Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Catch of the Day

Goes to Jared Bernstein (no relation!), who spotted a complete travesty by Politifact:

OMG…this is beyond preposterous.
“In the last 22 months, businesses have created more than three million jobs. Last year, they created the most jobs since 2005.”
This is not half true or two-thirds true.  It is just true.
Politifact—the self-anointed fact checkers—grade this statement from the President speech tonight as “half-true:”
As he explains, Politifact's problem with the statement is that in their view, since the president said it, he must be taking credit for the job gains despite not actually being legitimately responsible for them. Note that the president didn't actually say that he was responsible. In other words, they're grading the president as a almost-liar because of the implication that they read into a simple factual statement.

Jared Bernstein gets results! Lots of bloggers have picked up on this, and lo and behold Politifact has actually backed off...a bit. It's now "mostly true." With the same explanation, only now they concede that, well, Obama didn't actually say that he was responsible for those jobs.

It's still, even with the correction, properly described as "beyond preposterous."

And it's not just that particular fact. Politifact also went after "Right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years" on the same basis, giving it a "Mostly True." Here's how that one went. First, they devoted 500 words to showing that the specific words they were examining were, in fact, true. They then conclude:

We think Obama’s phrasing suggests that he thinks the administration’s policies have played a role, saying, for instance, that "over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration." But we also think he does so cautiously.
Our ruling
Obama was correct when he said that "right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years." We think he may have overstated his administration’s role in achieving that, but not wildly so. We rate the claim Mostly True. 
 Huh? Here's the quote from the president:
Over the last three years, we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources. Right now, American oil production is the highest that it’s been in eight years. That’s right – eight years. Not only that – last year, we relied less on foreign oil than in any of the past sixteen years.
There is no claim here to check! Obama simply did not say that his administration caused more oil production. He didn't say they caused a little of it, a lot of it, or all of it. How can you fact check this non-claim?

Does Politifact believe that politicians should never present absolutely true factual information without disclosing that, in fact, they are not responsible? Mitch Daniels, in his SOTU response, voiced " admiration for the strong family commitment that he and the First Lady have displayed to a nation sorely needing such examples." Should Politifact downgrade that one to "Mostly True" because Daniels isn't actually responsible for the Obamas' marriage?

Sorry for the length of this, but there's more! Politifact rated "General Motors is back on top as the world’s No. 1 automaker" as "Half-True." This one hasn't been updated, at least not yet, and it's just as bad. Politifact, again, downgrades the statement because "crediting the bailout with GM's No. 1 spot is a stretch." But here, the case is pretty clear; the bailout may not have been sufficient for the recovery of GM, but it certainly was necessary. And once again, Politifact apparently has no problem at all with the specific steps Obama claims his administration took, or the claims he makes about where GM is now. Indeed, they don't even dispute the claim, which I think it's fair to say that Obama does make here, that the two are connected. Their only problem, which is enough to downgrade the whole statement, is that an entirely unstated claim that Obama deserves full credit would be wrong.

Oh, Politifact did have one other problem with the GM claim: Apparently industry watchers believe there was luck involved in GM happening to be on top just now. Which they cited, apparently in all seriousness, as a problem with the claim that GM is #1. I suppose I should also never mention the Giants 2010 World Series win without mentioning that the 2010 version of Edgar Renteria wasn't all that likely to hit two home runs in five games. Yikes!

Look: I didn't participate in the Politifact-bashing after their both-sides-do-it lie of the year fiasco, but this is just terrible stuff. The only real reason to do fact checking is to provide some incentives for politicians to stick to at least the literal truth. Obama did it in all three of these cases -- by Politifact's own research -- and yet they aren't rewarding him for it. Awful.

And: nice catch!


  1. the 2009 version of Edgar Renteria wasn't all that likely to hit two home runs in five games.

    Politifact is going to give this statement a 100%-super-duper-true rating because, even though you got the year wrong, it's clear you had the right intentions!

    1. Thanks for the gentle gotcha; corrected.

      You know, this is like the third time I've got the year wrong on the 2010, that is the 2010, World Series title. I'm not sure whether I have some weird block on it for some reason, or it's an old guy thing (it's not as if I'm going to get 1951, or 1954, or 1962, or even 1989 wrong...although I'm trying hard to blot out that WS against the Angels). My memory is, though, that it's always taken me a few years to adjust my memorized list of WS teams to include the more recent ones.

      Oh, and thanks again, and sorry for the boring personal reply.

    2. Sorry Andrew, Politfact rated this "Half True" because JB was not personally batting behind Renteria in the line-up, and so was not actually helping the Giants SS get any extra fastballs.

