Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Journal Sentinel PolitiFact® Fails Again

I think it's past time for the Journal Sentinel to put its dreadful PolitiFact® project out of its misery. 

Day after day for a month now, we have been subjected to ridiculous "rulings" (no kidding -- that's what they call them) on political claims made in the heat of the various campaigns.  Throughout the project's sorry history, the J-S writers have repeatedly saved their harshest snarky "Pants-on-Fire" conclusions for completely legitimate claims by Democrats (such as obvious Republican plans to at least partially privatize Social Security) and let Republicans off the hook for every outrageous lie they tell everyday.  The Journal Sentinel should give the PolitiFact® trademark back to whoever they bought it from and let someone else have a crack at it.

An excellent example of the creative ways in which the PolitiFact® writers get things wrong is today's review of a Ron Johnson ad that is full of lies about health care reform.  Rather than go after Johnson for his tea-bagging recitation of false claims about the "government takeover of health care" and other such nonsense, Dave Umhoffer focuses on what is, at best, a side-issue in the ad -- whether Russ Feingold's support for health care reform was opposed by a majority of Wisconsin voters, as Johnson claims.

The resulting column is a mish-mash of what opinion polls did or didn't conclude about support for the bill at the time, all depending on how the question was worded, and by whom.  Conservatives never cared about opinion polls while Junior Bush was in office, recklessly conducting the Stupid War on Iraq and destroying the economy.  Now, they waive around manipulative polls by the right-wing Rasmussen and others, insisting that politicians do whatever the majority of those polled say, or stand accused of violating the "will of the people".  Umhoffer properly rates Johnson's claims about the polls as "false", at least in part because many of those opposing the bill actually wanted more government involvement.

But the focus on the poll claims misses the point of the bigger lies in the ad.  The main point of the ad is that Feingold is being attacked for supporting a "government takeover of health care" that doesn't exist.  This is the phrase that the Republican word-smiths have designed to create opposition to health care reform -- but it's a lie.  Incredibly, Umhoffer points out that fact as an aside, in the 21st paragraph:
Our PolitiFact colleagues have repeatedly probed the truth of the government takeover charge and found it ridiculously false -- a Pants on Fire.  In truth, the health care law creates a market-based system that relies on private health insurance companies.
The column purports to examine Johnson's statement that "A majority of Wisconsinites opposed the government takeover of health care. But Russ Feingold voted for it anyway."  Besides claiming that the majority opposed the "government takeover", it also says Feingold voted for "it" -- "it" being the grand "government takeover" bogeyman.  By focusing on and headlining the polling data, the column ignores the bigger lie that health care reform was a "government takeover".   A casual aside 21 paragraphs down in the story does nothing to change the fact that the takeover lie survives the noise of the rest of the ad, which is really Johnson's main goal -- to demonize health care reform and Feingold's support for it.

This isn't the only thing the PolitiFact® team has gotten wrong, in focus or substance.  Just yesterday, they "ruled" that the Democratic challenger to Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, Scott Hassett made a "false" statement in an ad when he said that Van Hollen "did nothing" about allegations he was aware of that my boyhood hometown DA, wannabe sex kitten Ken Kratz, was trolling for babes in DV witness waiting rooms. 

Sure enough, Van Hollen's investigators looked at some paperwork and called Kratz up to suggest he turn himself in.  But, no charges were issued, no referral made by the AG to OLR.  He let it go.  In prosecutors parlance, this is known as doing nothing.  It doesn't mean you do anything if you think about doing something and still do nothing.  You did nothing.  And, you can read that whole story and never know that Kratz, like Van Hollen, was also a Republican.

But, that's par for this sorry course. The Journal Sentinel in general and PolitiFact® in particular continues to cover for Republicans by going hard on Democrats (five Pants on Fire declarations against Dems; none against GOP politicians) and letting Republicans get away with slaps on the wrists for big lies (Walker claiming he eliminated waiting lists he had nothing to do with is just fine; Johnson calling Social Security a "Ponzi scheme" is also judged within bounds).

In the past month, the Journal Sentinel PolitiFact® team has proved absolutely incapable of selecting the right topics or getting anything right.  A perhaps noble project in the beginning has become a confusing embarrassment.


xoff said...

The newspaper's coverage probably has little impact on voters, fortunately, but it does provide authentic-looking fodder for negative commercials.

And you didn't even mention Barrett getting a "pants on fire" for moving some design elements around in his ad's rendition of the newspaper's front page.

The project is an embarrassment. If the paper's pants aren't on fire, at least its face should be red.

Anonymous said...

Yes xoff, the Feingold campaign should be able to falsify JS headlines and stories to convey their point...just like CBS!

gnarlytrombone said...

I think the problem isn't so much bias toward Republicans per se as a severe case of political and rhetorical autism, a virulent mutation of journalistic "objectivity."

Many of PF's cases turn on a kind of hyperliteralism, a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the meaning of a statement in context. To anyone but the Raymond Babbits at Politifact Johnson's "Ponzi scheme" quip is obviously intended pejoratively, to connote theft. Analyzing it as an analogy is like fact-checking a yo mama joke: We visited Mrs. Plaisted, and when she walked in front of the television we did not in fact miss three commercials.

In the Social Security cases, I don't object to PF granting Republicans an assumption of good faith. What's maddening is the assumption that what conservatives refer to as post-reform "social security" in any way resembles Social Security. Cordoning off the debate to statements on campaign websites defies common sense.

Anonymous said...

xoff your an idiot, a full moon must becoming as plaisted is going unhinged in his rants, and you fools are howling at the moon. Nov 2 can't get here fast enough as on Nov 3 the headlines across the country will annouce the th Republicans retaking both the Senate and the House FYI liberal cowards, Republicans are not the party of No, we are the party of HELL NO!! and November 3 will see a big cheer as corporations finally will decide to hire again and welfare losers might actually realize they need to find a job.