Friday, September 05, 2014

Strictly Speaking, PolitiFact's Pants are on Fire

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's version of PolitiFact (a franchise rented from the Tampa Bay Times) has been recklessly careening down the road for at least four years now. Full of self-appointed sanctimony, the PolitiFact editors and reporters presume to determine fact from fiction in political matters.  But, instead of producing clarity and consensus on the Truth, the project has resulted in just more acrimony, finger-pointing and you-got-it-wrong confusion.  

It has been a wildly inconsistent feature, randomly selecting items to evaluate, some of which need no evaluation.  Who cares if Sen. Ron Johnson claimed  college students "are taking six years to get a four-year degree." Did someone else claim this wasn't true? Who cares if blowhard right-wing darling Ald. Bob Donovan said an alderman has never defeated an incumbent mayor? It's not like he has any chance to do it, so who cares?

While exploring the uncontroversial on a regular basis, the PolitiFacters mostly ignore the biggest peddlers of fake controversy and political lies -- wing-nut talk radio hosts.  According to the web page index, it appears that, of all the local purveyors of radio propaganda that poisons the political dialog across the state, only WISN's resident racist/sexist Mark Belling has been the subject of an article, and that was about some comments about Russ Feingold's garage way back in 2010. Journal Communications own (for now) resident Republican mouthpiece Charlie Sykes escapes without the project reviewing any of the many lies he has told through the years.  What is the point of have a clearinghouse for the disposition of political lies if you are not going to touch the trove of bullshit that is Milwaukee Talk Radio?

When not evaluating the trivial and the mundane and ignoring the obvious, PolitiFact sometimes dips its toe into what passes for the Big Issues of Our Time, with extremely mixed results.  The national PolitiFact project famously and foolishly declared Democrats' claims that Paul Ryan's stated plan to privatize health care for the elderly would "end Medicare" -- which, of course, it would -- "False" because, I suppose, whatever inferior program that resulted would still be called Medicare. They even called it (get this) the Lie of the Year in 2011. Nothing like getting something wrong and then making it that much wronger.

In Wisconsin, the PolitiFact project has served at times to legitimize and validate the excesses of the radical Republicans in Madison.  During their assault on state and local government, teachers and the very soul of progressive Wisconsin governance that began in 2011, the PolitiFact reporters and editors have always been there to lend a hand to put out the fire when someone pointed out the obvious result of the GOP jihad's many excesses. For instance, when the Democratic Governors Association pointed out in 2011 that Walker and the Republicans' assault on the right to vote in the form of a photo ID requirement would "deny Democrats the right to vote", they got the ooo-so-scary "Pants On Fire" rating.   Never mind that the law would actually prevent some Democrats from voting and that that is the very intent of such laws across the nation.  "Tut-tut", says the Lords of PolitiFact.  "Democrats still get to vote".  Well, sure.  Some of them.

But you don't want to be too hard on PolitiFact.  The project does have some of the best reporters still remaining at the soon-to-be foreign-owned (believe me -- I lived in Cincinnati for a year) "media content provider".  And they have slapped many "Pants On Fire"s and "False"s on Walker and company.  But one of the problems inherent in these kinds of mainstream media things is they think they have to be so damned even-handed.  So they find the off statement by some out-of-power Democrat and treat it like its just as bad as the lies of the in-power, gerrymandered GOP steamroller.

As Paul Krugman has said, even though one party (the Republicans) lies more and benefits from an alternate fact universe of lies on Fox News and talk radio, the straight press will not point that out.  Ominously dreading the 2012 political cycle (and, boy, was he right) Krugman wrote:
"And all indications are that the press won’t know what to do — or, worse, that they will know what to do, which is act as stenographers and refuse to tell readers and listeners when candidates lie. Because to do otherwise when the parties aren’t equally at fault — and they won’t be — would be “biased”. This will be true even of those news organizations specifically charged with fact-checking. Yes, they’ll call out some lies — but they’ll also claim that some perfectly reasonable statements are lies, in order to keep their precious balance."
To a large extent, the reaction to any given PolitiFact piece is driven my whose ox is being gored -- or, since PolitiFact's reputation is too weak and disrespected to matter much to anyone, whose ox has to swat mildly annoying flies.  Other than campaign operatives that might (might) brag about a "True" "ruling" (no kidding -- that's what they call it) or a "False" for the opponent, nobody spends more than two seconds pondering the implications of any PolitiFact conclusion.  The arbitrary sliding scale of "mostly" this or "half" that lets political worms like Scott Walker wiggle off the hook, giving way too benefit to those it is mandatory to doubt.  Far from being the Last Word about anything, PolitiFact is just another ball bouncing around the political court, kicked from here to there, mostly to the curb of indifference.

