On January 16th Mitt Romney tweeted this wildly unfair claim: ”More Americans have lost their jobs under Barack Obama than any president in modern history.”
Note that I said “wildly unfair” rather than “wrong.” This statement is technically true, but the obvious implication against Obama is ridiculous. If only some organization were around to say so…
Actually, Politifact did just that, the very same day as the tweet. I heard about it from a conservative friend who was grousing about Politifact’s rating of “Mostly false” for the statement. And in a very narrow sense, he has a point. The statement is technically true, if you approach it without any context.
What Politifact did expertly was to provide context, consider not only facts but implications, and provide a basic assessment of the statement’s reasonableness. I see that as a high value journalistic service. It’s what is most often called “news analysis.”
While it’s important to debunk outright lies, it’s at least as important to call out misleading claims, if not more so. And I have no problem with the various “fact check” sites taking this as part of their missions.
So I’ve been disheartened in recent weeks to hear various liberals blasting Politifact just like my conservative friend did for doing good news analysis.
Krugman objected to a similar instance in which Politifact rated an Obama statement “half true” because of where the credit belonged. Obama’s statement seemed more fair – its implication less obvious – than Romney’s but the overall situation is similar. Writes Krugman:
He didn’t actually take credit — and even if he had, a fact is still a fact. I do not think that word means what Politifact thinks it means.
Maddow responded to the same instance telling Politifact:
You are undermining the definition of the word fact in the English language by pretending to it in your name.
To the extent that there’s a problem here, it’s with Politifact’s “Truth-o-meter” ratings, not its analysis. This is disappointing. I know liberals remain upset about the Medicare “Lie of the Year” which I agree was a mistake. (Although if you read the text, it was also a perfectly good analysis!)
The bottom line is that Politifact is providing a valuable service with its news analysis. Two potential problems remain, both of which can be dealt with.
1) Should they use “fact” in the name if they’re doing news analysis? Personally, I don’t really care. This is a branding issue, and I don’t really mind thinking of “facts” a bit more broadly to include a modicum of fairness and context. But I take the point. I’d be happy with a different names.
2) Should the “Truth-o-meter” do more than check facts? This is pretty easy to solve. Do a “truth-o-meter” that says below it “is this statement ‘true’ in a narrow, technical sense?” And then add some sort of “Fair-o-meter” that incorporates the excellent news analysis that Politifact is already doing.
In my mind this solves everyone’s objections while maintaining the broader value of Politifact. Narrow fact-checking is needed, but not enough. Plenty of politicians and pundits do what Romney did: they say things that are technically true, but deeply misleading. That isn’t honest, and it needs to be called out. I look forward to seeing Politifact continuing to do great news analysis.