Sites like Politifact have a rough time. On the one hand, they do an ‘okay’ job at calling out lies and misstatements, remaining fairly objective by just taking each viral or boisterous claim as they come, without picking and choosing. And yet, they walk a thin wire. When George Macy University sourced their website in a study to compare the honesty of political parties, Politifact spokespeople objected. So desperate are they to be seen as non-partisan that it’s spokesmen cringe and sidestep at the conclusion their own site has come to. Republicans lie more. A lot more.
It is this riding of the line between neutral and objective that has lead many on the left to criticize the website, believing it to pursue and cheerfully report on any perceived lie the left might tell. This is, of course, not to say that Democrats or liberals are immune from being wrong or flat-out lying, but some liberals such as Rachel Maddow have had their beefs with the site, claiming they do mental gymnastics and logical stretches on some statements to hold Democrats and the left to a higher standard than Republicans, so that the lying “score” between the two parties does not look so lopsided.
I personally stopped giving Politifact my website hits following their 2011 decision. Paul Ryan had just released his budget proposal for the Republican side, including, among other things, completely dismantling Medicare as a social program, instead providing vouchers for the elderly to pick and buy their own private insurance. (Government subsidized private insurance, by the way, is something they would later forget they liked, when railing against the Affordable Care Act.) Democrats responded with ads, correctly pointing out that Republicans were voting to dismantle Medicare. Politifact, in a stretch of logic, said that this was a lie- that because the completely new, non socialized program of private insurance was still technically called Medicare, claiming that it would be destroyed is a lie- and not only is it a lie, they declared it 2011’s Lie of the Year, the BIGGEST lie.
This decision would lead to a lot of frustration, Polifact even publishing it’s own hatemail with mocking emails such as “at least I know when the Democrats criticize our votes to dismantle social security and replace it with private investments, you will have our back- the GOP.”
These logical stretches segway into the recent two noteworthy fact checks, and seem more geared towards bias towards the Democratic establishment against liberal activists.
Our first is not from Politifact, by from the Washington Post’s fact checking segment. A Greenpeace activist’s confrontation with Hillary Clinton recently garnered quite a bit of attention, as Clinton was unapologetically outraged by the ‘debunked’ notion that her campaign has taken millions from oil and gas. In it’s fact-checking, the Washingon Post admitted that, yes, Greenpeace has correctly tracked over 1.5 million dollars bundled by lobbyists as a direct contribution, and another 3.25 million given to her Super PAC.
Washington Post then concluded that Greenpeace, (and by extension, Bernie Sanders’s campaign, who Clinton mis-attributed the accusation to, but has made similar insinuations) lied. “Three Pinocchios”, in the article’s liar scale.
What? Well, the Washington Post stretches in every way possible to come up with justifications. Claiming that she has no technical connection to her super PAC, for one- an eye-rolling notion as absurd as the richest American companies using offshore accounts to claim they never made a profit. But that only explains the 3.25 million. The other 1.5 million, directly attributed to her campaign, they claim, also does not count because lobbyists registered with oil and gas, may also work as more generalized lobbyists registered to other industries. And lastly, that the money in it’s entirety makes up a small portion of her entire campaign coffers- something completely unrelated to Greenpeace’s claim.
While these caveats may, of course, be added during the piece, the claims of Greenpeace were undeniably factually correct- and to claim that it was misleading enough to garner “3/4 Pinocchios” discredits the the Washington Posts entirely. (If the famous 16 anti-Sanders articles hadn’t already.)
Our second example more directly involves Bernie Sanders, and also returns to Poltifact. The Politifact claim in question: “Bernie Sanders says Wall Street Tax would pay for his free tuition plan.”
Politifact correctly outlines Sanders’ proposed “College for All” act, in which a tax on Wall Street would be used to pay for 2/3rds the total cost of a student’s cost of higher education, estimated by some sources to ultimately cost around 75 billion dollars, and that States would be required to cover the remaining cost.
They then go on to explain that, according to the Tax Policy Center, Sanders’ proposed tax would raise between 50 and 60 billion dollars, thus putting him very close or higher to being able to cover 2/3rds cost.
To summarize, Sander’s proposition is either perfectly accurate or over-preforms in how much he could raise to cover tuition for all. Politifact’s ruling? Mostly False.
Again, what? Almost lazily, Polifact barely tries to justify the ruling- giving the excuse that some Republican states, in acts of ideological rebellion, could either refuse government financial assistance, or to pay the remaining costs. Because some states may refuse to participate in his program on obstructionist grounds, they essentially said he was mostly lying. Absurd when you consider this vague assertion could be applied to any number of proposed policy positions that require some amount of state assistance.
Again- though I am against fact checkers taking it upon themselves to pivot several steps in logic or take any number of theoretical variables into account in order to declare a true statement false, I am of course NOT against caveats or “True, but..”. Take, for instance, Republican claims that our Navy is the smallest it has been since World War II- the implication being that A) Democrats have dismantled and weakened the military, and B) we are in dire need of more military funding. This statement, that our Navy is smaller in terms of number of vessels, is true- and also incredibly misleading. Technological capability makes a single ship, jet, or tank worth hundreds if not thousands of antiquated ones.
Rarely is anything true or false in it’s entirety- especially in the convoluted world of politics, but taking steps upon oneself- with or without an biased agenda- to give the impression that true statements are false makes me want to give the fact checkers “Pinocchios.”