      You heard it here first.. Aaron Rowand '16!

  2. When Arthur Brisbane of The New York Times got grief for that "Should we check facts?" post, his explanation was that he wanted to distinguish between checking stated facts and mind-reading. Now it seems as if mind-reading, as Brisbane defined it, is precisely what PolitiFact is engaging in.

  3. It gets worse. We now know that Obama shot Panetta a glance and said "good job" on his way to the podium to deliver the SOTU, a clear reference to the Navy SEAL rescue of the Americans held hostage in Somalia. What a freakin' glory hog. We know precisely the message he was conveying to the American people - that he had boarded a plane to Somalia, rescued the hostages single-handed, snapped some iPhone photos for Sasha and Malia to take to class the next morning ("Here's Daddy killing some guys"), and got on the plane and flew back to Washington. He shaved while standing on his head in Air Force One, because that's how he stays in shape. Pants on fire!

  4. It's pretty obvious that this a business decision by Politifact. They decided they'll get more hits during the election season if they're cited by outlets with lots of eyeballs like Drudge and Fox.

    From now on every time you talk about Politifact, you need need to add the prefix "controversial, right-wing blog". As in "Controversial, right-wing blog Politifact rated 'General Motors is back on top as the world’s No. 1 automaker' as 'Half-True.'"

  5. I'm not going to click through to Politifact, so I don't know what Obama technically said, but it is definitely absurd to call GM the world's number one automaker (whatever that even means!). They shipped the highest volume this year because Toyota got blasted by a hurricane. If the standard is volume in a typical year, Toyota is number one and GM is number two. In fact this year's stats suggested that Volkswagen is on track to pass GM very soon.

    If instead your standard is total profits or customer satisfaction I'm pretty sure GM does even worse.

    Of course, Obama's bailout and Obama's appointed managers deserve a lot of credit for the fact that GM's still around at all.

    1. Well that's certainly Mostly False.

      Toyota got hit by an earthquake and tsunami. Also, GM was #1 regardless of how exactly they got there. Certainly if a mega-earthquake hit and Michigan fell into Lake Huron, GM wouldn't be entitled to maintain whatever ranking they had.

  6. For fun, I took at look at Obama's claim that he created jobs too. Check out the following site- it's got a table that shows the number of people employed in our nation, in the thousands.

    It's data provided by the Department of Labor. There is no spin on the data.

    When Bush took office, there were 111358K employed in nonfarm private jobs; when he left office there were 111043- that's a loss overall of over 300000 jobs, which he deserves blame for- but keep in mind that this is the bulk of the jobs collapse in 2008 too (months before that the number was at 114752K, meaning that during the first 7 years of Bush, he created 3 million jobs).

    When Obama took office, there were 111043K people employed in nofarm private jobs; today there are 109646K. This means that during President Obama's administration, 1,397,000 jobs have been lost.

    I don't know how anyone can 'spin' those numbers.

    This seems like a good thing to post on- check out my blog in a couple days while I do a little more number crunching on this claim.

    1. We can play this game fairly a couple of ways, or unfairly a couple of ways:

      Fairly #1: The "just the facts, start to end" way. Start Bush's jobs number in January 2001 and end it 8 years later. By that measure there was a net loss of jobs, as you say in paragraph #3. Do the same for Obama, starting in January 2009, and there's a (larger) net loss of jobs (so far).

      Fairly #2: Leave out the worst jobs year of the president's administration. This way Bush gets credit for creating 3 million jobs, as you noted. Leave out 2009 (Obama's worst jobs year) and Obama gets credit for creating a couple million jobs as well.

      Unfairly #1: Leave out the worst year for Bush, but not for Obama. (See: your paragraph #4) This way Bush gets credit for creating 3 million jobs while Obama gets blamed for losing over 1 million.

      Unfairly #2: Leave out 2009 for Obama, but leave 2008 in for Bush. This way Bush gets blamed for a net job loss over two terms in office, while Obama gets credit for creating 2 million jobs in less than one term.

      P.S. I hope you don't let your students get away with drawing conclusions from evidence the way you do in paragraph #5.

    2. The job losses under Obama were almost all in the first months of 2009, a continuation of the crisis of 2008. Since the stimulus, employment has gone up. The number of jobs since then is comparable to the whole seven good years under Bush.

  7. Perhaps we should create a system for rating Politifact's "assessments". I suggest jaw drops, as in:

    Politifact's wildly erroneous claim that this statement from the President's speech tonight was “half-true" earns FIVE JAW DROPS.


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