Authored by: Matt Palumbo
Politifact bills itself as an independent fact checker, and they’ve scored all kinds of accolades for their efforts. Not only did they win a Pulitzer Prize for their work, they have a “fact checking partnership” with Facebook to combat “fake news.” The supposedly independent Politifact is a project of the Tampa Bay Times, which endorsed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 Presidential campaign.
While Politifact does fact check statements from politicians (and pundits) of both parties, those who frequent the site may have noticed that there does appear to be a different standard in evaluating claims from Republicans and Democrats. For one, there seems to be selection bias, in that they only bother to fact-check Republican claims that seem the most egregious (and thus least likely to be true), while a Democrat could claim that 2+2=4 and Politifact would not only pretend to fact check the claim so they can award his statement as “true.”
I’m being hyperbolic, of course, but just take the following example where Ron Paul (a Republican) and Jim Webb (a Democrat who really ought to be a Republican) made a nearly identical statement, and received different rulings from the site. Ron Paul’s statement was only determined to be “half-true,” while Webb’s was “mostly true.”
Another case comes from what it means to “cut” government spending. Politifact rated Republican claims during the 2012 election that Obama had cut Medicare by $700 billion as false, because it wasn’t an outright $700 billion cut, but rather a $700 billion reduction in future spending. Meanwhile, in a recent piece defending Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) against President Donald Trump, Politifact reports “While the NHS has lost funding over the years, the march that took place was not in opposition to the service, but a call to increase funding and stop austerity cuts towards health and social care.” They were referring to Trump mistaking a pro-NHS protest for an anti-NHS protest, but my main point here is that NHS has not seen their budget cut, they’ve seen reductions in future spending, as was the case in Medicare’s “cuts.”
Politifact can’t even agree with themselves on what a “cut” is.
These are hardly the only examples of bias, either. The Federalist’s Matt Shapiro ran the numbers back in December 2016, and found that there really is a double standard when it comes to how Politifact evaluates claims. But first, I’ll set the stage using Shapiro’s research to show that Politifact does assign the majority of their “untruthful” ratings to Republicans, before demonstrating why the obvious objection that Republicans are simply more dishonest is bogus. Note that these statistics are as of December 2016.
Among politicians, Republicans dominate the “untruthful” rankings, while Democrats are ranked by Politifact as the most truthful. Below are those results charted:
That’s just a handful of politicians, of course. Politifact has evaluated thousands of political claims, from pundits, organizations, and others. Luckily for the rest of us, Shapiro took the time to go through them, assigning them rankings based on Politifact’s six, “true,” “mostly true,” “half-true,” “mostly false,” “false,” and “pants on fire.” He assigned each rating a value from 0 (true) to 5 (pants on fire) so that an “average ruling” for Republican and Democrat ideologues can be derived.
Democrats had an average rating of 1.8, which is between “Mostly True” and “Half True.” The average Republican rating was 2.6, which is between “Half-True” and “Mostly False.” We also checked Republicans without President-elect Donald Trump in the mix and found that 0.8 truth gap narrowed to 0.5. They ranked Hillary Clinton as the second-most honest politician (lol).
When it came to the worst possible ruling, “Pants on Fire,” Donald Trump accounted for half of those ratings. But even with Trump excluded, Politifact has a penchant for giving Republicans that rating which indicates they were caught in an outrageous bold faced lie, while when Democrats make false claims, Politifact will be able to find some semblance of truth within the claim so they only have to rate it “mostly false” or “half true.” During the 2012 election season, PolitiFact assigned Mitt Romney 19 “Pants on Fire” ratings, while ALL Democrats combined received 25 “Pants on Fire” ratings from 2007-2016.
Are we to believe that Romney was more of a liar during the 2012 campaign season than all Democrats over nearly a decade? That’s about as believable as the claim that Hillary Clinton was the second-most honest politician in America.
The most interesting part of Shapiro’s analysis came from when he looked into the word count of Politifact’s articles. In quoting Ronald Reagan, he notes that “when you’re explaining, you’re losing,” and Politifact does a lot of that to justify their biased ratings of Republicans. The shortest Politifact articles are for “true” and “mostly true” statements, because they can often be easily verified. It’s “half-true,” “mostly false” and “pants on fire” statements that receive the longest explanations, in part because debunking takes time, but more often because they’re torturing logic to justify a negative rating for a Republican who would otherwise get a less-harsh verdict, had they not been a Republican.
“Mostly false” is the most common rating given to Republicans besides Donald Trump. As Shapiro notes, “PolitiFact often rates statements that are largely true but come from a conservative as “mostly false” by focusing on sentence alterations, simple mis-statements, fact-checking the wrong fact, and even taking a statement, rewording it, and fact-checking the re-worded statement instead of the original quoted statement.” One classic case comes from when they were evaluating Romney’s claim that Obama had “apologized for America,” by publishing a 3,000 word article that debated what it means to “apologize for something.” They ended up rating the claim (which they fact checked on five separate occasions for some reason) false, of course.
In fact, if you look at how many words it takes for Politifact to evaluate “Mostly False” claims, EVERY speaker who has an above-average word count explaining their untruthful claim is a Republican.
As a bonus to end out this article, here’s a personal favorite from Politifact, who initially rated Obama’s claim “if you like you healthcare plan, you can keep your healthcare plan” as “true.” They’d later have to reevaluate the claim, which they determined to be the “lie of the year.” That’s one heck of an error, ain’t it?
Unfortunately, that was just one lie they missed the first time around.