Sunday, October 10, 2010

PolitiFact Jumps the Shark

The Journal Sentinel continues to make sure the St. Petersburg Times lives to regret its renting of its PolitiFact brand to the incredible shrinking Milwaukee newspaper.  It's one thing to have the balls to hold yourself out as the arbiter of Truth in political advertising.  It's quite another to fail miserably, serve as a shill for every shade of Republican and embarrass yourself on a daily basis, as the J-S has done.

On Saturday morning, the local paper's PolitiFact project moved officially from the ridiculous to the absurd.  Apparently giving the local writers a breather to get ready for the homestretch of their daily Republican-friendly blather, the J-S ran a column by two national PolitiFact reporters about the not-so-hard-to-understand (unless you are a Journal Sentinel or PolitiFact writer) Republican effort to at least partially privatize Social Security. 

This is the third time in a month that the Journal Sentinel has attempted to provide cover for the GOP on this third-rail issue.  It has already used its harshest Pants On Fire judgement on the subject twice regarding perfectly legitimate claims by Wisconsin Democrats about their opponents' subscription to the Book of Ryan and his radical plan to throw Social Security funds into the winds of the private market. Just in case you forgot the J-S's previous "rulings" on the subject, the column by the national writers is embellished by not one but two Pants On Fire graphics and recaps of the paper's previous finger-wagging.

A funny thing happened, though, on the way to the J-S's use of the national report to support their protection of Republicans in general and their fair-haired boy Paul Ryan in particular.  While using some of the same language and pathetic hair-splitting of the local writers ("Ryan said personal accounts should not be called 'privatized'".  Well, alrighty, then.), the national writers reach quite a different conclusion.  Those writers concluded a statement by President Obama on the subject -- accusing Republicans of "pushing to make privatizing Social Security a key part of their legislative agenda" -- was Barely True, which is two tics up from POF on the Truth-o-Meter (no kidding -- that's what it's called).  And that was only because Obama said the GOP wanted to make it a "key part" of their agenda, when they were clearly running for the hills from Ryan's radicalism, lest they be tainted by its obvious intent.

In fact, PolitiFact licensee columns in other states are wildly inconsistent on the degrees of Truth in the perfectly legitimate privatization accusation.  In the Colorado Sentate race, a claim that the tea-bagging Republican candidate wanted to privatize Social Security was at least Half True.  And none of the other states' writers rate the privatization claim as any worse than Barely True, even though most of the columns evaluate the same Ryan Roadmap, often using exactly the same language. 

So, what is the problem with the Journal Sentinel on this and other issues threatening to Republicans (see also their wimpy Barely True rating of Ron Johnson's "$500 billion cut from Medicare" lie)?  Perhaps Journal Communication's other property -- wing-nut radio station WTMJ -- is the tail wagging the newspaper dog.  Perhaps, because they are intimidated by the right-wing loudmouths on their radio station and editorial board, they are bending over backwards trying to be "fair" to the party of Lie, Cheat and Buy. 

Whatever.  But the inconsistent results evaluating the same established facts illuminates what a ridiculous exercise it is to hold yourself out as the decider of political Truth.  Political campaigns, their consultants and ad writers are experts in the use of the half-truth and the parsed argument.  Certainly, there are some lies told by the right every day on talk-radio, Fox News and Ron Johnson commercials, that can and should be exposed for the outrageous untruths they are. 

But the way to do that is in regular news articles, in 72 point font, above the fold.  Try this: Ron Johnson Lies About Medicare "Cuts".  See? It almost writes itself.  Trying to do it as part of a trademarked brand purchased from another newspaper,with a cute logo and meter graphic just trivialize the political claims being examined and the journalistic project itself.  Especially when the result just puts on display how much the Journal Sentinel has its collective head up its ass.

Here's a project for you, Journal Sentinel.  How about a daily examination about how the Republicans are going to outright purchase this election? How about a think piece about the hours of free advertising and friendly exposure ("Hi, Scott! How good is your county budget?") that is provided every day by talk-radio who slavishly follow the daily talking points provided by the RNC?  How about writing about how "independent" expenditures by unnamed rich Republicans -- foreign and domestic -- enabled by a radical-right Supreme Court majority, are going to swamp this state on behalf of Walker and Johnson, making the fundraising figures provided by the official campaigns laughably irrelevant?  How about following the money, rather than chasing around a story about whether Scott Walker can actually stop a train?


xoff said...

My favorites are two Feingold fact checks -- one on whether he ever really worked at Foley and Lardner, and the other on whether he actually shot a commercial in front of his house. The JS truly does have its head up its ass.

Aaron Rodriguez said...

The material on the politifacts have been factually accurate. The only thing that could be scrutinized is the material that politifact writers choose to investigate. But I suppose if Democrat candidates are throwing out false accusations, then they deserve scrutiny.

It's real simple. Tell the truth in your ads, or risk ridicule. It's not that hard, even for liberals.

Roland Melnick said...

I actually agree with xoff...determining whether Feingold was shot live in front of his house or he was green-screened was ridiculous. Yes, Belling wasted just as much of his precious time bloviating about it as did the JS did while fact-checking him, but I don't think Belling was the only or the first person to bring up the green screen conspiracy theory.

Also, the "head up its ass" charge would seem to fit a rating against a Ron Johnson ad claiming Feingold voted for the "govt takeover of healthcare" even though a majority of Wisconsinites opposed it. The JS did like the "takeover" language and used that as their reason for the "False" rating. Funny thing is...the polls cited by Johnson's campaign (and two other cited by the JS themselves) used softer language in their questions...and people STILL said they were opposed. Had the polls actually used the "takeover" language, you could easily have 10-20% more in the opposed column. Either way you slice it...Feingold voted against the will of the majority. The fact the JS doesn't realize that is, as xoff said, proof of head-in-ass syndrome.