by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
PolitiFact’s kindergarten-level methodology here is to take the total number of statements it evaluates, tally up the “mostly false,” “false,” and “pants on fire” ratings, and then do a little division. Given the underlying selection issues, this amounts to nothing more than doing meaningless arithmetic on meaningless data. If PunditFact editor Aaron Sharockman spent more than 20 minutes on this so-called research, he should demand a refund from his university. (Given that he has a B.A. in journalism, he should demand a refund on general principles.)
By the same measure, approximately 100 percent of statements made by Paul Krugman evaluated in National Review are 1. mostly false; 2. false; 3. pants-on-fire; or, my own favorite designation, 4. wearing-full-Wayne-Newton-makeup-while-singing-“Danke Schoen”-at-4-a.m.-under-a-bridge-in-Cleveland crazy. But that does not mean that the sum of what comes out of Professor Krugman’s mouth is 99 and 44/100 percent pure B.S., like some Bizarro World version of Ivory Soap — it just means that we mostly tend to take notice of him when he’s wrong. If he says you should try the cheese plate at Il Bambino, give the claim due consideration.
The deeper problem with PunditFact is the bias in how it evaluates statements. Consider two structurally identical questions: In the first, it considered Chris Wallace’s claim that Hillary Clinton had “defended Syria’s President Assad as a possible reformer at the start of that country’s civil war.” That statement, the editors decided, was only half-true, because that was “not expressly her opinion.” Rather, she had said that members of Congress of both parties who had visited Syria had suggested that Assad was a possible reformer. (Never mind that Mrs. Clinton’s claim is itself untrue, a three-Pinocchio offender in the Washington Post’s judgment.)
In the second instance, PunditFact considered a claim from Bill O’Reilly, made during an interview with President Barack Obama, that he had not accused the administration of obscuring the motive behind the Benghazi attack for political reasons. O’Reilly had in fact interviewed people who said that, but he himself had not made that claim. PunditFact nonetheless rates it “mostly false,” because O’Reilly had, in its view, “nurtured suspicion.” Mr. O’Reilly and Mrs. Clinton were engaged in precisely the same rhetorical strategy: the time-honored Washington dodge of using others to suggest indirectly what you think or suspect yourself, e.g. “it’s a serious charge,” “some have said,” “it has been suggested that,” etc. In both cases, the statement was made on Fox News, but Mrs. Clinton gets a pass (“not expressly her opinion”) while Mr. O’Reilly gets labeled a liar — for precisely the same thing. This is what simple bias looks like.