiFact & FOX News (Part II)

Last week, I blogged about Jon Stewart's misuse of PolitiFact to try and point out various "false statements" FOX News had made. If you haven't read that post, then you really should. Today, I hope to finish the job I started and never blog about this again.
One highly dubious analysis on PolitiFact's part fact-checked FOX News Alpha Male Bill O'Reilly's claim that "Attorney General Eric Holder is involved in the dismissal of the criminal charges" against the New Black Panther Party for voter intimidation. PolitiFact rated O'Reilly's statement "False." Trouble is, nowhere in the analysis did PolitiFact provide any evidence that Holder was not involved. Instead, its analysis focused on the distinction between the civil lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice in 2009 (before Eric Holder became AG) and the decision by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division not to pursue criminal charges. Whoever wrote the PolitiFact piece stated that "O'Reilly and other Fox commentators have confused the issue by suggesting Holder and the Obama administration made the call not to pursue more serious charges against the New Black Panther Party members. [Assistant Attorney General Thomas] Perez stated that the Civil Rights Division decided pre-Obama not to pursue more serious, criminal charges. So when O'Reilly brings on legal analysts who paint it as an outrage that the Justice Department did not pursue a criminal case, and the only person condemned by O'Reilly is Holder for not 'representing the United States in a fair and balanced way,' that's misleading and misplaced. We think it's fair to hold Holder accountable for the decision to limit the civil case, but not the criminal one."
Frankly, I think PolitiFact is splitting hairs with this one. At any rate, it's hardly comparable to Stewart's blatantly false assertion that "FOX viewers" are "the most consistently misinformed media viewers," according to "every poll."
Sometimes PolitiFact's fact-checking hinges not on the interpretation of the statement being checked but on the speaker's interpretation of one or more sources. Here's an example: two years ago, PolitiFact analyzed this allegation by Glenn Beck:

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, "has proposed forcing abortions and putting sterilants in the drinking water to control population."

PolitiFact offerred a lengthy analysis of Beck's claim and ultimately rated it "Pants on Fire!" It acknowledged that "Beck's allegation has its roots in a book Holdren co-authored with Paul and Annie Ehrlich more than three decades ago called Ecoscience: Population, Resources, Environment." The analysis provided several excerpts from the book that explained Beck's damning accusation but concluded, "We think it's irresponsible to pluck a few lines from a 1,000-page, 30-year-old textbook, and then present them out of context to dismiss Holdren's long and distinguished career." Trouble is, as I read Holdren's writings, Beck's interpretation seems reasonable. Even if Holdren has since changed his views, what's at issue is whether he had ever proposed forcing abortions and putting sterilants in drinking water to control population, not whether he currently supports such measures.
As I pointed out in my last column, PolitiFact often runs the risk of making someone sound like a liar by ruling a statement false or "Pants on Fire!" even though the person(s) making the statement relied in good faith on a reliable source. Many of the "false statements" Jon Stewart said PolitiFact "checked" FOX News for were just such claims. I like to call these "WMD statements," where the speaker says something that he/she has every reason to believe is true but turns out to be false. Yesterday I offerred the examples of Kimberly Guilfoyle's remarks about the web site and the oft-repeated claim about White House Political Director Patrick Gaspard once being Bertha Lewis's "right-hand man" at ACORN. Here's another example:
In a Dec. 3, 2009, broadcast of his FOX News show, Glenn Beck said that Andy Stern, then head of the Service Employees International Union, was "the most frequent visitor of the White House." Said PolitiFact:

We found the source of Beck's claim. When the White House released its first batch of visitor logs on Oct. 30, 2009, as part of a pledge to bring more transparency to the White House, Stern's name did indeed appear 22 times, more than anyone else listed, including [Secretary of State Hillary] Clinton, who was listed three times.

Yet, PolitiFact again slapped Beck with a "False" ruling because, it said, "that's not the whole story."
It seems Beck's data was out-of-date. PolitiFact explained:

Stern led the pack for the first data release, which covered visits from Jan. 20, 2009 to July 31, 2009. But he was surpassed by several other individuals in the second release, which updates the data through Aug. 31, 2009 (and which was made public more than a week before Beck aired his comment).

Also, PolitiFact says, "the first batch of data -- covering the period from Jan. 20, 2009, to July 31, 2009, which found Stern in the lead -- is not a complete accounting of White House visits during that period. It only includes data for visitors whose names were first requested by the public. If no one requested a specific name, then that name wouldn't appear in the database. So there's no way of knowing whether Stern actually had the most visits for that period; he simply had the most of anyone whose name was requested by the public." So, in that particular instance, PolitiFact was right to rate Beck's claim false. But then Stewart took PolitiFact's work and again made it sound like somebody at FOX News had intentionally misled the public.
In a couple of instances, PolitiFact fact-checked statements that nobody at FOX News had even made. I gave one such example yesterday (PolitiFact twisted Laura Ingraham's words about Mitt Romney to make it sound like she said the health care plan he signed into law as governor is "wildly unpopular" among state residents.). Here's another: opinion After Dr. George Tiller, the well-known Kansas abortionist, was shot to death while attending church in Wichita on May 31, 2009, Bill O'Reilly became the target of more vicious attacks from left-wing hatemongers. In a widely published article, O'Reilly asserted that he "reported on the doctor honestly," but "the loons asserted that my analysis of him was 'hateful.'" He continued:

Chief of among the complaints was the doctor's nickname, "Tiller the baby killer." Some prolifers branded him with that, and I reported it. So did hundreds of other news sources.

PolitiFact seized on those statements, which its staff apparently interpreted as O'Reilly claiming "he didn't call Dr. George Tiller a baby killer, as liberal groups charge, but was merely reporting what 'some prolifers branded him.'"
Now, if you read O'Reilly's article - or just the excerpts (which, by the way, PolitiFact's Angie Drobnic Holan included in her piece) - then you'll notice that O'Reilly didn't claim that he never called Dr. Tiller a baby killer. Had he said that, PolitiFact could have justifiably rated his comments false.
The rest of the statements on Stewart's list that had received a false or "Pants on Fire!" rating were demonstrably false, and PolitiFact provided the relevant context. It's worth pointing out, though, that in several cases, the claims attributed to FOX News were not just made by FOX News personalities; Stewart declined to mention that as well.
Hopefully, that's the last we'll hear about the unpleasant three-way between Jon Stewart, FOX News and PolitiFact. Good night, all!

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