I really, really had hopes that the new journalistic endeavors aimed at figuring out what facts
are was going to be a good thing. Granted, we would have all liked it if journalists simply pointed out in their actual stories
when some politician was saying something that was demonstrably not true, but since we can't have that (it would make the politicians sad, and thus make it harder for those journalists to hear similar bullshit from those politicians in the future, thus bringing down the whole fragile house of cards) then what the hell, let's have entire outlets dedicated towards telling us whether politicians were telling the truth or lying.
But if you're going to do it like this, PolitiFact, there's really no goddamn point. Here's a PolitiFact headline and rating from two freaking weeks ago:
Obama says deficit is falling at the fastest rate in 60 years — TRUE
Here's a PolitiFact headline and rating from last Sunday
Eric Cantor says the federal deficit is “growing” — HALF-TRUE
So the deficit is both shrinking and growing, depending on which party you ask and what they mean by "deficit," "is," and the concept of relative size. Well, that's fine then. As PolitiFact points out in both stories, it is definitively true that the deficit is currently shrinking
, which would seem to rather plainly kneecap Eric Cantor's assertion that it is growing
—however, if you pretend that Eric Cantor did not say that and instead meant to say that the deficit may grow in the future
, as PolitiFact decided to do, then you can say that he was vaguely being half-true, in the same way that saying "I am currently being crushed by a wayward circus elephant" can be rated as half-true if you at some point in the future can reasonably be expected to visit a poorly run circus. (All Eric Cantor pieces, by the way, ought to somewhere contain the phrase "poorly run circus." I plan to introduce this as a journalistic requirement in an upcoming presentation at the National Press Club, because if they can host National Rifle Association dipshits they can damn well host the likes of me.)
More below the fold:
It's been a while since we've picked on PolitiFact; this is because most of us have simply taken to ignoring them, but this silliness was enough to rile foes like Steve Benen and Paul Krugman so PolitiFact launched a rather pouty defense of why two contradictory things can both be true-ish:
Krugman’s point gets to the heart of why our check made him mad: Krugman and others like him think Republican support for austerity is damaging the economy. Rather than worrying about deficits, they say we need more government spending, to get the economy going and bring down the unemployment rate.
… which is precisely the sort of response that demonstrates why PolitiFact is so often the subject of mockery. PolitiFact's analysis of why Paul Krugman doesn't think Eric Cantor's claim that the present deficit is growing
meshes with the nice little charts showing that it is shrinking
is to note that Paul Krugman is "mad" and that he doesn't like Eric Cantor's policies, noting an obvious ideological bias on his part. They then proceed to assert once again that well, the deficit may increase in the future if nothing is done so that's good enough to give Eric Cantor a half-pass on getting the trajectory flatly and unambiguously wrong in his statement now
, all the while asserting their own lack of ideological bias as a given. Well, that's certainly convincing.
PolitiFact's longstanding and likely fatal flaw is that it can never decide, at the head of any given story, whether or not to verify the literal stated assertion being made (as done in the Obama piece) or whether or not to instead probe what they think the subject meant to say or the perceived reasons for why they said it (e.g. Cantor), thus often wandering off in an attempt to check the fact-worthiness of the thing that they imagine was "meant" rather than what the politician of the moment actually goddamn said. But only sometimes, mind you, and I've not met a person yet that can suss out the pattern that dictates the straight-laced, literal approach some of the time and the more generous, interpretive approach the other some of the time.
It's the inconsistency that's the credibility killer. It rather defeats the purpose of "fact-checking" if your approach to "fact-checking" is to regularly ignore the actual statements being made and instead launch into subjective interpretations of what your target probably meant to say and why you think they maybe meant to say that. Yes, perhaps Eric Cantor meant to say that he expects the deficit will increase in the future; point taken, Imaginary Eric Cantor, but that's not what Actual Eric Cantor said. Objectively, Actual Eric Cantor did not say that, period. Objectively, Eric Cantor said "this growing deficit" about a deficit which is currently shrinking, according to the little chart, at a substantial and measurable rate, and if you want to call the part he said "false" and the part you think he meant to say "true," maybe you're not really in the fact-checking business. Maybe you're in the political interpretation business. That's fine and legitimate, but it is not objective and certainly isn't fact checking.
So the rational approach would be, one would think, to call the statement false. You don't have to be cruel about it; you can still explain what you think Eric Cantor meant, and bring all the wonderful nuance and multileveled horsecrap of the current budget debates to the attention of the poor unfortunate reader, but there's really no point in calling a fact "true" or "false" if you can make two diametrically opposed claims about the thing and have them both considered something between "true" and "meh, true enough" or "kinda true I guess if you just pretend the guy said something a little different." What market niche is that filling? How is that metric useful?
If you are are inconsistent about what level of rigor you're going to be holding "facts" to, shifting between objective and more abstract interpretations of claims from story to story with no apparent actual policy guiding it, it's perfectly reasonable for observers to wonder why some claims get the rigorous treatment and others get the more interpretational approach. It's outright wise of them, in fact. It's also reasonable for observers to start assuming they can't actually trust your ratings of what's "true" and what's "false" because they can never quite be sure what you think you're rating, and it's even reasonable for observers to eventually just start ignoring you because if what you are providing is merely another venue for politicians to make outrageously silly claims and have them treated with credulity by journalists who seem to go to great lengths to explain why the speaker is not, in fact, lying through his teeth, we have that already. It's called Everywhere. That's the thing you were supposed to be making better, not worse.