But for all its banality, PolitiFact, whether they get it right or wrong, at least usually sticks to the actual wording of the statements they are evaluating.  That was not the case on this past Sunday, when reporter Tom Kertscher slapped a "Mostly False" tag on the state AFL-CIO's Entirely True statement that Walker and the other radicals in Madison had given "a $10,000 tax deduction to millionaires who send their kids to exclusive private schools" in the 2013-15 budget.

Boy, I can do this one just sitting here...yep, the GOP enacted the up-to-$10,000 tax deduction to the parents of a kid in any private income limit to take the deduction...millionaires with kids in any private school who had been just fine paying the full freight since the incorporation the the Village of Fox Point now get $10,000 off their taxable income... That was easy. True! Hey, maybe there should be a new board game -- the home version of PolitiFact.  Anyone can play.

But, hold on there, silly naive simple-statement-reading amateur.  When it comes time to break down his analysis, Kertscher has a whole different statement on his mind. "So, did Walker carve out a $10,000 private-school tax break strictly to benefit millionaires?" [Emphasis added.]

OK, that's not what the AFL-CIO said or meant.  It said millionaires got the tax break. By inserting the word "strictly" into the statement, Kertscher completely changed the meaning of the statement and, of course, what is now Kertscher's statement was "Mostly False".  Hell, it's "Pants On Fire".

So outraged was I by this uncharacteristic journalistic malpractice (PolitiFact's sins are of story selection and interpretation, not of usually of fact-twisting) that I lurched off the couch of my nearly 2-year hiatus from this blog; deciding not only to write but to do some reporting myself.  For the first time since I began posting on this thing in 2006, I actually checked with someone I was going to be writing about.  I emailed Tom, who nicely responded and handed it off to editor Greg Borowski, as is their policy.

For the sake of accuracy, I'll include Borowski's entire response:

Hi Mike:
Thanks for the heads up -- a courtesy, it seems, most don't apply before they write about us.
You asked about our "PolitiFact article ... about the AFL-CIO statement that Walker’s tax break for private school tuition benefits millionaires." However, I don't think your characterization of the union's claim -- that the tax break merely benefits millionaires along with, presumably, others -- is accurate.
Here is the statement we evaluated: "Scott Walker has given a $10,000 tax deduction to millionaires who send their kids to exclusive private schools."
The flier goes on to question why that money was not used instead for "the children who are being educated in public schools. Working families are still waiting for an answer." So, there is no mention that the tax break goes to everyone. Instead, it is framed around the idea that working class folks are the ones missing out.
With no additional information (and in the context of a flier that sends the overall message that Walker is favoring the wealthy at the expense of the working class), how else is the average voter to understand the claim, but that the tax break went strictly to millionaires?
Beyond that, I would simply offer that we rated this statement consistent with the nearly 800 others we have rated since we began four years ago.

Best regards,
So Borowski and/or Kertscher decided on their own what the AFL-CIO meant, ignoring the clear context presented by the union -- that whatever portion of this ridiculous handout is going to the millionaires takes away from working class kids in public schools.  I asked in a reply email whether the reporter asked the union if that's what they meant.
Did you ask them if they meant to even imply "strictly"? Did they deny it? You give Walker flacks all kinds of chances to weasel out of their often-false implications. Not here apparently.  The worst case is if you asked, they denied and you ran it this way, without telling us they denied. You wouldn't do that, would you?
Borowski did not answer and ignored the question in a reply. Cue the violins: "Going forward, I guess we should rate everything True because, well, the speaker and their supporters think it is." Yeah, sure, that's really what we are talking about, Greg. To quote you: Come on. The fact is what they said and what they meant was True. And your redrafting it in your own Walker-protecting image was Pant On Fire shit journalism.

You hope that the PolitiFact reporter and editor involved here were not affected by the Journal Sentinel's decades-long campaign against public schools.  After over 25 years of the failed voucher "schools" experiment -- where more kids have been harmed from being warehoused crap "choice" "schools", some started by rich vultures like Mark Neumann and Bill Bennett, than in any working-as-hard-as-they-can MPS school -- the Journal Sentinel continues its campaign to undermine public schools in Wisconsin.  And that campaign has always bled into the news coverage, which has largely ignored the horrors of poor parents being taken advantage of by charlatans posing as educators.

Maybe this twisting and reinvention of the facts to support even more state money to private schools is part of it.  All I know is, for whatever reason, PolitiFact Jumped the Shark with its "Mostly False" rating of a statement the union never made.

We rule this -- Pants On Fire. At least.

1 comment:

Jonathan Swift said...

The 10 million exemption in the estate tax applies equally to rich and poor couples (except gay couples). Strictly it is not just for the rich.
Likewise both rich and poor may avail of the $500,000 capital gains exemption
on the sale of a primary residence.
Perhaps they will do a follow up story on how many people living below the poverty line take advantage of these tax deductions. I bet the number will be lower than the number hurt by the loss of the earned income tax credit.